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TRC Final Report
Page Number (Original) 34
Paragraph Numbers 140 to 154
1985–1989: The war comes home
140 By the end of 1984, the government appeared to have believed that it had turned the corner. The signing of the Nkomati Accord and a similar earlier negotiated agreement with Swaziland, together with the considerable success of the Security Branch’s anti-terrorist units, held out the promise that MK’s supply and infiltration routes had been severely compromised if not totally cut off. The Tricameral system, albeit widely rejected, was in place and unrest was still relatively localised. Moreover, the decision in August 1984 to deploy the army in the townships strengthened the capacity of the security forces on the ground.
141 However, by the second half of 1985, unrest had spread throughout South Africa. Whereas previously unrest had occurred sporadically in the homelands and in the rural areas, in the post-1985 period it became more sustained. The widespread demonstrations and more violent forms of dissent and opposition which began in the Vaal Triangle in August 1984 surprised not only the government, but also the ANC.
142 At its Kabwe Conference in 1985, the ANC formulated a strategic response which it hoped would enable it to capitalise on the ‘popular revolt’ and turn it into a people’s war, possibly even an insurrection. However, the Kabwe Conference had to deal with other problems. These included the dissatisfaction of the many trained MK combatants who had been kept in camps in Angola, and could not be deployed inside the country because of logistic problems.
143 While the ANC, with hindsight, claims credit for the development of the strategy of people’s war and ‘rendering the country ungovernable’, and the security police argue similarly that the ANC was behind the violence which prevailed, there are two important caveats to this interpretation. The first is that the ANC was responding to violence which had already erupted and was spreading largely spontaneously around the country. The pamphlet released on 25 April 1985, calling on people to “Make apartheid unworkable! Make the country ungovernable!” was an attempt to keep up with the rising militancy in the townships. The second is that the ANC’s Kabwe conference was called primarily in response to the dissatisfaction of its soldiers in the Angolan camps and the mutinies of 1984. In the event, the ‘uprising’ gave the Kabwe conference strategic focus, and the problems of the camps were not given much time.
144 The military operations of MK in this period can be categorised as follows: Firstly, there were bomb attacks on urban targets. The targets selected were meant to be security force related, but the reality is that more civilians than security force personnel were killed in such explosions. The reasons included technical incompetence, faulty devices, poor reconnaissance and poor judgement or misunderstanding by operatives. In addition, there was some deliberate ‘blurring of the lines’ which gave operatives the leeway to vent their anger by placing bombs in targets that were not strictly military. Lastly, there were instances when explosives were tampered with or security force infiltration resulted in civilian deaths.
145 The second type of military operation was the ‘landmine campaign’ of 1985–86 in the northern and eastern Transvaal. The thinking behind this campaign was that these areas were defined by the South African security forces as being part of a ‘military zone’, and the white farmers were conscripted into a commando. The ANC halted this campaign when it became clear that most victims of such explosions were civilians, including black farm labourers and the wives and children of farmers.
146 The third type of operation involved engaging in combat with South African security force members, sometimes offensively and sometimes defensively. The casualty rate was very high for MK guerrillas in urban areas, with few losses to the security forces; in rural encounters MK seemed to fare somewhat better.
147 The fourth type of activity involved the killing of individual security force personnel and people who were deemed to be ‘traitors’ or ‘enemy agents’. Security policemen were naturally considered to be important targets; but as the South African government reinforced its security forces by using rapidly-trained black policemen – both in support of the Black Local Authority councillors and in support of the riot police – these police became targets as well. Key leaders of violent vigilante movements or ‘warlords’ also came to be considered ‘legitimate’ targets for MK soldiers, even though they were not formally defined as members of the security forces.
148 The ‘people’s war’ strategy meant the blurring of distinctions between trained, armed soldiers and ordinary civilians who were caught up in quasi-military formations such as the amabutho or the self-defence units (SDUs). On the one hand, the MK guerrillas were not identified by uniforms and used the civilian population as ‘cover’. On the other, amabutho or ‘comrades’ were youth who, in the 1980s, formed themselves into quasi-military formations. While neither the UDF nor the ANC controlled these structures directly through any ‘chain of command’, they were seen at the time as being broadly ‘in line’ with the strategy of a ‘people’s war’.
149 MK attempted to ‘marry’ the armed struggle and the mass formations by infiltrating guerrillas who then selected youths from such formations for short military training courses. Sometimes this occurred ‘on the spot’; sometimes they were taken to front-line states for further training. In the process of implementing such a strategy, the general population, especially the youth, became militarised and ‘hardened’ to violence and brutality. Encouragement or sanction by the liberation movements, combined with a lack of direct control, can be seen as having led to many gross violations of the rights of others through ‘people’s courts’, ‘necklace murders’ and other brutal acts. Many innocent civilians suffered as a result – killed either by security forces for ‘harbouring’ combatants, or by amabutho for their association with state representatives.
150 In Natal, the anger of UDF-supporting youth became focused on Inkatha members, who often served as the equivalent of councillors in KwaZulu, controlling local resources and operating under a system of patronage. This conflict became violent in 1984 and escalated towards the end of the decade. After the unbanning of the ANC and the transformation of Inkatha into the Inkatha Freedom Party (in 1990), the prevalence of weaponry led to the further escalation of conflict. The ANC denied that it ever engaged in a policy of attacking members of other political parties, including the IFP. However, during the period when the ANC was still banned, many people from Inkatha and other rival political groupings, such as AZAPO, were attacked by UDF supporters. Such actions were often perceived as ANC attacks.
151 Meanwhile, internal support for the ANC began to be displayed publicly in an increasingly defiant manner. Moreover, this support, traditionally confined to African areas, appeared to find significant resonance in coloured and Indian areas. Increasing support by major Western powers for a democratic settlement was combined with a small but vocal sense of disquiet from local business. For the first time since it assumed power, the government appeared unable to control, let alone quell, resistance.
152 These internal and external events led to a reappraisal by the SSC. By 1985, the SSC saw the situation as a growing spiral of threat. The realisation that the war had come home, and the move to an aggressive internal proactive policy was encapsulated in an SSC minute on 18 July 1985: “The chairman points out that he is convinced that the brain behind the unrest situation is situated inside South Africa, and that it must be found and destroyed. Action thus far has been too reactive, and the security forces must attend to this urgently.” (18 July 1985, translated from Afrikaans.)
153 In accordance with these sentiments, police reaction to the demonstrations and other dissent became increasingly robust, and a considerably hardened approach began to develop. However, the more intensive police and army surveillance of the townships became, the more the vulnerable underbelly of the security forces came under attack – councillors, black policeman living in the townships, suspected informers, anyone associated with such people and increasingly even those who did not adhere to boycotts initiated by the mass democratic movement. The centrality of such individuals and groups to the success of the government’s reform initiative put further pressure on the state’s political programme.
154 The extent of the challenge posed by the internal unrest and the ANC can be gauged by a special meeting convened by the KIK in October 1985 to discuss whether it was possible to avoid a settlement with the ANC. Attended by top-level generals and intelligence personnel, the meeting referred to the massive national and international support for the ANC and to the widespread perception that the government was losing ground. While clear differences of emphasis are evident, the consensus was that any negotiation should take place from a position of strength, not weakness and a settlement should be avoided until the balance of power could be shifted. In the words of General Groenewald: “This is the stage when one can negotiate from a position of strength and can afford to accommodate the other party, given that it has largely been eliminated as a threat.” (Translated from Afrikaans.)