The truth about the region
by John Daniel


Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 4, August 1999
Page 3
"Southern Africa"



John Daniel, who until recently, was a Senior Researcher with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is currently in the Department of Political Science at the University of Durban-Westville.

Rene Dumont, the noted French anthropologist, recently described the twentieth century as `one of massacres and wars.' Nobel Laureate William Golding called it `the most violent century in human history.' No doubt, they had the nuclear and other horrors of World Wars I and II in mind, and the genocidal slaughters of the Armenians of Turkey, Jews of Europe, the Indians of Central and Latin America and the Tutsis of Rwanda.

Almost certainly they will not have included apartheid South Africa's 30-year war on its neighbours amongst the century's great crimes. The primary reason is because that onslaught was largely hidden and portrayed in mainstream Western political opinion as a legitimate counter to an imagined Soviet offensive.

Worst violations outside SA

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission took a different view. Its volume on the state as perpetrator (vol. 2) gave primacy to those gross human rights violations committed outside South Africa. The most significant finding was that from 1960 to 1994, the majority of gross human rights violations "occurred not internally but beyond the borders of South Africa" (vol. 5, p. 257). Consequently, "the majority of the victims of the South African government's attempts to maintain itself in power were outside of South Africa. Tens of thousands of people in the region died as a direct or indirect result of the South African government's aggressive intent towards its neighbours. The lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of others were disrupted by the systematic targeting of infrastructure in some of the poorest nations in Africa" (vol. 2, p. 43).

To illustrate this, the Commission cited an UNICEF report that found that between 1980 and 1985 more than 100,000 Angolan civilians died as a result of war-related famine. The rate of death escalated after 1985 to the point where UNICEF concluded that an estimated 330,000 children died of unnatural causes in the 1980s. In Mozambique, the SADF and its surrogate army, Renamo, blazed a similar trail of death and destruction. By 1990, they had reduced Mozambique to the poorest country on earth.

In its report, the Commission argued that the damage inflicted on these countries was wholly disproportionate to the threat posed by the socialist-orientation of their post-independence governments and their hosting of the armed wings of SWAPO and the ANC. At the time of their independence in 1975, the Commission noted that both countries were severely underdeveloped as a result of "centuries of colonial exploitation [which] had left them with a legacy of poverty and without the skills to manage a modern economy" (vol. 2, p. 43). It concluded that neither country "posed a credible military threat" to South Africa.

The Commission sought to understand why South Africa wrought terror and destruction on these, and (albeit to a lesser degree) five other states in the region. It acknowledged that many in the security and political hierarchy articulated a cold-war discourse and genuinely regarded their campaigns across southern Africa as "good and just wars, part of the West's resistance to a perceived Soviet global offensive." The Commission rejected this as a sufficient explanation, however. Instead, it concluded that the primary motive was racism and that the regional onslaught was essentially an attempt to maintain white minority privilege.

The Commission also found that the conduct of the South African security forces in the region was largely driven by racist factors. It argued, for example, that "it is difficult to believe that Koevoet (the police counter-insurgency unit which operated in northern Namibia) would have been allowed to operate on a bounty basis, or that the SADF would have killed over 600 people, many of them children and women, at the Kassinga camp in Angola, had their targets been white" (vol. 2, pp. 43 - 44). This racism, the Commission felt, was encapsulated in the words with which the SADF camp commander in northern Namibia greeted a new batch of conscripts in 1974: "Boys, hier gaan julle duisende kaffirs doodskiet" ("Boys, here you will shoot thousands of kaffers").

TRC finding ignored

The Commission concluded that bad though apartheid had been as a form of systemic oppression inside South Africa, what was done outside to the people and economies of the region was worse. Dramatic as this finding was, domestically it was ignored both by the media and the government. In the seven months since the report's release there has not been a single media piece discussing, for example, the Commission's report on the Kassinga and Chetequera massacres on May 4 1978, the worst atrocities of the entire apartheid era. The Commission held former premier John Vorster, then-Minister of Defence P.W. Botha, SADF Chief Magnus Malan and army and air force chiefs Constant Viljoen and RH Rogers accountable for a breach of international humanitarian law (vol. 2, pp. 46 - 55). The fact that the Commission's version of events at these two camps is different in important respects from the SWAPO and official UN accounts also received no comment - probably not even noticed due to South Africans' ignorance of anything that happened before the 1980s. **

Even more extraordinary was that ANC speakers did not mention the findings in the parliamentary debate on the final report. Many owe their lives to the sanctuary afforded them by the peoples and governments of the region. Yet some of the ANC leadership still harbour animosity towards the Commission due to its negative findings regarding abuses in the Angolan camps. Their mistaken perception is that the Commission drew no distinction between gross human rights violations committed in the struggle against apartheid and those in defense of it.

The findings chapter (vol. 5) reveals instead that the Commission found that although gross human rights violations were committed by all parties to the conflicts during the 34 years under review, they could not be held equally culpable. Responsibility rested overwhelmingly with the former state and its security and law-enforcement agencies. The Commission also accepted the international position that apartheid constituted a crime against humanity and that the ANC had engaged in a just war. It argued, however, that a just cause does not vindicate all and every action committed in pursuit of that cause: "A just cause does not exempt an organization from pursuing its goals through just means" (vol. 5, p. 211). Violations committed in the course of a just end had to be subjected to the same rigorous scrutiny as violations committed in defense of an unjust order. Some in the ANC have been unable to accept this argument.

Dirty tricks in region

Apartheid South Africa's involvement in the region expanded during three decades from occasional cross-border abductions of refugees in the early 1960s to SADF involvement in various levels of warfare with six southern African states in the 1980s, with covert units conducting frequent raids into Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. In the early 1980s, security and intelligence forces also attempted to overthrow the government of the Seychelles and co-funded a mercenary force of so-called Presidential Guards in the Comoros, becoming the de facto ruling authority. Covert operations were mounted in Western Europe and Scandinavia as well.

The SADF only waged a conventional war in Angola. An SADF-backed surrogate - UNITA - supplemented even this effort. Elsewhere, the SADF applied a post-Vietnam model of counter-insurgency or indirect warfare (variously called counter-revolutionary or contra-mobilization warfare) borrowed from the United States, Israel and military dictatorships in Latin America (Chile, Argentina and Paraguay). This strategy placed a premium on terror and brutality ("do to them what they do to us - but better") rather than the old-fashioned "winning hearts and minds" approach.

The SADF employed a variety of overt, covert and clandestine methods. In the Namibian theatre a largely orthodox counter-insurgency war was waged, but elsewhere in the region surrogacy was central to the contra-mobilization strategy. Modeled along the lines of Israel's South Lebanon Army, the SADF sought out opposition groups in the four countries most closely aligned to the ANC (Mozambique, Angola, Lesotho and Zimbabwe) and took them over, lock, stock and barrel.

Surrogacy was a common SADF strategy in the 1980s, but the Commission found earlier evidence of surrogacy in the apartheid arsenal. In 1971, Commandant Jannie Breytenbach, head of the SADF's first special forces unit, trained Zambians for operations against the Kaunda government. Over an 18-month period, some 200 Zambians were trained in the Caprivi as part of Operation Plathond (flatdog) and deployed in south-western Zambia to "harass SWAPO bases and Zambian army garrisons which gave them support." Plathond was abandoned in 1973 but immediately after the Portuguese coup of April 1974, South African intelligence took over a group of Portuguese-trained Zambians led by Adamson Mushala and moved them to a security base at Oshakati in northern Namibia. The SADF-backed `Mushala Gang' engaged in political destabilization and criminal banditry in western Zambia until Mushala was killed in 1982.

UNITA and Renamo

In 1976, following the failed South African invasion of Angola, the SADF launched Operation Silwer to rebuild UNITA's shattered army and turn it into an effective surrogate force. In late 1979, with the independence election looming in Rhodesia, the SADF agreed to take over Renamo, then an instrument of the Smith regime. In the months after March 1980 the Renamo army was redeployed to bases inside South Africa and its leadership was moved to a farm near Pretoria. Several hundred black members of Bishop Muzorewa's auxiliary force were also moved south.

By this time a separate division within Military Intelligence, the Directorate of Special Tasks (DST), managed South Africa's surrogate armies. One section of DST handled UNITA and had a field office in Rundu in northern Rhodesia. The other section managed the other three forces from bases disguised as farms in the northern and eastern Transvaal, eastern Free State and northern Natal. In the mid1980s, they launched Operations Marion and Katzen supporting Inkatha and anti-UDF/ANC groups in the eastern Cape respectively. Brigadiers C.J. `Neels' Van Tonder and Cornelius van Niekerk, both later defendants in the abortive `Malan' trial, headed DST.

The addition of a domestic arm testified to the effectiveness of the surrogacy strategy. Renamo and UNITA were the means by which the apartheid government destroyed the socialist projects in Mozambique and Angola. By the same means, the Lesotho Liberation Army so weakened the authority of the pro-ANC Jonathon government that it was toppled in a coup in 1986.

Groups of SADF-backed Zimbabwean dissidents operating in Matabeleland in the early 1980s sowed the seeds for the chaos and violence that engulfed southern Zimbabwe when President Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade into ZAPU's strong-hold. These largely former members of the Rhodesian military were trained on farms in the northern Transvaal and infiltrated into Zimbabwe through Botswana. They concentrated on sabotaging military and economic targets. Four one-time Rhodesian soldiers (three white and one black) were killed in one of these raids on August 18 1981 when their 18-strong party was ambushed in Matabeleland. Their target was a military base close to the Mozambican border and their main task to destroy its helicopter fleet. At the time, the SADF put out the lie that the group was on a private trespassing mission to free former colleagues held in a prison camp in Matabeleland. This was in fact a second authorized objective of their mission.

Military files destroyed

Mary Beech, the mother of one of those who was killed, refused to accept the SADF version and campaigned for years to have the SADF acknowledge that her son had died in the line of duty. Eventually she appealed to the Truth Commission for her son's reputation to be cleared. By accessing the personnel files of the three white officers killed (Beech, Berry and Wessels - the SADF never acknowledged the death of the black operative), the Commission found that the group was involved in Operation Drama, a clandestine program of destabilization against the Mugabe government. They and several hundred former black former Rhodesian servicemen were housed at a secret base in Venda from which they launched regular sorties into Zimbabwe. The Commission found that their superior officer (another former Rhodesian) had authorized this particular raid and that the SADF's original account had been misleading. It recommended that the Ministry of Defence issue a correct public statement of the events and clear the reputations of those involved. At the time of writing, the Ministry of Defence had not implemented the recommendation.

This investigation pertaining to the SADF was one of the Commission's rare successes. One the whole, it singularly failed to access the military's records. The SADF generally adopted an obstructionist attitude to the Commission. It blocked access to its archives for more than half of the Commission's life and even when granted, access was circumscribed. As well, a huge part of that record was systematically and criminally destroyed prior to the 1994 election.

By way of example, the Commission submitted a list of more than 150 DST files with names and numbers, which it had received from Roland Hunter, to the SADF archives. During his military service in 1983, Hunter had been an aide to Cor van Niekerk. Working within DST, Hunter supplied the ANC with information on the unit. Arrested on spying charges, Hunter's defense was refused access to these same files. As a result, he was able to plea-bargain to reduce the charges and served only a five-year sentence. When the Commission requested these same files, it was told that all had been destroyed along with all DST documentation. These formed a small part of the more than 40 tons of security documentation destroyed in 1993 alone. President de Klerk ordered the destruction, in probable violation of the Archives Act. Of course, it was an attempt to cover up the full extent of apartheid crime in the region.

No reparations

The Commission's governing Act restricts the payment of reparations to South African nationals. While obviously unjust, such a provision probably makes fiscal sense. Imagine the burden on the treasury of compensating every UNITA and Renamo victim, not to mention the region's landmine casualties! The post-apartheid government has returned Walvis Bay to Namibia, repudiated the apartheid debts of Namibia and Mozambique and negotiated a special fee for SADC nationals to undertake tertiary-level education. Laudable though these measures are, they have done nothing to compensate for the sufferings of those in the region that bore the fullest brunt of the apartheid onslaught - its rural poor. It is they who constitute the bulk of illegal migrants now streaming into South Africa. Here, they encounter a rising tide of xenophobia instead of gratitude. Foreign Africans have been tossed to their deaths from commuter trains. Migrant hawkers eking out a pitiful living endure periodic purges from pavements. Many have suffered policy brutality. The prospect looms, therefore, that the primary victims of apartheid's war on the region will become the victims of the frustrated rage of South Africa's post-apartheid poor as well.


** SWAPO and the UN claimed that Kassinga was a refugee transit facility while the SADF argued that it was a major military base. Both versions had an element of truth but each was incomplete. Kassinga was a large, multi-purpose facility. Part was a civilian facility but another part housed the SWAPO military planning headquarters where senior officers, including military chief Dimo Amaambo, were based.

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