Apartheid - A Crime Against Humanity: The Unfolding of Total Strategy 1948-1989

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The content of this article was taken from the book A Crime Against Humanity - Analysing the Repression of the Apartheid State edited by Max Coleman, (Cape Town)

'Total strategy' is a term with which most South Africans will be familiar. It came into common use during the era of P.W. Botha and was portrayed by its authors as the apartheid government's response to the perceived threat of the 'total onslaught'.

The total onslaught, the story went, was the threat posed to South Africa (and indeed to the Western world) by the Soviet Union's designs on the strategic value of South Africa as the industrial powerhouse of the African continent, the guardian of the sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope, and in particular the possessor of enormous mineral wealth, which combined with the mineral wealth profile of the Soviet Union would enable that country to hold the world to ransom. Furthermore, there were revolutionary forces at work within South Africa, which were intent upon supporting and fuelling this threat.

    This ingenious invention was intended to serve many purposes:

  • to win the support of Western governments;
  • to justify draconian repression of the black population or that part of it displaying tendencies towards toppling white power;
  • to brainwash the white population into closing ranks, particularly within the security forces (defence and police) and within the judiciary, even to the extent of mentally condoning torture and assassination of political activists;
  • to justify destabilization of South Africa's neighbours, through cross-border raids, through support for Renamo, Unita and other renegade forces and through military invasion of Angola.

The irony of the doctrine of total strategy was that it was designed to portray the apartheid government as the sole bastion of Western democracy on the continent of Africa, whereas the real purpose of total strategy was to maintain apartheid power in the most undemocratic manner imaginable, serving the interests of 13% of the population at tile expense of 87% of the population.

Could there have been a total strategy without the spectre of a total onslaught? Certainly the justification to the international community and to the white population of South Africa would have been a lot more difficult. And perhaps the title would have been inappropriate. But undoubtedly the substance would have been the same for apartheid power had to be defended.

In Part A of this book, an attempt is made to reveal how multi-faceted and total the scope of total strategy really was. A hint of this totality was given by no less an authority than General J.V. van der Merwe, former Commissioner of the South African Police, in a submission to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice during January 1995 on the desirability (or otherwise) of establishing a Truth Commission. We quote verbatim from a memorandum forming part of this submission:

As an example the so-called 'Simonstown Deliberations' of 1979 gave specific orders with regard to the gathering of information and cross border operations to the Security Forces. These orders gave rise to the creation and implementation of a national intelligence gathering capability directed at counter-revolutionary actions. This included the utilization of the South African Police where the emphasis was placed on abnormal intelligence gathering methodology and not according to international norms and practices.

The 'Simonstown Deliberations' were followed over a number of years by decisions taken by the government of the day in conjunction with the heads of the Security Forces, the Department of National Intelligence and other security mechanisms in committees and structures like the State Security Council and the Co-ordinating Intelligence Committee. These structures gave orders concerning counter revolutionary actions on a continuous basis, whether by direct or implied authority. By mutual agreement it was decided that the SA Defence Force was to be responsible for the foreign dimension, the SAP for the internal dimension and the National Intelligence Service and the Department of Foreign Affairs would support both dimensions with intelligence back up. Practical examples of this co-operation include the 'Teenrewolusion? Inligtingstaakspan' (Trewits), which was responsible for the identification of organizational structures and individuals involved in the armed struggle of the liberation movements. Another example was the Division for Strategic Communications, a sub-structure of the Secretariat of the State Security Council of which the SADF was the primary functionary and the NIS provided the administrative infrastructure. These structures were fully sanctioned by the Nationalist government and senior members of the cabinet were briefed on a continuous and structured basis.

The system used members of the public, academics, senior personnel in the public service, informers, agents and members of the security forces in a covert manner. Many of these people at present hold senior positions in society. Some current members of parliament and provincial legislatures have unwittingly provided the system with strategic information. In view of the fact that terrorism is internationally accepted as a serious crime, the government had a close relationship with various foreign intelligence agencies to provide information.

The above extract provides an interesting insight into how widely the net was cast in marshalling various players in the total strategy and including not only the security forces, National Intelligence Service and Department of Foreign Affairs as well as specially created co-ordinating structures, but in addition members of the public in all spheres and even extending to foreign intelligence agencies. Much attention will be given to this network under 'Covert operations' (Chapter 6).

It must be pointed out that while total strategy has its origins in the cycles of repression and resistance dating back to 1948 (and earlier, many will argue), it was only subsequent to the Soweto Uprising of 1976 that the need for a total strategy was formally identified and the phrase came into common usage. In 1977, P.W. Botha as minister of defence at the time introduced a White Paper on Defence, in which the following occurs:

The process of ensuring and maintaining the sovereignty of a state's authority in a conflict situation has, through the evolution of warfare, shifted from the purely military to an integrated national action ... The resolution of conflict in the times in which we now live demands interdependent and coordinated action in all fields - military, psychological, economic, political, sociological, technological, diplomatic, ideological, cultural, etc. We are today involved in war whether we like it or not. It is therefore essential that a total strategy [be] formulated at the highest level.

And so was born total strategy and the National Security Management System as its vehicle of implementation and coordination. The Simonstown Deliberations of 1979 referred to by General van der Merwe above must have been one of the first gatherings of the designers of formal total strategy to take stock of the means available to them and determine how to put them to best use. In Part A, both the overt and covert components of this repressive armoury come under scrutiny.

Immediately following this introduction, the reader will find a chronology of major events, which occurred during this period, and also a statistical summary of the impact of repression in this time.

Last updated : 07-Aug-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 24-Jul-2013