From: A Crime Against Humanity - Analysing the Repression of the Apartheid State edited by Max Coleman

The unbanning of the liberation movements on 2 February presented them not only with their most important milestone to date in the struggle for liberation but also with an ' altogether new challenge, namely, how to begin their transformation from underground movements into open party political structures, organising their constituencies in a climate of free political activity. The creation of such a climate was what the talks at Groote Schuur and Pretoria were all about. With the apartheid government seemingly moving towards the removal of repressive measures during these talks it appeared as if apartheid power was capitulating and that a free political climate was around the corner. The explosion of violence, which was to erupt in the Reef/Vaal complex within a few days of the signing of the Pretoria Minute on 6 August 1990, soon dispelled such notions. The hoped-for normalisation of free political activity did not materialise and the creation and organisation of party structures at branch and regional level had to give way to fire-fighting and emergency response to the slaughter of communities. In the year from July 1990 to June 1991, over 2000 violent incidents were to result in the loss of over 3000 lives and in the injury of nearly 7000.

The violence of that year was characterised by undisguised high-profile mass attacks by hostel dwellers from their hostel fortresses on township communities, particularly those in the Vaal/Reef complex - 34 major massacres were counted between July 1990 and June 1991. The complicity of the security forces in these actions became a matter of common knowledge.

Clearly, a new total strategy was emerging, a strategy of destabilisation and paralysis designed to strangle the growth of the liberation movements into fully fledged party organs.
The events and nature of this first year of destabilisation are described in the following publication from which this chapter is drawn:
The New Total Strategy (August 1991)

twelve months of community repression, July 1990 -June 1991
HRC, August 1991


Since July 1990, the Human Rights Commission has been monitoring the actions of 4 groups involved in the repression of township communities and has published its findings through the medium of monthly Area Repression Reports. A full year has now run its course, a critical year in terms of the explosion of violence that has taken place and the threat it imposes to peaceful negotiations. This report attempts to analyse the effects of the twelve months of repression on the community, to place in context the origins and purpose of that repression and to address the question of whether this repression is a key to a new and unfolding total strategy.

Part 1. Acts of repression

Security forces
Hit squads
The right wing
Summary of the toll

Part 2. Haphazard or orchestrated?

Allegations of collusion
The new total strategy

Part 1. Acts of Repression

Security forces

By security forces we refer primarily to the South African Police (SAP) and the South African Defence Force (SADF) but include also such entities as municipal or council police and homelands police and army. In monitoring the actions of the security forces the HRC has become aware of 2 major effects. Firstly, death and injury caused to the community primarily in the course of breaking up demonstrations, protest marches and other gatherings declared as illegal under various laws such as the Internal Security Act. Secondly, the arrest and charging of persons for taking part in unlawful gatherings and, to a much lesser extent, for other political activities. In essence, these actions of the security forces are the state's response to popular mass protest action. We also briefly examine allegations of security force complicity in activities falling outside the parameters of the law.

Death and injuries

There was a total of 238 deaths recorded, an average of 20 per month. During the same period about 10 times that number of injuries were recorded but the ratio is probably much higher than that since many injuries go unreported.


The powers of arrest as a response by the security forces to mass protest action are obvious from the figures. Over 8000 arrests were recorded during the period at an average monthly rate of 684.

Other security force actions

Apart from the 'legitimate' actions of the security forces as described above, the record abounds with allegations of unlawful actions perpetrated by the security forces during the 12-month period. Such unlawful actions run the full spectrum from acts of omission to acts of commission; from neglecting to act in performance of their proper and expected duties, to engaging in activities falling outside the law


Vigilantism in the South African context is a phenomenon born directly out of the creation of apartheid-motivated structures of government and administration. The structures concerned are the homelands (both the 'independent' and 'self-governing' varieties) and the black urban councils. Both structures are strongly rejected by the vast majority of the black population and strong pressures have built up for their dismantling. In response to these pressures, private 'armies' of-vigilantes were developed to support and defend these unpopular structures and came to receive the tacit and then the active encouragement of the state as an element which fitted in well with their 'total strategy' of the Emergency years. It was an element that helped to promote the image of 'black-on-black violence' at no political cost to the government.

Vigilante groups have been active at least since 1986 in many parts of the country, always in association with homeland governments and black councils. Their actions have been characterised by extreme violence calculated to bring terror and chaos into the local community and to disrupt normal life and organisation.

Loss of life has been extremely high. During the 12-month period monitored by HRC, the horrific total of 2640 vigilante-related deaths was recorded. This represents 83% of all politically related deaths for the period and illustrates how devastating the vigilante component is in relation to the overall violence directed at township communities. It should be pointed out that not all of the 2640 deaths were suffered by township dwellers. A certain proportion was inflicted on the attacking vigilante groups by way of defensive action, pre-emptive action or revenge killings. In many cases it has been impossible to identify the dead in terms of their political affiliation (or lack of it) but several monitors estimate a preponderance of township victims of up to 90%. HRC has recorded all deaths attributable to a vigilante-initiated situation as 'vigilante-related'. It must be emphasised that while elements associated with Inkatha bear the primary responsibility for the spread of vigilantism in Natal for the last 6 years or so and in the Transvaal over the last 12 months, the organisation of Inkatha itself cannot simply be characterised as a vigilante grouping given its long standing origins of a cultural organisation and its recent transformation into a political party.

Fig. 14 illustrates the month-by-month death toll wrought by vigilante-related actions, with political deaths from all sources shown for comparison. No attempt will be made here to catalogue the individual events and massacres, which took place during this period; these have been recorded in the monthly HRC Area Repression Reports and elsewhere. But attention needs to be drawn to significant events, which may have had a bearing on the pattern, which has emerged. For example, the explosion of violence in August/September was preceded by the launch of Inkatha as a political party in July, and erupted in earnest within days of the ANC suspending the armed struggle on 6 August. Thereafter the pattern conveys the impression of a tap being turned off and on, off and on, and off again.

The trough in October coincides with the final lifting of the State of Emergency, at that time still in effect in Natal, and also with F.W. de Klerk's visit to Europe. The trough in January/February coincides with the opening of parliament and the peace accord reached between Inkatha and ANC on the 29 January, and the trough in June with the government-sponsored peace summit.

The on/off pattern of township killings comes even more sharply into focus if death statistics for the period are analysed per area. The tap turning has taken place mainly in the PWV area (or more precisely, the Reef/Vaal complex). By contrast the picture in Natal shows a remarkable steadiness at an average of close to 100 deaths every month, confirming that the carnage there continues virtually uninfluenced by recent events in the rest of the country and has a momentum of its own.

The advent of vigilante violence into the Reef/Vaal complex from July 1990 seems to have been launched primarily from East Rand bases, with 61.4% of the area's deaths in the first 3 months. Soweto with 21.2% was not unscathed, nor was the Vaal with 8.0%.

Subsequently the target areas shifted, with the first vigilante-related death in Alexandra occurring in March, after being totally free of any such incidents for 8 months of the Reef township violence. Thereafter Alexandra became a prime target and also a sinister forerunner of a link-up between supporters of a black council and supporters of a homeland.

The general impression gained is that vigilante attacks in the Reef/Vaal complex are far from being haphazard or spontaneous. There is a distinct appearance of planning and control with the ability to move forces around the area and mount attacks at predetermined times.

Hit squads

Evidence for the existence of professionally organised and trained hit squads stretches back to the 1970s but it was only in the dying days of the 1980s that hard evidence came to light to confirm what had been suspected for a long time, namely, that these hit squads were the creation of the state, located within, trained by, and financed by the state structures of the South African Defence Force, Police and National Intelligence Service. Before and during the States of Emergency, the state-based hit squads performed a designated role within the total strategy guided by the National Security Management System under the control of the State Security Council. Their activities encompassed South Africa, the Southern African Region and the world beyond. Numerous hit squad entities have been identified and exposed thus far and doubtless there are others yet to be exposed.

Hit squads are characterised by the clear possession of expertise in the use of weapons, explosives, chemicals, etc. and their ease of access to resources such as information, equipment, bases and funding. In contrast to the use by vigilante groups of widespread and indiscriminate terror to achieve their ends, hit squads are highly focussed in their objectives which are to eliminate or intimidate identified and designated political opponents and to cripple or disrupt targeted organisations. The record of the 12-month period July 1990 to June 1991 shows the manner in which these 2 specific objectives are currently being pursued by hit squads in their present role of contributing to the onslaught on township communities.

However, before analysing the method and effect of these strikes, it must be emphasised that this is not the whole story. It is not possible, for instance, to quantify the way in which hit squads have acted as provocateurs in sparking off conflict, exploiting sectional divisions and in supporting vigilante groups. Running through the records of township violence is a trail of references to the involvement of whites, sometimes with blackened faces, in situations which at first sight appear to be simply vigilante or even security force related but which on closer scrutiny reveal a hidden hand.

Hit squad actions against individuals.

The ultimate neutralisation of the political opponents of apartheid lies in their assassination. Well over 100 political activists, both inside and outside the country, have suffered this fate at the hands of hit squads during the 1980s. Assassinations and attempted assassinations of this kind continue on almost a daily basis. During the 12-month period, HRC recorded the following:
• Assassinations 28
• Attempted assassinations 40
• Disappearances 1

In addition, the following actions, designed to intimidate, were recorded:
• Death threats against activists 14
• Abductions 6
• Harassment 5

Of the 94 targeted individuals listed above, 51 are or were members and office bearers of the ANC, 19 active in civic/residents associations and 10 trade unionists.

Hit squad actions against organisations
The other classical target of hit squads - anti-apartheid organisations - also continues to come under attack. For the 12-month period, HRC recorded the following:
• Attacks on buildings and offices 7
• Burglaries 3
• Smear campaigns 3

Of the 13 attacks, the ANC was the target6 times, and COSATU or its affiliates 5 times.

The right wing

The 'right wing' in the present South African context can be described as the residue of apartheid-supporting whites left over after the National Party and government opted for a reformist strategy. It consists of the Conservative Party and a proliferation of extra-parliamentary groups bitterly opposed to the abandonment of legalised apartheid and comprises about one third of the white population or about 5% of the total population. Within this residue there are militant elements, perhaps amounting to 1% or less of the total population, which are prepared to resort to violence to express their opposition. While some of this violence is directed at white groups supporting reform, the vast majority of actions are targeted on the black community.

In general there are 2 categories of right wing violence, the one involving semi-spontaneous and indiscriminate acts by individuals or small groups driven by emotional anger and the other organisationally based and involving planning and marshalling of resources.

During the 12-month period July 1990 to June 1991, HRC has compiled records of the militant right wing's involvement in 93 incidents, in the course of which they managed to bomb 14 targets, kill 24 people and injure a further 246. A wide range of targets has attracted the vitriolic attention of the right wing:
• political organisations, including NP, DP, ANC, SACP,
• workers, including trade unions;
• media, including newspapers, journalists, photographers;
• black users of amenities, including hospitals, parks, beaches, swimming pools, hotels, cinemas, shops;
• black 'invaders' of 'white' areas such as housing, schools, farms.

In addition, naked racial hatred and prejudice has been manifested in indiscriminate attacks of terror on individual blacks, railway stations, taxi-ranks and a synagogue.

Summary of the toll

The toll on the life of township communities over the 12-month period has been devastating. Over 3000 lives have been lost; nearly 7000 injuries have been recorded, but the real figure is certainly in excess of 10 000; no one can say how many are maimed for life; and over 8 000 have been arrested. In addition, tens of thousands have lost their homes and have become internal refugees.

Part 2. Haphazard or orchestrated?

Allegations of collusion

The records of the twelve months of Area Repression Reports abound with allegations of collusion between the 4 actors responsible for the unprecedented onslaught on township communities. Collusion between the security forces and vigilante groups, particularly elements of Inkatha, emerge with great frequency and in many different forms as outlined above. The latest revelations of police funding of Inkatha and its trade union wing UWUSA are added confirmation of the complicity, which has long been suspected. Regarding hit squads, there must be very few who now doubt their existence or their organisational base within the security forces. Their highly focussed role of striking specific targets complements the broad terror role of vigilante groups but there are also frequent allegations of direct collusion in training, arming and supporting vigilante activities and even in sparking off or participating in incidents. Right wing activities can best be described as individualistic and opportunistic, although the possibilities of collusion with vigilante groups cannot be ruled out, and there is evidence of security force personnel in their individual capacities taking part in right wing actions and making use of security force resources.

The picture that emerges is that there is a high degree of co-ordination between activities of the security forces, vigilantes and hit squads, a conclusion that has been drawn by many for some time now and a conclusion that is re-enforced almost daily as new revelations come to the surface. The patterns of township destabilisation, in terms of the location, timing and methods, strongly indicate the existence of an orchestrated strategy, the origins and motivation for which must be sought inside South African government circles.

What may still be in question is the level at which orchestration is taking place but all indications are that a new total strategy has emerged from the ashes of the old total strategy of the P.W. Botha era. Why did the old fail and how does the new hope to succeed?

The new total strategy

The apartheid government now stands precariously poised between 2 divergent and probably irreconcilable threats to its future survival. On the one hand the threat of economic collapse and, on the other, the threat of the loss of power.

To avert the threat of economic collapse it is absolutely imperative for the government to break the stranglehold of isolation from the international financial system and to this end it has embarked upon a major diplomatic and propaganda offensive to create the impression that repression and the structures of apartheid have been dismantled, that sanctions (which 'never worked anyway') are crumbling on all sides and that South Africa is now a safe area into which to pour capital, either by way of loans or investment. However, the measures which have had to be taken in order to convey this impression, namely the withdrawal or modification of oppressive and apartheid legislation and measures, have raised the spectre of the second threat, the threat of the loss of power.

In responding to the legitimate demands of the liberation movement, the government runs the risk of having to transfer power to the majority, which, of course, is the essence of the creation of a democratic order in South Africa. As yet, there is no evidence whatsoever that there is a readiness on their part to do that, in fact, quite the contrary. Up to this point, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the government is addressing the threat of the loss of power by adopting a twin track strategy of negotiating and destabilising simultaneously.

The negotiating track includes, inter alia, a vigorous programme of attracting support for National Party policies from the white 'left', from 'moderate' and conservative elements within the black community (African, 'Coloured' and 'Indian') and forming alliances with any political, religious and business groupings which may be opposed to the ANC for their own particular reasons. Most of these constituencies have in one way or another been beneficiaries of the apartheid system and would have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Such a grouping is already being recognised by the label of the 'Christian Democratic Alliance' (CDA).

The destabilisation track involves a whole host of less legitimate activities focussed on township communities which has resulted in the loss of thousands of lives in the explosion of violence dating particularly from 6 August 1990 when the ANC announced its suspension of the armed struggle. The purpose of such destabilisation is to ensure the maximum disruption, disarray, disunion and fragmentation of the anti-apartheid camp.

The overall strategy of this twin track approach is designed to enhance the chances of the government winning an election (should an election be inevitable) and so averting the threat of the loss of power. Recent opinion polls show that the strategy has succeeded to some extent in that the level of support for the ANC has dropped to around 50% but the National Party is still unlikely to muster more than 20%, even in the event of an alliance with Inkatha who appear to be enjoying a support of no more than 4%. Furthermore, there is a high risk of the destabilisation tactic running out of control and having a negative effect on the efforts to re-establish the confidence of foreign investors and financiers.

In summary, a delicate and fragile balance exists between the inter-related threats to the apartheid government of economic collapse and loss of power. Withholding access to democracy could result in the former; granting access will lead to the latter.


It is clear that the Nationalist government is engaged in a war of survival, or to put it another way, a struggle to retain power. It is a war, which dates back to 1948, when, upon its accession to power, it began to devise strategies to entrench that power for all time. Fig. 15 traces the evolution of the shift in strategy since that time in response to changing circumstances and pressures and helps to place today's strategy in context.

The strategy of grand apartheid occupied the years 1948 to 1984 with the development of the 'independent' and 'self-governing' homelands for the black rural population; the black local authorities for the black urban population; and the tricameral parliament, giving token representation to the 'Coloured' and Indian population but maintaining control in the hands of the whites. In spite of backing up these devices with repressive legislation and machinery, this strategy succeeded only in arousing the massive resistance of the disempowered majority and the rejection of the international community.

This reaction was so powerful that the Nationalist government was forced to shift into a different level of strategy, known as 'total strategy', tantamount to declaring war on the forces of resistance, and formalised in the declaration of a State of Emergency in 1985, continuing (with a minor interruption) until 1990. The simple objective of the strategy was to smash resistance and impose grand apartheid by maximum force.

Again the action produced an opposite reaction. Resistance stiffened and the liberation struggle intensified. The international financial system cut its links with South Africa. Total strategy turned into total disaster, and a new strategy became imperative in the interests of survival. The think-tank of the National Party, the secretive Broederbond organisation, is credited with analysing the probabilities of collapse and recommending the change in direction. So, the era of reform was born, becoming evident in 1989 with the unconditional release of Walter Sisulu and others and reaching a high point in February 1990 with the unbanning of organisations and the release of Nelson Mandela.

However, reform of itself, while designed to avert the threat of economic collapse, cannot ensure survival for the Nationalist government in terms of the retention of power and, in fact, as already mentioned, actually raises the spectre of the loss of power.

Thus, the strategy of reform must be supplemented by yet another level of strategy if the government is to walk the tight-rope between the twin threats of economic collapse and loss of power. That supplementary strategy we call the 'new total strategy'; total because it incorporates the use of all the forces at the government's command, including the state security forces, vigilantes and hit squads as described in this Special Report; total because it provides for simultaneous destabilising and undermining while engaging in negotiation. It is a strategy, which has already been rehearsed in Namibia with some success and in violation of an agreement requiring the South African government to be an impartial administrator in the transition process. How then can they be trusted to administer South Africa's transition to democracy?

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