The subversive strategy of white supremacists currently awaiting trial in South Africa should not be viewed in isolation of past influences and a ruthless ensemble of clandestine techniques that underpinned the former apartheid state. The subject may be of some importance, because the present derives from the past and the future from both. It also reflects a central problem not only of history but also of all human experience: the problem of truth and illusion.
The strategy of the 11 South African conspirators including three senior army officers currently detained on suspicion of high treason and right-wing terrorism, is contained in a document uncovered by investigators (see â€œTruth Censoredâ€, ZNet Africa).
The document outlines plans by the alleged conspirators to establish a rebel army of about 4 500 to overthrow the government and replace it with a military regime run entirely by white supremacists. The alleged conspirators planned first of all to unleash chaos in the country to cover the rebel armyâ€™s movements while a 50-man death squad would eliminate â€œtraitorsâ€ and blame the actions on black people. The rebel army, to â€œrestore orderâ€, would then contrive a 10-day electricity blackout under cover of which airports would be closed, aircraft grounded, and arms depots and combat vehicles seized. A final stage would be the inauguration of a military government.
This alleged strategy bears striking resemblance to the theoretical writings of General Andre Beaufre, the main strategic theorist upon whose ideas the rightwing Organisation de lâ€™Armee Secrete (OAS) terrorist movement relied heavily fighting the Algerian independence movement during the late 1950s. Significantly, Beaufreâ€™s military textbook Strategy was required reading at the South African military academy during the apartheid years. The apartheid SA Army also sent a young army officer named Magnus Malan to serve as a military observer in Algeria during the 1950s under the command of General Beaufre. Malan was later promoted to commander in chief of the apartheid SA Army before becoming minister of defence in the apartheid cabinet. While Malan was himself cleared in a court case a few years ago of â€œany wrong-doingâ€ during the apartheid era, the subversive strategy of the currently detained conspirators can be seen as part of a convoluted continuum of white supremacist violence. It is virtually also a textbook rendering of the subversive techniques employed in the late 1950s by the OAS.
The Algerian connection
The OAS, as described by Anthony Bocca in his excellent book The Secret Army, was made up of embittered right-wing French army officers and fanatical Algerians of European descent striving to retain Algeria under French colonial control. They were anxious to avenge the earlier defeat of the French expeditionary corps by the communists in Indo-China and also the army’s other humiliations in Morocco, Tunisia, and at Suez. In their ranks were covert action specialists working for the French army’s 5th (Psychological Action) Bureau, and officers commanding French Foreign Legion and paratroop units in Algeria. Communist guerrilla warfare, according to them, did not have the objective of capturing strategic territory as in conventional warfare, but aimed to “conquer” the population through secret politico-military networks and the systematic application of “action psychologique”. From now on communism was to be fought on “equal terms”, using the communists “own” methods. Their objective was to create a climate of tension, anxiety and insecurity, thereby conditioning the masses to accept State authority while alienating the masses from the liberation movement.
The theoretical framework of these seditious officers rested on the fact that the communist Viet Minh in Indo-China had linked inextricably all military operations to political, social, psychological and especially ideological elements. It was therefore essential to create an extended military battlefield that included all aspects of civil society, especially the social and ideological spheres. Having “identified” the enemy’s techniques, the proponents of “counter-terrorism” then sought to neutralise the enemy by adopting the enemy’s “own” methods and turning them against the enemy. Hence the coming into being of a strategy combining political misperceptions with a sophisticated array of psychological warfare techniques.
The collapse of the OAS came about after a failed 1958 military revolt in Algiers and a “general’s putsch” in April 1961 which brought down the French government and threatened the political survival of its Gaullist successor, the Fifth Republic. Having failed to secure the “moral regeneration” of France many of its members were forced to flee abroad, notably to Argentina and also to Portugal where Lisbon became their strategic centre with official encouragement from the Portuguese secret police. In return for asylum and other incentives, they helped train foreign counter-insurgency and parallel police units forming the embryo of future “counter-terrorist” groups deployed around the world under the tutelage of battle-hardened OAS fugitives.
By 1984 one veteran of Indo-China and many African campaigns, Colonel Bob Denard, virtually controlled the Comoros islands together with a band of French mercenaries. The Comoros rapidly became a secret staging post funnelling arms from South Africa to the right-wing rebel Renamo movement in Mozambique. Denard, before he obtained political asylum in South Africa, also made it possible for this country to build and operate a sophisticated electronic eavesdropping facility at Itsandra on Grande Comore Island. From here the fascist, apartheid state could monitor both maritime movements in the Mozambique Channel and ANC radio communications in neighbouring Tanzania.
In Lisbon, meanwhile, other former OAS members plotted to destabilise and destroy national liberation movements throughout Africa and their exploits galvanised right-wing extremists everywhere. An internal report written by one former OAS member was captured in the mid-1970s by leftist officers of the Armed Forces Movement in Lisbon. The captured document, shown to journalists including the author of this article, endorsed bluntly a “strategy of tension” that would “work on public opinion and promote chaos in order to later raise up a defender of the citizens against the disintegration provoked by subversion and terrorism”. As one seasoned cold warrior put it: “When you’ve got the masses by the balls, hearts and minds follow.”
The Rhodesian connection
Such ideas found resonance in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia as the country’s first free election campaigns approached a climax in February 1980, when several churches became the targets of terrorist bombs. A well-orchestrated press campaign swiftly attributed the bombings to “communist atheists” — an apparent reference to the national liberation movement. Then, in what turned out to be the last in a series of explosions, somebody blew himself up when the bomb he was planting exploded prematurely. Papers found on his body identified him as a pseudo terrorist — in fact a member of the Rhodesian armyâ€™s Selous Scouts counter-insurgency unit. The Rhodesians had also used “pseudo gangs” — special forces posing as Patriotic Front guerrillas â€“ in the murders of missionaries based in remote districts, the murders then being attributed falsely to the liberation forces. The Rhodesians had extensive experience in counter-insurgency doctrine dating back to 1956 when British Commonwealth forces in Malaya had included the Rhodesian African Rifles, and the Rhodesians had also modelled their “pseudo gangs” along the lines of the British counter-insurgency strategy during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
Former Rhodesian soldiers, after Zimbabwe became independent, were to find many opportunities for exercising their talents in the South African Armyâ€™s so-called Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), which was formed in April 1986. In fact, the CCB itself had evolved originally from D-40, a Special Forces unit made up almost entirely by former Rhodesian soldiers, which in turn transmuted into Barnacle, 3 Reconnaissance Regiment. By the late 1980s the death-squad activities of the CCB, combined with those of the SA Police’s so-called Vlakplaas unit had become synonymous with a â€œthird force” in South African politics â€“ the other two forces being the liberation movement and the former apartheid government. This â€œthird forceâ€, however, might well have been nothing other than a parallel hierarchy asserting openly the strength of its covert institutional support in the highest circles of apartheid governance. Given South Africa’s long and tortuous history of parallel hierarchies, of visible and “invisible” government, the notion might not be have been as far-fetched as it seemed.
The fascist connection
The rightwing Ossewa Brandwag, committed as it was to the defence of Afrikaner nationalism against parliamentarism, had mustered nearly half a million adherents in South Africa in the early 1940s. Its leaders, including John Vorster who later became prime minister, were interned at detention centres during World War II for their Nazi sympathies. Interned with him was Henrik van den Bergh, who was later to head South Africaâ€™s secret police. By the time Vorster became minister for police and then prime minister in the 1960s, the fundamental precepts of fascism were already firmly enshrined in South African law. From those precepts would evolve some of the most repressive â€œsecurityâ€ legislation the world has ever known.
It was an ideal climate for the creation of the so-called Joint Management Centres (JMCs) in the mid-1980s, operating in 34 state-designated “high-risk” areas as a key element in the national security management system. The police and military that controlled the JMCs were endowed with influence in decision-making at every level, from the Cabinet down to local government. In the battle for hearts and minds, if the JMCs deemed that certain information be published, the government’s Bureau for Information carried out the task. Others, the police and army death squads, preferred a more direct approach: psychological warfare through state-sponsored terrorism.
The JMCs, with their parallel civil and military hierarchies, consisted essentially of networks enmeshing tightly each component in a shadowy and elaborate infrastructure exerting social control. This arrangement verged on the very fringes of constitutionality and beyond, operating as it did beyond the confines of parliament and bearing a close resemblance to the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) in Germany during the 1930s. With its own communications, command and control structures, the SS too had constituted a state within the State. The organisational structure of the JMCs, corresponded in all major particulars with the functional purposes of the SS, imparting looseness to the chain of command in which the pervasive influence of the State could not be attributed readily, while simultaneously narrowing the circle of decision. Subordinates were encouraged to interpret what their leaders wanted without needing to ask directly for authorisation. This favoured rapid though not necessarily well-thought-out decisions. Not only were the identities obscured of those taking the decisions, but also the decisions themselves remained largely unknown. The South African State President, like Hitler in earlier times, was surrounded behind the scenes by an omniscient and junta-like team of securocrats accountable only to themselves. The collegiate nature of Cabinet government was fatally weakened and few if any of the most important security decisions were made in Cabinet.
The JMCs also had some other useful historical precedents: the system was modelled loosely on British counter-insurgency doctrine in Malaya during the 1950s when the British colonial authorities first recognised the importance of tying together civil and military measures into a single cohesive counter-insurgency policy. This included the selective â€œneutralisingâ€ of independence movement leaders, as euphemistically referred to by the British Armyâ€™s former Chief of General Staff, Brigadier-General Sir Frank Kitson, in his textbook Low Intensity Operations. The Americans later adapted that doctrine to their own â€œlow-intensity operationâ€ in Vietnam, with the added refinement of a wide-scale political assassination program — the CIAâ€™s infamous Operation Phoenix.
The American connection
The Western society of nations, in defence of â€œChristian valuesâ€, provided the South African government and its white supremacists with a further â€œlegitimising frameworkâ€ in 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office as president of the United States. His administration quickly reversed a policy established under the Carter administration that banned any sharing of intelligence with South Africa. With American intelligence providing the South African Directorate of Military Intelligence with information about the South African liberation movement exiled in Africa, the South African government was in effect given the green light by Washington to escalate state-sponsored terrorism. Just a few hours after US Secretary of State Douglas Haig declared the “war against international terrorism” to be a top security priority for US foreign policy, South African commandos started launching raids into neighouring territories. When South Africa launched a full-scale military invasion of Angola in August 1981, the newly installed Reagan administration engaged in steady apologetics for this aggression and vetoed its condemnation in the UN Security Council. Official US statements held that the “incursion” — a relatively benign word that implied a modest and temporary intrusion — was “a defensive action against a Soviet-supported state”.
South African secret agents also carried out sabotage and assassinations in Zimbabwe, and as the end of 1981 approached, an attempt was made to mount a coup against Zambia’s President Kaunda while a major effort was made by Pretoria to arm and support right-wing counter-revolutionaries in Mozambique. In consequence of this regional destabilisation plan Mozambique would suffer the gravest situation it had ever known. The effects of drought were to combine with the South African-sponsored civil war to cause an estimated 100,000 deaths in 1983 alone.
The apartheid South African government also knew it could draw on the technical support of far-right organisations based in the United States. These included the Institute for Regional and International Studies (Iris), headed by Robert D’Aubuisson, the former far-right president of El Salvador who is suspected widely of running death squads there. Iris was and still is closely linked with and virtually indistinguishable from the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) — a Mexican-based neo-fascist group with branches around the world and drawing support from diverse elements in a loose consortium of the international ultra right. The function of Iris, in the words of Major-General John K. Singlaub, head of WACL, was to “provide technical assistance to those who ask for it and can’t get it from government sources.” In a letter on White House stationary read at WACL’s 1984 conference, Reagan expressed warm greetings to all gathered. He observed that there were “eight active anti-communist resistance movements in every corner of the globe. All free people should stand in unity with those who risk their lives in the defence of liberty.” And finally: “WACL has long played a leadership role in drawing attention to the gallant struggle now being waged by the true freedom fighters of our day.” The US had just been judged guilty of State terrorism by the International Court of Justice, for having covertly mined Nicaragua’s harbours.
In South Africa itself, with “legitimacy” having been conferred by Reagan on the use of such methods, it was not long before covert activity of all kinds became predominant forms of political behaviour, to be condemned only when the “other side” used them. Although the exact numbers may never be known, by mid-1987 the SA Human Rights Commission knew of at least 140 hit-squad attacks in the country, while about 200 people had died at the hands of South African agents in neighbouring states. The Truth Commission would later document more cases running into the thousands. The atrocities were falsely attributed by the media to â€œinternecine strifeâ€ within the ranks of the liberation movement. Sweeping censorship laws saw to it that most people knew very little about what was really going on. Even without the State of Emergency regulations, there was the Defence Act, the Police Act, the Prisons Act, the Internal Security Act, the Publications Act, and the Protection of Information Act. Together they defined a range of “security offences” prohibiting journalists from doing their jobs and historians from making sense of it all. Two histories emerged: a secret conspiratorial history, censored and unmarked, which nobody was supposed to get wind of, and a public chronicle based on mass deception, a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and cognitive and causative disorientation away from reality.
Climate of tension
By the early 1990s, in the face of mounting successes being chalked up by freedom fighters and with the Reagan administration no longer around to support it, the apartheid government was forced into political negotiations with the liberation movement. This evidently incensed die-hard South African fascists in the security forces. What they then contrived was not an outright military coup d’etat along classical lines, but selective intervention in the form of attritional terrorism. Indiscriminate terrorist attacks on rail and road commuters became an almost daily occurrence in the Johannesburg area, leaving hundreds of civilians dead or injured. The military precision that accompanied the attacks indicated the involvement of highly trained and well-organised military or ex-military men. This all-out assault on civil society was identical with the objectives of the OAS in Algeria and consistent in all major particulars with those of the 11 right-wing conspirators currently being detained in South Africa. Namely: to create a climate of tension with the intention of conditioning the masses into accepting that only elements of the former regime, if reinstated, could defend the masses from chaos, anarchy and terrorism.
The cynical manipulation of base fear in the service of minority reached its climax. in the run-up to the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. The former apartheid regime — then part of a transitional government — made much of wooing black voters on a platform proclaiming “black leaders have failed to halt the violence”, which was blamed by white politicians on “warring black factions”. The gunmen involved in many of these “black-on-black” incidents used Soviet-made AK-47 rifles and Makarov pistols to create the impression that ANC “terrorists” were responsible, and police reports always blamed the ANC. As amnesty applicants would later confess to the countryâ€™s Truth Commission, the SA Police diverted taxpayers’ money to a police-run strategic deception unit called Stratcom. Former Stratcom unit head Vic McPherson disclosed to the Truth Commission that more than 40 undercover police agents, paid informers, unwitting “sources” and “friendly” journalists throughout the South African mainstream media had participated in Stratcom projects during the late 1980s. Jailed security police death-squad commander Colonel Eugene de Kock later admitted in court that his own involvement in Stratcom during the 1980s included clandestine attacks on white people, where were falsely attributed to black people, in order to provoke a right-wing backlash.
This then is the tortuous background against which is taking place in South Africa the current detention of white supremacists aiming allegedly to overthrow the countryâ€™s first democratically elected government. Until they go on public trial, however, the full scope and intensity of the conspiratorsâ€™ organisational structure remain unclear. Nor is the extent known of any involvement on the part of international fascist organisations. But mainly it remains to be seen whether or the conspirators will get off as lightly as did their predecessors. There is widespread dissatisfaction in the country over the generous amnesties that were handed out by the Truth Commission to the perpetrators of serious human rights violations during the apartheid era. If genuine reconciliation is to occur in post-apartheid South Africa, the government must be seen to be clamping down very decisively, once and for all, on militant right-wing extremism. It could well be the governmentâ€™s last chance to do so in a political landscape pregnant with suppressed violence.
(The author is a Johannesburg journalist with 30 years experience reporting African affairs)