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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: "Total Onslaught"

In 1977, PW Botha, then time Minister of Defence, mapped out the way his department's analysis of the threats facing the country: "The resolution of the conflict in the times in which we now live demands inter-dependent and co-coordinated action in all fields: military, psychological, economic, political, sociological, technological, diplomatic, ideological, cultural, etcetera. We are today involved in a war whether we like it or not. It is therefore essential that a total national strategy (is) formulated at the highest level."1

During the 1970s, but especially after the Soweto crisis, government spending on both internal and external security underwent a massive increase. In 1978 security spending accounted for 21 per cent of the government's budget and over 5 per cent of GNP. Every male over the age of 18 underwent two years of compulsory military service. The South African Defence Force (SADF) consisted of almost 17,000 personnel, of who about 5,000 were Black, and 38,000 white citizens (conscripts). There were also 255,000 white citizen reserve military personnel. In addition there were the South African Police (SAP), now better trained and equipped to handle mass protests, a sophisticated Security Police with their network of informers, and BOSS (Bureau of State Security), the civilian intelligence agency.

As it became more obvious that apartheid and separate development (previously always denoted without caps) were no longer working, there was an ideological void, which PW Botha moved to fill with the concept of a Total Onslaught.

The Total Onslaught in turn required a Total Strategy. The nature of what the NP perceived as the Total Onslaught facing South Africa was spelled out by the party's submission to the TRC:

An important dimension of the conflict was South Africa's involvement in the global ideological struggle between the West and expansionist Soviet Communism.

Those who fought on the side of the Government believed that they were defending their country against what they perceived to be the aggressive expansion of Soviet Communism. They had ample reason to believe this. The Sixth Congress of the Communist International had resolved, as early as 1928, that

"The CPSA (Communist Party of South Africa) should pay particular attention to the ANC. Our aim should be to transform the ANC into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organisation."

From the 'sixties onwards, the ANC received substantial aid from the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. It was closely allied to - some would say dominated by - the South African Communist Party. The SACP was, in turn, one of the most Stalinist and pro-Soviet parties in the world. Among other actions, it had enthusiastically supported the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. The Soviet threat was not simply McCarthyite paranoia on the part of the South African Government. The reality was that SACP members held dominant positions within the ANC's National Executive Committee and that Soviet surrogate forces had established strong positions in a number of Southern African countries, particularly in Angola. In September 1987 Soviet and Cuban-led MPLA forces clashed with UNITA and SADF forces at the Lomba River in southern Angola in what was probably the largest set-piece battle in the continent since the Battle of El Alemein.

The SACP's agenda was to use its position in the ANC-led alliance to promote a two-phase revolution. According to a policy document produced by the SACP politburo in May 1986: " the immediate attainment of the socialist revolution is not on the agenda. This does not mean that we are putting it off but, to quote Lenin's words, we 'are taking the first steps towards it in the only possible way, along the only correct path, namely the path of a democratic republic.'"

The perception of those on the side of the Government was accordingly that the installation of an ANC government would lead to Communist domination. They believed that in conducting their struggle against the ANC, they were playing an important role in the West's global resistance to the expansion of Soviet Communism.

By redefining the security interests of the South African state, PW Botha gave it a coherence and unity of purpose which it had not before. The concept of Total Onslaught filled the ideological void. Total Onslaught sustained itself with its apocalyptic visions of nothing less than the destruction of the South African state by the marauding forces of Communism and the imposition of a Communist-dominated ANC government. To avert this threat, the Total Strategy emphasized the need to modify or abandon some aspects of both apartheid and separate development in favor of the co-operative participation of all populations groups. Reform, therefore, was simply another way of perpetuating white minority domination. The white minority would share power on some superficial levels but without actually giving up power in any significant form.2

The National Security Management System (NSMS) was instituted in 1979 as the instrument to co-ordinate all state actions and implement reforms in line with "total onslaught strategy" with the additional capacity of the SADF, particularly its intelligence wing.

The ANC posited in its submission to the TRC that:

The NSMS, and its later versions, were premised on the belief that it is possible to manage change through the redefinition of political, military and economic constructs in a manner to the advantage of those who hold the levers of state power. The underlying conceptual framework of the NSMS was that 80% of actions to contain the security threat should be political, and only 20% military; it was believed that the majority of people were politically neutral, and only a small radical elite of "agitators", "communists" and "terrorists" existed, who should be killed. In this scenario, there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the status quo. The apartheid state sought to create political stability through limited reforms to apartheid combined with a variety of measures to counter the influence of pro-democracy groups and the liberation movement; these ranged from setting up a range of "counter-organisations," to attempts to brainwash or psychologically influence target groups, to measures designed to defuse material grievances by upgrading infrastructure and the provision of services, particularly in those areas considered trouble spots or "oliekol" (oil spot) townships.

This period saw the genesis of the trend towards increasingly sophisticated covert operations, continuing into the 1990s, which included illegal methods (even by the regime's own standards) to suppress and disrupt the resistance movement. In addition to attempts to bolster the discredited Bantustans and community councillor systems in general, there were renewed attempts to find or create "credible" alternatives to the ANC.

Such initiatives included psychological pressure and misinformation directed at the leadership of Inkatha to drive them further away from the liberation movement. These methods drew on theories developed on the basis of experiences of other wars against national liberation movements, and from methods to destroy dissent adopted by other right-wing regimes, particularly in Latin America.

Interestingly, when General Magnus Malan informed his colleagues that the problem was 80 per cent political and 20 per cent military he was describing the outlines of a framework that would open the way to a settlement of the conflict. The ANC, on the other hand, interpreted the statements as actions necessary on the part of the state "to contain the security threat."One statement, two entirely different interpretations.

The NSMS became fully functional in the mid-1980s as the government took steps to curb the activities of the mass movements. As the crisis deepened, the intelligence services, particularly Military Intelligence, increasingly assumed political influence and even executive control over this shadow bureaucracy, which in some respects duplicated the existing administration and displaced its decision-making structures. The State Security Council (SSC), although technically a committee of the cabinet, usurped many of the cabinet's executive functions. The SSC effectively ran the country as a super-cabinet without any such statutory power, giving credence to the notion that a creeping military coup was taking place in South Africa.3

Security and reform went hand in hand, with security always enjoying priority. The NSMS was the instrument of the highly centralized state control, in effect a separate arm of government responsible only to the State President. It drew together key public officials, cabinet ministers, politicians, and the security chiefs, who together wield extraordinary power in South Africa. The NSMS operated at the national, regional, and local levels, and its management centers cover most of the towns in South Africa,

The period 1979-87 saw the militarization of South Africa on an unprecedented scale and the rise of the new ruling elite -- the securocrats. The securocrats employed yet another variation of the "total strategy" formula -- the total counter-revolutionary strategy -- in the aftermath of the nationwide protests of 1984. The NSMS became the pivotal command structure to implement and coordinate the new strategy.4

The new strategy set the counter-revolutionary agenda: Law and order would have to be restored before reforms could be introduced; socio-economic development or "social reform" would have to precede political reform; constitutional development would have to begin at the local level and proceed upwards. In short, political reform would be forthcoming only when security interests had been addressed.

In the 1n the 1980s there were successive States of Emergency in which all resources of the state were harnessed by the NSMS to smash new forms of popular resistance that had emerged. The leadership of the UDF and its affiliates were ruthlessly rounded up and restricted. Scores of thousands of people were detained without trial; and many more were shot dead, maimed, whipped, tear-gassed and baton-charged. Open political activity by legal anti-apartheid groups became virtually impossible.5

Besides the more conventional forms of state harassment and repressive laws, anti-apartheid activists and organisations were increasingly subjected to new terror tactics: "vigilante" groups which sought out and murdered activists, or launched mass attacks on communities with the tacit or overt support of the SAP; pseudo-revolutionary groups which sowed confusion and death in communities; criminal gangs which appeared to operate above the law as long as most of their victims were pro-democracy activists; assaults, arson, slashed or over-inflated tyres, dead cats nailed to doors, bricks crashing through windows, bombed and burgled offices, kidnappings, increasing attacks on exiles and activists in neighbouring states, and the ever-present threat of death as mysterious "hit squads" stepped up their activities. 6

If resistance took on a mass character in the 1980s, so did repression and the deliberate flouting of human rights by the security forces and their masters.

Under the direction of the SSC, 13 Interdepartmental Committees co-coordinated the activities of relevant government departments. At a regional and local level it co-coordinated the work of ten Joint Management Centres (JMCs) the boundaries of which coincided with the ten Regional SADF Commands (and one other JMC for the Walvis Bay military area); 60 sub-JMCs with their boundaries corresponding to those of the SAP Districts, and over 350 mini JMCs existing at municipal / SADF Commando area level.

The JMC structures co-coordinated the "social upliftment" programs, security and intelligence gathering. Every JMC structure consisted of four committees: welfare intelligence security and communications - more accurately, disinformation and propaganda. Government departments at all levels, parastatals, and business representatives were drawn into the network, and "community liaison forums" were set up in an attempt to extend the network to grassroots level.

The SSC therefore controlled a totalitarian national network which reached into every part of the country, identifying anti-apartheid activities, formulating a continuous national security profile, and making decisions on action at national and local levels which could then be implemented by the formal law enforcement structures backed by legislation, or by other structures acting covertly.

By mid-1986 the State Security Council and the NJMC formed the apex of state power. These committees and their subsidiary network of co-coordinated structures that made up the NSMS bordered on constituting a separate arm of government, and became the vanguard of state action.7

The government's program of reform was a direct response to mounting domestic discontent and international pressure. The new tricameral constitution introduced in 1983 became the centerpiece of the state's reforms. It provided for three central houses of parliament, one for Whites, one for Indians and one for Coloreds, each house to be elected by its own registrar of voters. The Indian and Colored houses had authority over Indian and Colored affairs only. Power, however, remained firmly in the hands of the White parliament and the State President. The new constitutional arrangements were approved by about sixty-six percent of voters in a referendum of Whites only. Blacks, Colored, and Indians, who comprised nearly eighty-five percent of the population, were not consulted, while Blacks were excluded from any participation in the central government.

Reform, however, only precipitated widespread resistance. The promise of reforms created expectations. The actual "reforms," which were thought of as major concessions by the government, did not meet the expectations of Africans. In fact, the reforms were regarded as trivial, insulting or irrelevant, or once granted, they served only as a springboard for more sweeping African demands, since it became increasingly clear to the majority of Africans that while the government was prepared to do away with the trappings of apartheid and separate development, it was not prepared to concede on the question of domination. To right-wing whites, however, it became equally clear that these kinds of concessions were the first steps on the road that would inexorably lead to majority rule. Reform, no matter how cosmetic, was regarded as a sell-out that would inevitably result in a Black takeover and an end to white privilege and power.

The opposition to the tricameral parliament led to the creation of the anti-apartheid United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983, a broad, non-racial grouping of about 650 affiliates with a total membership of more than two and a half million who collectively put the emphasis on mass mobilization and protest politics. It also was the catalyst for the formation of the Conservative Party, the party of disaffected National Party members of parliament who wanted a return to full, unfettered apartheid.

The elections to the newly created House of Representatives for Coloureds and to the House of Delegates for Indians were widely boycotted by both -- only eighteen percent of eligible voters to the polls. The government also introduced a new Black Authorities Act whereby Black community councils were replaced by town councils, giving at least the appearance of Blacks having greater powers in local government. When the first elections to the town councils were held in late 1983, political groups opposed to the new constitution, like the UDF, encouraged Blacks to boycott the elections in protest against the constitutional reforms. As a result, turnout averaged about twenty percent in most townships. In Soweto, the largest township, it was less than eleven percent.

And thus the dual backlash: Among Africans, dissatisfaction with reforms they clearly rejected as inadequate increased their demands for real reform; among whites the belief that concessions were an admission of defeat increased their demands for maintaining the status quo. The result: Increasing violence on the one hand, and increasing electoral support for the right wing on the other. And thus the essence of the government's dilemma: the state derived no benefits from doing things which Blacks repudiated; but if it attempted to do things which Blacks did not repudiate, it failed when the measures were put before the white parliament. It was trying to reform what had to be abolished.

In short, the security forces operating under the National Security Management System (NSMS), the linchpin of the state security apparatus, were taking it upon themselves to win the hearts and minds of the people. Reform and security reinforced each other; security provided the rationale for reform, reform facilitated security, each was necessary for the other.

To read the National Party's first submission to the TRC and the horrific realities of those years, one has to conclude that either the party was so oblivious to what was happening around them or so uninformed that parliament legislated in a political vacuum, heatedly debating cosmetic changes to governance that were supposed to make them more racially representative while the country burned:

It was thought that in this manner it would be possible to accommodate the political and constitutional aspirations of Black South Africans. By the late 'seventies it was also accepted that territorial partition was impossible in respect of Coloured and Indian South Africans. They were politically sidelined in the years of rigid apartheid and, in the case of the Coloureds, removed from the Common Voters Role. Their representation in specially created councils with little authority or power could not continue.

The President's Council was established to look into this and other constitutional questions. Their recommendations ultimately led to the adoption of the tricameral constitution in 1983 in terms of which White, Coloured and Indian South Africans were given the opportunity of electing their own houses of parliament and of administering their "own affairs", while power was shared with regard to matters of common interest.

Even this concept was, however, too much for some members of the National Party to accept. In February 1982 twenty-two members of the NP caucus, under the leadership of Dr Andries Treurnicht, left the party and founded the Conservative Party. Their departure was an indication of the degree to which the National Party, even by that stage, had started to move away from orthodox apartheid.

Despite considerable efforts to develop the homelands, the flood of Black emigration to the "white" cities continued unabated. According to the theorists, the tide should have turned by 1978 - after which the supposedly "white areas" would have had a substantial white majority.

Of course, this did not happen.

The homelands were too small, too poor and economically too unattractive to provide a decent livelihood for all their citizens. It was also evident that the great majority of Black South Africans totally rejected the concept of separate development. Led by the ANC, and its internal structures, they insisted on full citizenship in an undivided non-racial democracy. This situation was further exacerbated when six of the ten homelands - and most notably KwaZulu (previously known as Zululand) under the leadership of Dr Buthelezi - flatly refused to accept independence from South Africa.

This rejection of independence was one of the main factors that led to the hardly noticed announcement by President P W Botha in the "Rubicon" speech of 15 August 1985 that "Should any of the Black National States therefore prefer not to accept independence, such states or communities will remain part of the South African nation, are South African citizens and should be accommodated within the political institutions within the boundaries of South Africa"

This announcement, in effect, sounded the death knell for the concept of separate development and set the Government on the road that ultimately led to the transformation of our society.

This new direction was formally endorsed and given strong impetus at the 1986 congress of the National Party, which accepted "one citizenship for all South Africans" and the implication that " any discrimination on the ground of colour, race and cultural affiliation or religion" would have to be eliminated. However, the Party still believed that political rights should be exercised on a group basis. One of the points of departure for its 1987 program of action was the continued protection of group rights: "This must be done on the basis of the maximum degree of self-determination for each group, and joint responsibility on matters of common interest, in such a way that the domination of one group over others be eliminated." During the national elections of 1987 the National Party sought, and was granted, a mandate by the electorate to pursue and implement such a constitutional program.

Thus, by the middle 'eighties the government had begun to take the first steps in the search for constitutional settlement that would fully include Black, Brown and Indian South Africans. The policy of separate development had clearly failed. Instead of providing a just and workable solution, it had led to hardship, suffering and humiliation - to institutionalised discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity. Instead of promoting peaceful inter-group relations, it had precipitated a cycle of widespread resistance and repression in which unacceptable actions were committed by all sides. Instead of providing a solution, it had led to injustice, growing international isolation and to the escalation of the conflict that had been smouldering since the early 'sixties.

Restoring law and order has resulted in a state of emergency, which has lasted for five years. However, in the late 'eighties African townships were hotbeds of resistance. The state of emergency in 1986, under which 36,000 people were detained for some period of time, slowed but did not bring mass demonstrations to a halt. The focus of defiance simply moved from the streets to the workplace. Nine million workdays were lost in 1987, a sevenfold increase over the record high of 1986. COSATU had emerged as the leading force in Black militancy, channeling the anger of Blacks in an orchestrated and disciplined way that brought many sectors of the economy to a halt.8

When the international community gave the thumbs down to his Rubicon speech, a defiant PW Botha declared, "The outside world," he declared in 1985, 'is confusing reform with surrender."

But Botha initiated the one change that would more than any other determine whither the future of South Africa.

In July 1985 he authorized a team of his top officials to open secret talks with Nelson Mandela at Victor Vester prison.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to theThis resource is hosted by the site.