Truth & Reconciliation Commission Amnesty Application

You are here: homehome libraryarticles & documents

Ghosts of the past

by Stan Winer

The creators of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission thought that by making amnesty for political crimes conditional upon full disclosure, the truth about South Africa's past would emerge. The fact that amnesty was conditional upon full disclosure was supposed to have motivated perpetrators to reveal all of the salient information about their crimes. But while 7,060 individuals came before the Amnesty Committee, providing significant information, it is commonly agreed that perpetrators who did not approach the TRC outnumbered by far those who did, and the majority of those who testified failed to reveal information about many of their crimes. They knew that the threat of prosecution was weak, and where they were confident investigators had no knowledge of offences other than those for which amnesty was being sought, perpetrators simply kept quiet. It had become quite clear to them from the outset that the State was unlikely to bring charges against them because, among other things, the TRC's investigative department was grossly amateurish and inexperienced. This limited the Amnesty Committee's ability to determine with certainty whether or not perpetrators had completely disclosed their crimes.

Reconciliation through truth was supposed to entail a departure from the discredited consciousness of the past towards a new, shared memory of the past. This the TRC sought to accomplish through the invention of a new national biography made up of idioms and metaphors for understanding collective experience --feel-good terms such as "forgiveness", "repentance", "healing", "rainbow nation", "remembering and telling" and contrarily, "forgiving and forgetting". The TRC thus reduced its mandate to a childish level of primness. It tried to create a safe, new imagery that people could identify with, a new social bond. This mythical bond conveniently shifted attention from the extravagant waste of tax-payers' money. Of the nearly 20 truth commissions have been active during the past 25 years, and of which Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and South Africa are the best known examples, the South African commission was by far the most expensive and the most lavishly staffed. At the height of its work the South African TRC had approximately 400 staff members, significantly more than any of the previous Truth Commissions. Its annual budget also exceeded that of other Truth Commissions at about R63-million (US$9-million) per year, with the work of the Commission dragging on well beyond its planned three years, before finally sending out the message that people can commit the most heinous crimes and get away with it. Only one, comparatively minor, prosecution has so far resulted from the long-winded TRC process.

The generous amnesties handed out by the TRC signified that post-apartheid South Africa could not prosecute every butcher of the old regime without destroying the social cohesion necessary for building a new, democratic society. But largely ignoring the crimes of the butchers for the sake of national unity is no solution either, for they may come back to haunt future generations like malevolent ghosts. And this is exactly what happened in 2002, when scores of right-wing terrorists plotted to violently overthrow the democratically elected post-apartheid government.

The strategy of these conspirators is detailed in a document seized by investigators when they arrested 22 men, including three senior army officers, on charges of murder, treason and possession of illegal arms and explosives. The document outlines plans to establish a rebel army of about 4,500 to overthrow the government and replace it with a military regime run entirely by white supremacists. The conspirators planned first of all to unleash chaos in the country to cover the rebel army's movements while a 50-man death squad would eliminate "traitors" and blame the actions on black people. The rebel army, to "restore order", would then contrive a 10-day electricity blackout under cover of which airports would be closed, aircraft grounded, and arms depots and combat vehicles seized. A final stage would be the inauguration of a military government.

This strategy bears a striking resemblance to some of the theoretical writings of General Andre Beaufre, the main strategic theorist upon whose ideas the French Army and the rightwing Organisation de l'Armee Secrete (OAS) terrorist movement relied in fighting the Algerian independence movement from 1954 to 1962. Beaufre's military textbook Strategy was also required reading at the South African military academy during the apartheid years. The apartheid SA Army had sent a young army officer named Magnus Malan to serve as a military observer in Algeria during the 1950s under the command of General Beaufre. Malan was later promoted to commander in chief of the apartheid SA Army before becoming minister of defence in the apartheid cabinet. A high court judge later acquitted him of "any wrongdoing" during the apartheid years.

The OAS, as described by historian Alistair Horne in his definitive work A Savage War of Peace , was comprised of seditious right-wing French army officers and fanatical Algerians of European descent striving to retain Algeria under French colonial control. In their fight against the Front de LibÁƒÂƒ©ration Nationale or National Liberation Front, they were anxious to avenge the earlier defeat of the French expeditionary corps by the communists in Indo-China and also the army's other humiliations in Morocco, Tunisia, and at Suez. In their ranks were covert action specialists working for the French army's 5th (Psychological Action) Bureau, and officers commanding French Foreign Legion and paratroop units in Algeria. Communist guerrilla warfare, according to them, did not have the objective of capturing strategic territory as in conventional warfare, but aimed to "conquer" the population through secret politico-military networks and the systematic application of " action psychologique ". From now on communism was to be fought on "equal terms", using the communists "own" methods. Their objective was to create a climate of tension, anxiety and insecurity, thereby conditioning the masses to accept State authority while alienating the masses from the liberation movement.

The theoretical framework of these embittered officers rested on the fact that the communist Viet Minh in Indo-China had linked inextricably all military operations to political, social, psychological and especially ideological elements. It was therefore essential to create an extended military battlefield that included all aspects of civil society, especially the social and ideological spheres. Having "identified" the enemy's techniques, the proponents of "counter-terrorism" then sought to neutralise the enemy by adopting the enemy's "own" methods and turning them against the enemy. Hence the coming into being of a strategy combining political misperceptions with a sophisticated array of psychological warfare techniques.

The collapse of the OAS came about after a failed 1958 military revolt in Algiers and a "general's putsch" in April 1961 which brought down the French government and threatened the political survival of its Gaullist successor, the Fifth Republic. Having failed to secure the "moral regeneration" of France many of its members were forced to flee abroad, notably to Argentina and also to Portugal where Lisbon became their strategic centre, with official encouragement from the Portuguese secret police. In return for asylum and other incentives, they helped train Portugal's foreign counter-insurgency and parallel police units, forming the embryo of future "counter-terrorist" groups deployed around the world under the tutelage of battle-hardened OAS fugitives.

In Lisbon, former OAS members plotted to destabilise and destroy national liberation movements throughout Africa and their exploits galvanised right-wing extremists everywhere. An internal report written by one former OAS member was captured in the mid-1970s by leftist officers of the Armed Forces Movement in Lisbon. The captured document, shown to researchers including the author of this article, endorsed bluntly a "strategy of tension" that would "work on public opinion and promote chaos in order to later raise up a defender of the citizens against the disintegration provoked by subversion and terrorism". In other words, martial law under a right-wing military regime.

Such ideas later found resonance in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia as the country's first free election campaigns approached a climax in February 1980, when several churches became the targets of terrorist bombs. A well-orchestrated press campaign swiftly attributed the bombings to "communist atheists" -- an apparent reference to the national liberation movement. Then, in what turned out to be the last in a series of explosions, somebody blew himself up when the bomb he was planting exploded prematurely. Papers found on what was left of the dead man's body identified him as a member of the Rhodesian army's infamous Selous Scouts counter-insurgency unit. The Rhodesians had similarly used "pseudo terrorists" -- black special forces members posing as Patriotic Front guerrillas -- in the murders of missionaries based in remote districts, the murders then being attributed falsely to the liberation forces. Catholic Bishop Donald Lamont, before he was imprisoned for a year, stripped of his Rhodesian citizenship and finally expelled from the country, had no doubts about who was really responsible for the killings: "If it were the objective of the guerrillas to kill missionaries, there would not be one of us left alive."

The Rhodesians had extensive experience in "pseudo gang" counter-insurgency doctrine dating back to 1956 when British Commonwealth forces in Malaya had included the Rhodesian African Rifles, and the Rhodesians had also modelled their "pseudo gangs" along the lines of the British counter-insurgency strategy during the 1950s Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. After Zimbabwe became independent, former Rhodesian Special Forces personnel were to find many opportunities for exercising their talents in the South African Army's so-called Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), which was formed in April 1986. In fact, the CCB itself had evolved originally from D-40, a Special Forces unit made up almost entirely by former Rhodesian soldiers, which in also transmuted into the SA Army's 3 Reconnaissance Regiment, which carried out "pseudo gang" operations against SWAPO in Namibia and Angola.

By the early 1990s, the effects of international sanctions had combined with economic mismanagement and profligate military spending to bring South Africa to the brink of bankruptcy, forcing the apartheid government into political negotiations with the liberation movement. Behind the scenes, however, the death-squad activities of the CCB, combined with those of the SA Police's so-called Vlakplaas unit to become synonymous with a "third force" in South African politics -- the other two forces being the liberation movement and the crumbling apartheid government. This "third force" may well have been nothing other than a parallel hierarchy asserting openly the strength of its covert institutional support in the highest circles of apartheid governance. Indiscriminate terrorist attacks on rail and road commuters became an almost daily occurrence in the Johannesburg area, leaving hundreds of civilians dead or injured.

What the "third force" seems to have contrived was not an outright military coup d'etat along classical lines, but selective covert intervention in the form of attritional terrorism. This would allow it to later raise itself up as a "defender of the people" against chaos, anarchy and terrorism -- virtually a textbook rendering of OAS strategy in Algeria aimed at the imposition of martial rule under a military regime. The cynical manipulation of base fear in the service of racial hatred reached its climax in the run-up to the country's first democratic elections. The former apartheid regime -- then part of a transitional government -- made much of wooing black voters on a platform proclaiming "black leaders have failed to halt the violence", which was blamed by white politicians on "warring black factions". The gunmen involved in many of these "black-on-black" incidents used Soviet-made AK-47 rifles and Makarov pistols to create the impression that ANC "terrorists" were responsible, and police reports faithfully repeated by the media always blamed the ANC.

The truth of the matter, however, may be somewhat different. The Afrikaans newspaper Vrye Weekblad later learned that the apartheid government had diverted taxpayers' money to a police-run strategic deception unit called Stratcom. According to former Stratcom unit head Vic McPherson, whose disclosures to Vrye Weekblad have never been disputed, more than 40 undercover police agents, paid informers, unwitting "sources" and "friendly" journalists throughout the South African mainstream media had participated in Stratcom projects. Jailed security police death-squad commander Colonel Eugene de Kock also later admitted in court that his own involvement in Stratcom during the 1980s had included clandestine attacks on white people, which were falsely attributed to black people, in order to provoke a right-wing backlash. Such a backlash would undoubtedly have created ideal conditions for the imposition of martial law and the seizure of power by a rightwing military government.

Such aspirations are consistent in all major particulars with the subversive strategy of the 20 Boeremag extremists currently facing trial -- two of their leaders having recently escaped without trace during proceedings in the Pretoria high court. Whatever the outcome of the marathon Boeremag trial, now in its fourth year, it is certainly the case that the conspirators' strategy of subversion is neither notable for any originality, nor is it even uniquely South African. A similar pattern of unbridled racial hatred and counter-revolutionary violence underpinned not only the former apartheid State but also the entire history of counter-revolutionary warfare in diverse regions of the world and over long periods of time. The subject may be of some importance, because the present derives from the past and the future from both; and when linkages between cause and effect become deformed, errors of knowledge, judgement and insight may continue to be repeated.

Large sections of the South African public and the world at large, continue to laud the "miraculous achievements" of the TRC in "bringing about reconciliation" in South Africa. However, such praise speaks more about the role of expectations in influencing perceptions than it does of objective reality. It is striking how often people preserve some images in the face of what is clear evidence to the contrary, ignoring evidence that does not fit, and twisting it to make it confirm or at lease not contradict popularly held but groundless beliefs. The success of the TRC is thus largely a matter of individual value judgement rather than the objective outcome of any principled quest for historical truth. South Africans have accordingly ended up with two histories: an official TRC-type history inducing a false sense of complacency, and a hidden history, buried and unmarked, providing an ideal breeding ground for organisations such as the Boeremag.


On counter-insurgency strategy in Algeria: Andre Beaufre, Introduction to Strategy , London: Faber &faber 1963.

On Magnus Malan in Algeria: M. Phillips and M. Swilling, "The Politics of State Power in the 1980s", Johannesburg: Centre for Policy Studies, University of Witwatersrand, 1988 (not distributed).

On OAS fugitives in Portugal: interviews by the author with officers of Co-ordinating Committee, Armed Forces Movement ( Movimento das ForÁƒÂƒÂ§as Armadas --MFA), Lisbon, 1975

On Rhodesian pseudo-gangs: David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, The Struggle for Zimbabwe , London: Faber 1981, pp.110-11; Ken Flower, Serving Secretly, London: John Murray 1987, pp.114-5.

On the Rhodesians in Malaya: Christopher Owen, The Rhodesian African Rifles , London: Leo Cooper, 1970.

On the origin of "pseudo gangs" in Kenya: Frank Kitson, Gangs and Counter-gangs , London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1960.

On former Rhodesians in SA Special Forces: Patrick Laurence, Death Squads: Apartheid's secret weapon , London: Penguin 1990, p.30.

[South African writer and researcher Stan Winer is author of the book Between the Lies: Rise of the media-military-industrial complex , London: Southern Universities Press, 2004. A free PDF download of the full text is available at ]

Last updated : 31-Mar-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 31-Mar-2011

Support South African History Online

Donate and Make African History Matter

South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.

Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.