Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp cover

ABSTRACT: Dr Willem  Steenkamp, son of former SAP-SB CO Maj-Gen Frans Steenkamp, and himself a former NIS officer who did his doctoral thesis on the intelligence function, as well as being a novelist, ambassador, attorney, entrepreneur and polyglot with wide experience of living abroad, and currently the co-editor and business manager of Nongqai magazine, shares his experiences and insights into South Africa’s transition. He gives his personal view on why and how the political war was lost, despite the “armed struggle” battles having been won, explaining that it had always been a political rather than a military conflict, with the “armed struggle” having been just one part of the propaganda war, which latter the former South African government decisively lost due to poor strategic and policy choices.

FOCUS KEYWORD: Nongqai Series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp

KEYWORDS: South Africa, Apartheid, SACP/ANC, “armed struggle”, Genl Jan Smuts, Dr HF Verwoerd, Adv John Vorster, Mr PW Botha, Pres FW de Klerk, Pres Nelson Mandela, Min Pik Botha, Genl HJ (Lang Hendrik) van den Bergh, Dr Eschel Rhoodie, Dr LD (Niël) Barnard, Israel, USSR, BfSS/NIS, SAP-SB, SADF

AUTHOR: Dr Willem Steenkamp



VOORWOORD: Brig HB Heymans

Ter wille van ons Afrikaanse lesers, ‘n kort voorwoord in Afrikaans.

Dr Willem Steenkamp is die seun genl.maj. Frans Steenkamp ‘n voormalige nasionale BO van die SAP-Veiligheidstak. Dok Willem (soos ons hom hier by Nongqai noem) is self ‘n voormalige NI-beampte met ‘n doktorale proefskrif oor die intelligensiefunksie. As ‘n romanskrywer, ambassadeur, prokureur, entrepreneur en ‘n veeltalige persoon met wye ervaring, wat Suid-Afrika vanuit die buiteland kan takseer (en tans die mederedakteur en sakebestuurder van die tydskrif Nongqai is) is ons bevoorreg om sy besondere ervarings en insigte oor Suid-Afrika se oorgang kennis te neem.

Dit louter plesier om die eerstehandse verloop van ons geskiedenis – as het ware ‘n ooggetuieverslag van vele gebeure – vanuit ‘n NI-lid cum ambassadeur cum entrepreneur se perspektief, waar te kan neem. So veel jare het verloop en ons het almal tyd gehad om te besin en om die verlede te ontleed.

Ek skat NI het maar ‘n minimale fraksie gevorm van die totale getalsterkte van die Suid-Afrikaanse veiligheidsmagte en inligtings­gemeenskap. So ook ons ambassadeurskorps oorsee. Ons is dus bevoorreg om te lees wat hierdie klein Gideonsbende wat NI en Buitelandse Sake verteenwoordig, na soveel jare vanuit die binnekring waargeneem het – die hoekoms en waaroms.

Dr Steenkamp se vertelling is heel te maal op ‘n ander vlak as die van dr Niel Barnard en ons ander kollegas soos menere Johan Mostert en wyle Maritz Spaarwater. Elke amptenaar het sy eie pligstaat gehad en het jaloers op sy eie werkterrein (“turf”) gewerk en het soms – om sy bronne te beskerm – in isolasie gewerk. Dr Steenkamp, daarenteen, het op sy persoonlike “seilskip” onder verskeie professionele en departementele vaandels laat vaar, na baie hawens. Bo vanuit sy eie “kraaines” het hy ‘n breë uitsig gehad en kon hy sleutel-oomblikke vanuit sy persoonlike perspektief waarneem, om dit nou, jare later, met ons te deel.

As skerpsinnige ooggetuie gee hy sy siening oor waarom en op watter wyse die politieke oorlog verloor is, ten spyte van die “gewapende stryd” se gevegte wat die veiligheidsmagte almal gewen het. Hy verduidelik dat dit altyd ‘n politieke oorlog eerder as ‘n militêre konflik was, met die “gewapende stryd” wat slegs ‘n deel van die magstryd was. Die som totaal van alles het deel van die propaganda-oorlog gevorm. Die NP-regering het die politieke oorlog beslissend verloor weens swak strategiese en beleidskeuses. “Ons het die oorlog gewen, maar die vrede en die politiek verloor”.

Ek dink terug na wat my professor in nasionale strategiese studies vir ons gesê het: “Al is jou skermutselings hoe glansryk – dit beteken eintlik niks as dit nie tot die uiteindelike oorwinning kon bydra nie”. Dit bewys ons was goeie en uitmuntende vegters maar ons het nie almal altyd strategies gedink nie! Takties was ons goed! Strategies hopeloos!

Dr Steenkamp was in die gunstige posisie dat hy reeds as student (in onder andere Politieke Wetenskap en die Regte), met insig by sy vader kon leer. (Net soos ek met my polisieman-vader geredeneer het en by my vader my basiese lesse geleer het oor polisiewerk.)

Dok Willem kyk dus  met simpatie en begrip, maar bowenal met die objektiewe, soms ongerieflike eerlikheid van die analis, na ons geskiedenis – hoe het ons gekom waar ons vandag is, van waar ons was?    

Ons sien reikhalsend uit na DELE 2 & 3 (die hele reeks sal ook in Afrikaans beskikbaar gemaak word).



1.1.  Why am I writing this, and for whom?

This contribution is part of Nongqai magazine’s new series: “The Men Speak”. These articles consist of eyewitness accounts and insights about our national security history, provided by those of us who were actually there: in the Forces, the intelligence services and/or the diplomatic corps. Our own truth, as we lived it, and how we then understood it. Plus – above all – how we now reflect upon it. Of course, doing so now with the wisdom of hindsight, maturity, and often more information than what we possessed back then, when everything was subject to a lot of “spin”.

I will not be boring you with a full chronological account of my life’s “exploits”. This is a “fireside chat”. It does not pretend to be an autobiography.

What I hope to do, rather, is to try and answer some fundamental questions about the twists and turns of our history. The “why’s and wherefores” that I believe most of us (and our friends and family) are keen to have answers to. It is around these questions and answers that my tale and the events that I’ve selected to tell you about, will be structured. I’ll be the first to admit that it is, therefore, partial and a very personal view – sharing my interpretations and conclusions, as best I’ve been able to figure these complex things out for myself. To my mind, you are absolutely entitled to differ from me, to have your own opinions – but then, so am I, not so?

I will not be writing this in a formal, academic manner. Therefore, no footnotes or stacks of references. Rather, I’ll try and keep to a less formal style, as if discussing with family and friends around a Bushveld campfire. But always sticking to what I believe to be the truth, as I know it from my own experience. Supplemented by what I’ve since reliably learnt about so much that have not been generally known back then and which often remains so to this day).

South Africa still face great challenges. It is, therefore, critically important that we learn the lessons that our history can teach us. That is why I’m sharing this – for the sake of learning for  the past. From  the answers (as I see them) to the questions about what brought us to where we are today.

1.2 The fundamental question I will try to answer:

Most of us who, during those years of tumult, were personally involved with intelligence and the security forces, have been confronted with one fundamental set of questions. Coming most often from family and friends. Questions that most of us have, ourselves, pondered – over and over – these past three decades. 

Fundamentally, it boils down to this: “How come? How could the once mighty South Africa go from where it was in the mid-nineties, with all the hope then, to where it is now?

Typically, we are told (often a bit accusingly) something along these lines: Back then, the JSE was among the ten largest bourses on earth. Eskom was rated one of the top utilities in the world, delivering the cheapest electricity on the planet. Baragwanath was a world-leading hospital, to which foreign medical doctors streamed for post-grad study. Homes were secure, even unfenced, with criminals fearing and respecting the efficient police and courts.

A South African matric was still internationally recognised and our universities were highly regarded. South Africans could travel to the West without visas. Flying abroad on our own national airline…

By the late eighties, the security forces had effectively neutralised the ANC’s MK, pushing their nearest bases to Uganda. The SADF was the most combat-efficient military on the content, with a functioning Navy, Air Force and Armoured Corps. South Africa was a nuclear power, with RSA3 ballistic missiles that could target the Northern Hemisphere.

At that stage, you guys had even turned the USSR around! Despite UN sanctions and the arms embargo. So that, by the end of the eighties, your aeronautical engineers and theirs were working side-by-side in Moscow (in Brezhnev’s old dacha, of all places) successfully re-designing the MIG-29 jet engine. You fitted this into SAAF Mirages as a powerful upgrade, which flew great! Then ANC president Oliver Tambo could no longer get appointments with the USSR’s Michail Gorbachev, but the Soviet boss shifted a politburo meeting to be able to see the DG of the NIS, there inside the Kremlin!

You guys prevented that a Marxist People’s Republic be established in South Africa.  National Intelligence and the Security Forces were pivotal in convincing both sides to the conflict that they had to stop shooting and rather settle through negotiation. The security forces provided the stable environment that enabled those settlement talks and then the transition to unfold. The world was thrilled and supportive, backing President Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation”. Our economy bloomed, we were the toast of town, after the tough years of international isolation… 

But now? The Rand is worth just 4% of what it was against the dollar in its heyday. We have a dysfunctional state with a disastrous incapacity to deliver essential services and a shocking inability to maintain the once excellent infrastructure. Ironically, Blacks suffer more than ever – from poor housing, risible education, rampant crime, inadequate health care, craven corruption, and shocking joblessness. The list of ills goes on and on, too long to enumerate.

Before 1994 your guys were in charge – you, the white Afrikaners. Your people had taken exclusive control of the country’s destiny in 1948. You set yourselves apart, and your leaders determined all strategy and policy! The responsibility for the run-up to where we are today, was therefore yours!

Now it is so that you (Oupa, Uncle, neighbour…) were there, in the midst of it all – so, please explain: How come? How did we get here?

Author’s Note: My granddaughter and sons-in-law are actually English-speakers (non-South African); you will therefore understand why I am writing this in English. This will also explain to you why I will be including here, in this first part, a quick overflight of South African history. It provides some context for understanding the larger trends that helped shape the era which I had been part of. I believe that this background is not only useful for “uitlanders”, but most likely is also a useful “memory-jogger” that will help my fellow South Africans reading this, to recall those long-ago times.

1.3.  Why me? What qualifies me to try and answer these tough questions?

In my 70 years to date I have been blessed with the opportunity to have lived what has amounted to a number of quite distinct “lives”. These sets of experiences were identifiably distinct from one another in terms of the different entities and capacities I worked in, each with its own focus. Nevertheless, as regards the over-all picture of our history, they were inter-related: security, intelligence, diplomacy, academia, practising law, engaging in business, plus experiencing other cultures and their solutions to similar challenges. Last, but not least, I need to include here the learning that flows from lately having been closely involved with Nongqai magazine and the constant stream of historical data that flows across one’s desk in that capacity.

What each “life” did was to provide me, as keen observer, with an additional vantage point, a further illuminating angle. It gave me opportunities for learning first-hand new facts (and ones probably not commonly known to the general public, at that), plus experiencing the customs and outlooks particular to those different sectors and institutions. All of it, very relevant to those core questions. Because it allowed me to comprehend the interplay between all those role-players. Through this multi-faceted learning opportunity, I could develop a more broadly-based and balanced understanding of South Africa’s complex history.

1.4. Learning from my SAP-SB father:

First off, my understanding of our security situation (and particularly, of the SAP-SB’s role) owed much to my early exposure as the son of an SB officer. My dad, major-general Frans Steenkamp, eventually became the commanding general of the SAP-SB nationally (before he took early retirement because of policy differences with the PW Botha “total onslaught” approach).

We never discussed operational details, but the way that the country was going was of course a serious and frequent topic of conversation between us. In my early years, sitting at his feet, listening, while he and the “groot ooms” were discussing national affairs. I particularly recall the many fascinating hours on the quay-side in Durban harbour, listening to him and his great friend Colonel Hennie Prins of the security branch of the Railways & Harbours Police discussing matters (they were both keen anglers).

Later on, when I had joined the intelligence service and also held “top secret” security clearance, discussing in confidence, more in depth, as father and son would.   

Nongqai seties The Men Speak WPS cert of appointment FMAS

My father, Frans Steenkamp's certificate of appointment as major-general.

1.5. As a child, I was interested in national and world affairs from very young:

From a very early age I had a keen interest in politics, being glued to the radio at news time. Well before school age, I could name all the African heads of state, their countries and their capitals, to the amusement (and astonishment) of family and friends. This inquisitiveness stood me in good stead in my matric year, when I led our school team (Dirkie Uys High School, Durban) into the finals of the SABC’s general knowledge quiz for high schools. I also in that year (1971) won the national inter-school debating contest for Afrikaans-medium high schools.

At university I majored in both Law and Political Science, culminating eventually in being admitted as attorney, as well as obtaining my doctorate in Political Science with a thesis on the role of the intelligence function within the political system. My undergraduate studies were at Bloemfontein, with one of my bursaries having been from the then Public Service Commission, which I then had to “work back” by labouring in some or other government department for an equal number of years. I also had to meet my compulsory national service obligations.

The solution was to opt for a department where I could do both at the same time. Thus, in 1975 I joined the then Bureau for State Security (BfSS), which later became the National Intelligence Service (NIS).

In the erstwhile Bureau I soon found myself in positions of responsibility, so that I quickly had a Top Secret security clearance. As, my father and I never discussed operational details, but we had many, many discussions about over-arching strategy and policy. The same applied to my wife, who was also an SAP-SB officer – then one of the “handlers” for Operation Daisy. Because of our training and conditioning, we never-ever discussed operational detail about our respective responsibilities, but between them I did indeed get as good an insight into the SB as any “outsider” probably could hope to get.

1.6. My career in the BfSS/NIS:

My nearly decade-long stint inside the intelligence apparatus (which I will come back to in more detail later, in Part Two) provided me with insights into the burning national security issues of the day, from the mid-seventies on. First as analyst, but towards the end also on the clandestine operational side.

Through a convergence of happenstances, I was privileged to have found myself (despite my tender age) at excellent vantage points from which to observe key developments. One such was as head of the then seriously topical SWA/Namibia section, at the end of the Vorster era / beginning of the PW Botha “securocrat” (i.e., military) reign.

Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp atop Grootfontein meteorite Namibia

Atop the Grootfontein meteorite, SWA/Namibia 1979 (note the long hair and “blush of youth”, which often confounded my high-ranking uniformed counterparts)

Another was when I was subsequently promoted to the position of deputy head of the central editorial division of the NIS. This position also entailed serving at inter-departmental level as the secretary of the Coordinating Intelligence Committee, or KIK (which dealt with top national priorities, such as when to release Mr Nelson Mandela from prison – as said, more about that later). 

Nongqai series The Men Speak photo of Checkpoint Charlie Berlin

Photo that I took at “Checkpoint Charlie”, between East & West Berlin (1980)

After having met my bursary and national service obligations, I left the NIS and served articles at a varsity friend’s legal practice in Frankfort in the Free State. I duly passed the Bar exam, which allowed my enrolment as practising attorney. However, I wasn’t then yet ready to dedicate the rest of my life to being a lawyer. (Nevertheless, I had wanted to have this qualification in my back pocket, given that one could at that stage already see that the civil service in future may perhaps not be a long-term career prospect for a white South African male, particularly of my background).

1.7. The Foreign Service and ambassadorship:

Because my wife and I had both wanted to see a bit more of the wide world out there, I joined the Department of Foreign Affairs. Again, I could shine in the training. By tradition, through coming first in my cadet group, I could choose which of the available postings I preferred. I chose Paris, where I served as first secretary.

After that tour of duty, I was appointed head of the diplomatic academy in Pretoria in 1990. I was charged with integrating the recruits from the former liberation movements and with thoroughly revamping the entire training system to make it apt for the needs of the New South Africa.

After that, I had the great honour and privilege to be nominated as the New South Africa’s first ambassador to formerly hostile Black Africa, at the tender age of 38. My residence was in Libreville, Gabon, with my bailiwick further including Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe, and the Central African Republic.

Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp presentation letters of credence Gabon

Presenting my letters of credence as ambassador, Libreville, Gabon (1993)

My diplomatic career stretched from 1985 to the 1997. It amplified my understanding of South Africa’s challenges and opportunities, particularly as viewed from an international perspective. The experience that had struck me most, was how completely I (a white Afrikaner) was accepted as being fully and equally African by my fellow African ambassadorial colleagues.

1.8. Franschhoek law practice, with community & business exposure:

My life as practising lawyer also spanned roughly a decade. It followed upon my return to South Africa in 1997, after my term as ambassador had ended. I established a thriving law practice in Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands, a region of high-value clients. Because of their needs for legal services in the fields of administrative and commercial law, the firm of attorneys that I set up was largely focused on those areas where business and government interfaced. This involved things like property development, environmental and heritage conservation issues, housing and  Labour law. My legal practice quickly expanded to serve and represent large institutions such as the Stellenbosch Municipality and the national forestry company SAFCOL, as well as business clients with specialist needs from across the Western Cape Province.

In Franschhoek I found myself in the somewhat unique position that I was, at one and the same time, elected by fellow Franschhoekers as chair of the local branch of the Afrikaans cultural organization the Rapportryers, as well as of the Community Policing Forum and the Neighbourhood Watch, plus the chamber of business. I was also elected as member of the regional executive of the ANC of president Nelson Mandela (as a lifelong confirmed nationalist patriot, and with the demise of the erstwhile National Party, I saw Mandela’s party as the only remaining viable nationalists – I certainly wasn’t ready to become an Afrikaans “agter-ryer” for the Progs; however, the advent of the Zuma presidency immediately had me terminate my ANC membership!).

The trust invested in me by all sectors of the community, allowed me to pilot the ground-breaking Franschhoek Social Accord, which resolved long-standing conflicts in the Valley that had resulted from the Apartheid legacy. This new harmony of common developmental objectives across the community, plus the financial support I could mobilise from the French government, the Development Bank, and the private sector, helped wrench Franschhoek from its stagnating era of community conflict and launched it on the road to the prosperity it now enjoys.

The “Franschhoek Empowerment and Development Initiative” (FEDI was the cornerstone of the public / private / community partnership. It made possible that more than a thousand quality new starter homes could be designed and built to way above the “HOP-huisie” (RDP) standards. This was done by the private sector (not the municipality) for the previously homeless, who received full title to their new properties entirely free.

The new township of Mooiwater came with wide tarred roads and all the services such as electricity done properly, buried underground. All this was achieved through cross-subsidisation by the private sector, without burdening the local taxpayers.  The project was lauded by the Western Cape as well as the national government, and even by the United Nations – it was, for example, selected to represent South Africa in France at the largest annual international property development expo, MIPIM.

Its success showed me what can be achieved through community cooperation, despite our polarized historical legacy.

Nongqai series The Men Speak press clipping Franschhoek housing project

Part of the positive media coverage which the FEDI project generated

In Franschhoek I also gained valuable entrepreneurial experience and insight into the relationship between big business and government. It stemmed from being the CEO of a quite substantial upscale property development company, FRANDEVCO Pty. Ltd.

Among my shareholders and partners on the board were the V&A Waterfront company, plus leading South Africans such as fellow former ambassador Dr Franklin Sonn (then national president of the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut), my neighbour John Samuel (who then headed the Nelson Mandela Foundation) and top South African and international entrepreneurs with ties to Franschhoek, such as Gordon Jones and Peter Middleton.

In later life, while residing in Central America, my business exposure expanded further; a project that I had initiated won Panama’s annual contest for the best new business idea, winning me a study trip to California’s Silicon Valley, focused on IT applications in business. I am also an American-certified professional business coach.

Nongqai series The Men Speak Panama business contest certificate

Panama’s “best new business idea” contest, which won me a study trip to Silicon Valley…

My experiences of the world of entrepreneurship have allowed me to view important national issues also from the private sector perspective, supplementing the public sector experience I had gained while working in intelligence and diplomacy.

1.9  Academic researcher, novelist and Nongqai co-editor:

My knowledge and understanding of national security, intelligence and diplomacy doesn’t only stem from having actually worked in those fields. I also benefited from my schooling as academic researcher. My doctorate in Political Science (attained through UNISA) had as theme, the role of the intelligence function within the political system. This was an analysis of how intelligence systems could in theory best function, in any political system anywhere. The aim with the study was to better understand the role of intelligence in supporting the making of decisions.

One of the external examiners of my doctoral thesis was the world-renowned Cambridge University expert on intelligence and also official historian of the British MI.5, professor Christopher Andrew.

Apart from my professional intelligence training with the BfSS/NIS and the German Bundesnachrichtendienst, I therefore also had a very focused and theoretically sound academic grounding in the subject matter. This was further enhanced by my academic training as lawyer, with its strong focus on analytical skills and on the moral / philosophical foundations of jurisprudence and governance.

Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp degree certificates

My trajectory as a published author of so-called “faction” (fact-based fiction) also provided a surprisingly strong grounding in research and analysis – it is amazing how much research and thinking goes into any one such manuscript!

Nongqai series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp book covers

In the same vein, my association with Nongqai magazine has been hugely valuable in broadening my factual knowledge as well as my understanding of the last decades of white rule in South Africa.

Firstly, through the constant stream of information about that era (much of which had earlier been classified or suppressed, such as the verbatim transcripts of the meetings between the teams of premier Vorster and Dr Henry Kissinger in Germany in the mid-seventies, or of the PW Botha cabinet “bosberaad” just prior to his “Rubicon” speech).

Secondly, through talking with eyewitnesses to important yet unreported events. An example of the latter was my on-the-record discussion with the police bodyguard who sat in at a private lunch between Judge Erasmus and Minister Pik Botha. He heard how Pik Botha pointedly coached the judge Erasmus (who then headed the supposedly independent Erasmus Commission into the so-called information scandal) on how to politically sink Dr Connie Mulder and then-president John Vorster – later, more about this.

Thirdly, through the vastly enriching intellectual interaction with my fellow editors, in particular Brigadier Hennie Heymans. This helped sharpen and deepen my understanding of the “how” and “why” of key events.

1.10. Experience of having lived in other countries / cultures:

The last important contributor to my broader understanding of South Africa’s complex situation and of the impact of its historical context of European colonialism, has been my decades of having lived abroad.  My latter years spent in Latin America and actually imbibing their culture (through marriage) has been especially helpful. This has provided me with a basis for comparing our Anglo experience with their Spanish / Catholic one, giving me insights into what perhaps could (should?) have been, under a different system…

What has been striking has been the similarities, yet also the fundamental differences between these colonial/cultural legacies. The Americas, like South Africa, had been colonised by force. In the Americas, some highly advanced civilizations (light years ahead of those in sub-Saharan Africa), had been violently conquered and subjugated. Some by Spain, and those of North America by England.

One finds a huge difference between (Anglo) North America on the one hand, and (Latin) South & Central America on the other. Differences in wealth, yes (where the Anglo countries are clearly better off) but also with regard to race relations (where the Latin countries have fared much better). South Africa, as an ex Anglo colony, corresponds to the formerly overtly and institutionally racist North America. Leaving us with the same heritage as the USA’s still hugely reacilally polarized society.

Why this difference between the Latin and Anglo colonial legacies? Why is it that, to this day and despite the fact that in a country like Guatemala (my wife’s home, where I now live) the “whites” constitute less than 2% of the overall population, “white” Guatemalans are time and again entrusted with governing? This, by an overwhelmingly darker-hued electorate – in free, democratic elections.

My objective is not to judge here whether this is either good or bad, nor to suggest that Guatemalans, or Panamanians, or practically any other Central American nation vote for their leaders because of race (they do so on the basis of perceived merit, competence and experience, irrespective of race – as it should be).

What I will try and share when later I deal with this phenomenon, comparing South Africa to Latin America; is WHY this is happening. Why is this still the empirical reality here, after 200 years of independence? (Reflecting nations sufficiently at peace with their diverse heritage, allowing diverse voting blocks to be realistic about the fact that their own interests are best served by merit-based selection of ministers). A very different situation indeed, to the Anglo colonial legacy of deep, persistent racial polarization!

In the recent elections here in my wife’s country, Guatemala, the most progressive / liberal party in seventy years won – thanks in very large measure to the vocal and activist support of the indigenous Maya majority. And yet, even though the new president went out of his way to appoint an equal number of male and female ministers, he was the first to apologize for the fact that only one minister of Maya origin was appointed. He openly ascribed this as being due to a lack of suitably qualified and experienced candidates from that group, pledging to work to improve that reality.

His apology and explanation of his reasons were accepted. And this example is not unique in the region, but rather the norm.

Nongqai series The Men Speak photo Guatemala cabinet 2024

2024 Guatemala cabinet (ministers and deputies) with only the lady at centre in traditional dress a Maya.

What is at the root of this? I will discuss the reasons behind it in detail later. However, just to set you thinking – in my experience, it is due to the historically distinct roles and influence of the main churches of the respective sets of colonizers. Without promoting any one over any other, the evidence shows that the Catholic approach in the Americas was to emphasize that God’s flock is one and indivisible, despite stemming from different  peoples (this is due to the reported appearance five centuries ago in Mexico of Mary, mother of Jesus – known as the Virgin of Guadalupe apparition – where she is said to have strongly conveyed this message).

It needs little argument that the 20th century NG Kerk and its eventual full-blown justification of Apartheid, had the complete opposite emphasis… (again, more about this in Part Three, with my conclusions).

1.11. NB – why I briefly listed here my life’s trajectory:

I want to stress that I haven’t listed my diverse range of qualifications and experiences above, to try and impress! I did it, hopefully to help convince you as reader that I do have some reason and justification for my very broad perspective on South Africa’s history. As you can see, it’s a multi-faceted viewpoint that goes well beyond having participated in just one national security-related profession, or in a particular branch of the Forces, or one academic discipline.

  1. THE KEY QUESTIONS I’M TRYING TO ANSWER (determining the structure of my story)

2.1. My basic approach:

I want to avoid that this contribution of mine becomes just a chronological re-telling of random experiences, with then some conclusions tagged on almost as afterthought at the end. That kind of approach will firstly make it far too long, and secondly far too haphazard and unfocused / unstructured, to be of any real value.

Therefore, I’m going to identify here in Part One (as briefly as I reasonably can) the key questions I’m going to try and answer about how we as nation got from where we were, to where we are now. I will then also, here at the outset, briefly outline for you the essence of the answers that I’ve come to.  Why I’m going to do things this way, is so that you can test my conclusions as my story unfolds. Kind of like having a golden thread to follow through history’s maze. In the end (Part Three), I will return to those questions and answers in more detail, in an assessment and explanation of the reasoning behind the conclusions I’ve myself come to.

I also believe that it is important to not get caught up in too much cluttering detail. It is essential (as the saying goes), to be able to “see the forest for the trees” – in other words, to be able to look through the branches, leaves and trunks and distinguish the big picture beyond.

I will, therefore, be selective in Parts Two and Three and only talk about those experiences of mine that are directly pertinent to the answers I will share with you. Answers about why I believe things happened the way they did (or could perhaps have turned out differently, if other strategies had been adopted). My focus will therefore be on what I see as having been the absolute key fundamentals that caused us to end up where we are. Because, when we are too invested in the (un)savoury day-to day detail, we often lose sight of these core factors.

To illustrate this last point: one such basic reality (if one sets aside all the detail about policies and legacies) is simply this: South Africa had, at the end of the last century, in the great panorama of history simply found itself as the last remaining colonial state under fair-skinned rule. This, in a world that had come to abhor both racism and imperialism after the Second World War.

As the USA secretary of state Brzezinski had warned, we were simply trapped on the rail track of history, with the locomotive of time rushing unstoppably towards us. Inevitably, given the reality of the overwhelming power of that world-wide historical trend, the “old” South Africa (or any other ex-colony that would have found itself as the “last one standing”) simply would not and could not have escaped undergoing fundamental political change of some or other kind.

One now realises that the only truly relevant questions were, therefore: what would be the nature of the New South Africa; and, would that fundamental change come about through a war of national liberation (as happened elsewhere in the world) or through a negotiated internal settlement?

Since you have just read about my own background, you will understand that I will be approaching these questions from who and what I am – an Afrikaner. Not a “super Afrikaner”, for that I never was (in fact, I had many a run-in with that kind, right from the days of my youth).

I have always regarded myself as first and foremost a proud South African, a nationalist patriot, and then as a proud speaker of the Afrikaans tongue. Regarding my mother tongue, I always saw speaking Afrikaans as impossible to associate with colour – after all, the roots of our language undeniably goes back originally to what under the English became known as the “Coloureds”, more specifically to the Cape Malay community. My nationality was (and still is, to this day) South African, while my cultural heritage is Afrikaans. I do not speak “white”; I do not see myself culturally having more in common with English-speaking “whites” than I have with fellow Afrikaans-speakers who happen (to a varying degree) to be of darker hue, but who love the same sport as I do, belong to the same faith, and love the same country. And this does not mean that I do not value and appreciate the English language, or my fellow English-speaking countrymen – or be they of whichever of our other language groups.

Fact is, we Afrikaners ruled the unified South Africa from 1910, and exclusively so from 1948. When I will talk in this contribution about policies adopted and strategic decisions made, those were “our” decisions and “our” policies, as made by our leaders and supported by a majority of us, the white Afrikaner voters – myself oncluded. Of this reality I need to take ownership in this contribution, otherwise I’d be denying self-evident facts.

I’m therefore not going claim here that, back then, I already somehow had clairvoyantly “told you so” in advance. I myself had headed National Party formations, for example as member of the Natal provincial executive of the Jeugbond (youth wing) in my school days, and as branch chair in places like Frankfort. I had chaired our local chapter of the Junior Rapportryers in Central Pretoria during my NIS days and chaired the senior Rapportryers in Franschhoek. I cannot and will not hide from who and what I had then proudly identified with.

Not that this is going to be a breast-beating mea culpa, covering myself in cloth and ash. I am very proud of my personal trajectory, of my Afrikaner people, and – for that matter – of our erstwhile security forces (despite individual cases of wrong-doing, which I admit occurred and which I abhorred, then and now).

Let’s face it: if the other side had not abandoned their dream of a Marxist People’s Republic and were still today trying to impose it through the barrel of a gun, then I know that I would still now be fighting tooth and nail to oppose it!

Of course, we are all human and mistakes were made – on all sides. Being proud of us and our past does not mean that one cannot or should not now, with the benefit of hindsight, admit to mistakes. Because if we don’t admit to them, then there will be no learning from the past. Yes, there were mistakes on our part, some very grave – immoral mistakes, even, although most now simply appear stupid and senseless (with a great many also having been driven by unchecked personal ambition of unscrupulous politicians from our ranks) Which, again, is not unique to Afrikaans politicians, but a familiar gripe the world over and through-out time.

My message about how we got where we now are, will be focused on decisions that had often been taken tactically, for short-term political gain (based in the gut instead of the brain), which have brought us lasting strategic harm.

It is easy to fall into the trap of only lamenting a litany or errors in a story such as this. As if all was darkness and sin. Without recognising the much that was good that our forebears had done. Of which we still enjoy the fruit. Absolutely fundamental choices they had made, and which had set us on a different course to other descendants of European colonial settlers elsewhere. Fundamental choices that at the time surely appeared extremely “liberal” and “progressive” – but which has stood us in such good stead (compared to the negative consequences of the “conservative” choices we as a people had made).

Let me explain: compare our present situation to that which befell the French “pieds noir” in Algeria, or the British settlers in Kenya and Rhodesia, or the Belgians and the Portuguese in Africa (for that matter, descendants of generations of white settlers in Africa and Asia, during the colonial era). When “Uhuru” came they were all viewed as settlers, and they all lost everything, obliged to flee.

We, however, are viewed as being as much African as any other group. Why? Because, unlike other white colonial arrivals (who all had clung to their “home” country across the waters, and to that language) our forebears from very early on identified with our continent, and even adopted the locally-rooted Afrikaans language of the Cape Malays and so-called “Coloureds”, forsaking Dutch.

And, we were the first Africans to take up arms against imperialism. By any measurement, the Afrikaners are the Africans who suffered the highest losses in wars of independence fought against colonial oppressors – more than 40,000, including up to 50% of the children of burghers of the Free State and ZAR, during the Second Anglo-Boer War.

Those were then revolutionary choices, which now ensure that we are still very much part of South Africa, the beautiful – not unceremoniously expelled back to Europe…

These were the most fundamentally important choices ever made relevant to our well-being as a people; and they (and their consequences) are hugely positive. So, when we will list here some of the errors also made (so that we can learn from them) let we never forget that our forebears also made exceedingly good, often unique, choices as well – especially when they were guided by their highest moral principles and dared to be “progressive”, to proudly be themselves…

As with most nations, there were also prophets not recognised in their own land, by their own people – such as a Jan Smuts, a John Vorster, Beyers Naudé or Breyten Breytenbach. Our churches over the past century had deviated from the narrow moral path when it came to preaching politics and justifying the patently unethical (although there were enough senior Afrikaner theologians that at the time had warned against Apartheid, at great cost to themselves).

Then there was big business, which had made hay while the Apartheid sun shone, without using their influence appropriately.

Our Afrikaans schools and universities had promoted dogmatic group-think, rather than independent investigation and critical thinking. Our media toed the party line.

The “enforcer” behind all this groupthink was the Broederbond (of which neither I nor my father ever were members, nor wanted to be). Not all-powerful, as some may believe, and increasingly lacking in clear direction and unity at the end of the seventies and through the eighties. But which nevertheless – through its implantation in church, media, education and the public service – contributed hugely to the suppression of free thinking among white Afrikaners.

Especially what should have been free expression of critical thought in our media, from the pulpits and in the classrooms and lecture halls, which would have fostered healthy debate. This cultivation of groupthink was the consequence of the Broederbond’s focus on “maintaining Afrikaner unity” at all  cost, but which had in reality morphed into enforcing a blind, unquestioning herd effect through social sanctions “excommunicating” those who dared to step out of line.

As membership of the Broederbond increasingly became seen by many as a means of self-promotion (particularly within the public service and the Forces), it gave rise to “baantjies vir Boeties” – the promotion of fellow members and “gat-kruipers” (brown nosers) over those who dared to think for themselves.

And after 1994, under an ANC government? What I have found with my ANC acquaintances post-1994, is that – similar to the aftermath of most wars – the actual opposing combatants get along fine afterwards. There is respect, when you show your pride and don’t try to hide or fudge. For the bleeding-heart liberal there is very little respect or sympathy.

I always made very clear that, yes, I was a Nationalist. Yes, I did serve in the NIS. And, yes, we were excellent at our job, which was to prevent you guys from winning and imposing the disaster of a Marxist People’s Republic. Yes, we gave you a hard time (a reminder which often then resulted in comparing notes). But please don’t believe your own propaganda – you know that we were not waging a “dirty war” like the one the Americans promoted in Latin America (otherwise, if we really had done all that, you wouldn’t be here to enjoy the fruits of your negotiated liberation!). And we’ve always kept our word not to divulge who our legion of informers were…

2.2.  The structure of my story:

Recounting a lifetime of experiences in purely chronological format can be very frustrating (and also less than illuminating) for readers. Because life typically takes so many irrelevant twists and turns. So much of what happens to any given individual is simply no more than mundane or irrelevant to understanding the big picture.

What I’m going to do now, here in Part One, is to set out briefly how I’ve come to view the “why’s and wherefores” of the history of our people. In Part Two I will then launch into my own years of first-hand exposure to security intelligence (learning first from my father, plus while serving in the NIS). Part Three will be dedicated to my years as diplomat, ultimately as ambassador, and the insights I gained from that experience.

The experiences that I will share are chosen because they illuminate the events and causal factors that, in my humble opinion, most pertinently contributed to shaping and directing where we are today. In the life of any nation there are many forks in the road. Many decisions on policy, tactics and strategy that needed to be taken. Oftentimes, choices that later turn out to have been less than optimal – made for short-term tactical gain, which then resulted in long-term strategic harm. Some decisions that were “good”, some “bad”, and most probably middling.

But how do we judge whether those decisions were in fact good or bad? And when do you judge that? (Because what may have looked good at a certain stage, may later – as the consequences emerge – turn out to have been very bad indeed…).

The only “scoreboard” we can use to assess the real effect over time of any given past decision, is to look at its results, here-and-now. In other words, we have to judge whether that decision had – objectively assessed – bettered the security and well-being of our interest group (the Afrikaner). Or, whether we are now actually worse off because of that decision, in terms of all the factors affecting our security and well-being – factors such as our current standing (how we are perceived), plus our relevance and leverage in influencing present-day decision-making affecting us and the country, and the prospects for our children.

Of course, none of us can turn back the clock. There is no possibility of a “re-do” of history. What is done, is done. Therefore, the only true value in going through such an exercise of navel-gazing here, is if we are going to learn something from it. So that we don’t repeat, in future, the mistakes of our past. And understand why good decisions resulted in positive results, to emulate in future.

To this end, one’s assessment needs to be clinically objective and honest. Sometimes brutally so. An unsentimental facing of the facts. Without getting emotional about it, and without morbidly dwelling on allocating blame. (As our Nongqai motto says: “To preserve our national security history without malice”). Therefore, not to engage in polemical exchanges about this one or that having most contributed to some or other perceived calamity. And not to waste time with excuses, self-pity, or self-justifications. Nor with saying: “Yes, but the other side did worse”. (Which may well be true, but which is irrelevant, if our aim is to learn from our mistakes).

The purpose of beginning in part one with an overview of our history (a sketch of how I now see “The Story of Us” from a national security decision-making perspective) is firstly to provide historical context, of course. Secondly, it will also then hopefully allow you as reader to test these personal insights of mine as we continue on to the experiences and facts that I will subsequently share with you in Part Two and Three. So that you can judge whether my experiences and related facts, justify my conclusions, also when weighed against your own experiences and knowledge.

In other words, so that you may, right from the outset, understand where I will be going with this and start testing in your mind the validity of the answers that I’ve myself arrived at to that key question of “How come”? How did we arrive here – going from where we were, to where we are today?


3.1. Who are “Us”?

When I talk about “us” I am, as a personal conviction and born-with condition, principally talking about those South Africans and Namibians who speak Afrikaans as mother tongue. All of them, irrespective of their hue. I’m not focused on this group in order to glorify us in relation to other equally worthy groups of Southern Africans, or to play groups off against one another, or to suggest that we should have any special privilege. It’s simply that this is, in fact, my ethnic group (however, please keep in mind that I’ve always been proud to say that I am first and foremost a South African).

Secondly, as I’ve explained in the previous segment: when one wants to judge whether a particular past decision was “good” or “bad”, you have to do so in relation to the consequences it entailed for a particular group. In a pluralist society such as ours, it is not possible to adopt a generalist or normative yardstick with which to measure the impact of decisions. Because, most often distinct groups were touched very differently (often intentionally so!) by the self-same decision. One is therefore obliged to define the particular group whose interests you will use as test case, to be able to judge the outcome engineered by a particular policy or strategy choice.

When I say that, to me personally, “us” should mean all who speak Afrikaans, I’m not blind to the reality that the race policies of particularly the period 1948 – 1990 meant that practically all political decisions of consequence were in fact taken by “white” Afrikaans-speakers, with so-called “coloured” Afrikaans-speakers more often than not the fellow victims of those decisions, together with the other non-white groups of our country. Therefore, if blame is to be apportioned for decisions that we now adjudge to have been wrong or bad, that blame attaches exclusively to us who then had the monopoly on the vote by reason of the lightish colour of our skins.

Before I start summarising the history of “us” here in Southern Africa, I believe it is also necessary to point out a few basic truths about human history in the world at large, and in our continent in general.

3.2 The History of the World is one of endless Migration and Conquest: 

All through time and everywhere humans have settled, the history of our species is marked by constant migration of people and tribes. New arrivals who displaced existing inhabitants by force of arms, through conquest. The point is not whether this is morally right or wrong; fact is, it has always occurred. Which means that practically all peoples who now have a gripe against any other group for having been recently vanquished by them, themselves earlier in time had more than likely moved in and conquered their own predecessors, who before had possessed that self-same land.

3.3. The Colonisation of Africa:

Our continent has gone through the same cycles of migration and displacement, including our southern region. A few examples: Arab conquest of the East Coast gave rise to the Swahili language as lingua franca across present-day Tanzania and Kenya. The migration of the Bantu peoples from the equatorial regions southward, systematically displaced the Khoi and the San of Southern Africa, forcing them into the south-western parts of the sub-continent.

In some places this latter migration was reversed, such as that of the Damara of Namibia (a tribe originally from the equatorial forests who had migrated south to eventually populate most of the central and northern parts of present-day Namibia, before they were subjugated by the Nama; their own tongue was thus replaced by the Nama language and most Daman ended up as servants in Nama (and later Herero) households.  

It is generally accepted that the Khoi and San were the ab-original occupants of what is now South Africa, so that they would thus have the strongest claim to its land (if time-in-place would be the only norm). But who are the Khoi and San today? Their descendants are practically all part of “us” who speak Afrikaans – particularly that 60% of modern-day Afrikaans speakers who are not “white”.

European colonisation of Africa notoriously took no heed of the geographical footprints of tribes and drew borders arbitrarily. The introduction of Western-style economic activity in these multi-tribal territories quickly resulted in metropolitan conurbations springing up where-ever economic activity created employment opportunities.

These growth points attracted members of all tribes, causing these urban sprawls to be populated by a mix of peoples. Meaning that the old tribal lands largely lost their political relevance, since the vast majority of the populations of the new countries that eventually emerged, came to live in those shared urban areas, rather than in the erstwhile tribal lands. In the case of South Africa, this has resulted in more than two-thirds of the total populace living in the post WW2 era in these shared urban spaces,  and no longer in traditional tribal homelands. 

Realistically speaking, therefore, any constitutional model that tries to base itself in the historic pattern of geographical dispersion of tribes is without practical relevance for the great majority of the present-day urbanized populace. This is a point well illustrated by the case of us Afrikaans-speakers, who live spread out across practically all parts of present-day South Africa and Namibia, and preponderantly so in the urban areas.

(My sole objective with raising all this ethno-talk here is to say that, yes, tribal affiliation is worthy of being proud of and should be cherished as part of a rich diversity, but any debate about who now supposedly has the strongest historical claim to which piece of land is out of touch with reality. Similarly, efforts to try and base a constitutional model on past tribal footprints, was and remains a fool’s errand because it, too, is so clearly divorced from the present-day economic and demographic reality that pertains to the vast bulk of the population. This is not to say that the reality of ongoing identification of us all with our tribes can be simply ignored, such as in opting for a Westminster-style constitutional model which relies exclusively on protecting “individual rights”; modern Africa is replete with examples of where that inappropriate, Eurocentric model has caused pluralist states and societies to descend into internecine slaughter and destruction).

That said, let’s start now with The Story of Us.

3.4 The Old Cape:

The melting pot variously called the Cape of Good Hope or the Tavern of the Seas was definitely not institutionally or legally a race-based society – of that our DNA is proof enough!

The local inhabitants encountered there by the first European discoverers in the 15th century, were the Khoi (“Hottentot”) pastoralists. They themselves had originated far to the north, in East Africa, but had already been present in Southern Africa from about 2,000 years ago with their sheep and cattle. The other indigenous people were the San (“Bushmen”) hunter-gatherers.

The present-day so-called “coloured” population of South Africa are regarded by DNA researchers as the most mixed population on Earth, with on average up to 43% of their ancestry typically being Khoisan derived, up to 28% European, 11% Asian and between 20-36% Bantu. When looking specifically at the “mothers” and “fathers” of modern-day so-called coloureds, then some 60% of the maternal lineage is Khoisan derived, and 32.5% of the paternal lineage is of European origin.

There is much that distinguishes the colonial history of the forebears of us present-day Afrikaans-speakers, when compared to other colonial situations around the world. Looking at it from a national security perspective, not the least of this was our forebears’ fighting ability and excellence as tacticians (although, unfortunately, grand strategy was often a different kettle of fish…).

The first example of these skills in play against would-be European colonisers came in December 1509, when a fleet of three Portuguese ships under Francisco de Almeida anchored in Table Bay. After initial friendly trade with the local Goringhaiqua tribe, some Portuguese sailors tried to take advantage and were sent packing. The sailors then convinced Almeida that revenge was appropriate, so that a force of 150 Portuguese landed the next day to attack some 170 Khoi defenders. The latter astutely allowed the Europeans to approach their settlement, which was situated among thick bush, before attacking them. Effective use was made of their trained battle oxen.

The long and the short of it is that the Portuguese, although armed with steel and gunpowder, were thoroughly routed by their lesser armed opponents, thanks to the superior tactics of the Goringhaiqua. The Portuguese lost 64 men, among them Almeida himself, in what became known as the Batlle of Salt River. The result was that the Portuguese empire adopted a policy of avoiding the Cape, which allowed the Dutch, French and English a gap to take up trading with the locals.

Had Almeida been successful, the result could have been that the Cape would have become a state-run colony of a European crown, as in Angola or Mozambique. Some century and a half later, when the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) in 1652 established a replenishment post at the Cape for its passing ships, it was as a commercial trading enterprise that the VOC set up shop, and not as a crowned imperial power. The company, dedicated to making money, couldn’t care less about the racial or national origins of its workers, who were a merry mix.

The VOC decided to establish their replenishment station at the Cape, largely due to the positive report received in 1649 from the survivors of the VOC ship Haarlem which had been shipwrecked at Bloubergstrand in 1647. The survivors had painted a very positive picture about friendly relations with the local Khoi (nowadays also referred to as Khoekhoen). At that stage, amicable contact between passing Europeans and the indigenous tribes at the Cape had become commonplace, with one of the local Goringhaiqua chiefs, Autshumato (“Harry the Strandloper”) who had voyaged to Bantam on the island of Java in 1630, where he had been taught English and Dutch, so that he could act as interpreter. By all accounts, he became quite wealthy upon his return to the Cape, acting as “postmaster” for passing ships and facilitating trade.

By 1707 already a young Hendrik Biebouw became the first known person of European extraction at the Cape to have formally identified himself with the statement that “I am an Afrikaner” (as distinguished from being a European). This rapid identification with their new continent, leaving the old behind, was one of the most important of those “fork in the road” choices that Afrikaners made very early on.  This was no doubt aided by the fact that theirs was not some crown colony, but a new land which they, that merry mix, were essentially developing themselves.  The VOC had rendered minimal assistance, so as to keep costs down for the company. Defence, for example, was based upon the “Free Burghers” (meaning, as distinguished from company employees), who had to provide their own horse and gun, receiving only powder and shot from the VOC, who thus maintained only “kruithuise” (gunpowder stores) and not garrisons of troops in the towns that were springing up, such as in Stellenbosch.  

A disastrous consequence of the VOC settlement was the introduction of smallpox. This devastated the Khoi population in 1713, causing many of the limited numbers who survived to flee the vicinity of the Cape settlement, trekking North.

The church in the days of the Old Cape was also free of notions of racial segregation. It served as the effective “Home Affairs” department of the local VOC company administration, conducting marriages and registering births and deaths. As far as marriage was concerned, the church’s only requirement was that a free man may not marry his slave – she first had to be manumitted. Nothing about race.

The upshot was that Cape society was essentially divided by class, between those who were “churched” and those others who weren’t bothering and just lived informally together. That this latter “lower class” consisted mostly of people of colour cannot be denied, but among the “upper class” a significant number of people of colour also featured. These were freed slaves (mostly successful tradesmen of Malay origin) and former slave women who had married “free burghers” and became proprietors of some of the most successful farming estates around Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and the Drakenstein – the “stam-moeders” of many a leading “white” Afrikaans family of today.

Perhaps the best-known governors of the Old Cape, the widely respected Simon van der Stel (after whom Stellenbosch was named) and his less-appreciated son Willem Adriaan, would under Apartheid criteria have been classified as so-called “Coloureds”.

3.5.  Adam Tas and Race as a Political Weapon:

The first overtly political “fork in the road” regarding what role (if any) race should formally play at the Cape was encountered after a new arrival from the Netherlands, Adam Tas, settled at the Cape in 1697 at the age of 29. Tas became secretary of a Free Burgher organisation known as the “Brotherhood” (amen!) which initially protested against two things: that VOC company officials acquired for themselves the best farmland, and that the VOC guarded a monopoly on trading with passing ships. The Brotherhood convinced 63 of the some 550 Free Burghers of the time to sign a petition against Willem Adriaan van der Stel, which was surreptitiously sent to the VOC in Holland in 1706. Willem Adriaan was recalled, and company officials were subsequently prohibited from owning land.

This part of Tas’s political activities is generally known to this day and lauded. However, what is not common knowledge, is that Tas went on from this to launch a vitriolic campaign in which he advocated that race (i.e., skin colour) should be formally recognised as the distinguishing norm in terms of which society at the Cape should the formally structured. He openly disparaged people of colour in his writings and speeches.

Tas thus was one of the main initial planters of the seeds of the race-based political ideology that came to dominate South Africa in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, in his time  he could not sway the likes of the church, the VOC, or the bulk of the population. (This was, unfortunately, later to change thanks to the impetus for his kind of thinking brought by the arrival of the race-conscious British and the introduction of the race-based norms and practices that they had made commonplace in their other colonies around the world).

3.6 The Cape Malays and Written Afrikaans:

Important for the development of the Afrikaans language was the banishment to the Cape of leading individuals from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) known commonly as the Malays. These were educated people, adherents to the Muslim faith, and thus familiar with the Arabic alphabet. They were the first to use Afrikaans as medium of instruction in their schools. The oldest written texts in Afrikaans (written in Arabic script, not the Roman one) date from this time. Equally, they piloted the first books printed in Afrikaans – again, using Arabic script. The Holy Koran was translated into Afrikaans well before the Bible was.

3.7. Republicanism:

The American and especially the French revolution did not pass by the inhabitants of the Cape unnoticed. By the late eighteenth century, they were fed-up with the VOC’s corporatist, profit-focused administration, where no one had an effective vote – no matter your skin colour or social class. The consequence was that, by 1795, the burghers of the Graaff-Reinet district, followed by those of Swellendam, declared republics, kicking out the local VOC officials. 

3.8. First British Occupation:

But then came the British – the first occupation, which lasted from 1796 to 1802. This was a strategic move in the context of the Napoleonic wars, seen therefore as temporary. It had as goal to prevent the Cape, with its strategic location on the important sea route to the East, from falling into French hands.  Being perceived as a temporary measure, the British interim administrators did not then make fundamental changes.

3.9. The Batavian Republic – Africa’s First Non-Racial Democracy:

A very significant and influential period then followed at the Cape, even though short-lived (1802-1806). This was the reign of the Batavian Republic (during the Napoleonic era), inspired by the same French revolutionary ideals that had so appealed to the burghers of Graaf-Reinet and Swellendam. The Batavian Republic brought into being at the Cape, the first non-racial democracy on African soil.

The Cape was no longer run by a company, but by a modern state that accorded voting rights to all qualifying adult males, no matter their skin colour. Religious freedom was for the first time ordained (especially important to the Muslim Malay population of the Cape). Furthermore, the institution of slavery was officially curtailed and designated for total abolition – all children of slaves were henceforth born free, and the importation of new slaves was prohibited, so that this abhorrent practice was destined to come to a natural end with the existing generation. 

The Afrikaans-speaking population of the Cape were now united in their destiny, which explains why the British found at the 1806 Battle of Bloubergstrand (the 2nd British invasion and occupation) that, even though the regiment of rented European soldiers, the Waldeckers, ran away at the first shots, fierce resistance was offered by the three local units. There were the Hottentot Light Infantry, together with the Swellendam Dragoons (the burghers who rode in from the interior on horseback) and the Javanese Artillery Corps (the latter being the volunteer Cape Malay freemen who manned the Castle batteries and provided the field artillery).

An alliance of local fighting men bound together by love of the same land and by speaking the same language, Afrikaans.

3.10. The Second British Occupation:

The 2nd British occupation meant that all the humanist and democratic Batavian principles were immediately suppressed.

Confronted by a largely hostile Afrikaans-speaking population, the British immediately resorted to their tried and tested recipe of divide-and-rule. For example, they actually tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to get the burghers on their side by promising to re-institute slavery in all its ugly dimensions, whilst at the same time working to polarize the “coloured” population against their lighter-skinned compatriots. (The etiquette of “Coloured” was a British import – in Afrikaans, the people that the British called “Coloured” had been referred to in terms of their tribal origins, such as Bushmen, Hottentot, Griqua, Malay, and the like).

3.11. Trekking:

Trekking northward, away from the reach of the authorities at the Cape, was already a time-honoured custom among locals even before the Great Trek. It was actually mostly initiated by our “non-white” forebears like the Basters, Oorlam, the Namas and Griquas, who trekked towards the empty spaces of the North-West and up into present-day Namibia, founding settlements such as Windhoek. The latter town, now the capital and only city in Namibia was founded in 1840 by the Oorlam chief Jonker Afrikaner, who had moved into Namibia from the Northern Cape already in 1796. Jonker Afrikaner had erected a stone church that could accommodate 500-600 people in what is now the suburb of Klein Windhoek.

The Afrikaans-speaking Oorlam, who were originally from the vicinity of Tulbagh in the Boland, Western Cape, and were of mixed Hottentot, white and slave blood, soon dominated central Namibia.

The story of how and why the Oorlam had crossed the Orange (Gariep) River into South-West Africa in 1796, has a direct bearing on my own family. The Oorlam were fleeing the Northern Cape after having murdered the family of Petrus (Pieter) Pienaar, who was the local Veldwachtmeester. The Oorlam had moved with Pienaar to his farm Groot Toorn in the Hantam in 1790, where they formed a kind of militia in the part-time employ of the VOC and directed by Pienaar, operating against marauding Bushmen and other cattle rustlers (and probably appropriating cattle themselves).

By 1796 their relationship had soured, however, leading to an altercation on the steps of Pienaar’s homestead in which Pienaar was shot by Jonker’s brother Titus, and Pienaar’s family then all murdered (or so Jonker and his band thought – they had decamped north pretty fast).

Two of Pienaar’s children in fact survived the massacre, being his young daughter Mieta and son Jacob, who had both been knocked unconscious with gun butts and left for dead. They were saved by a courageous young Bushman woman, who had revived Mieta and the two of them had then dragged Jacob into hiding in a reed-bed next to a nearby stream. Mieta Pienaar would eventually marry one of my Steenkamp forebears, thus becoming my great-great-great grandmother.

The Great Trek of the 1830s, going north-east, was also not race-based. Its main proponent (who first went up to explore Natal and then wrote and published the printed tracts promoting the idea of escaping British rule by trekking to Natal), was a well-educated and respected “coloured”, Jan Bantjes. He would become the official secretary of the Trek (kind of the like the chief counsellor of the leader) and later the secretary of the Transvaal Volksraad, as well as the ZAR’s postmaster general.

Jan Bantjes was not the only Trekker of colour – some 40% of those killed at Blaauwkrantz and Weenen were Afrikaans-speakers of colour, and a large contingent were intermingled as part of the commando that fought at Blood River.

Nongqai series The Men Speak photo Jan Bantjes

Great Trek secretary Jan Gerritze Bantjes (credit: SA History Online)

British “spin” does not admit to the reality that those who trekked out of the Cape Colony, did so because they did not wish to live under benevolent British imperial rule. It is regularly suggested in English-language sources that the Trekkers left the Cape because of the abolition of slavery by the British. This is nonsense, as is proved by the fact that the Afrikaans republics subsequently established in the interior by the Trekkers on the Batavian model, did not re-institute slavery – what really had annoyed the burghers in the Cape who had owned slaves, was the fact that the British had originally promised to pay them compensation but then, after the fact, had stipulated that it had to be collected in London!

The British abolition of slavery in any event had been accompanied by an edict that freed slaves were obliged to subsequently contract themselves as indentured servants – thus, a question of semantics?

Furthermore, although there were of course committed British abolitionists who had campaigned for the measure on moral grounds, the true impetus behind it had in the early 1830s come from British owners of sugar plantations in the Caribbean, who had faced financial ruin at the end of the Napoleonic wars when normal trade in sugar resumed and they sat with a surplus of slaves to maintain. These Caribbean plantation owners (known as “planters”) were powerfully represented in the British parliament and overnight became the lead backers of freeing the slaves and especially of paying compensation to former owners. This, according to recent research published by the BBC and University College London.

See this telling quote from The Guardian newspaper: “The compensation of Britain’s 46,000 slave owners was the largest bailout in British history until the bailout of the banks in 2009. Not only did the slaves receive nothing, under another clause of the act they were compelled to provide 45 hours of unpaid labour each week for their former masters, for a further four years after their supposed liberation. In effect, the enslaved paid part of the bill for their own manumission”.

3.12 Republiek Natalia – No getting away from the British:

No sooner had the Trekkers established the Natalia Republic, when the British arrived there to annex that as well. So that the Afrikaners packed up and trekked back over the Drakensberg mountains, to what became the Orange Free State and South African (ZAR / Transvaal) republics.

3.13 Adopting Afrikaans:

One of the most important “forks” in the road to new nationhood, and one of our best and most distinguishing choices (which sets us apart from those who had colonised other parts of the world) was when the “white” Afrikaans-speakers at the Cape began to ditch the Dutch language in favour of recognising our mother tongue as a proper language in its own right – not a “kitchen dialect” spoken by the “non-whites”. The Quebecois in Canada still speak and write French, the Brazilians speak Portuguese, and Spanish has endured in their ex-colonies, as did English in theirs. 

Afrikaners are thus the only descendants of European colonists who came to proudly adopt an indigenous language as their own. This movement in favour of Afrikaans, from the white side, was driven (from around the 1870’s) by the activist brothers SJ & DF du Toit, Arnoldus Pannevis and CP Hoogenhout, who launched the Fellowship of Real Afrikaners (i.e., if you were a real Afrikaner, and not just geographically so, you cherished Afrikaans as your language, and not Dutch).

The Fellowship was founded in 1875, and it started publishing its own newspaper, the Afrikaanse Patriot, in 1876 (this initiative was not without opposition, as demonstrated by JH Hofmeyer launching an association in 1878 to promote the Dutch language; history shows, however, that Afrikaans won out).

As explained earlier, the Cape Malay community had all the while continued promoting Afrikaans, having been the first to publish books printed in Afrikaans, and translating their Holy Koran into Afrikaans well before the Bible was.

3.14 The Church turns Racist:

Another fork in the road was reached in the mid-nineteenth century. The decisions then taken by the Dutch Reformed Church had hugely negative consequences in the long term – especially for how white Afrikaans-speakers were to be perceived by other races (due to the close identification between the DRC and white Afrikaners).

At that time, despite two centuries of integrated worship at the Cape, a majority in the socially highly opinion-formative Dutch Reformed Church increasingly pushed for the segregationist positions that Adam Tas had lit the fuse for, and which corresponded to the attitudes on race encountered at the time in the other Anglophone colonies and in the USA.

In 1863 black Africans were excluded from DRC congregations and consigned to their own “sister church”, and in 1881 the same was done with regard to DRC members of “Coloured” appearance. This, despite strong resistance from many DRC theologians and parish ministers, such as in the Franschhoek congregation.

It was only in the mid-1980s that the DRC formally condemned racism, and then declared Apartheid a sin in 1990.

3.15 The Curse of Resource Wealth – here come the British again!:

The discovery of diamonds in the Free State resulted in the British annexing its western portion (around Kimberley).

The rapid rise of Germany as an aspiring colonial empire caused the British to invade and conquer Zululand (to ensure that the entire coast was locked up). For good measure, they decided to formally annex the ZAR as well. This latter deed did not sit well with the Transvaalers; after their delegations could not sway the British, the First Anglo-Boer War resulted. 

To the surprise of the British, these “fighting farmers” knew a thing or two about tactics and shooting straight, so that they inflicted a number of defeats upon the British forces culminating in the Battle of Majuba Mountain. There the “Boers” (as they had by then become known) showed tremendous valour and skill to scale the mountain under fire and pluck the Brits off the summit.

The dusty Highveld savannah didn’t seem then to London to be worth all the bother, so that peace was agreed, restoring self-governance but under British “suzerainty” (the latter, to allow the British to ward off any German advances).

Very soon there-after, a vast gold reef was discovered on the Witwatersrand (by the prospector son of the self-same Jan Gerritze Bantjes who had helped initiate the Great Trek). And, again came the English – first as miners and magnates, and then as a private invading army (the Jameson raid, sponsored by then Cape premier Cecil John Rhodes; the Raiders soon met their come-uppance when they ran into the alerted Boer commandos).

Finally, the arch-imperialist Lord Milner was sent as governor to the Cape, charged with ensuring that the Transvaal be brought under full British control, by force of arms if need be.

This is how the British National Army Museum in London itself describes the causes of the war: “The origins of the Boer War lay in Britain’s desire to unite the British South African territories of Cape Colony and Natal with the Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic … The Boers, Afrikaans-speaking farmers, wanted to maintain their independence

“The discovery of gold in the South African Republic (SAR) in 1886 raised the stakes.​​​​​​ A large influx of English-speaking people, called Uitlanders (literally ‘Outlanders’) by the Afrikaners, were attracted by the goldfields. This worried the Boers, who saw them as a threat to their way of life.

“The Jameson Raid of 1896 was an attempt to create an uprising among the Uitlanders in the SAR. Led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson and his British South Africa Company troops, its failure was a humiliation for Britain and the supporters of confederation. It led to a further deterioration of the relationship between the British and Boer governments.

“Anxious to overcome this set-back and to give the British policy fresh impetus, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain appointed an outspoken imperialist, Sir Alfred Milner, as High Commissioner for South Africa in 1897.

“In 1899, the SAR offered an extension of the franchise to the Uitlanders. This was in return for British agreement not to interfere in the SAR’s internal affairs. Kruger also demanded that Britain drop its claim to rule the SAR and allow external arbitration of other unresolved disputes between the two governments. Confident that the Boers would be quickly defeated, Chamberlain rejected Kruger’s proposals.

“Recognising that Britain was not seeking a peaceful settlement, the SAR and its ally the Orange Free State resolved to strike first.”

President Paul Kruger and his advisors understood full well that what the British actually wanted, was their land (and what was under it). But what strategy to adopt?

Now entered upon the political stage a brilliant young Afrikaner lawyer who had shortly before earned the highest Law exam marks then achieved at Cambridge University – Jan Christiaan Smuts. As ZAR attorney-general he was one of Kruger’s main advisors.

Nongqai series The men Speak photo Jan Smuts

JC Smuts in 1895, as ZAR attorney-general

With war clouds building in Europe because of Germany’s rapid rise, and the then British government with Chamberlain as colonial secretary determined to conquer the ZAR in order to possess its gold, it was clear that another “fork in the road” had been reached regarding the future of Southern Africa, with strategic questions of an existential nature being asked of Afrikaners – especially the burghers of the two republics.

Smuts comprehended that the conflict in Southern Africa had built up to a level where a new paradigm had to be arrived at. The old dispensation could not and would not survive. He knew the British well – he had lived and studied there for many years. He understood their vastly superior military might, meaning that the Boers would not be able to outright defeat them in their present determined demeanour, given all that London this time had at stake (it was a totally different situation to that which had pertained at the time of the First Anglo-Boer war).

However, Smuts also understood that the British laboured under the misconception that a war against the “Boers” would be quick and easy to win, allowing London then to dictate terms unilaterally. This was the outcome that the Boers had to avoid. They had to force the situation to be one of eventual negotiation, not capitulation. They needed to do so, even with much sacrifice, in order to push the conflict to the negotiation table, where there would be compromise. Seeking a settlement that would accommodate the vital strategic interests of the Afrikaners as well. His keen strategic sense thus had made Smuts see that war was inevitable; what would be needed from the Boer perspective, was to seriously elevate for the British the cost of their war – in terms of time, money, men and prestige – to the point where they, too, would start seeing a negotiated settlement as preferable to the political and financial cost of persisting in seeking a purely military solution. 

This had to be forced on the battlefield, so that eventual negotiations could then be conducted not between an all-conquering victor and the utterly vanquished, but between two parties who would be equally eager to reach a mutually-acceptable settlement, based on compromise and a balancing of their respective strategic interests.

3.16 The Second Anglo-Boer War:

Smuts drew up a war plan for the Republics. He proposed that the primary objective should be to capture the Natal and Cape ports at the outset of war. This would have made clear to London that this war was not going to be a mere walk in the park. The Boers capturing (or at least threatening and disrupting the ports and the roads and rail running inland from them), would have seriously impeded British logistics, jacked up the duration and cost of the war and necessitated huge numbers of British troops (and expenditure) to defend the full geographical extent of Southern Africa.

Such initial Boer success could also have mobilised large numbers of Cape Afrikaners to join their brethren of the two republics.

The strategic purpose of the war plan proposed by Smuts, was to deny the British a quick and easy, low-cost victory, aiming to achieve this by seizing the advantage in numbers that the Boers initially had. Above all, thereby demonstrating to London that its military campaign was not going to be a smooth and speedy one, and could result in unforeseen political and financial cost. (The initial U.K. Treasury budget for the war was a mere £10 million, which eventually ran to more than twenty times that at £210 million – equal today to £25 billion; British Empire casualties were more than 120,000 by the end of the war). 

It was Smuts who had drawn up the ultimatum that the ZAR had delivered to the British to withdraw their forces from the borders of the republics, or face war. He did so, not because he had arrogantly or naively imagined that the Boers could actually militarily defeat Great Britain (the strength of which he knew well enough, having studied and lived there himself for a number of years).

He had grasped that the conflict with Britain was inevitably entering a military phase, but that – holistically seen – the outcome would, above all, be political. Since it was clear from Milner’s machinations that the British intent was military conquest, it was better for the Boers to seize the initiative and start demonstrating to London that military means would not give the British what they desired, but that there would need to be a negotiated political settlement. 

Smuts understood that the old order in Southern Africa (two British colonies and two Boer republics) had run its course, largely due to rapid regional economic integration and global geostrategic considerations, and that Afrikaner interest also required a united South Africa (in fact, the Orange Free State Volksraad had already in 1858 formally proposed a union with the Cape Colony, and in 1889 a customs union was established between the Cape and the OFS).

From the Boer perspective, what really mattered was not so much the eventual colour of the region on the world map, but who (i.e., which local group) would have political control over a new united South Africa. The Boers understood well enough that their best chance of achieving this would be at the negotiation table, on condition that the British didn’t succeed in quickly crushing them militarily (because then there would have been no negotiations, just abject surrender with the Brits dictating the outcome).

Therefore, the Boer strategic purpose was to ensure, firstly, that there would indeed be negotiations (and not a swift wipe-out with the Brits determining the future political dispensation in the region unilaterally). Secondly, to ensure that their own leaders would be seated at that table with sufficient cards in hand to oblige the British to accept a settlement that would guarantee the Afrikaners local political control over the region.

However, serious settlement negotiations would only become a possibility once the belligerents had been disabused of their illusions. Both sides had to reach the conclusion that settling was preferable to continuing the shooting. This was especially true of the British, who were stuck in a paradigm of an imperialist military-only “solution”. Milner and Chamberlain had not sufficiently factored in the overriding political considerations, because they had fondly believed that their vast military might would allow them to unilaterally shape the new Southern Africa. In their calculation, after a quick and low-cost campaign had crushed the republics – who, after all, had possessed no standing armies.

As the history books tell us, this miscalculation in the end caused the Tory government to lose political power in Westminster… 

Smuts’ strategic War Plan was promptly accepted by the ZAR command council. And then just as promptly forgotten by the Boer commanders in the field, who had had no international exposure or strategy background (nor any formal military training, for that matter!).

With their focus on the here and now of the tactical, the Boer commanders got their commandos stuck (after initially successfully invading Northern Natal and the Cape) in unproductive sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking. Another brilliant young Boer commander, General Louis Botha, had understood the strategical sense behind what Smuts had recommended, but was placed in overall command of the Natal front too late to have been able to seriously assault the port of Durban.

The young lawyer Smuts went on to make a name for himself as military leader, being appointed a general. He led his men on repeated incursions into the Cape Colony, tying up large numbers of British troops in the process.

After three years of fighting the Boer tactical brilliance as guerrilla fighters had become increasingly evident. British measures to put an end to this costly conflict (the most expensive colonial war the British had fought) had become increasingly harsh, including a scorched earth policy of utterly destroying Boer towns and farms and gathering women and children in concentration camps where death was rife (in order to prevent them from supplying the commandos with victuals).

The rapidly escalating cost and carnage, together with the ever-diminishing military stature and prestige of Albion, had increasingly dire political consequences for the ruling Tory party in London, so that eventually the British commanders in South Africa were indeed ordered to seek a negotiated peace, rather than an all-out military victory. They were mandated to accept compromises in order to bring an end to the draining conflict.

The strategy-savvy Smuts had understood that what the British really were looking to advance, were their international interests, particularly in the context of an ever more likely war with Germany. They wanted to control South Africa and its gold in the international geo-strategic sense, whereas the Afrikaners – who cared little about the global picture – wanted to come out of this bloody conflict with political control of South Africa in the local sense.

The Peace of Vereeniging that Louis Botha and Jan Smuts negotiated in May of 1902, therefore entailed that the Boers would recognise British sovereignty over South Africa (thus locking it firmly into the British Empire in the global context), but that the British would agree to a local political dispensation that would effectively unify South Africa under Afrikaner governance. Thus, would be met the real key objectives of both sides. In addition, the British agreed to pay war reparations to the Boers (probably the only time in history that those who ostensibly had won a war, agreed to pay reparations to the losers – signifying the understanding by the British themselves that they had in fact initiated an unjust war, for selfish ends).

3.17 What was lost and what was won in the Anglo-Boer War, and by whom:

What the British had won out of the war, was control over the geo-strategically important Southern Africa (should a global conflict break out, as it soon enough did).They also won control over the South African gold production, which had become seriously important in terms of the imperial and world financial systems.

What Britain had lost, was much of its military prestige and its image of invincibility – a factor that many observers believed contributed greatly to the First World War breaking out.

Something vital to the later direction of South Africa’s internal politics over the course of the 20th century, was the enormous, lasting bitterness – if not outright hate for the British – that the concentration camp carnage and scorched earth policies of the British military had left among a large proportion of the Afrikaners population. This emotion-driven, instinctive reaction was to play a determining role in Afrikaner political attitudes during later decades, sometimes to the detriment of more reasoned strategic decision-making that would have required our heads winning out over our hearts…  

The Afrikaners, for their part, had (objectively speaking), lost the military conflict, but had won the political one (sounds familiar, as many of the twentieth century’s conflicts would go!).

Southern Africa was unified under Afrikaner governance, with every prime minister from 1910 up to the eventual transfer of power to President Mandela in 1994 having been Afrikaners.

The Boers also at the time enjoyed an exalted international media image as heroic defenders of independence against greedy imperial aggression, with much admiration for their pluck in facing down such a giant enemy, and for their fighting skills. When Botha and Smuts reached out to the English, their magnanimity was much appreciated.

This was then very similar to what most of us may recall about the very positive public reaction, locally and abroad, to the magnanimous President Mandela for his reconciliatory “rainbow nation” policies, despite having been imprisoned for so many years. It needs to be understood that generals Botha and Smuts were in their time seen in much the same light as the latter-day Mandela.  Particularly when these former Boer generals had sided with Britain against Germany in the First World War and contributed significantly militarily – doing so, despite what the British had made the Afrikaner people suffer during the 2nd   Anglo-Boer War.

Afrikaners had thus, in the early part of the 20th century, enjoyed a tremendous amount of international goodwill, and real appreciation between leaders such as Smuts and Churchill. This came to be particularly true in the Anglophone countries (who, in the form of the USA and UK, utterly dominated the international scene, after the two world wars). 

This outpouring of deep-seated goodwill would carry through till the 1948 election. We will later assess what subsequently happened to that goodwill, and why…

But back, first, to the formation of the Union of South Africa (that came into being in 1910).

3.18. The Union of South Africa excludes non-whites, empowers Afrikaners:

Another important fork in the road was reached when the National Convention met in 1909 to define the constitution of the Union of South Africa. There naturally was strong focus on voting rights, because that would determine who would hold power.

All the delegates to the convention were white males (a mix of Anglo and Afrikaner), and it was decided that only white males would have the  right to vote in the new union (except for the limited right to a qualified vote then enjoyed in the Cape, mostly by some “Coloureds”). In fact, no effective means of participating in the political process was created, through which the non-white majority in the new union would have the possibility to influence decision-making from within the system.

One of the consequences of this exclusion was the formation in January 1912 of what was to become the African National Congress (ANC), after severely discriminatory labour and land rights laws were passed among the very first legislative acts of the new parliament.

The Union and the way it was configured, placed the seal on the Afrikaner victory in the political war for dominance of the local levers of power.

3.19 Afrikaner Nationalism versus Loyalty to the Empire:

The Peace of Vereeniging and the subsequent formation of the Union dominated by Afrikaner politicians, had not extinguished many Afrikaners’ deep-seated animosity against the English. Nor their hankering for independence. This was underscored by the founding, in January 2014, of the National Party (NP). It was created by Free State Boer general and lawyer, JBM Hertzog. The NP strove for maximum self-rule for South Africa. It attracted mostly Afrikaans followers, who were opposed to what they saw as the “pro-Empire” policies of Botha and Smuts.

This antagonism grew after Smuts took over the premiership upon Botha’s death in 1919, and then in 1922 forcefully suppressed the white labour unrest on the Witwatersrand (known as the “Red Revolt” because of the communist influence in it). This had alienated many working-class English-speakers, enabling Hertzog and the NP to form a pact with the mostly English-speaking Labour Party. The NP/ Labour Pact came to power in the 1924 general election, defeating Genl. Smuts, with the NPP as senior partner and making Hertzog prime minister.

Hertzog’s nationalist quest for maximum self-rule was shared by the other “white” colonies in the Empire, such as Canada. Together with Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King, Hertzog was thus one of the two main drivers behind the momentous Balfour declaration (adopted at the Imperial Conference of 1926), which declared the former colonies to be self-governing dominions, equal to the United Kingdom.

3.20 Hertzog’s desire to formally incorporate the “Coloureds” into the political system: 

Apart from striving for greater autonomy from London, Hertzog’s other main constitutional aim was to resolve the other pressing issue he had recognised, namely that of non-white voting rights. This he had wanted to do on the basis of complete segregation of the native (black) African population out of the mainstream, but full incorporation of the so-called “Coloureds”. In other words, distinguishing constitutionally on the basis of native (black) Africans on the one hand, with on the other hand, all those who were not native black African. Therefore, a distinction based on cultural heritage, instead of the facile race-based formula of white / non-white.

In this manner, the right to vote would not be an exclusive white privilege based merely on skin colour, and neither would the exclusion of black Africans from common voting rights be based on their skin colour either, but rather on the view that they did not share the cultural heritage that the “non-blacks” had in common.

These policy preferences of premier Hertzog – the very founder of the NP, the party that two decades later would become synonymous with Apartheid and thus racism against any and all non-whites – are nowadays virtually forgotten (I myself only became aware of his position through my research for my Masters degree, which had “Coloured” party politics as theme).

Because it has been essentially lost to time, I will cite here four clear and concrete instances of proof, to demonstrate that it was his firm intention to constitutionally re-arrange the right to political participation in South Africa – doing so not on the basis of skin colour (i.e., white and non-white), but in terms of broad cultural affinity, thus between black (“Bantu”) and non-black (“non-Bantu”).

Should Hertzog’s proposals have been implemented (rather than sticking to differentiating on skin colour between whites and non-whites, as continued up to 1990) the charges of institutionalised racism that so marked later decades would have been much more difficult to make stick. It would also have provided the later “homelands” policy with at least some semblance of logical consistency (without suggesting here that denying the native African population a right to political participation could ever have been sustainable as such, either morally or in the light of the economic integration and interdependence that soon was to become the hallmark of the “shared” urban areas of South Africa).

On 13 November 1925, at a political meeting in Smithfield in the Free State, general Hertzog had roundly declared: “Economically, industrially and politically the Coloured man must be incorporated with us.”

Hertzog soon went much further than merely referencing this idea in speeches, putting it officially in print. On 23 July 1926, in an extra-ordinary Government Gazette, Hertzog had published his proposed constitutional dispensation that was based on segregating the native African population, whilst enfranchising Coloured men and systematically incorporating them into the Union’s political structures (women only got the vote in South Africa four years later, in 1930, so that is the reason why only Coloured men were at the time of publication of that particular Gazette, referred to).

In February 1929 Hertzog had declared in parliament: “It would be very foolish to drive the Coloured man to the enemies of the Europeans – and that will happen if we expel him – to allow him to eventually come to rest in the arms of the native.” (Hansard Col 169, 12-15 February 1929).

In early 1929 the Hertzog government had gone further that just outlining policy proposals. It laid before parliament two inter-related bills to amend the Union’s 1910 constitution with regard to the respective rights of “Coloureds” and “native Africans”. This was to be done in accordance with Hertzog’s philosophy of differentiating between blacks and non-blacks, rather than whites and non-whites. These were the Coloured Persons Rights Bill and the Representation of Natives Bill. Because the latter did not achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in a then deeply fractious parliament (as required to amend the constitution), and because the proposed laws were seen as inter-related, both bills were then withdrawn.

The fact that this important initiative of Hertzog did not to come to fruition was largely due to the tremendous dust-up that had erupted in 1924 about the NP’s surmised intentions regarding the status of South Africa vis-a-viz the Empire. This heated polemic at that stage came to occupy parliament to the exclusion of practically anything else, particularly so from 1925 to 1928.

Especially fractious was the row over the design of the Union’s own flag, as well as over the recognition of Afrikaans as one of the Union’s official languages. Many English-speakers were alarmed that this was indicative of a steady policy of “Afrikanerization” of the Union. They suspected that the true underlying intention was to eventually take South Africa out of the Empire entirely, as a sovereign independent republic. (The Irish War of Independence which ended in 1922 with home rule for the new Irish Free State was still fresh in the memory of many South African English-speakers, and the Balfour declaration would heighten these fears).

The so-called flag crisis was only pushed aside by the much greater crisis that immediately followed in the shape of the Great Depression, which again shoved practically all other policy matters onto the backburner. The Depression (and drought) lasted even longer than the flag dispute and was in turn followed by the gravest crisis of all – the outbreak of the 2nd World War. The debate over whether South Africa should stay neutral (as Ireland for example did) or declare war on Nazi Germany, caused Hertzog to lose the premiership to Smuts in 1939.  Hertzog’s initiative to incorporate the “Coloureds” accordingly never came to fruition.

My personal opinion is that Hertzog’s proposed “Coloured” policy was a very, VERY important “fork in the road”. Here – ironically – the correct policy choice had in fact been made (at least in principle, and at least with regard to the “Coloureds”, even if it only partially addressed “non-white” rights in general). However, intervening circumstances of crisis proportions had prevented it from being implemented – a lasting loss in both strategic and societal terms.

3.21 “Oudok” Dr WP Steenkamp MP, the Coloured issue and fighting Hitler and the Nazis:

Deviating a bit here to tell you about my own family will provide a useful bridge linking the era of the Coloured incorporation issue described above and the declaration of war against Germany.  It will illuminate the complex spectrum of sentiments that marked those times (plus, it will also highlight the maverick Steenkamp nature!).

This can be found in the parliamentary career of my great-uncle, the theologian and medical doctor known fondly in Namaqualand as “Oudok”.  I never met him (I was but a tiny toddler when he passed away in 1956) but there was a close relationship between him and my own grandfather. My Oupa Willem had actually grown up in “Oudok’s” house when my great-grandparents (Oudok’s elder brother Casper and his wife Harriet Sophia) both passed away at a young age. My grandpa and Oudok maintained regular correspondence till the latter’s passing, and I possess copies of much of the family lore about him – I have researched his colourful political live extensively.

Oudok grew up in the North-West, of farming stock – my forebears had raised sheep south of Calvinia. During the 2nd Anglo-Boer War, while then a young church minister of the DRC, he was interned by the British as a suspected aider and abetter of the Cape rebels (earning himself a British bayonet scar in the buttocks when he tried to escape).  In 1907 he went to the Netherlands for further study. There he obtained a doctorate in Theology, earning himself the distinction of having been the first person ever to have written a doctoral thesis in the Afrikaans language (nearly two decades before Afrikaans was accorded official recognition in South Africa).

In 1914 General Smuts kept Oudok in detention without trial for almost a year, due to Oudok having assisted in carrying a message from the leaders of the Rebellion in the Western Transvaal to Manie Maritz on the SWA/Namibia border. What in fact happened was that the actual courier of the message had fallen seriously ill just as he had reached Oudok’s Namaqualand parish. Because it was a message for Maritz not to initiate an armed revolt, and because he possessed a car, Oudok accepted the responsibility to try and deliver this very important and urgent message. As it turned out he arrived in Upington too late, with Maritz having already initiated hostilities – nevertheless, Oudok was arrested and detained, during which time his baby daughter died.

After the 1st World War and having built a string of churches and schools in Namaqualand, plus founding the town of Kamieskroon, Oudok and his namesake son left for Kentucky in the USA to study medicine. Oudok was of the opinion that his flock needed more than just spiritual care. They obtained their MDs at Louisville and then both qualified as physicians in Leyden in the Netherlands – from there the nicknames of “Oudok” and “Kleindok”.

Back in Namaqualand Oudok refused to entertain the then common practice of maintaining separate race-based waiting rooms, saying that we are all God’s creatures. In 1929 Oudok relinquished his last position as church minister, to stand as independent candidate for parliament in the Namaqualand constituency. He successfully faced down both the SA Party of Smuts and the NP of Hertzog. He was the only independent candidate to be elected to parliament hat year, an achievement in part due to the support he enjoyed from his constituency’s Coloured voters.

Oudok’s main policy aims were to advocate for more assistance to the poor (who were terribly impacted by the Depression). He was an early and vocal proponent of South Africa needing to abandon the Gold Standard, if it was to overcome the effects of the Depression. For tking this position (later adopted) he was initially scolded as supposedly a communist! The other goal he promoted, was the need for a national unity government to address the crisis caused by the Depression. When in the end the United Party was formed in 1933 (through a fusion of the parties of Hertzog and Smuts), thus fulfilling Oudok’s goal, he joined the new party and won re-election under its banner.

Then, in September 1939, war broke out in Europe. The South African parliament had to choose between neutrality and declaring war against Nazi Germany. Premier Hertzog, with whom Oudok had been personal friends, favoured neutrality. General Smuts (who in 1914 had kept Oudok locked up for almost a year) proposed declaring war. Most Afrikaans members of parliament were standing with Hertzog, and Oudok was as Afrikaans as can be. He had the scars to prove that he didn’t exactly have reason to be enamoured of the British. There was also the distinction of having presented the first-ever doctoral thesis written in Afrikaans, to show as proof of his love for our volk en taal. Plus, the fact that Smuts had imprisoned him for almost a year without a trial, without the opportunity even to put his case (Oudok was convinced that, had he been there, his baby daughter would not have died).

Yet, for him this wasn’t a mere political choice, nor a personal one in terms of whether he liked Hertzog or Smuts best. It was, above all, a moral issue. His son Kleindok had been doing post-graduate studies in Germany before the war and had regularly informed Oudok about the abhorrent un-Christian nature of the Nazi regime.

After intense communion with his God through prayer and deep scrutiny of his conscience, Oudok made a widely publicized speech in parliament. He strongly motivated on moral grounds why it was necessary to take up arms against the evil of Nazism and racism (the speech was later printed and distributed widely). Thus, he had sided categorically with Smuts who had kept him locked up, against his erstwhile friend Hertzog.

To bring this back to Hertzog’s earlier policy proposals about incorporating the “Coloureds”: Oudok had always been a strong advocate for the Bushmen and an admirer of the fighting spirit and skills of all the brown people of his region. He once earned himself the opprobrium of the “Super Afrikaners” of his part of the world, who were outraged when he had stated from the political stage that white and brown Afrikaans-speakers should unite into one nation, among other reasons because they would then constitute a most formidable fighting force…

The idea of white and brown Afrikaans-speakers belonging together wasn’t therefore just held by Hertzog, but also by other Afrikaner leaders of the time, such as my own great-uncle. Similarly, a significant component among Afrikaners, especially among theologians, were against racism (such as illustrated by Oudok’s stance on the issue of separate waiting rooms). They, also, were very much against the pure evil that Nazism undeniably was. The majority of the members of the South African Forces who went to fight Hitler’s armies, were actually Afrikaans. It is important to note this, given that the impression is nowadays created that the Afrikaners were all Hitlerites at that time.

Nongqai series The Men Speak Oudok WPS handcuffed 1914

"Oudok" Dr Willem Steenkamp in handcuffs, imprisoned without trial in 1914

3.22 The Afrikaners and Nazism:

The Great Depression plus the simultaneous Big Drought, together with the lingering legacy of Afrikaner poverty caused by the British scorched earth policy during the 2nd Anglo-Boer war, had ensured that the decade of the thirties was a time of serious public discontent in South Africa (as it also was then, around the world). This made individuals more amenable to lending their ears to radical populist movements, as evidenced by the rise of Fascism in Italy and Spain at the time, as well as Nazism in Germany.

In South Africa this resonated with Afrikaner resentment against Britain. A number of such militant movements modelled on the fascist European examples cited above, were formed. The most substantial of these was the Ossewa-Brandwag (OB), which associated itself with the centennial celebrations of the Great Trek and the construction of the Voortrekker Monument, in order to tap into Afrikaner emotions. Matters came to a head when Britain, and then South Africa itself, found itself at war with Nazi Germany in 1939.

It is nowadays often suggested – almost as if some kind of excuse – that those Afrikaners who had supported the likes of the OB were more anti-British than they were pro-Nazi (kind of along the lines of: my enemy’s enemy is my friend). This was indeed a considerable factor, but it cannot honestly be suggested as the only motivating force then at play. What cannot be denied is that Hitler’s theories regarding racial superiority and race purity appealed to a substantial part of the white Afrikaner populace, of whom many were at that time fearing that they may lose their jobs to lower-paid blacks, and who were seeing the black African majority as a political threat.

Even though overt support for Nazism as such quickly petered out after Germany lost the war, it would be naïve (and also false) to deny that the strict segregationist policies propounded by the “Purified” National Party in the run-up to the 1948 election owed nothing to the lingering influence of the white supremacist and purist thinking that had inspired Hitler and his kin.

However, what should not be lost sight of, is that this segregationist approach to race relations was at that time still totally prevalent in the “white” world (particularly in the Anglophone colonies and in the USA), so that it would be equally false to suggest that Afrikaner segregationist sympathies were uniquely inspired by Nazism.

It bears stressing here again that a majority of South Africans, including a majority of white Afrikaners, had actively participated in the fight against Nazism on the basis of the moral, Christian principles put forward by, among others, my great-uncle “Oudok”. Afrikaners had, for example, formed the core of the Police Special Branch which had successfully acted against wartime saboteurs. Afrikaners headed wartime intelligence (IP de Villiers & Dr EG Malherbe), and Afrikaners like Genl Dan Pienaar were the field commanders of our (mostly Afrikaner) troops. General Smuts, promoted by Churchill to Field Marshall, was an influential member of the British war cabinet.

South Africa’s declaration of war in 1939 against Hitler had thus placed South Africa on the right side of history (as well as morality), garnering us widespread appreciation. Premier Jan Smuts would later contribute the preamble to the Charter of the new United Nations, underscoring South Africa’s then high standing in the world.

Subsequent events were, however, to put us on a different trajectory in relation to how we were, all too soon, being perceived by the world…

3.23 The run-up to the watershed 1948 election:

The end of WW2 had brought the realisation among South African politicians that the issue of non-white rights, and more specifically the rights and role of the native African population in the economy and body politic, had to be addressed. The Smuts government therefore appointed (in 1946) the Fagan commission to investigate and recommend on this. The fundamental question which had divided the white political parties, was that of the permanence or not of native Africans in the “white” urban areas.

If black Africans were to be physically present in significant numbers in future, then logically that reality would need somehow to be accommodated constitutionally. If, however, the native African presence in “white” areas could by some or other means be realistically reversed, then segregation could conceivably be a practical option.

Fagan came to the conclusion that native African presence in “white” urban areas was inevitable and also bound to grow significantly, through sheer economic necessity (in terms of the labour needs of industry, agriculture, mining and simply the economy in general with the additional buying power they would provide). Fagan and his fellow commissioners saw this as a positive trend, because it would help grow the local market and ensure a supply of the additional labour that South Africa’s expanding agriculture, industry and mining needed.

Having determined that a growing native African permanent presence was an unavoidable practical reality (and benefit), Fagan came to the conclusion that a gradual process of moving from segregation to integration would be required – without, however, expanding in any detail about exactly how this should be done, and what form it should eventually take.

The Fagan findings were seen as very liberal at the time. Smuts, a leading humanist in world terms but a segregationist at heart on local matters, accepted the Fagan findings, yet also without providing a clear indication of what exactly was to be done to implement it.

The highly conservative “Super Afrikaners” of the Purified National Party and its allies such as the Afrikaner Party were aghast at Fagan’s findings and in 1948 set up the Sauer commission to come up with their own findings. Sauer and his fellow conservative commissioners found the exact opposite of Fagan – in their opinion the permanent presence of a significant number of native Africans in “white” urban areas could and should be avoided. This had to be achieved through even stricter racial segregation than what had traditionally existed up to then.

The races had to develop “apart”, hence the policy they propounded became known as Apartheid. It formed the core of the political platform of the NP and its allies in the run-up to the 1948 election. As political message it had the benefit that it was clear and concise, as opposed to the vagueness that still then enshrouded the position of the United Party (Smuts is to this day still often quoted as having said that the native question is best left to future generations to solve).

These opposing positions in the run-up to1948 regarding whether native African presence in “white” South Africa was going to be a growing and unavoidable reality, or could ideologically be wished away, represented one of the most important “forks in the road” of 20th century South African history.

Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight and of today knowing factually what then actually transpired with regard to South Africa’s demographics and the geographical distribution of the population, it is patently clear that Sauer’s  report was absolutely wrong, while that of Fagan was right, namely that there would inevitably be a permanent presence of rapidly growing numbers of native Africans in “white” areas, as an inescapable reality.

Without going into the ideological merits of the two positions, one can see now that it is a simple statistical fact that the Sauer report was fundamentally wrong about what the hard reality on the ground was going to be (namely, of an ever more rapidly increasing black African permanent presence in “white” areas). His commission’s viewpoints had essentially reflected white anxieties and wishful thinking of the era, rather than the incontrovertible empirical facts.

Nevertheless, the Apartheid message was clear-cut as well as easy to package and to present convincingly to a white electorate already anxious about what the rapidly growing native African numbers meant for their own future. Particularly in the post-war era where racism, white supremacy and colonialism was increasingly being frowned upon. An electorate that was, in any event, seething with frustration after the exigencies of the war, which seemed to endlessly drag on and on under Smuts.

This discontent about living conditions was in fact then present all over the Western world. It resulted in other wartime leaders – even Churchill – losing elections, from the USA to Australia, and Canada to New Zealand. In 1948, South Africa was also to follow this trend. Amplified by the fact that South Africa still had, as the core driver of white politics, the fact that the Afrikaner component of the electorate by and large continued to very much resent British imperialism and the discrepancy in wealth and opportunities between the two white language groups, whilst dreaming about political power and independence as means to redress this.

It is quite impossible to say what had been the most important factor in the NP and its allies achieving a majority of seats in parliament that year (even though, over-all, they had garnered less votes than Smuts). 

Was it Afrikaner self-assertion and a quest, pure and simple, for political power in order to address the economic imbalance then still very apparent between Afrikaners and English-speakers? Was it the general frustration that had seen wartime leaders fall in so many other countries around the world, at that time?

Was it simply a function of mathematics, thanks to the system of demarcation of constituencies that allowed rural areas to have less voters per constituency, which gave the NP a seat majority despite having lost the popular vote?

Was it a true belief among voters that Apartheid was the only solution to the “native question”? (Even though early Apartheid, too, despite being very clear about an insistence on total segregation, had no clear vision at that stage as to what exactly should be done with regard to where and how non-whites should enjoy political rights of some kind). Or had the NP simply out-organised the UP, with Smuts also not being as charismatic as his opponents?

Some would even have us believe that the 1948 election outcome was, pure and simple, the result of inherent Afrikaner Nazi tendencies again coming to the fore – which in my humble opinion is a total propagandistic over-reach, considering the other (real) factors listed above.

Smuts himself had no doubt that the Boer/Brit power contest was still at the heart of what had happened in the 1948 election (at that time, when people talked or wrote about the “race problem” in South Africa, they very much meant the “British race” versus the “Boer race”).

After having lost the election and retiring from politics, Smuts sometimes visited Northern Natal (where my father was then stationed, as a young police constable). Smuts loved nature and was a great self-taught expert on grasses. My dad then had the privilege of being his bodyguard on his excursions into the veldt to collect samples, and the two would of course talk a lot. What my father in later years had remembered most about those conversations, was how the old statesman warned him that, even though we whites were then totally fixated with the Boer/Brit political power struggle, the real issue that we should actually be focussed on, was that of how to constitutionally accommodate the native Africans…

3.24 Going all-out to implement Apartheid, i.e., total segregation:

The fact that the NP had managed to win only a tiny parliamentary majority (and had lost the popular vote) had a strong bearing on how they approached the implementation of Apartheid. The initial objective wasn’t so much to establish a logically-ordered constitutional dispensation (as Hertzog had had in mind) but to ensure that the “Engelse” would not be able to unseat the “Nats” at a next election by means of “buying” the Coloured vote (the NP had of course understood that their own emphasis on ever harsher segregation and concomitant measures such as the race-based Population Registration Act and the Group Areas Act, would not have endeared them to the Coloured population at all).

Therefore, one of the early, strategically hugely significant “forks in the road” that the 1950 variant of the NP had arrived at, was that it wanted for purely tactical reasons of party-political self-interest to remove from the common voter’s roll, those Coloureds who enjoyed a qualified vote (thus, the exact opposite of what the old NP under Hertzog had strategically wanted to do, namely, to fully incorporate the “Coloured” population into the political system).

The new NP’s objective of segregating the Coloureds out of the “white” political process was eventually achieved, but only after a constitutional crisis over the legal machinations employed by the party to achieve this had left lasting bitterness – a classic case of having achieved a short-term tactical goal, which in fact later transpired to have been a long-term strategic disaster.

The irony of the matter is that the white Super-Afrikaners behind this, were the descendants of those who had fought as Dragoons side-by-side with their fellow Afrikaans-speaking Malay artillerymen and Hottentot infantry at Bloubergstrand against the reactionary British invasion force in order to try and preserve at the Cape the Batavian Republic, Africa’s first non-racial democracy. The descendants, also, of those visionary “taal-patriotte” who had moved their fellow white Afrikaners to discard their European language (uniquely in the world, among descendants of European colonists) doing so in favour of the indigenous language initiated by and associated at the time with their darker-skinned “taalgenote”. The descendants of the party founded by Hertzog, that had wanted to fully incorporate the “Coloureds” less than a quarter-century earlier.

If you want to know the real, unspoken reason why the post-war NP had abandoned the Hertzog approach regarding the Coloureds, then look no further than the Westminster model accepted at the time of union. Within this model, the white Afrikaners held a persistent numerical advantage over the English and could thus lay claim to the levers of political power – on condition that the system remained closed to groups other than the Afrikaners and the English. This is what really explains the change of heart of the Purified NP (as compared to the Hertzog NP) regarding political rights for the “Coloureds” – the fear that their incorporation would allow the white Afrikaner vote to be outnumbered, should the perfidious sons of Albion entice the “Coloureds” to their side. The “white vs non-white” paradigm limiting the vote to only the white Afrikaner majority and English minority therefore had to be maintained, to ensure that the NP could remain in power.

With the NP now opting for the Anglo-style “white vs non-white” paradigm (and the unavoidable, fully justified stigma of skin-based racism it entailed) it resulted in perhaps the greatest of ironies. It had, namely, left these Super Afrikaners now trapped in a bickering constitutional marriage with the group that historically had caused the Afrikaner the most grievous physical, economic, and political harm, and whom they therefore loathed and distrusted most – the English-speaking South Africans. Most particularly, the latter’s jingoist, anti-Afrikaner elites and media! Strange choice of bedfellows, indeed…

3.25. Socio-political and Psychological Factors that drove white Afrikaner Sentiments:

Most readers are aware of how Apartheid unfolded. I’m therefore not going to dwell unnecessarily here on the detail. However, we need to properly understand the factors which, during that era, had powerfully influenced our forebears in their choice of policy options. One was to protect the numerical advantage I mentioned before, which the Afrikaners enjoyed in a whites-only Westminster system. However, to fully understand all of the factors which influence their decisions, we have to take note of the following six additional points.

Let me stress that I’m not stating these factors here as ex post facto excuses for what can now clearly be seen to have been extremely harmful (including self-harming!) and wrong-headed short-term decision-making. I am listing them here to help the younger generation (who had not lived through those times), to understand the sentiments and issues of that bygone era:

  • The first is the undeniable historical fact the Afrikaners had not invented racial segregation, nor the parking of indigenous peoples into tiny “native reserves” in mostly barren areas. This had been an Anglo invention witnessed equally in the Americas and Australia. Over there, during the fifties and sixties, this was then still as much common practice as it was in the then South Africa (in fact, those reserves still exist over there to this day). Truth is, that the US Supreme Court only outlawed prohibitions on mixed marriages in 1967. It was only in 1970 that universal, equal suffrage also for indigenous Americans applied across the USA. The Utah Supreme Court had, for example, ruled as late as 1956 that indigenous Amerindians cannot be good US citizens (and therefore should not be entitled to the vote), because of their general lack of education and their cultural distinctiveness. This was no different to white South African perceptions of that time. In Australia, full equal treatment regarding voting rights for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders was only achieved in 1984. The only real distinguishing characteristic of the race policies in South Africa is that it was tagged with an Afrikaans name, Apartheid, rather than “segregation” or “Jim Crow”. This distinctive “branding”, (apart-hate), made it easy for those who latterly desperately wanted to separate themselves from their own racist imperial past, to tag the South African variant as something unique and distinctly evil, and thus supposedly not of their own Anglo inspiration – and to use it as lightning conductor and virtue-signalling opportunity, to steer attention away from their own attitudes and legacy.
  • The second important factor was the impact of the Cold War. The threat perception created among white communities by the mighty USSR supporting “wars of national liberation” against white rule in the European colonial possessions was very real. The Soviets were purposely making these overseas territories of the imperial powers battlegrounds in the Superpower conflict between communism and the capitalist West. This threatening reality obviously had a huge impact on policy choices made with an increasingly survivalist mind-set, particularly among the security forces (especially within a dominant sub-set within our Army). As will later be shown, this fed a strategy debate that was, from the seventies, to run concurrently with the ideological one of segregation vs integration. This parallel security strategy debate, which in effect came to eclipse in importance the political policy debate when it came to the really serious choices made during the late seventies and eighties, can be summed up as the strategic choice between preparing for a shooting match, or for settling through negotiation (this crucial debate we will deal with in detail later, particularly in Part 2 when we will examine that era more closely).
  • Thirdly, there was the psychological impact on white South Africans of the often brutally bloody manner in which decolonisation happened in other parts of Africa. In this, documentary films like the Italian-made “Africa Addio” played an important role (see free on YouTube, in English: ). The media and film coverage of these shocking vents powerfully enhanced the sense of an existential threat and thus the survivalist syndrome, where all other considerations became subordinate to the need to do whatever it takes, in order not to suffer the fate of the French pieds noir in Algeria, or the Belgians in the Congo, or the white settlers (including the Afrikaners of Eldoret) in Kenya.
  • The fourth factor was the fact that there existed a genuine belief (whether realistic or wishful) among many Afrikaners that the “Grand Apartheid” policy of giving black Africans full rights in their respective tribal homelands of old would be a historically-based, fair and just constitutional solution – a policy which at the time enjoyed the moral blessing of the highly influential Afrikaans churches.
  • The fifth, the fact that there nevertheless still was significant opposition among leading Afrikaners – particularly theologians, academics, and writers – against the excesses of Apartheid. There was also doubt among many of those with a sense of economic reality about whether the “homelands” policy could ever be effectively implemented in practice. (With regard to Afrikaner-led moral resistance to Apartheid, one should mention the Torch Commando led by “Sailor” Malan, the Cottesloe declaration signed by then-leading Afrikaner theologians such as Dr Beyers Naudé, and the writings of acclaimed authors such as Breyten Breytenbach and André P. Brink).
  • The sixth related to a harsh reality of the socio-political dynamics at play within Afrikaner society at that time. It was a nasty reality that was well understood and feared by many Afrikaners, namely, the social power to ostracize and vilify that went with the laager having been closed under the domination of the Super Afrikaners, through the tentacles of the Broederbond. Thinking Afrikaners therefore realised that the only realistic way to effect change would be from within (like with a huge oil tanker, it is more effective to get a hand on the tiller and nudge that, than to try and bump the ship onto a new tack from the outside by trying to collide against it).

 These are very real factors that had a huge impact on people’s emotions and thinking. They need to be understood and appreciated for how they influenced events, whether the decisions they inspired were just or not. South Africans would not have been human, had they not been influenced by these.

Yet, it is also necessary to note here that – despite these factors, and despite its own history – it was in fact the NP itself that dismantled Apartheid.

 It is an undeniable truth that, up to President FW De Klerk’s official abandonment of Apartheid and acceptance of the principle of one person, one vote (in his historic address to parliament on 2 February 1990), not a single white parliamentary party had ever suggested full and equal suffrage as its official policy. Not even the Progressives.

 It was thus the “white Afrikaner” NP, the self-same party which after 1948 had codified segregation into a myriad of (unnecessary) hurtful laws, which also finally put a stop to it.

 It was the same parliament controlled by that “white Afrikaner” NP which itself paved the way for a future transformed, non-racial South Africa. This was achieved through constitutional evolution (i.e., not revolution).

 Full legal state continuity was maintained from the old dispensation to the new. Because the transition came about through a negotiated settlement (not a revolutionary, violent overthrow) with this process legitimately formalised when that self-same parliament itself adopted the new constitution. A colour-blind constitution that allowed for the first time allowed South Africans of all races to vote in 1994. Which led to the swearing-in of President Mandela as elected leader of the government of still the one and same sovereign state that had existed as part of the community of nations since 1910. Not as head of an entirely new “people’s republic” violently created on the ashes of a destroyed predecessor, but as the next head of state of the self-same Republic of South Africa, just now with an amended constitution. Sworn in by that same republic’s judges and witnessed by its generals, who shared the podium with him.

That said, let’s get back to our time-line and the other watershed events that shaped South African political reality.

3.26. The SA Communist Party alliance with the ANC:

After the SACP had come up way short in the 1920s with their efforts to mobilise white workers, they were ordered by Moscow to in future focus their efforts on the non-white population (all as part of the Komintern’s strategy of weakening the imperial powers by destabilizing their colonies). With the ANC being the oldest and best-known black African organization, it thus became the prime target for SACP infiltration.

There is no denying that the blank refusal on the part of successive white governments (including Smuts) to have any kind of talks whatsoever with black leaders, had left the latter with few effective options. This fomented growing frustration and a steady radicalization, which the SACP could exploit.

Pretoria’s “cold shoulder” policy towards black leaders was, again, a tactic which may have seemed sensible to those white leaders at the time (however difficult to fathom now). However, with hindsight it needs to be admitted now as having been another spectacular strategic own goal.

What it in fact did achieve, was to cause moderate black ANC leaders like Chief Albert Luthuli to be sidelined. It allowed the SACP to infiltrate and (from the sixties on) to fully capture and radicalise the decision-making within the then ANC. Most significantly, the white government’s policy of “no talking” meant that “armed struggle” was effectively the only option open to the ANC leadership, to try and force the white government to engage with them. (This, you will notice, wasn’t much different from what Jan Smuts himself had been confronted with, when Lord Alfred Milner refused to talk because he had fondly believed that Britain could impose its will through the gun; just as Smuts then had to accept to fight in order to get the British to the negotiation table, Mandela also was left with in truth no other option – even though he had fully realised that they could not win a military fight).

3.27 Defiance Campaign, Kliptown Congress, and Cato Manor:

Throughout the 1950s non-violent resistance to the sharpened segregation had steadily grown. This, however, never once reached a level of broad national unrest, despite the SACP’s best efforts (examples of such campaigns which could not garner sustained popular support, were the ANC’s Defiance Campaign and the Kliptown Congress of the People, which had adopted the Freedom Charter penned by avowed Marxist members of the SACP).

What did occur, were outbursts of frustration with the pass laws and localised resistance to enforced removals and slum clearance projects under the Group Areas Act, such as in Sophiatown, District Six and most violently in Cato Manor, Durban. The latter slum area, situated directly behind the ridge on which stands the campus of the University of Natal (Durban), had been a flashpoint for some time. It was, for example, a focal point of the bloody anti-Indian pogrom by Zulus over the period of 13-15 January 1949 (when the local media blamed the new NP government for not, in their view, having quickly and forcefully enough used the Police and Navy to supress it!).

Again, in the late 1950s, serious disturbances occurred in Cato Manor because of forced slum clearance and liquor law enforcement against local shebeens selling home brews (the Durban municipality had sought a monopoly on the brewing of sorghum bear, to be sold only through its own beer halls – which the S.A. Police had the unenviable task to enforce).

Even though these often violent altercations in Cato Manor had caused more than 100 deaths there by 1959, the then ANC President, Chief Albert Luthuli, had at the time publicly praised the Police for the restraint they had shown. Interestingly enough, the local English-language society of journalists had taken overseas reporters to task for what the local journalists had perceived as unjustifiably negative reporting by the foreign correspondents (it should be kept in mind that the liquor licence matter was a local one, attributable to the Durban Municipality, which was then entirely run by a United Party, English-language city council).

This stands in sharp contrast to the way the media were to treat the events at Sharpeville a few months later, which was seen to have been caused by a national matter (the pass laws) for which the NP government as such was held to blame.

The most fundamental and immediate cause for the sharp increase in 1960 in local (and consequently international) English-language media criticism of all that the NP government could conceivably be held liable for, was the announcement by premier HF Verwoerd on 20 January 1960 that a referendum was to be held as pre-cursor to converting the Union into a Republic that would no longer be under the British crown. More about the impact of Sharpeville a bit later…

3.28. 1960 – A Watershed Year that started with an Announcement on a Republic:

South Africa reached another important “fork in the road” in 1960, over the republic issue. As Afrikaner I have always felt, and still do share a visceral attachment to the notion of a republic. Yet, despite that sentiment, I have to admit today that us unilaterally imposing it on the country was again a case of short-term tactical manoeuvring that caused very grave long term strategic disadvantage – particularly with regard to what in the end would prove to be the NP government’s final undoing, namely losing the propaganda war.

The NP had been preparing for winning a referendum on a republic (and winning elections in general) for some time, with measures such as lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, eliminating the qualified “Coloured” vote in the Cape, and allowing whites in SWA/Namibia to participate in the vote.

It was patently clear from the beginning that the NP’s push for a republic would be hugely divisive and elicit strongly emotional negative responses from the non-white population (who were not consulted at all) as well as from English-speaking South Africans.

A timeline compiled by the International Commission of Jurists illustrates just how eventful that year of 1960 truly was:

January 20,1960: Dr Verwoerd announces future referendum on whether South Africa should become a Republic.

January 24,1960: Nine policemen killed in African riots in Durban (Cato Manor).

February 3,1960: “Wind of change” speech by British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to joint session of South African Parliament.

March 21,1960: Police open fire on crowds of Africans at Sharpeville near Vereeniging. Sixty-nine Africans killed by police gunfire. On same day firing on Africans at Langa, near Cape Town. Demonstrations against imposition of pass cards.

March 26,1960: Government suspends temporarily requirement that Africans carry pass cards.

March 30,1960: State of Emergency declared in all industrial magisterial districts. On same day 234 whites, Africans and Asians are arrested under Emergency Regulations.

April l, 1960: United Nations Security Council adopts resolution (with Britain and France abstaining) calling upon South Africa to “abandon its policy of apartheid”.

April 7, 1960: Unlawful Organisations Act.

April 8,1960: Proclamation issued under Unlawful Organisations Act banning the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress for one year.

April 8,1960: More arrests under Emergency Regulations.

April 9,1960: Attempted assassination of Dr Verwoerd by a white cattle breeder at a trade and farm exhibition in Johannesburg.

April 14, 1960: Scheduled African stay-at-home strike fails.

April 22,1960: Minister of Justice, Mr. Erasmus, announces that 1,569 persons have been detained under Emergency Regulations (including 94 Whites, 74 Coloured and 1,451 Africans). Seventeen of those detained are lawyers.

April 25,1960: Johannesburg police disclose that more than 4,500 Africans have been arrested in raids on their settlements since the Emergency was proclaimed on March 30.

May 1-13, 1960: Mr. Eric Louw, Minister for External Affairs, attends Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in London in place of Dr Verwoerd, who is recovering from bullet wounds. The final communiqué of the Conference makes no reference to apartheid.

August 31, 1960: State of Emergency ended; the last of the Treason Trial accused released from detention. October 5,1960: Affirmative Republic referendum for white voters only: For a Republic: 849,958—Against: 775,878.

The majority in the end obtained in favour of a republic was 52.29% or 74,080 votes – less than the number of Afrikaner-heavy new voters that had been added to the voter’s roll by means of the measures indicated above.

Our Republic (in its 1961 form, under NP governance) was to last just under 33 years.

What did its unilateral imposition signal to South Africans, white and non-white, who were not white Afrikaners? What was its long-term strategic cost for us Afrikaners ourselves? Perhaps most importantly – and I know I’m asking it here with the benefit of hindsight – was it really worth it, in terms of the consequences this essentially merely symbolic yet psychologically powerful constitutional change unleashed, and which would last only three decades before the consequences caught up with us?

Let me stress here that my question above – and my reflections to follow – aren’t concerned with the intrinsic merit of a republican model as such (it is obviously the most popular model in the world, and for good reason). What this discussion here is all about, is whether it is really prudent and advisable for any one group, within a multi-cultural society, to unilaterally proceed with forcing through policy decisions on significant issues – if supported only by its own group, especially when highly emotionally charged and divisive…

Dr. Verwoerd’s determined striving for a republic signalled to all other South Africans that white Afrikaners were not at all inclined to see South Africa as an inclusive space in which lived together many other groups whose aspirations and views also needed to be accommodated within its political system. White Afrikaner intent was now seen as determinedly exclusionist, aimed at gathering all political power onto itself, with the country (or at least the bulk of it) to be shaped in its own cultural and political image alone.

Quite understandably this perception created huge resentment among most non-Afrikaners, as evidenced by all the goings-on during 1960 listed above.

I myself to this day still vividly remember 30 May 1961, in Durban, when I was in 2nd grade in primary school. We joyfully celebrated the coming republic, assembled on the rugby field at our (Afrikaans) school, where we were each handed a small South African flag and a commemorative coin. Afterwards, we could all go home early, with the local bus schedule re-arranged accordingly. On our way back from central Durban to the then “police camp” at Wentworth (where my family and many of my school mates then lived) we passed a number of similar busses carrying kids from English-language schools. They all held little Union Jacks, handed out by the Sons of England, which they were furiously waving at us “rock spiders” through the windows of their busses… (Growing up in Durban as an Afrikaans kid in the 50s and 60s left one under no illusion that the loathing was reciprocal, i.e., not just Afrikaners still angry at the English for what had happened during the 2nd Anglo-Boer War).

South Africa’s English-language press had been hugely jingoistic “anti-Boer” during the nineteenth century run-up to the Anglo-Boer War, and continued to disparage the Afrikaner-led NP  government under premier Hertzog (one just needs to go to  the archives and look at the Rand Daily Mail front page, on the day that Afrikaners were permitted for the first time to become train drivers – how the RDM had warned their readers to stay away from trains in future, for their own safety!).

Quite understandably, the local English-language media did not appreciate the Purified NP’s resistance to joining the war effort against Germany in September 1939, and neither the NP’s cold-shouldering of the Royal Visit of 1947 to South Africa. Equally evidently the English media did not favour the NP during the run-up to the 1948 election and subsequently was highly critical of the NP government’s policies and actions in general. All this escalated to a new level once Dr Verwoerd publicly committed to abandoning the British Crown in favour of a republic.

Concomitantly, within non-white political circles there was a parallel escalation in resistance, which was further fuelled by the contest that had erupted between the ANC and its new radical black Africanist off-shoot, the Pan Africanist Congress. (The PAC was founded by former ANC leaders who had broken away because of the level of control that they saw the white and Indian SACP members take over the ANC). This struggle between the PAC and ANC for black support soon evolved into a competition of who could appear to be the most radical.

The PAC started to exploit energetically the frustration they knew existed among black South Africans in general with influx control (the pass laws). The PAC therefore started organising mass protests for 21 March of 1960, where crowds would gather at police stations to publicly reject the pass laws and invite their own arrest. (The ANC, for its part, at the time had actually campaigned actively against these planned PAC protest actions, urging blacks not to participate in it).

One of the townships targeted by the PAC for mass mobilization to join the protest was Sharpeville, south of Johannesburg. An unintended incident of police shooting, without orders, ensued when someone in the police ranks panicked and started shooting as the 20,000 strong crowd surged forward and trampled down the perimeter fence. This unfortunately set off a chain reaction lasting less than a minute before discipline could be restored, but which left 69 protesters dead (I will deal with the Sharpeville tragedy in its own right, providing more detail a bit later; the purpose of mentioning it here is to illustrate how media coverage of such events had changed, as governments changed).

Coming so shortly after the announcement of the Republic Referendum, Sharpeville did mark a quantum leap in the emotional impact infused into the media coverage of security force action and in the portrayal of the NP government as purposely violent oppressors. This stood in stark contrast to the manner in which the same media had covered similar (actually, far more fatal) security force actions against non-white protesters in the past under premier Smuts. Examples of this are the Bulhoek and Bondelswarts massacres, which were at their occurrence dutifully justified and explained away by the English-language media as the revolting natives having brought their just desserts upon their own heads. (In the Bulhoek incident in the Eastern Cape, for example, 163 black occupants of land which the Crown had confiscated, were shot dead in the course of a 20-minute fusillade by militarised white police fresh from the Great War, who were using cannon, heavy machine guns and rifle fire from pre-prepared firing positions and who were acting under direct orders from their superiors).

Be that as it may, the upshot of the drive for a republic was the serious ramping-up of the propaganda war against the NP-government. Given that the local English-language media served as feeder for the international English-language media, which in turn fed practically all foreign-language media around the world, this intensification in the negative coverage had a serious impact on public perceptions locally and abroad (locally, non-white readers were also preponderantly reading the English-language press, not Afrikaans papers).

This actively negative portrayal by the local English media (plus by many English academics and church leaders) would play an important part in the NP-government being type-cast as racist oppressors of the worst kind, causing the government soon to start decisively losing the propaganda war. This, in turn, led to public support abroad for punitive measures such as arms embargoes, sanctions and boycotts, plus cultural and sport isolation, culminating in the NP losing the struggle to control the levers of power (which always had been a political conflict, not military).

Me stating here this reality of the English-language media having in large measure driven the negative image of the NP government does not deny the fact that, firstly, it was their right to do so, and secondly, that it was that self-same NP government that had done much to provide the opposition press with the ammunition that was fired at it. Furthermore, thanks to PW Botha, the NP was to destroy South Africa’s own capability to wage an effective counter-propaganda campaign (which should, in the context of the conflict having been first and foremost a political one driven by propaganda, been its logical first priority).

From the perspective of strategic decision-making, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: What did the Super Afrikaners anticipate as reaction to their obviously alienating policies of unilaterally gathering all political power in a land as mixed as ours obviously is, just to their own group?

With their policies of sharpened segregation, they had by 1959 already alienated the entire non-white population – only to then go ahead in 1960 and further alienate and infuriate the English-speaking elites and media as well, with their insistence on a republic…

The vengeance for the loss of the ZAR and OFS may have been sweet, but did the Super Afrikaner republic last? Did achieving it enhance the future well-being and security of white Afrikaner generations to come?

I personally believe that we always should have, and also in any case would, become a Republic – which is exactly what we did remain, by popular consensus, in 1994. The concern here is therefore not with republic as such, but with the HOW of its imposition in 1961 and the consequences which that manner of achieving it generated.  

I’m also not elevating the republic issue here as the be-all and end-all of so much else that had over the years been going on and which eventually led us to 1994. Insisting unilaterally on a republic was, after all, merely part of a trend of us white Afrikaners dictating unilaterally, in all spheres. However, the conclusion is to me inescapable that yet again it was a move made for short-term own tactical political gain at that time, which cumulatively (together with all the NP government’s other alienating actions) was to have quite the opposite long-term strategic effect…

3.29. Sharpeville:

The huge impact of the events at Sharpeville in March of 1960 – every 21st of March is now commemorated world-wide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – requires that I deal with it here in its own right.

The bare facts are that the Pan-Africanist Congress (the PAC – the radical Africanist off-shoot of the ANC, formed by black former ANC members in the late fifties in counter-reaction to the ANC’s perceived take-over by non-black communists) had organised a massive protest against the pass laws, which in the township of Sharpeville south of Johannesburg, was focused on the local police station.

Some 20,000 protesters had surrounded the wire-fenced compound, throwing stones at the police and taunting them with chants about the murder of nine policemen by a mob in Cato Manor just two months earlier. When the emotionally worked-up crowd eventually surged forward and trampled down the fence that had separated them from the police contingent, one of the policemen panicked and – without any orders – started firing, setting off a chain reaction among his colleagues. It took the officers present less than a minute to restore discipline and stop the firing, but tragically 69 protesters were killed.

One can argue that Sharpeville wasn’t an intentional shooting (as Bulhoek was, as well as the Bondelswarts massacre, where those gathered were bombed by aircraft). One can also point out that the number of dead at Sharpeville was far fewer than at those mentioned incidents, in the case of which the media had sided with the Smuts government and called the actions justified. All of those observations would be true – but that would not make one jot of a difference to the real-world outcome as it was experienced in the context of South Africa’s political conflict.

Sharpeville was undeniably an enormous propaganda gift for the opponents of the NP government.

The truth is, firstly, that if the Verwoerd government had been at all willing to talk with black leadership about the prickly matter of the pass laws, the incident may have possibly been avoided. (As example of why I say so: the government itself did quickly suspend pass law prosecutions after the Sharpeville incident, to help calm the tension in the country).

Secondly, the incident demonstrated that the police were at that stage not properly prepared for dealing with public protest – not in terms of training, nor having the non-lethal means at hand for crowd control, nor philosophically (in terms of how the challenge was viewed). This latter point was demonstrated by the fact that the measures attempted that day in Sharpeville to try and disperse the crowd included low-level mock strafing “attacks” by SAAF fighter planes (which just served to infuriate the crowd further).

The underpinning philosophy was still very much one of trying to scare the crowd – of “showing whose boss”.

3.30. The reaction of the South African churches to Sharpeville:

As said, the political damage had been done. Not only in terms of perceptions abroad, but also locally. Regarding the latter, the position of the churches was most strongly influenced by the tragedy, as is evidenced by the subsequent Cottesloe declaration. The World Council of Churches had, in reaction to Sharpeville, called together its South African member churches – which included the Afrikaans churches – for a consultation at Cottesloe outside Johannesburg. The churches there decided upon and issued a joint declaration, the text of which those who are interested can read here, in the DRC Archive:

Here is a brief summation (taken from Missionalia of November 1993) of what had happened at Cottesloe: “In March 1960 at Sharpeville, the South African Police fired at a demonstrating crowd, killing 69 blacks and leaving 187 wounded. The Sharpeville massacre marked a turning point in the political and ecclesial history of struggle in South Africa. The massacre increased tensions between the English-speaking and the Dutch Reformed Churches. In response to the threat by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Joost de Blank, to withdraw his church’s membership unless the WCC expelled the DRC for its continued support of apartheid after Sharpeville, the WCC called its member churches in South Africa to a consultation at Cottesloe in December 1960. The consultation was memorable in many ways. During the meeting the miracle occurred that the fiery Anglican archbishop and anti-apartheid campaigner Joost de Blank and the DRC delegates were reconciled to one another. The official DRC delegation’s behaviour at Cottesloe was so exemplary in nature that De Blank confessed his guilt and asked the DRC for forgiveness for his unfriendly attitude towards them. Dr A.J. van der Merwe, moderator of the Cape Dutch Reformed Church was the one who accepted the confession. Incidentally, thirty years later at the Rustenburg conference (1990) the roles were reversed: there Prof. Willie Jonker’s confession (from the DRC) concerning apartheid was accepted by Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu

The representatives of the WCC and the eight South African member churches, including two Dutch Reformed Churches (the DRC synods of the Cape Province and the Transvaal, which included the Black section of the DRC), basically concluded that apartheid could not be reconciled with the teachings of Scripture. After Cottesloe a political uproar arose because of three decisions: (i) The request for political rights for coloureds; (ii) the consensus that there is no biblical foundation for the prohibition of racially mixed marriages; (iii) and that no-one may be excluded from any church on the basis of race or colour. Dr Hendrik Verwoerd as Prime Minister immediately realised that the WCC consensus at Cottesloe pulled the theological basis for the National Party’s policy of apartheid from under their feet. In his 1961 New Year’s message he dismissed the decisions as the opinion of individuals.”

(The DRC delegation at Cottesloe had supported the joint declaration but its members were soon ostracised when Verwoerd and the Broederbond kicked into action; the leading DRC theologians who had opposed Apartheid, such as Drs Beyers Naudé, Ben Keet and Ben Marais – to name but a few of the most senior ones – were eventually vindicated when the DRC’s general synod declared apartheid a sin in 1990).

The refusal to take any heed of the warnings and pleadings from the combined churches must be regarded as another important “fork in the road”. The three main recommendations that had emerged from Cottesloe (regarding political rights for Coloureds, mixed marriages and not to exclude anyone from a  church on the basis of skin colour) were not earth-shattering new policy positions that were entirely foreign to the Afrikaners’ own history – as shown, they had in fact been part and parcel of our own heritage at the Cape, particularly during the Batavian Republic, and were even part of the Voortrekker way.

Refusing entirely to engage with the combined churches and forcing the DRC to recant its support of the Cottesloe declaration, served only to:

  • Drive a further wedge between white Afrikaners and the rest;
  • Lost an important opportunity to demonstrate that there was room for dialogue, so that matters needn’t be settled through violent confrontation;
  • Ensured that henceforth the NP government wasn’t only in a fight with communism, but also against the Christian churches, which would further seriously disadvantage the government in the propaganda war; and
  • Because of being at odds with the churches on the basis the ethics of its policies, the government lost claim to the moral high ground in the eyes of the world and practically all locally as well, except for its own constituency.

As we now  know, within three decades the NP government was itself left with no other option but to negotiate;  they were obliged to implement what Cottesloe had requested, and the DRC itself declared Apartheid a sin in 1990…

3.31. What did the Police learn from the damage that resulted from Sharpeville?

With the political damage of Sharpeville irrevocably done, one of the key questions for the security forces was: had they learnt from it, regarding its terribly damaging fall-out? Would they prepare themselves adequately, to avoid a repetition? The answer was to be two-fold. In Durban in 1973, the answer was YES, the police command there could and did prevent a repetition, even though confronted by vastly larger numbers of angry, traditionally armed Zulus marching right through the very business heart of the city. In Soweto in 1976, however, when confronted by 3,000+ protesting school children merely marching in the township streets, the answer there was, unfortunately, NO – the local police there had not learnt the lesson of Sharpeville, so that an even more damaging incident occurred that would prove to be another, perhaps most pivotal, turning-point in South African history…

Another consequence of Sharpeville was that it strengthened the hand of those black leaders who saw armed struggle as the only possible route to change, while it simultaneously weakened those black leaders (like then ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli) who still wished to stick to peaceful means. 

3.32 The ANC forms uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) and launches its “armed struggle”:

Sharpeville had undoubtedly strengthened the hand of the “Young Lions” in the ANC who were impatient for more direct action from their organisation. They argued that, given the government’s absolute refusal to entertain talks, plus what they perceived as the government’s use of violence against black people (such as at Sharpeville and Langa), there was no other alternative than to answer with the launch of an armed struggle (as like-minded movements elsewhere, such as in Cuba, French Indochina and Algeria) had launched with success.

The original agreement between Chief Luthuli and what he had called the “Parktown clique” about the formation of MK was that it would be a separate entity from the ANC as such, with the ANC itself which would continue to espouse non-violent means of resistance. MK would also limit itself to symbolic attacks designed not to take lives – principally, therefore, the sabotage of infrastructure such as the bombing of rail and power lines.

MK launched its armed struggle on 16 December 1961, initiating a sabotage campaign. The state’s reaction was to immediately strengthen the SAP-SB by drafting in top detectives (my own father having been one of them). Under the able leadership of general “Lang Hendrik” van den Bergh, the SAP-SB soon got on top of the challenge, so that the sabotage campaign quickly petered out, with the number of incidents reduced to zero by the mid-sixties (a situation that would last till the mid-seventies).

It was Moscow’s wish to see the ANC’s armed wing initiate a classic guerrilla campaign similar to that waged in Cuba, Algeria and Vietnam. The SACP hardline element had accordingly pushed for this, as documented in the Operation Mayibuye plan for just such a guerrilla campaign, which document was captured by the SAP-SB during their raid on MK’s operational headquarters at Rivonia. Mr Nelson Mandela, the lead initiator of the armed struggle and founder of MK, however, saw the objective with the use of violence differently – he viewed the ANC’s “armed struggle” as essentially armed propaganda, not aimed at vanquishing the white government militarily (which he saw as highly unlikely) but aimed at winning the political struggle.

With the Cold War at its height, the ANC could not expect support from the USA and its allies (as a case in point: it was the American CIA that had provided the SAP-SB with the tip-off that led to the arrest of Mr Mandela, while travelling in disguise from Durban to Johannesburg). Looking to Moscow for support was, therefore, due in part to the strong SACP influence over it, but also to the reality that the ANC had very little other choice of sponsor. One should thus beware of over-stating the extent to which the broad ANC membership, and even the then black leadership, had truly ideologically embraced communism and an adherence to the Moscow line (they ditched this baggage quick enough, when the Soviet Union crumbled and the negotiations for a settlement in South Africa started in 1990).

In assessing the SACP/ANC’s “armed struggle” it is clear that MK was exceedingly poor at planning and executing its “war” effort (seen from the military point of view, as supposedly an attempt by insurgents to overthrow the state by force).

Never once did they manage to threaten any part of South Africa with real guerrilla warfare (of the kind that was, for example, seen in Ovamboland or in Rhodesia).

In the end the “armed struggle” evolved into a bloody and brutal “people’s war” fought principally among black groups jockeying for political power in the run-up to South Africa’s first non-racial general election.

Despite its total failure as a military challenge to the security forces of the state, what its “armed struggle” undeniable did for the ANC in propaganda terms, was to achieve the ANC’s political goals by giving it a “strongman” image among black voters, as well as “liberation movement” credentials. (More about this in Part 2).

3.33 The Congo Crisis and drastic re-assessment of the military threat environment:

Mandated by a UN Resolution the Indian Air Force (IAF) sent a squadron of six Canberra bombers to the Congo in October 1961, as part of an international deployment of air power backing UN Peacekeeping forces there. The UN air wing deployed to the Congo consisted of F-86F Sabre jet fighters from the Ethiopian Air Force as well as from the air forces of the Philippines and Iran, plus three Swedish Air Force Saab J-29B Tunnan fighters and two S-29C reconnaissance fighters. Also included was a squadron of 16 Italian AF C-119s and a combined UN Dakota Squadron, plus then the potent Indian Canberras.

This first significant international military deployment to Sub-Saharan African soil came as a paradigm-changing wake-up call to South African strategic planners, as reflected in subsequent Defence White Papers. Before, no realistic conventional military threat to South Africa had been anticipated to arise from within Africa. This now fundamentally changed. Clearly, the threat potential of a future deployment of powerful international military forces to the continent to coerce white-ruled South Africa was real – especially if legally mandated by the United Nations.

The SA government’s strategic response was two-fold: on the one hand, it was understood that it would henceforth be of vital strategic importance to avoid that such an international force ever be deployed against South Africa. On the other hand, there was clearly also a need for deterrence, to dissuade countries from participating in such an international military venture. Which resulted in three things in particular: the expansion of the SA Navy with submarines; secondly, the upgrade of the SAAF with Mirage fighters, Canberra and Buccaneer bombers, and thirdly, the development of an own nuclear deterrent (on the assumption that the ability to blast international deployment bases established on African soil into oblivion, would dissuade countries from volunteering their forces for such a venture).

What would emerge as a contest of ideas within the security establishment’s strategy debate, was which option should be given priority. Should it be planning politically to settle disputes through negotiation and thereby avoid military confrontation? Or, was it inevitable that there sooner or later would be a military showdown over who’s country South Africa is, so that preparing for such a clash needed be prioritized above all else? This choice between settle or shoot was to become the dominating factor in the disputes on strategy that soon was to pit the different security and intelligence institutions as “frenemies” against each other…

3.34. Isolation and Opprobrium:

The Afrikaner government was being increasingly isolated, effectively forced to leave the Commonwealth, and encountering strong hostility from emerging independent Africa and the Third World.

Inside the country it was becoming increasingly clear that the Verwoerdian dream of all blacks returning to their homelands would not work in practice. On the positive side, the country was enjoying an economic boom (which in itself was, ironically, the main reason why the Verwoerdian dream couldn’t work). Fortunately, the security situation inside the country had been stabilized by General Van den Bergh. Faced with both the threat of increasing image problems and isolation, but also with opportunity created by the economic bonanza, the question was whether the government would re-assess and adapt its policies?

As said before, South Africa was not alone in having to deal with a segregationist legacy. It had been the norm also in the USA and other Anglophone countries at that time. In fact, South Africa was at that stage (end of the sixties) not yet that far behind those Anglophone countries in evolutionary terms, if we consider the earlier-mentioned dates on which major US changes occurred. There was, therefore, still time and space for strategies based on reaching out, rather than shooting it out…

3.35. Rhodesia declares UDI:

On 11 November 1965 the white Rhodesian government under prime minster Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence from Britain, to the exasperation of Dr Verwoerd (who had counselled against it) and also against the express advice of their own central intelligence organisation, the CIO.

The main reason for concern on the South African side, was that the legal dispute between the Smith government and the United Kingdom could evolve into precisely the kind of justification for the deployment of an international military force tasked with restoring the legitimate constitutional order against the rebels who had broken away from the British crown and unilaterally sought to end the status of Southern Rhodesia as a British colony. (The UN Security Council had the very next day passed Resolution 218 which denounced UDI as illegal and racist, the UN Committee on Independence had strongly urged military intervention, and the British government soon deployed a Royal Navy squadron to the Mozambique Channel to enforce a blockade against the delivery of oil for Rhodesia via the ports of Beira and Lourenço Marques).

Although South Africa did not want to see Rhodesia implode into chaos and thus assisted it with the transit of essential goods and also (for a time) deployed members of the SA Police to guard against infiltration of MK fighters via Rhodesia, for South Africa the overriding strategic imperative was that a settlement needed to be found to avoid the situation escalating to the point of armed international intervention, which would have set a hugely perilous precedent for future similar action against South Africa itself.

3.36. Verwoerd is assassinated, and Vorster becomes prime minister: 

Under the leadership of prime minister Verwoerd there was no outward sign of either strategic re-think or flexibility. Then, on 6 Sept 1966, Dr. Verwoerd was assassinated at his bench in parliament. Ironically, he had that very morning personally phoned ambassador Jan Burger at Foreign Affairs, telling him to please attend that day’s sitting of parliament. Verwoerd told Burger that he (Burger) will be very happy to hear what he (Verwoerd) would be announcing that afternoon in parliament regarding building diplomatic relations with black Africa – something which Foreign Affairs had been pleading for and working towards for some time, under Burger’s lead, against Verwoerd’s initial resistance…

Police minister advocate John Vorster, who had been interned during WW2 because of his Ossewa-Brandwag activities, was elected premier.

3.37. The BfSS – the need for an own civilian national intelligence capacity addressed:

Prime Minister John Vorster and General “Lang” (Tall) Hendrik van den Bergh had known each other from having been interned together at Koffiefontein during WW2. During Vorster’s years as minister of police, they had formed a close bond and were an effective team against the threat posed by the SACP/ANC alliance’s sabotage campaign and plans for an insurgency. In fact, it was Vorster’s success in countering that threat, together with the “strong man” image with which that endowed himh, that was at the heart of his election as premier.

Vorster and Van den Bergh weren’t, however, blind to the broader political challenges and the need to evolve strategies and capabilities to counter that as well.

One of the vital capacity needs that Van den Bergh had been pushing with Vorster (in which Verwoerd had not been interested) and which the Department of Foreign Affairs had already identified in the mid-50s, was for a civilian central intelligence institution that could objectively analyse and coordinate the collection, evaluation, interpretation and presentation of national security intelligence. With Vorster now at the head of government, the cabinet in mid-1968 approved the creation of such an entity. On 1 October 1968 General van den Bergh was appointed as the prime minister’s security adviser and was tasked with setting up the new service, which he did from the basis of the SAP-SB’s covert “Republican Intelligence” component. Called the Bureau for State Security (BfSS) it was legally established by proclamation in May 1969, with Van den Bergh as its head, although it had in effect begun functioning already in 1968.

The unfortunate reality is that the creation of this central coordination agency did not stem the growing inter-departmental infighting and silo-style operations of the different components of the security and intelligence community, largely due to the active resistance of PW Botha (then defence minister) and his group of confidants in mainly the SA Army (more about that later…).

The formation of the BfSS (later to become the NIS – National Intelligence Service) was to play a pivotal role in ensuring that decision-makers were provided with objective threat analyses and strategic guidance. As will be shown later, it had an important part in leading both the NP government and the ANC to the conclusion that they should seek a negotiated settlement, rather than a military conclusion to South Africa’s internal conflict.

3.38. The Vorster government initiates a policy of Détente with Black Africa:

The new Vorster government had early on identified South Africa’s growing international isolation as a primary security threat and strategic challenge. What the Department of Foreign Affairs had correctly understood (with Genl Van den Bergh concurring) was that Africa would henceforth largely determine how the rest of the world would view and react to South Africa. Therefore, a strategy of active outreach to black Africa had to be a diplomatic priority.

The Vorster government set out to address this strategic need with what would later become known as its détente policy. Already in 1968 premier Vorster engaged in secret correspondence with President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. The team tasked with the outreach strategy consisted of Foreign Affairs (Dr Brand Fourie and Min Hilgard Muller) and Genl Hendrik van den Bergh as national security advisor.

This Vorster initiative had five main strategic objectives:

  • To guarantee that white South Africans (and the Afrikaner in particular) be seen and formally recognised by the rest of Africa as being fully and permanently African, and not as mere transient settlers or colonists (like the French and Belgians had been seen, and who consequently had been kicked out of Algeria and the Congo);
  • To ensure that South Africa itself be accepted by black Africa as an independent, sovereign state, a full member in own right of the United Nations, and thus not as still only a colony, as Rhodesia for instance was seen (this was critically important, because without such recognition the South African government would not be able to negotiate in own name and agree settlements and inter-state treaties in its own right – to illustrate with the Rhodesian example: because it lacked such sovereign standing, the Rhodesian government could never themselves negotiate a settlement internally in the manner that South Africa could in 1990-94, but had to go and sit as just another participant in negotiations at Lancaster House held under the auspices of the colonial power, Britain);
  • The third objective was to make use of the dialogue created with black Africa to actively promote settlements of situations that could justify international intervention in the region, particularly regarding Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia;
  • Fourthly, to prevent conservative black African governments from making common cause with the radical ones who were leaning towards the communist bloc and supporting the “liberation movements”; and
  • Lastly, to try and show white voters that black Africa could be a partner and that peaceful transition to black rule achieved through negotiated settlements was indeed possible, despite the negative image of the consequences of Uhuru that most whites held. The idea was that negotiated settlements followed by peaceful transitions to stable black rule in Rhodesia and SWA/N could create such positive examples (Vorster had realised that, to take white South Africans along a new path, required two main things: on the one hand, whites needed to enjoy a sense of security, hence his strong efforts to ensure internal stability; and, on the other hand, actual examples of successful negotiated settlements that would transit Rhodesia and SWA/N to non-racial dispensations without disaster befalling the whites there). 

It was in this light that Vorster famously warned white South Africans, in a speech on 23 October 1974, that Southern Africa was standing at a crossroads and that the alternative to settlement “was too ghastly to contemplate”.

What became increasingly evident within the security and intelligence community, was a split between those around Vorster who regarded it as both inevitable and necessary that South Africa’s principal strategy should be to try and achieve settlements (in the region as well as at home), as opposed to those around defence minister PW Botha (essentially a group within the SA Army, under general Magnus Malan) who believed it unavoidable that the contest for power in South Africa shall only be resolved through war. In their view, searching for settlements amounted to appeasement and the principal strategy needed to be to prepare maximally for such a coming military showdown. One can thus sum up the debate on strategy within the security and intelligence community as one of choosing between “skik of skiet” (settle or shoot).  

3.39. The Lusaka Manifesto recognises the RSA as sovereign and its whites as Africans:

The Lusaka Manifesto adopted by the OAU in 1969, had notably recognised white South Africans as indigenous Africans, distinct from settlers such as in Rhodesia or in the other former European possessions such as Algeria, Kenya and the Congo. The manifesto also expressly favoured peaceful settlement over violent means, and recognised South Africa as an independent, sovereign state, not a colony. Here are some direct quotes from this important document, which was subsequently accepted by the OAU and the UN.

“8. …We believe that all the peoples who have made their homes in the countries of Southern Africa are Africans, regardless of the colour of their skins; and we would oppose a racialist majority government which adopted a philosophy of deliberate and permanent discrimination between its citizens on grounds of racial origin.

  1. “…it is likely that different groups within these societies will be self-conscious and fearful. The initial political and economic organisation may well take account of these fears, and of this group self-consciousness. But how this is to be done must be a matter exclusively for the peoples of the country concerned, working together. No other nation will have a right to interfere in such affairs. All that the rest of the world has a right to demand is just what we are now asserting – that the arrangements within any State which wishes to be accepted into the community of nations must be based on an acceptance of the principles of human dignity and equality.

12 “ …We have always preferred, and we still prefer, to achieve it (liberation) without physical violence. We would prefer to negotiate rather than destroy, to talk rather than kill. We do not advocate violence; we advocate an end to the violence against human dignity which is now being perpetrated by the oppressors of Africa. If peaceful progress to emancipation were possible, or if changed circumstances were to make it possible in the future, we would urge our brothers in the resistance movements to use peaceful methods of struggle even at the cost of some compromise on the timing of change…

“South Africa is itself an independent sovereign State and a Member of the United Nations. It is more highly developed and richer than any other nation in Africa. On every legal basis its internal affairs are a matter exclusively for the people of South Africa. Yet the purpose of law is people, and we assert that the actions of the South African Government are such that the rest of the world has a responsibility to take some action in defence of humanity…

“There is one thing about South African oppression which distinguishes it from other oppressive regimes. The apartheid policy adopted by its Government, and supported to a greater or lesser extent by almost all its white citizens, is based on a rejection of man’s humanity. A position of privilege or the experience of oppression in the South African society depends on the one thing which it is beyond the power of any man to change. It depends upon a man’s colour, his parentage, and his ancestors. If you are black you cannot escape this categorization; nor can you escape it if you are white. If you are black millionaire and a brilliant political scientist, you are still subject to the pass laws and still excluded from political activity. If you are white, and even protests against the system and attempt to reject segregation, that will lead you only to the segregation, and the comparative comfort of a white jail. Beliefs, abilities, and behaviour are all irrelevant to a man’s status; everything depends upon race. Manhood is irrelevant. The whole system of government and society in South Africa is based on the denial of human equality. And the system is maintained by a ruthless denial of the human rights of the majority of the population – and thus, inevitably of all.”

The détente policy of premier Vorster could gain the support of Dr Kissinger, the US secretary of state, as reflected in de-classified policy recommendations Kissinger had made to President Gerald Ford (the so-called “tar baby” memo, which also emphasized the permanence of white South Africans) as well as the verbatim transcripts of the meetings between the Kissinger and Vorster teams.

These transcripts evidence mutual professional respect, warm interaction at a personal level (in no small part due to Vorster’s engaging personality and communicative abilities) and a willingness to cooperate in achieving common goals, such as regarding Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia.

3.40 Premier Vorster personally grasps the SAW/N nettle:

The International Court of Justice in The Hague issued an advisory opinion on 21 October 1971, ruling that South Africa’s continued presence in SWA/Namibia was illegal. This was followed by the UN General Assembly declaring SWAPO in 1972 to be the “sole and authentic” representative of the Nambian people. It was clear that international pressure over the SWA/N issue was escalating dangerously.

Ever since the Congo Crisis of the Sixties, when the United Nations intervened militarily and India sent a contingent of its Air Force to the continent, it was understood that it should be a primary goal of South Africa’s diplomacy and defence posture not to allow any situation to arise that would present the international community with legal justification to set up such an international military intervention or peacekeeping force against it. In this regard, SWA/Namibia had clearly become a key issue that could give rise to such grounds for international intervention. Premier Vorster had therefore taken personal responsibility in 1972, in consultation with UN Secretary-general Kurt Waldheim, for moving SWA/Namibia to an internationally recognised settlement as soon as possible. One of the core aspects of this agreement was that Vorster would set up a local advisory council, meaning that SWA would no longer be administered as if a fifth province of South Africa.

Vorster and his advisors from the DFA and BfSS understood that “negotiate” and “settle” are not in themselves strategies, but simply represent a choice of means. What would be needed is a real strategy, a proper plan for how best to position your own side for achieving an optimal settlement at the negotiation table. When you choose to negotiate and thereby to make your conflict political rather military, you are still entering a battlefield (just of a different kind). You will still need the equivalent of an own (political) army, plus “weapons” and strategies for how best to use these to afdvance your goals and defeat the other side.

In politics your “army” is your political party or alliance, your weapons are your policies and propaganda, your logistics counts as much as in any military conflict, and your strategy ultimately stands or falls on your ability to get the voting populace on your side. Once you accept that that voting public will no longer consist only of whites, but henceforth of all races, then obviously you need to politically reach out across colour and ethnic lines. Your political party and alliance need to be multi-racial, because otherwise (if you stick within your white cocoon) the only thing you achieve is your own isolation and thus political impotence… (Was this vital necessity that negotiations had to be prepared and planned for – needing your own political “army” and with alliances needing to be built – properly understood by the NP in 1990?).

Vorster and Van den Bergh had understood very well that the upcoming non-racial political “war” at the ballot box and around the negotiation table over Namibia’s future constitution, needed to be properly planned and prepared for. Their strategy thus revolved around first enabling an effective alliance to be built locally in SWA/N against what was then the communist spearpoint there, SWAPO. This strategy of planning ahead for a settlement led to Mr Dirk Mudge tabling a motion on 11 November 1974 in the local white assembly in Windhoek, inviting all groups to join in constitutional talks. This led to the all-race Turnhalle conference being convened on 1 September 1975, which subsequently led to the successful formation of a political alliance, the DTA, in 1977, to compete under that name in non-racial elections.

These ground-breaking political developments and the rapidity and success with which they were being rolled out, had put considerable pressure on SWAPO and on the Western community of nations to stay in the game, causing the five principal Western powers to form the so-called Western Contact Group (WCG) that came up with a framework for ensuring that SWA/Namibia’s coming independence would be internationally recognised (I will deal with the WCG initiative in more detail in Part Two, when I will tell about my time as head of the SWA//Namibia analytical section at the NIS).

Vorster also understood that the white voters of SWA/N should be prepared for, and consulted about, independence under a non-racial constitution. They would need to be moved to support it whole-heartedly (which would, as a spin-off, also serve to help prepare the ground for white voter acceptance in South Africa of an own eventual settlement on a non-racial basis).

This process was also successfully advanced, via Mudge and his alliance – again with Foreign Affairs and the BfSS playing leading though covert roles in the background – to the point that nearly 95% of white voters in SWA/N voted in the May 1977 referendum in favour of independence under a non-racial constitution.

Negotiations with the so-called Contact Group of Western nations on the UN Security Council during 1977 and 1978 had led to the South African government accepting Resolution 435 of the UNSC in principle during the second half of 1978. The Territory was thus set for UN-supervised elections in 1979. (However, as will be explained in Part Two, with the advent of the PW Botha premiership at that same time in 1978, a ten-year hiatus instead followed. I will expand in detail on this phase in Part Two – but back now to South Africa’s own internal political situation).

3.41. Vorster realises the need for a counter-propaganda capacity:

Vorster and his advisors understood the vital importance of propaganda in the political conflict being waged. It was therefore comprehended that a proper capacity had to be developed to engage in counter-propaganda projects. What they also clearly understood (thanks to the expertise of the new team at the Department of Information) is that a propaganda war is not won by simply providing facts. The message fed to the public is not determined by the facts of any particular matter, but by the orientation of the media formulating and disseminating the message (this principle was well illustrated by the South African example: The English and Afrikaans media worked with the exact same facts, but their messaging were totally different). In short, he who controls the medium, controls the message. And, if you do not have media at your disposal, then you can sprout facts till you are blue in the face, without the message coming out your way.

The minister of information, Dr Connie Mulder, in 1972 suggested that the young Dr. Eschel Rhoodie be appointed as new head of the Department of Information, specifically to be tasked with building up such a capacity, including of a covert nature employing foreigners of standing as agents of influence, and covertly acquiring control over key media. This was implemented with vigour, and soon meant that sophisticated projects were afoot to exert counter-influence on decision-makers abroad and to get the NPP government’s message aired in the media.

There was one structural weakness, however, that would become extremely costly politically for Vorster and his team – the Department of Information’s secret projects were not at that stage protected by law against disclosure, and (most seriously) there was no legal provision yet for secret funds to be made available to the Department of Information, and for it to operate an own secret account. Which led to secret funds of the BfSS and from the defence budget being channelled for this purpose.

One of the evident needs in such a counter-propaganda strategy had been to attempt to make the regular condemnation emanating from the local English press less monolithic, by having at least one pro-government local English-medium daily newspaper. The Citizen daily had been covertly set up for this purpose, ostensibly privately funded, but in reality, using secret funds from the defence secret account. Which proved to be an effective sword that could be wielded against Vorster and Connie Mulder, in the jockeying for power within the NP…

Another threat that the Vorster government had from early on correctly understood, was that white Afrikaners (especially in the security forces) were being type-cast as Nazi’s, as were senior NP politicians such as Vorster himself, because of their wartime posture in favour of neutrality. At the initiative of Dr Eschel Rhoodie in particular, backed by Genl Hendrik van den Bergh and Foreign Affairs, it was comprehended that one of the most effective counters against this type of propaganda would be to visibly establish very close ties with Israel (which cooperation would also have other technological and economic benefits). This was understandably a hugely difficult diplomatic challenge, which the Vorster government and specifically the team around Rhoodie and Van den Bergh successfully brought to fruition.

Till the so-called “Information Scandal” blew up in 1977/78… (a palace revolution that I will also deal with in Part Two, with some interesting revelations about what really had been going on in the power struggle within the NP at that time).

3.42. Economic growth and budget prioritisation:

The mid-1960s to mid-70s were years of exceptional growth for the South African economy, with GNP growth among the highest in the world at around 5% to 6% annually. As admitted by sanctions advocates like Jennifer Davis: In general, the 1960s and 1970s were boom years for the South African economy. From 1964 to 1974, foreign investment contributed 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic investment. Foreign investment averaged 14 percent during the first five years of the 1970s and peaked at 24.5 percent in 1975-76, before collapsing to 2 percent … in 1977”. (Which illustrates the huge impact of the series of negative security-related “own goals” that occurred in 1975-77, after the positive perceptions associated with Vorster’s initiatives during the first half of that decade).

During Vorster’s government the percentage of GDP allocated to defence declined from 2.8% in 1967 to 2.3% in 1970, only then to shoot up due to the evident need for the urgent upgrade of armaments after the Operation Savannah debacle in 1975-76. Vorster had not shirked on defence spending (because of the rapid GDP growth, the  percentages allocated under him still amounted to substantial actual increases each year) but he had clearly prioritised internal security, and thus ensured that the police remained well-funded  (during PW Botha’s reign direct defence spending was to average between 3.6% and 3.9%, only to shoot up at the end to 4.6% of GDP in 1988).

The rapid growth that South Africa experienced meant that the business sector, unlike the media and churches, was not exerting any real pressure about the NP government’s Apartheid policies at that stage.

The biggest impact that the rapid growth would have, was in the labour market. The rapidly expanding need for workers resulted in an increased influx of black workers to urban areas, so that actual reality defied the Verwoerdian dream of reversing the flow. It became increasingly clear that black residents were to be a permanent feature of the urban political landscape, whose various human rights needed to be accommodated, such as in the labour sphere and eventually, political.

3.43. Durban labour unrest and effective recognition of the permanence of urban blacks:

In 1973, labour unrest broke out on a massive scale in Durban, with emotions running high. Tens of thousands of Zulus armed with their traditional weapons marched in the city centre. The local SAP-SB correctly identified that there was no communist instigation behind this. Policing of the protest actions was restrained, allowing the marches to proceed (as essential venting mechanisms) whilst engaging with the Zulu king and Prince Buthelezi to help keep matters under control and negotiate a settlement.

Prime Minister Vorster was advised to issue a public statement urging local industrialists to pay living wages and to make good on the promises that they had earlier made to their workers, which he duly did (the worker anger had been mostly inspired by those promises not having been kept in timely manner).

The underlying realisation that urban black workers were in fact permanent and essential, eventually led to the Wiehahn Commission being appointed. It was tasked with investigating and advising on the situation of urban black labour and their self-evident permanence as essential part of the metropolitan and industrial fabric of the nation – the first important move away from the Verwoerdian model of Apartheid that had refused to accord Blacks in so-called “white” South Africa any rights at all, while effectively wishing them away. (Wiehahn would later testify to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that his commissioners viewed their task as initiating the abandonment of the policy of Apartheid).

Through negotiation, plus appropriately restrained public order policing and adaptation to reality, the highly incendiary situation that had existed in Durban and its surrounds  was defused and turned to the good. The government suffered no propaganda damage – a situation that would stand in stark contrast to what was to occur in Soweto three years later, on 16 June 1976…

3.44. Vorster’s popularity:

The results of a Market Research Africa poll released in January 1969 indicated that 82% of white voters thought that Vorster was doing a good or excellent job, with 11,9% describing his performance as average. Only some 6% thought it poor or very poor. Of Afrikaners polled, 92% viewed Vorster as an excellent or very good prime minister.

On 24 April1974 John Vorster led the National Party to its biggest ever victory in a South African general election, winning 124 of the 169 seats in parliament.

Vorster had, from the beginning of his premiership, clearly understood that his government needed to work towards settlements – since, as he had rightly said, the “alternative was too ghastly to contemplate”. There were those in his party and cabinet, as well as within the security and intelligence community, who held a different view and who saw attempting to negotiate settlements as appeasement. For them, a military showdown was inevitable, so that military preparations required for such a future clash needed to be prioritised.

These opposing views would increasingly become a course-determining “fork in the road” regarding strategy, which would hugely impact the way and manner in which South Africa’s recent history would unfold. It remained in dispute till the issue was finally settled in 1990 in favour of seeking (and achieving) a negotiated settlement in South Africa on the basis of a unitary state with a non-racial democracy. After the conflicts in Rhodesia and SWA/Namibia had also been resolved through negotiated settlements. And, after the attempts at “military solutions” had visibly failed.

We now accept (with the enormous benefit of 20/20 hindsight!) that settlement had all along been the only realistic strategy for South Africa. As Vorster and Van den Bergh had understood perfectly well. But PW Botha didn’t.

Looking back now at that “fork in the road” on strategy – of needing to choose between “settle or shoot” – it is a valid question to ask today: when would have been the best moment to have pushed to conclude settlement negotiations? (It is opportune to highlight this question now, at this point in our chronology, because circumstances in the region were about to fundamentally change).

I fully comprehend that no-one can turn back the clock. Also, that “what if” games can never be more than merely learning tools (and that casting blame after the fact serves no practical purpose). It is, nevertheless, valuable for better understanding of how we got to where we are today, to look at the framework of prevailing conditions at Vorster’s time, versus those that prevailed eventually took over from PW Botha.

These two leadership eras display two widely different sets of circumstances. The environment  during the Vorster détente era from the late 60’s to the middle 70s could have significantly facilitated negotiations, as opposed to the very limiting circumstances that prevailed when President FW de Klerk came to power and no longer had any other realistic option but to initiate settlement negotiations in 1990, with then very few cards in hand.

In Vorster’s time, before PW Botha’s Operation Savannah into Angola in 1975:

  • South Africa’s economy was particularly strong;
  • premier Vorster had a powerful and united white electoral support base, and also significant support among many in the “Coloured”, Inin and traditionalist black communities, which then had not yet been polarized;
  • the country had not yet been effectively internationally isolated;
  • the internal security situation had been totally stabilised by General Vn den Bergh, with the SACP/ANC and MK completely marginalised into virtual impotence;
  • the West (and many African states) were at the height of their fear of communism and of the reach of an aggressive USSR, after the USA’s Vietnam debacle;
  • black Africa had just accepted the moderate Lusaka Manifesto, having declared themselves in favour of peaceful means, the recognition of South Africa as a sovereign state and white South Africans as fellow Africans, plus had stated their prior acceptance of a gradualist approach to a transition from segregation to an eventual non-racial dispensation;
  • The White House was under the control of the Republican party between 1969 and 1977 (with Dr Kissinger as Secretary of State) and France had conservative presidents;
  • in terms of the head-count results of détente (aided as it was by the influence of France, the USA, and the UK), at least half of Africa’s governments favoured a negotiated settlement with the white South, as opposed to those black governments that were committed to supporting the liberation movements (the OAU and the UN had accepted the Lusaka Manifesto); and
  • South Africa still had about it, its psychological “bubble of invincibility”, being seen internally as well as externally as the continent’s economic and military regional superpower.

I leave it up to your own memory of the nineties to compare the circumstances under which the De Klerk team had to negotiate…

Likewise, I leave it up to your own imagination, to try and divine what kind of settlement could conceivably have been achieved under Vorster (had he not been actively undermined and eventually deposed by the PW Botha grouping).

Because circumstances were about to change fundamentally, and very much for the worse, the very day after Vorster’s big 24 April 1974 election win…

3.45 The “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal fundamentally changes geostrategic reality:

One day after Vorster’s historic election victory, namely on 25 April 1974, an event occurred that would have far-reaching geostrategic implications for Southern Africa – the so-called “Carnation Revolution” in Lisbon, Portugal.

The revolution had been caused in large measure by popular discontent in Portugal with the sacrifices required to retain Portugal’s overseas territories – particularly Angola and Mozambique – in the face of guerrilla warfare by liberation movements backed by the USSR. One of the primary goals of the left-wing revolutionaries (who were themselves high-ranking officers in the Portuguese military) was to withdraw from these territories as soon as possible, handing them independence and effectively leaving them to their own lot. (The BfSS had become increasingly concerned about the Portuguese staying power, so that the eventual collapse had not come as a total surprise – although the manner and timing could not have been known beforehand).

What immediately seemed highly likely, was that Angola and Mozambique would soon fall into the hands of the Moscow-leaning MPLA and FRELIMO liberation movements respectively. These new governments would then be positively disposed to their fellow Moscow-backed liberation movements in SWA/Nambia (SWAPO) and in South Africa (the SACP/ANC-alliance).

In the case of Angola, the MPLA (which was based in the central part of the country, thus having the capital Luanda within their zone of influence) seemed the likely winner, unless the West could provide effective backing to the two other main Angolan liberation movements, the FNLA of Holden Roberto in the north, and UNITA of Dr Jonas Savimbi in the south.

Up to the time of the collapse of the Portuguese overseas empire the SA Defence Force (SADF) could, and did, plausibly opt for a strategy of “forward defence”. This entailed that the fighting be kept as far to the North as possible, away from South Africa’s own borders, along a frontier that had run along the northern borders of Angola, Rhodesia and Mozambique’s with the neighbouring black African states.

This buffer zone would, however, develop gaping holes should the Portuguese territories fall into Marxist hands – with SWAPO (under an MPLA government in Angola) then being able to deploy directly along the border with SWA/Namibia, and MK (in the case of FRELIMO taking  power in Mozambique) being able to do the same along South Africa’s eastern border, just 300 km from South Africa’s Witwatersrand industrial heartland and the capital, Pretoria.

This drastically changed new reality had abruptly forced to the forefront, the real strategic debate that had for some time been brewing in South African security circles, and which had nothing to do with ideology or racial policies. It was the earlier-mentioned debate on whether to prepare to settle, or to shoot.

Vorster and his team favoured settling. This was, however, viewed by PW Botha and his supporters as appeasement – they were convinced that the contest for ownership of this land that Afrikaners had claimed as theirs, would inevitably need to be settled by shooting it out with the black counter-claimants. This view was based on the Cold War reality of the day (where Moscow was keen to control Southern Africa’s mineral wealth and strategic location). Also, on the SACP/ANC’s avowed commitment to the overthrow of the existing state in a revolution and replacing it with a Marxist “people’s republic”, to be achieved by means of defeating the security forces militarily through their “armed struggle” (an approach based on Mao’s dictum that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun”).

PW Botha’s almost immediate reaction to the coup in Lisbon was to want to invade Mozambique and assist white settlers there in a coup that was to be centred on occupying the radio station and other such strategic infrastructure. The BfSS came to know about this and premier Vorster at the last minute could put a stop to it (Botha, as Cape leader of the NP and also as function of his personality, had appropriated to himself as defence minister a great deal of leeway regarding taking unilateral actions he deemed appropriate to “safeguard the Republic”; Vorster, on the other hand, had a relaxed management style that prioritised maintaining Afrikaner and party unity, and thus was inclined to let things slide rather than cause conflict and division by being forceful).

Vorster, in consultation with the DFA and General Van den Bergh, subsequently issued a calm statement that SA would not intervene in the affairs of its neighbours, stating that Pretoria can live with any kind of neighbour (thereby demonstrating his faith in the country’s strength and ability to handle any type of future scenario). As a general response to the events in Lisbon and what soon after began unfolding in Mozambique and Angola, Vorster focused on accelerating détente with Kaunda, particularly over Rhodesia, and on advancing the process of preparing for a settlement and an eventual non-racial dispensation that had been launched in SWA/Namibia.

Despite the fact that Vorster’s acceptance of the reality of an incoming FRELIMO government in Mozambique geostrategically made a nonsense of any real “forward defence strategy” (since the new front could conceivably be just 300 km to the East of Pretoria) PW Botha and the SADF maintained their fixation with Angola, egged on by the Pentagon, in whose promises the SADF had placed their faith…

I will deal in detail with the hugely important (and tremendously damaging) events that were to unfold there in the latter part of 1975 – Operation Savannah – in Part Two.

3.46. Fox Street Siege, 28 April 1975:

Although the occupation of the Israeli Consulate in Johannesburg by one if their own security guards and his (manipulated) brother can best be described as a tragicomedy, it nevertheless highlighted huge deficiencies and a command mind-set that was to cause grave consequences for the country a little more than a year later.

When the shooting started in the high-rise building on Fox Street housing the consulate, the police naturally converged on the scene.  Colonel “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel was in command. His immediate assumption (without proof) was that he was dealing with Arab terrorists. He had his officers open fire on the building (two of the dead were innocent passers-by) and at one stage deemed it appropriate to plant himself in the street, roaring “come out and fight like men!”.

Swanepoel’s crisis command philosophy can best be described as one of “kragdadigheid” (forcefulness) aimed at “wys wie’s baas” (show who is boss).

Fortunately, premier Vorster had ordered General Van den Bergh to the scene, who could quickly establish order. Consulting with local SAP-SB officers, he realised that he wasn’t dealing with a terrorist attack but with a deranged individual.  He could thus talk the security guard, David Protter, into handing himself over.

The chaotic Fox Street incident had shown the need for the police to establish a well-trained rapid response unit, which gave rise to the founding of the police’s excellent Special Task Force.

In June 1976, however, the officer who took command of handling the unrest that had erupted in Soweto after the police shooting there of protesting schoolchildren, was the self-same Colonel Theuns “Rooi Rus” Swanepoel…

I will now conclude this first part of my story, which of necessity had been a bit historiographic in character.

Ending this part here (in terms of the chronological timeline of “Our Story”) is appropriate, because from mid-1975 through to 1997 I had myself been privileged to have occupied vantage points in the intelligence and diplomatic community that allowed me to observe firsthand the further unfolding of “Our Story”. Part Two (my BfSS/NIS years) and Part Three (my DFA years) will consist of those first-hand observations (amplified, as here, by what I had learnt thanks to my position with Nongqai Magazine, my own studies and my relationship with my father).

  1. About Parts Two and Three

I wish to keep my promise to you as reader, which I had made at the outset, to provide you here already with a brief outline of the conclusions I’ve come to about how and why “Our Story” took the turns that it did. So that you can evaluate for yourself – as you read along – my take on events as derived henceforth from my own firsthand experiences and observations about our history from 1975 on. In Parts Two and Three I will cover the last years of the Vorster government, the “lost decade” under PW Botha and the era of negotiations under FW de Klerk. The latter had correctly understood the urgent need to settle, but seemingly did not develop a strategy for how to prepare to negotiate effectively and neither for how to compete effectively at the hustings for political power in the new dispensation – in visible contrast to how Vorster and Van den Bergh had approached SWA/Namibia.

Very briefly, what I will be doing in some detail is to set out my experience and understanding of some seminal events between 1975 and 1994 that changed the course of our history. Events that would prove to have been highly influential in determining how we got to where we are now. I will share with you what I know, from having been there (not as decision-maker, but as a trained intelligence analyst and thus as well-qualified observer). I will, for example, tell you about what I had heard and saw happen around the launch of Operation Savannah and its disastrous consequences from a strategic perspective. Same, with regard to the events in Soweto on 16 June 1976 and what flowed from that…

I will share with you my impressions about the palace coup that ousted premier Vorster and his team, and the very damaging consequences of the “lost decade” that followed under PW Botha, which had left FW de Klerk with precious few cards in his hand when he eventually had no other option left but to go and sit at the negotiation table.

For what it is worth, I will give you my view of what could have been done better during the eventual negotiations (in a nutshell, Vorster and Van den Bergh understood that negotiation, in and of itself, isn’t a strategy – that the actual strategizing required, needs be about your plan and preparation for maximising your negotiation position in order to try and obtain the best possible outcome, such as through building alliances for winning power; under De Klerk, negotiation seemed to be the goal in itself, without a detectable strategy as to how best to conduct it, and with consequently no alliance-building, so that the NP soon found itself isolated at the table and in the election that followed).

Apart from things that could have been done better, there were other quite remarkable achievements that I would like to share with you in Part 2. Such as how we did, strategically, deprive the SACP/ANC of the backing of their main sponsor, the USSR. Was the only way to deal with Soviet arms supply to their proxies, to arm yourself to the teeth and defeat them on the battlefield? Or could South Africa achieve the same objective by convincing the Kremlin that it would benefit more from cooperating with us, rather than from persisting in backing its incompetent and perennially broke proxies?

This initiative, which came to fruition towards the end of the eighties, is little-known because it was of course top secret. It turned the USSR away from supporting the ANC militarily and got them instead to work with us. In other words, it effectively stripped the ANC of their main international sponsor and arms supplier. This was so successfully (and concretely) executed that, despite the then arms embargo, South African and Soviet aeronautical engineers, working out of Brezhnev’s old dacha in Moscow, secretly re-designed and adapted MIG-29 engines to fit into suitably modified SAAF Mirages, which flew great…

At the same time, the Foreign Affairs anti-sanction team could gain considerable Soviet assistance in circumventing international economic sanctions, and intelligence co-operation between the NIS and KGB blossomed to the point where Gorbachev moved a Politburo meeting to be able to receive NIS DG Dr Niël Barnard at the Kremlin (while Oliver Tambo could no longer obtain appointments to meet with Gorbachev).

Perhaps our most singular deed that set us apart from other ex-colonists elsewhere (and defied world expectations) was when we had the insight to seize the opportunity in 1990 and launch internal negotiations to successfully arrive at a peaceful constitutional settlement – no matter that the negotiations themselves, and the election, were then in my opinion fluffed by the NP politicians. Can you imagine what pressure there would have been from the West (once they were free of their fear of the Red Threat after the USSR had collapsed), should we not have started negotiations in a timely manner (even if belated, when compared to Vorster’s sound intentions)?  What measures would South Africa have suffered under a Clinton, Obama, or Biden, had we not settled in time?

Achieving an internal settlement that, despite all the shortcomings we can now see, enshrined free market principles and democratic values, instead of a Marxist People’s Republic having been foisted upon us. And achieving that outcome without there having been on our soil a bloody War of National Liberation. (This stands in stark contrast to what had occurred in places like Algeria, the Congo, Kenya, Angola and Mozambique, Vietnam, and the like).

The NP government was indeed forced in 1990 to abandon Apartheid (which, morally and in terms of our own founding history, it should never have adopted as policy in the first place). However, future president Nelson Mandela and the ANC were also forced to abandon their long-cherished dream of establishing a Marxist people’s republic – which was a great and hugely important victory for the security forces, who had made them understand that they would NEVER succeed in foisting such a model on us through the barrel  of a gun.

It was the intelligence community that in the end made the NP see that their policy of Apartheid was as much to blame for the unrest in the country as any efforts to destabilize and make the country ungovernable. (With hindsight, what the intelligence community unfortunately did not sufficiently foresee, is that those who were so utterly useless at planning and managing their own “armed struggle” would be equally as useless when it came to actually governing…).

Our history isn’t done and dusted. Neither is it a litany of just wrong choices. There were also truly exceptional choices made, meaning that there’s a great deal to be learnt from our history that will be applicable to improving our future. Lessons flowing from unique achievements by our forebears, such as when they – unique among European colonists – took the correct “fork in the road” and identified fully with the language of their darker-skinned “taalgenote” instead of clinging to Dutch. Will we take the next logical step (as premier Hertzog had wanted to do) and admit that we and our brown fellow Afrikaans-speakers are one people? Thereby to once and for all do the right thing, but also to rid ourselves of the racist tag that will cling doggedly to us, if we doggedly cling to “whiteness”?

Another example of a correct though very tough strategic choice that our forebears had made, was when they chose to fight the mighty British Empire, rather than meekly submit.  Because of the fact they had fought and succeeded in disabusing the British of their illusions, Botha and Smuts could negotiate a settlement at Vereeniging that gave our people control over the sub-continent (these exceptional choices, of having accepted the indigenous language and having waged the first anti-colonial war on the continent, was pivotal in setting us apart from settlers in places like Algeria, Kenya, and the Congo, ensuring for us the vital acceptance by other Africans of being fully African ourselves – something I had experienced first-hand in my relationship with fellow African ambassadors,  when I was privileged to serve as South Africa’s first ambassador to previously hostile black Africa).

As in most other countries, our history also shows us the pivotal role played by exceptional leaders – and the negative influence of the ever-present less competent ones as well, often driven by their egos and vices. I will share with you how the intelligence community had viewed Mr Nelson Mandela many years before his release, knowing and describing him then already as someone who would dominate the political stage and overshadow even the most respected and intellectual white cabinet ministers of the time (at one stage I served as secretary to the KIK, the inter-departmental coordinating intelligence committee, which annually had to review Mr Mandela’s situation).

I also learnt how brave and patriotic men, most often men in the services, on too many occasions found themselves having to execute less than brilliant orders. Such as having excellent, brave operators go abroad to plant firebombs in the backyard of our most important ally and protector, while that host country was going through a period of terror bomb alerts of its own…. Or fight in far-away Angola while the home front was burning, in order that our “troepies” could gain conventional warfare combat experience, for the day when the great anticipated final military showdown would come…

I thank you for having read this first part and hope that you will do me the honour of reading Parts Two and Three as well.

(The focus keyword for helping you locate the second part will be:  Nongqai Series The Men Speak Dr Willem Steenkamp Part Two ).

For your convenience, here are links to other contributions in this Nongqai series:

Brig. Hennie Heymans (SAP-SB)  

Brig. Fanie Bouwer (SAP)