South Africa

There was a time in South Africa when political activists thought all that was required for change to occur was to dangle before the working class a revolutionary program of action, and the working class would spontaneously rise en masse. How wrong they were. Eight years after the formal demise of apartheid, there is still political apathy, grinding poverty, and gross inequality in the overall distribution of wealth. Nor is the situation likely to change in the immediate future. The notion that the poor and exploited are possessed of an instinctive revolutionary essence was effectively dispelled by the recent failure of South Africa’s main labor federation to bring the country to a vowed standstill with a two-day general strike. Although the strike by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) did succeed in sending jitters through the government and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party, progressive ideology in South Africa cries out for a new kind of critical analysis and an enhanced quality of strategic thinking.

At the heart of the simmering conflict between labor and government are the alarming levels of unemployment and government’s failure to implement its own poverty alleviation policies. Singled out for particularly rancorous criticism is the government’s plan to privatize state-owned utilities controlling the country’s electricity, telecommunications and railways. Activists are incensed by the profound ideological shift has occurred in the ANC since the release of Nelson Mandela from prison 12 years ago. The ANC won the country’s first democratic election in 1994 largely on the strength of its historic Freedom Charter, which is replete with socialist rhetoric decreeing that the national wealth including “the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be restored to the people as a whole”(1). Mandela himself, in a message smuggled out of prison before his release, promised that “nationalization is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our views in this regard is unthinkable”. But eight years down the line, ANC government policy has turned full circle with an increased emphasis on privatization and free-market macroeconomic policies, and a corresponding dissipation of nationalization. The government now argues it is bent on deregulating state assets because apartheid was a system built on regulation for the benefit of the few, whereas post-apartheid deregulation is “for the benefit of many, to open up the economy, to broaden its base”.

What the government really needs to do, is improve the state bureaucracy’s level of service delivery. South Africa’s 1.2 million civil servants are in many instances hopelessly inert and unmotivated. Rampant corruption is just one symptom of the malaise. Although ample budgets are in place for social spending and poverty relief programs, public service agencies have simply failed to disburse available funds. Such lethargy, activists argue, is the price the poor must pay for a government that has abandoned the revolutionary fervor and socialist principles that brought it to power. SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Jeremy Cronin warns that a distancing of the government’s leadership from its grassroots support base puts it at risk of chaos and anarchy. He cites government policy formulation as an example of how bureaucrats, with the assistance of American and World Bank private sector consultants, are replacing mass involvement in key decision making processes.

Cronin’s criticisms have sparked a vitriolic attack by President Thabo Mbeki on the ANC’s “ultra-leftist” dissidents and its communist alliance partners. During the ANC’s recent policy conference, Mbeki stated the ANC would be better of smaller than to have in its ranks people who consider obligations of ANC membership to be “burdensome”. Mbeki’s stance is reminiscent of the ANC’s disdain for communists during the early stages of the struggle for liberation, and it resurrects historical antipathies between African nationalism and international socialism.

Formed in 1921 by a group consisting mainly for foreign-born British radicals and East European Jews, the SACP’s revolutionary policy was seen by the ANC as worthless and not advancing the cause of the African masses. In his biography of communist leader Bram Fischer who died while serving life imprisonment for political offenses against the apartheid regime, Martin Meredith describes how the ANC warned in 1948 of the “need for vigilance” against communists. At the forefront of discrediting communists was former president Nelson Mandela. When the communists initiated plans for a one-day strike in 1950 to protest the government’s moves to ban the communist party, Mandela and other youth league members took to breaking up communist party meetings, heckling speakers and tearing up placards.(2) Communists none the less remained at the forefront of the liberation alliance and later headed the military wing of the ANC during the armed struggle, with arms and training provided by the Soviet Union.

Policy switch

A revival of historical antipathies between African nationalism and international socialism may account in part for the astonishing post-apartheid turnabout on nationalization, but this is probably outweighed by the government’s appeasement of the far-right. The militant rightwing in South Africa is strongly committed to a market-driven economy, and the ANC’s policy switch on privatization and its selling off of state assets can be seen as a trade-off with its former enemy in the interests of “reconciliation”. No one in his right mind would want a resurgence of the kind of neo-Nazi terrorism that claimed many lives and marred political negotiations in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections nine years ago. The ANC was forced then to adopt macroeconomic polices and make political compromises it might not otherwise have contemplated, were it not for the real and immediate threat of far-right terrorism. A short-term effect of the ANC’s turnabout served temporarily at least to placate the far right, and it bolstered investor confidence through the ostensible dissipation of potential conflict.

At the same time, due to the profligate military spending of the former, apartheid government, the ANC found itself saddled with an enormous burden of foreign debt running into many billions of dollars, with interest repayments alone being the present government’s second largest budgetary item. International banks have refused to write off this debt, and failure to repay it would only create problems for the government in securing new loans. In the triumphal aftermath of “liberation”, South Africa also found itself locked into post-Cold War world-historical system fundamentally hostile to its socialist aspirations, — a global system concentrated around international monopoly capital, with no opposing force to the United States’ increasing hegemony after the disintegration of the socialist bloc.

The collapse of the Soviet deterrent in particular made British and American military power more threatening as a foreign policy instrument against those who contemplated seizing strategic Western assets. Hence in part the South African government’s abandonment of plans to nationalize key foreign interests, particularly in the mining sector which among other things provides the Anglo-American military-industrial complex with strategic metals and minerals used in the manufacture of armaments including nuclear weapons. Even with a Soviet deterrent, history had four decades earlier already demonstrated convincingly how the West would react to regional nationalizers of key Western interests. The best known instances are well documented. When Egypt nationalized the Suez canal in the 1950s there was swift and overwhelming military retaliation by Britain, France and Israel. When Iran nationalized its American-owned oil industry the Mosaddeq government was promptly overthrown at US instigation. Later examples include Britain’s intervention in Belize, and the US military intervention in Panama as well as America’s covert backing of surrogate forces and the fuelling of “secret” wars in places like Angola, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 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. American intelligence resumed providing the South African Directorate of Military Intelligence with information about the South African liberation movement exiled in Africa.(3) The South African government was thus 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 neighboring 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”.

The apartheid South African government also knew it could draw on the technical support of far-right organizations 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 was widely suspected of running death squads there. Iris was 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. In the fullness of time, D’Aubuisson would be replaced by South Africa’s Clive Derby-Lewis who is today serving life imprisonment in South Africa for the assassination of South African communist party leader Chris Hani.

The function of IRIS, in the words of Major-General John K. Singlaub, a leading WACL figure, 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 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 defense 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 harbors.

In apartheid South Africa, meanwhile, the US’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had covertly joined hands in the 1970s with the South African intelligence community. Together, according to former secret agent Martin Dolinchek, they had secretly groomed and propped up the right-wing, black so-called Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) since its inception in 1974. At the same time, a campaign of covert propaganda and disinformation was launched to discredit the left-wing ANC. By 1984, with the ANC conveniently banned from free political activity, the IFP was able to claim nearly one million members in more than 2 000 branches. This rose to 1.6 million in 3 000 branches in 1989, and today the figure of more than two million members is generally quoted by IFP officials, headed by a small band of white people who play a disproportionate role near the top of the party.

The IFP’s trade union arm, United Workers Union of South Africa, was formed in 1986, with one of its strongest supporters being the American labor federation, AFL-CIO, which has for nearly half a century been well known as a conduit for CIA money to anti-communist groups. There is a vast array of evidence and reportage about incidents in which violence have been initiated by IFP members who were allegedly responsible for a third of all human rights violations reported to the TRC. Defectors from the IFP have also revealed that the former South African Defense Force (SADF) secretly trained 200 IFP members in death-squad activities, including demolition and the use of mortar-bombs, limpet mines, anti-personnel mines and hand grenades.

Against this background of foreign intervention and covert activity, the susceptibility of South Africa to any real or perceived threat of renewed covert interventions in the domestic and international affairs of the country has undoubtedly contributed to a heightened sense of caution on the part of government. This may well account for its radical turnabout on nationalization and its persistence in slavishly following a neo-liberal capitalist path in a purported bid to make itself “globally competitive”. COSATU, for its part, warns that if the government continues to thwart socialist aspirations, it is only be a matter of time before workers and the poor “take the future into their own hands”. Time and pressure will show if that is a true reflection of the mood on the ground. Given the degree of apathy evidenced by a relatively low turnout for COSATU’s recent two-day general strike, its prediction of a workers’ uprising appears to be based more on wishful thinking than on analytical rigor. The country’s historical realities are far more complex than off-the-shelf, dogmatic terms such as “neo-liberalism” are capable of capturing.

The reasons for a particular set of circumstances need not necessarily lie in a single cause, but certainly its vulnerability to foreign intervention and the country’s consequent appeasement of the Western powers can be seen as an important factor in South Africa’s current circumstances. Many South Africans, because of past censorship and current omission from the historical record, remain oblivious to this dimension and its influence on government policy decisions. This is because two histories exist in South Africa: a secret, conspiratorial history, censored and restricted, which nobody was supposed to get wind of, and a public chronicle based on apartheid propaganda, mass deception, a socially engineered arrest of consciousness, and cognitive and causative disorientation away from reality. A vast array of censorship and security laws prevented political analysts and historians from making any sense of what was taking place either in South Africa or in the world at large. It was also difficult to know when journalists were acting in their own capacity or in a state-sponsored capacity. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was mandated to remedy the negative effects of all this, but the commission turned out to be just another form of appeasement. Rather than raising general levels of knowledge and understanding about the past, its omissions have had a dissipative effect that continues to permeate the national psyche.

The missing dimension

The TRC, launched in 1996, emerged out of a debate over whether the criminal justice process or the “truth process” – so-called restorative justice — was best suited to exposing gross violations of human rights that occurred during the apartheid years. The new South African government assumed that society could be cleansed by words alone, and the “truth process” was seen as fair, moral, and an effective means to bring about reconciliation. In practice, however, the TRC was informed far more by political decisions and by attempts at appeasement than by issues of either truth or justice. As TRC-deputy chairman Alex Boraine himself later admitted, the offer of forgiveness which formed the centerpiece of the commission was the outcome of compromise between white minority interests and the disadvantaged black majority: the price of attempting to secure a “peaceful transition”, in particular the co-operation of the former apartheid security services.(4)

To that end, the TRC deemed that the forces of liberation and those of apartheid fascism should viewed in the same light. Those who committed crimes in pursuance of liberation were to be treated in the same way as those who committed crimes against humanity. In so doing, the TRC rejected the international precedent that Nazis and members of the resistance movement in Europe were not tried alike at Nuremberg. The Nazis had committed crimes against humanity, whereas the resistance movements had not. And apartheid was a crime against humanity on the basis that it was so declared by the 1973 UN Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. While about 90 international states are today parties to the 1973 Convention, the TRC itself failed to take into account the fact that apartheid qualified as a crime against humanity. This failure by the TRC is not insignificant, nor was it the result of mere oversight. The organizational structures of the TRC included qualified lawyers and at least one former judge who knew perfectly well that apartheid is a crime against humanity not only in terms of the 1973 Convention but also in terms of other important precedents. These include the Nuremberg Charter, the Statutes for the International Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Draft Code of Crimes against the Peace and Security of Mankind, the 1968 Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, the decision of the French Court in the Barbie Case, and numerous resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The TRC, instead of respecting international law on the protection of human rights, contrived naively to create a new South African national “memory”, a new nationalist identity – the so-called “rainbow nation”. It was an extravagant exercise in forgetting and an inexcusable betrayal of both truth and justice, because lies and deception are neither random nor isolated events in such a scenario: they are structural and systemic. Given the recent resurgence of extreme right-wing terrorism and subversion in South Africa, the subject may be of some importance because the present derives from the past and its future from both.

Reconciliation through truth was meant to entail a departure from the discredited consciousness of the past towards a new, shared memory of the past. This the TRC sought to accomplish through the invention of a new, nationalist biography made up of idioms and metaphors for understanding collective experience — semi-mystical terms such as “forgiveness”, “repentance”, “healing”, “rainbow nation”, “remembering and telling” and contrarily, “forgiving and forgetting”. The TRC thus reduced its mandate to a childish level of primness. It tried to create a safe, new imagery that people could identify with, a new social bond, which despite or because of the rhetoric surrounding it, has served to legitimize and perpetuate a state of collective amnesia about the past. The survivors of human rights were cast as “traumatized victims”, thereby shifting from society on to survivors the stigma of psychological disorder. It was the “victims” who had a disorder, not post-apartheid society with all its own guilt, trauma and denial of the huge material, personal, social and political costs of the former regime’s endeavors to stem the tide of history and progressive change. Many survivors were thus left feeling they were not part of the same world as that of other people around them. Most had survived experiences so extraordinary and so outside the experience of those around them that they could not connect to the TRC or the TRC to them.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was the driving force behind the TRC, never stops singing the praises of the TRC: “What we found with our Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was that it was enormously therapeutic and cleansing for victims to tell their stories (and) the perpetrators had to confess in order to get amnesty … This combination of storytelling and confession put it all out in the open. With full disclosure, people feel they can move on.”(5) Tutu, who now lives in the United States, proposes that the TRC should serve as a model for bringing about peace in Israel. But the truth of the matter is that many “traumatized victims” in South Africa have simply not moved on. The TRC helped lock them in a time warp, and it fixated them on their distress rather than encouraging them get on with their lives.

To this day survivors have not received the reparations proffered by the TRC, whereas perpetrators who received amnesty continue to receive handsome pensions and other state benefits. Reparation from the government was supposed to a quid pro quo for the loss of survivors’ rights to take criminal or civil against perpetrators who applied for and received amnesty. In fact, the promise of some form of reparation for victims of gross human rights violations was made through an act of Parliament, but eight years later, Parliament has so far only discussed the TRC’s eventual report for half a day, and the government has not publicly commented on the difficult issues raised.

This has sent a message of hopelessness to the 20,000 “victims” who gave testimony to the TRC’s human rights committee. They see it as a wrenching act of betrayal by the government. The government, in turn, has castigated the TRC for not providing it with sufficient information to formulate official reparations policy. The mandate of the TRC required it to investigate, verify and corroborate allegations submitted to it, but in most if not all instances, it failed to do so – opening itself consequently to charges of hearsay which further delayed the reparations process.

The TRC maintains to this day that it lacked sufficient human and financial resources to investigate or corroborate all the allegations and statements made to it both by survivors and by perpetrators seeking amnesty for violations of human rights. Yet, of the nearly 20 truth commissions have been active during the past 25 years, and of which Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa, are the best known examples, the South African TRC was by far the most expensive and the most lavishly staffed. At the height of its work the TRC had approximately 400 staff members — significantly more than any of the previous truth commissions. Its annual budget of around US $9 million per year also exceeded by far the budgets of other truth commissions, with the work of the TRC dragging on well beyond its planned three years before finally ending in failure as far as many on the Left are concerned, and at tremendous cost to taxpayers. The cost in human terms may have been even higher. Rather than affecting any meaningful healing process, the TRC raised false expectations and turned out to be just another institution geared to the capitalist mode of “truth” production. It also encouraged a dangerous level complacency where there should have been heightened sense of vigilance.

In the long wait for reparations, meanwhile, many genuine survivors remain skeptical that “restorative justice” can produce reconciliation in a society that remains divided after a compromise peace with no single victor, as in South Africa. Some claim that an outright military victory by the liberation forces would have simplified the process of reconciliation. But as Neil Sheehan has described in his book Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon, even with a clear and decisive victor emerging after the long and bloody war in Vietnam, there can still be “losers on both sides”, sacrificed to the interests of post-war reunification and national reconciliation.(6)

The creators of the TRC believed that, by making amnesty conditional upon full disclosure, truth would emerge, and this would assist a “healing process”. While 7,060 individuals came before the TRC’s amnesty committee, providing significant information, it is commonly agreed that perpetrators who did not approach the TRC outnumbered by far those who did, and the majority of those who testified failed to reveal information about many of their crimes. The fact that amnesty was conditional upon full disclosure of crimes should have motivated perpetrators to reveal all of the salient information about their crimes. Perpetrators recognized very soon, however, that the prospects of charges being brought against them by the State were quite remote. So far there has been no successful prosecution of any high-profile perpetrator identified by the TRC but who declined to apply for amnesty.

Perpetrators perceived that the threat of prosecution was very weak because TRC investigators were clearly inexperienced. The TRC, in a bid to be seen to be objective and unbiased, appointed its investigators exclusively from non-political backgrounds, and certainly not from the ranks of the communist-led liberation movement which had borne the brunt of state-sponsored terrorism. Investigators thus had very little if any first-hand experience at all of the shadowy world of conspiracy and intrigue they were supposed to investigate. So, where perpetrators were confident investigators were unaware of offences other than those for which amnesty was being sought, they simply kept quiet. This limited the TRC amnesty committee’s ability to determine whether or not perpetrators had completely disclosed their crimes, and also it limited the TRC’s overall ability to identify fully the entire, ruthless ensemble of clandestine techniques that underpinned the former apartheid state.

During the long-drawn TRC amnesty process, former members of the repressive apartheid security forces who applied for amnesty also enjoyed the best available legal assistance, whereas former freedom fighters applying for amnesty received comparatively meager legal aid. Many applications from former freedom fighters were consequently refused, and the TRC Report itself noted this gross disparity but did nothing about it. Many veterans of the freedom struggle are outraged by this and by the generous amnesties granted by the TRC to several high-profile, former members of the apartheid security forces including former intelligence and police officers involved in State-sponsored terrorism, torture and death-squad activities. Veterans of the liberation struggle describe this as “scandalous and monumental travesty of justice”.

Among perpetrators who were brought to the attention of the TRC was former brigadier Wouter Basson who headed the South African Army Medical Corps. On the basis of evidence provided by an accomplice, Basson had murdered more than 200 SWAPO (South West African People’s Organization) detainees at an internment camp in Namibia. The doomed freedom fighters were allegedly injected with muscle relaxants before their paralyzed bodies were secretly flung from aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean. Basson was also accused of involvement in a plot to contaminate with cholera the water supply of a SWAPO refugee camp outside Windhoek. He declined to apply for amnesty from the TRC because of an earlier, general amnesty to all apartheid-era soldiers, issued by South Africa’s administrator in Namibia on the eve of the country’s independence in 1990.

No prosecutions for gross violations of human rights emerged from the TRC process, nor did the TRC release significant, fresh information that was not already in the public domain following investigative reports by a handful of independent journalists and researchers. At the same time, many survivors of human rights violations could not or would not come forward during the TRC hearings. They included those who feared reprisals and those who were too traumatized to do so, and also the transitory ones, ones too distant from the centers of command and of political decision-making, and too silent and obscure for coherent classification. There were also untold numbers of askaris – “turned” freedom fighters who were tortured, conditioned or otherwise persuaded to collaborate with the security forces. The South African public thus remains largely uninformed about the drama of a collective past and present that still needs to be heard.

Past censorship and current omission thus represent a vacuum in the South African collective consciousness, to the extent that it can arguably be described as a false historical consciousness. Large sections of the South African public and the world at large have none the less continued to laud the “miraculous achievements” of the TRC in “bringing about reconciliation” in South Africa and providing a “beacon of hope” to the rest of the world.

Such praise speaks more about the role of expectations in influencing perceptions than it does of objective reality. It is striking how often people preserve some images in the face of what is clear evidence to the contrary, ignoring evidence that does not fit, and twisting it to make it confirm or at lease not contradict popularly held but groundless beliefs. The “success” of the TRC is thus largely a matter of individual value judgement rather than of any scientific analysis. It is a “success” which somehow manages to avoid taking into account the otherwise inescapable fact that to this day the full scope and intensity of apartheid’s secret operations are still largely unknown. Certainly the TRC helped slow down the revolutionary momentum of the masses, and it also helped placate South Africa’s militant, right-wing extremists. But there is a point at which accommodation can overstep the bounds of reconciliation and be seen as collusion. In one of the world’s most violent societies the TRC sent out a message that some people can commit the most heinous crimes imaginable and get away with it.

The notion promoted by the TRC of a happily reconciled “rainbow nation” induced in the public mind a sense of complacency where there should have been a heightened level of vigilance. The South African government’s clampdown on what it still views as “sensitive TRC information affecting State security” served to reinforce the national sense of complacency. This was demonstrated by the TRC’s policy of viewing apartheid-era human rights violations strictly in isolation of international precedents, and also in isolation of the Cold War and the Western society of nations of which South Africa was and still is an integral part. In the aftermath of a long and traumatic history, there was and still is censorship in South Africa. Not official censorship, but a more indirect, insidious and hence virulent form of censorship – self-censorship – such as that typified by the deliberately isolationist stance of the TRC. The message was that South Africans are not to be trusted to know what’s going on in the world or to make up their own minds about it, nor should business confidence in South Africa be eroded by the painful business of truth.

These factors have combined to deform some crucial linkages between cause and effect. An entire dimension was and still is missing from the perceptions upon which people normally rely. As a result, errors of knowledge, judgement and insight continue to be repeated after the TRC disbanded. This missing dimension provides an ideal breeding ground for resurgent neo-fascist subversion and terrorism. And all of this is juxtaposed against massive unemployment and homelessness, and the demobilization of armed forces on all sides that has affected nearly 100 000 regular and irregular ex-combatants.

Ghosts of the past

The strategy of 24 South African conspirators including a former high ranking army officer and three other senior serving officers currently detained on charges of high treason and right-wing terrorism, is contained in a document uncovered by investigators. The document outlines plans by a so-called Boeremag (Boer force) 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 Boeremag conspirators planned first of all to unleash chaos in the country to cover the rebel army’s movements while a 50-man death squad would eliminate “traitors” and blame the actions on black people. The rebel army, to “restore order”, 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 as “defender of the citizens” against the disintegration caused by the terrorism and subversion. It would be made to seem that only elements of the former regime, if reinstated, could defend the masses from chaos, anarchy and terrorism.

The 24 arrested conspirators plotted among other things to blow up the conference center of the UN’s recent world summit on sustainable development, attended in Johannesburg by hundreds of international delegates including heads of state and government. Police uncovered a large amount of arms, ammunition, explosives and bomb-making equipment. The alleged leader of the conspiracy, South Africa’s most wanted fugitive and former high-ranking army officer Thomas Vorster was said by police to have links with white supremacist groups in the United States. After several months on the run he was finally arrested in November 2002 outside the US consulate in Johannesburg, just days after nine terrorist bombs exploded in Soweto causing mayhem and loss of life. The Boeremag, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of its alleged leader, later claimed responsibility for the sabotage of a transport bridge near Port Edward, seriously affecting road traffic in the area. The Boeremag also announced on the Internet it had blown up six police helicopters and an air-traffic control room in a separate attack on an airfield near Pretoria. The police neither confirmed nor denied the latter claim.

In a bizarre bid to legitimize their acts of terrorism, the seditious white supremacists claim via the internet to be motivated by the semi-mystical prophesies of the Boer clairvoyant “Siener” (Seer) van Rensburg who advised the Boer generals during the Anglo-Boer war of more than 100 years ago. Pandering to South Africa’s large, fundamentalist Christian-right community, the Boeremag also quotes ostensibly religious Biblical prophecies and the Book of Revelations in the Bible which they interpret as justifying a so-called “Night of Terror” to ignite a planned right-wing uprising and military coup in South Africa. “This is the end of the oppression of the Boerevolk (Boer people) and we give all honor to God,” says a typical Boeremag statement on the Internet. The methods of Boeremag propagandists, in thus attempting to wrap an aura of mysticism and “spirituality” around their aggression, resemble closely some of the early, formative aspects of German Nazism. The nazis in pre-World War Germany, having usurped the swastika symbol from Tibetan mysticism, similarly adapted superstitious beliefs and occult themes, and turned them upside down to provide a “higher meaning” to fascism.(7)

The National Crime Intelligence (NCI) unit has disclosed that it has had nazi-style renegades under surveillance for the past ten years. A list of events leading up to the current arrests of Boeremag conspirators, goes back to at least 1992. The list, recently made public by the NCI, includes the murders of two soldiers and the hijacking of their military vehicle carrying a large quantity of arms, and also a break-in at the Tempe military base in the Free State province. Rocket launchers, assault rifles, rocket launchers, machine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition were stolen. Also listed by the NCI are details of the recruitment in South Africa of notorious German fascist Horst Klenz who was previously held in Hamburg on charges of recruiting mercenaries for apartheid South Africa. This means in effect that even while the TRC was busily handing out generous amnesties to perpetrators, the far right was simultaneously plotting to overthrow democracy. In sum, it was an act of reckless endangerment for the TRC to induce complacency in a political landscape pregnant with political violence.

Rural attacks

One of the alleged plotters currently awaiting trial, Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Olivier, stated during court indictment proceedings that he was motivated by a deadly but apparently unnoticed phenomenon that is threatening to engulf rural South Africa. The continuing wave of attacks on white farmers has claimed more than 600 lives since 1994. In sum, South African farmers are dying today at a greater rate than at any time during the violent struggle against apartheid — which supposedly ended a decade ago. The TRC had simply ignored this phenomenon. Perhaps this is because white farmers, especially Afrikaners, are widely regarded as racist and backward people who were the backbone of apartheid for half a century. Their forefathers occupied the land used by black people in the Western and Eastern Cape in the 17th and 18th centuries and in the rest of South Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. The 1913 Land Act and similar legislation officially robbed black people of the land and gave it to mainly Afrikaner farmers — themselves the traumatized survivors of Lord Kitchener’s concentration camps and scorched earth policy during the Anglo-Boer war, which ended just over 100 years ago.

Agri SA, the white, commercial farming union, declares that most farm attacks are “politically motivated and aimed at driving whites from their land” – hinting darkly that demobilized veterans of the liberation movement are behind the attacks. There is no hard evidence to support this view. In fact, very few of the attackers have ever been arrested or their political affiliations identified. Nor should the possibility be excluded that the attacks are contrived clandestinely by right-wing provocateurs intent on stoking racial conflict. The evidence suggests strongly, none the less, that the continuing farm attacks are probably caused by massive unemployment and desperate poverty in the rural areas. Farmers targeted most frequently appear to be those with a reputation of not paying their workers enough and treating them cruelly or with little respect. There is a strong suggestion of vengeance in many of the farm attacks. More often than not, the brutality of the murders is clearly disproportionate to any accompanying effort to steal firearms, vehicles or money. Sometimes nothing at all is stolen.

Self-styled counter-insurgency expert and former apartheid army head General Constand Viljoen proposes that stability in the rural areas can be created “only if the right attitudes exist”. These “right attitudes”, Viljoen wrote in a recent issue of Farmer’s Weekly, should manifest themselves in the establishment of rural “no-go areas” — which in the language of counter-insurgency operations means areas where trespassers may be shot on sight. It is the kind of proposal befitting a retired general under whose command top military officers stood by with a force of more than 100 000 disgruntled soldiers of the apartheid army, poised to mount a right-wing military coup d’etat on the eve of the country’s first democratic elections nearly nine years ago. The whole crazy enterprise may well have succeeded had it not been aborted at the last moment because of factionalism among the would-be rebels.

With people such as Viljoen having subsequently received generous amnesties from TRC, the potential exists today of a rural right-wing backlash in reaction to the current wave of farm attacks. Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi has disclosed that the numerous, alleged Boeremag terrorists currently awaiting trial conspired among other things to attack white farmers and start a covert, “scorched-earth” campaign in rural areas that would be blamed on black people. These covert acts of provocation were intended to spark a violent Afrikaner uprising that would “justify” a right-wing military coup to restore stability and supervise a “return to normality”.

The slow pace of the government’s land reform and restitution policies may be an important contributing factor in the farm attacks. Or perhaps the land issue is just so intractable that nobody in government has sufficient will or the capacity to deal with it. Whoever is really behind the continuing farm attacks, it certainly seems as if many South African human rights activists, in their clamor for reparations and full disclosure of the country’s discredited past, have lost sight of events taking place in the present and right under their noses.

Until they go on public trial on May 19, 2003, however, the full scope and intensity of the conspirators’ plans and their organizational structure remain unclear. Nor is the extent known of any involvement on the part of international fascist organizations. It also remains to be seen whether or not the conspirators will get off as lightly as did their predecessors. There is simmering discontent in progressive circles over some of the amnesties that were handed out by the Truth Commission to the perpetrators of serious human rights violations.

Beyond disillusionment

The TRC’s omissions and the ANC’s unkept promises of social transformation have combined to result in a weary distrust and widespread cynicism among broad sections of the population. There is a point at which appeasement of the Right exceeds the bounds of reconciliation and can be seen as collusion. Many veterans of the liberation war, for their part, seem to have gone beyond disillusion to a desperate, criminal nihilism. Some veterans, being better trained and equipped than the police, have embarked on a continuing series of large-scale, cash-in-transit heists conducted with military weapons and military precision — the militarization of crime. Most of these raiders have escaped with very large sums of money. Others have committed suicide rather than be captured.

The amounts of money involved in cash-in-transit heists are none the less small by comparison with the financial resources lost to the greed, corruption and inertia of some government officials. In instances where senior officials have in fact been charged with fraud or corruption they invariably receive the legal equivalent of a slap on the wrist. A report on “Government corruption seen from the inside”, prepared by a public services monitoring project at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, discloses that 48 % of local government respondents in one provincial region considered it either “not wrong” or “wrong but understandable” to accept “gifts of appreciation” from citizens in return for performing what their job descriptions require them to do. Other findings were: 29 % of local government respondents said they had witnessed the theft of public resources; 23% said that “all” or “most” of their fellow government officials were involved in corruption; 41% expressed the fear that syndicates would intimidate them if they reported corruption; and, 68% were unsure about receiving police protection if they did report corruption.(8)

Activists say this is a symptom of the free-market capitalist system with its principles of unbridled acquisitiveness founded on the premise that “greed is good”. But mainly political dissatisfaction on the Left seems to have gone beyond disillusionment to a kind of intellectual nihilism. The challenge facing the labor federation and the new social movements, meanwhile, is to rise above their short-term need of feeding the headlines, and to critically reassess their strategies. A good place to start would be for them to address the tensions inherent in integrating history and political activism. This alone may redeem the high price of appeasement, prevent South Africans from lapsing into a permanent state of collective amnesia, and save them from continuing endlessly to repeat errors of judgment, insight and understanding.

(The author is a veteran of the struggle for freedom in South Africa where he is based as an independent writer and researcher specializing in human rights issues and military-political affairs).


(1) Freedom Charter Adopted at the Congress of the People, Kliptown (Johannesburg), 26 June 1955

(2) Martin Meredith, Fischer’s Choice: A biography of Bram Fischer, London 2002

(3) See D Kendo, “Comores: L’Ordre Mercenaire”, Jeune Afrique, nos 1511/1512, December 1989; cf., Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Madagascar, Comoros, Country Profile, 1989-90, London 1990, pp 32-36; EIU, Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros: Country Report No. 1, London 1990.

(4) Alex Boraine “Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa: The Third Way” in Robert I Rotberg and Dennis Thompson (eds), Truth v. Justice: The Morality of Truth Commissions, Princeton, 2000, pp. 141 – 157. On the TRC generally see Kader Asmal, L. Asmal and R. Roberts, Reconciliation through Truth, Cape Town and New York, 1997; Alex Boraine and J. Levy (eds), Dealing with the Past: Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa Cape Town, 1997; Wilmot James and L. van de Vijver, After the TRC: Reflections on truth and reconciliation in South Africa, Athens (Ohio) and Cape Town, 2001; Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, New York, 1999; C. Villa-Vicencio and W. Verwoerd (eds), Looking Back / Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Cape Town and London, 2000

(5) Tutu interviewed by Nathan Gardels in “Desmond Tutu’s renewed call for peace”, New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 2002.

(6) Neil Sheehan, Two Cities: Hanoi and Saigon, London 1994, pp 106 – 108

(7) See Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, The Occult Roots of Nazism, New York, 1985

(8) Colm Allan, Bob Mattes and Unathi Millie, Government Corruption Seen From the Inside, Public Services Administration Monitor, Rhodes University, 2002

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