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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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

From Pariah to Partner - Bophuthatswana, the NPKF, and the SANDF

By Jakkie Cilliers Institute for Security Studies

Published in African Security Review Vol 7 No 4, 1998


Although effective control of the military had long since passed out of Afrikaner control, the symbolic moment in the changing of the guard occurred on 29 May 1998, in the sports stadium in Thaba Tswane, Pretoria. Accepting a 17-gun salute, outgoing South African National Defence Force (SANDF) chief, General Georg Meiring formally handed over command of the SANDF. His successor is the former chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), Lt Gen Siphiwe Nyanda. Until scant days earlier, Thaba Tswane had been known as Voortrekkerhoogte, reflected by the massive monument dedicated to the farmer pioneers of the Afrikaner nation which dominates the Pretoria skyline.

April had witnessed a strange turn of events during which Meiring had handed a report to President Mandela, alleging that Nyanda was involved in fomenting violent opposition to the government. At the end, it was Meiring, not Nyanda, who offered to step down. Yet, in spite of the preceding events, Meiring carried with him the grudging respect of his former adversaries. This respect was evident during the opening ceremony of the handing-over parade when President Mandela conferred upon Meiring the Order of the Star of South Africa (Military) Class 1, gold. This, Mandela noted, was "in recognition of his contribution to the transition to democracy, the transformation of the armed forces and the efficiency of the SANDF."2

Despite the events of the previous months, Meiring's farewell speech reflected the professional soldier. He reinforced the importance of discipline and hard work, commented on the requirement for leadership and called upon the government to increase the defence budget. The most important section of Meiring's speech, however, was devoted to a plea for reconciliation: "I believe that the time has come to forgive and forget. If we cannot do that, this nation will be polarised and will meet with conflict … We have inherited a past but we are building a future. This will not be possible if we cling to stereotypes and continue to view one another with suspicion. It will also not be possible if we continue to deny our mistakes and constantly search for a culprit to blame for past, present and even future failures."3

Few listening to these remarks could forget the events in the run-up to the elections in 1994 when the South African Defence Force (SADF) under Meiring, acted first in the political interests of the National Party (NP), then increasingly to protect its bureaucratic interests under a vastly changed regime. In the process, the SADF played a crucial role to ensure the momentum of the settlement process.

The true moment when power passed from the NP to the ANC probably occurred during March 1994 in the former Bophuthatswana homeland. With days to go before elections in April, the SADF would also step in to restore stability in Kathlehong when the ill-fated National Peacekeeping Force (NPKF) fumbled its way into predictable disaster. The sections below outline each of these developments when the myth of armed right-wing resistance was exposed.


To understand the emotions and events that would culminate in the key role that this tiny homeland would play in national events at that stage, it is necessary to briefly place recent South African political developments in the context of Afrikaner ideology and ambitions.

On 2 February 1990, President F W de Klerk started a process which would reverse the political patterns of the previous three centuries of South African history. In a matter of 35 minutes in what was generally expected to be a mildly reformist speech - at the occasion of the annual opening of the all-white Parliament - De Klerk set a process in motion which would demolish the Afrikaner vision of a white-dominated South Africa.

Twice the fiercely independent Boers had taken on the might of the British Empire at the height of its power. The two Boer republics eventually lost their independence in the dusty battlefields of the Free State and Transvaal, but by 1948, Afrikaner republican politics had triumphed. The NP would henceforth govern the Union of South Africa and subsequently the Republic of South Africa until the rising tide of international isolation and internal resistance would force their hand.

The victory of the NP, however, did not imply self-imposed isolationism, although apartheid would eventually isolate South Africa and its armed forces. In 1949, the Malan government responded to the Berlin blockade by releasing South African Air Force (SAAF) pilots for active service.4 Later, the Flying Cheetahs, an SAAF Squadron - initially flying propeller-driven Mustangs and then Sabre jet aircraft - participated as part of United Nations forces during the Korean War (1950-1953). This was the last South African contribution to Western or United Nations operations, before its politics turned the country into a pariah and made the SADF an unacceptable ally.

Until the forties, black nationalist politics had generally been unco-ordinated and often existed at the national level only as a reaction to white, race-based politics. After the Second World War, the impact of industrialisation - which gave rise to unprecedented urbanisation of the South African population - started a social process which would reinvigorate the pre-eminent black national party, the African National Congress. By the mid-fifties, mass black protest had come to South Africa, albeit briefly, before being crushed during the sixties. By then the newly established Republic of South Africa was enjoying exceptional economic growth. The future of the white tribe of Africa as a bastion against the onslaught of communist black African nationalism seemed secure.

For the NP leadership, internal uprisings, such as the Sharpeville riots in March 1960, were part of the total onslaught on South Africa, which was, they believed, the result of external forces. The focus of defence efforts therefore remained oriented against an external aggressor in the form of a conventional assault by the combined forces of the Front-line States, supported by proxy forces from the Soviet Union and its allies. Far-fetched as the threat analysis appeared to be, Cuban forces were deployed en masse by the mid-seventies, with massive Soviet support in Angola. Ironically, their deployment was largely aimed at halting the advance of the South African armoured columns. In this 'Operation Savannah', the South Africans would eventually advance to within sight of the outskirts of Luanda before turning back when American executive support for the invasion ran foul of the US Congress.

Things deteriorated dramatically in the seventies for the NP. Black consciousness became a driving force within the country and the effects of the independence of Angola and Mozambique, and soon thereafter Zimbabwe and Namibia, stripped white South Africa of the cordon sanitaire that had effectively served as a bulwark against the advance of the black independence movements in Africa. By 1976, violent riots swept through Soweto and soon thereafter the country was engulfed in extensive riots, generally targeted against schools, local government and the system of so-called Bantu education. A nominal degree of law and order was established by 1977, but this proved only to be a temporary respite. Mass violence would soon re-surface.

By 1990, De Klerk and the South African state were under severe pressure. The country was isolated, its currency and balance of payments weak, caught in a structural economic decline with business confidence low and many capable entrepreneurs, mostly whites with the necessary financial and other means, leaving the country as part of a significant 'brain-drain'. By that stage, the country was under a limited state of emergency and, since 1984, under a national state of emergency that accorded the security forces unprecedented powers of search, seizure and incarceration with little recourse to the judicial system. Yet, bad as it was, the situation was not yet critical.

The security agencies, the SADF in particular, were undefeated and coherent. Although they could not crush black resistance, they could repress and contain it. There was no question of any imminent overthrow of the regime, and South Africa was successfully fighting a war - military, economically and diplomatically - in a number of neighbouring countries. In the process, the ANC was first ousted from its forward bases in Lesotho, and soon thereafter from Swaziland and Mozambique. As part of the New York Accords, which led to the independence of Namibia in terms of UN Resolution 435 in October 1989, the ANC also had to leave its main training bases in Angola.

The homeland system and the Group Areas Act effectively served to isolate white suburbs from violence in the townships, while censorship ensured that white tranquillity was not unduly disturbed. This complacency, however, was not shared by the State Security Council - P W Botha's 'kitchen cabinet' which effectively ran the country. Served by a massive intelligence system, the state could not have been under any illusions about the rising tide of internal resistance that was threatening to engulf the country.

A sense of impending crisis and danger alone, however, was insufficient to push the ruling NP under Botha's leadership beyond incremental reform. Two other events eventually proved crucial in the decision of the NP to make its remarkable 'leap of faith' which De Klerk announced on 2 February 1990. The first was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the apparent implosion of communism as a coherent ideological and military threat. The close linkage which the NP believed to exist between black nationalism and communism appeared to pull the rug from under the ANC. The second was the replacement of an increasingly belligerent P W Botha by De Klerk as leader of the NP and soon thereafter as President of the country.

By the late eighties, the various reforms initiated by Botha - notably the 1983 tricameral constitution - had patently failed. The country found itself in a political cul-de-sac with Botha relying increasingly on the security agencies to maintain power as his political options steadily decreased. When he took over from Botha as caretaker President on 15 August 1989, De Klerk had a difficult choice.5 He could continue the lone fight against rising internal violence and international sanctions and isolation, but the longer term outcome of this option was both predictable and bleak. On the other hand, he could seize the historic opportunity that the collapse of communism had provided and negotiate in the belief that Western values, which the NP purported to represent, would prove irresistible and that a power-sharing arrangement would be possible with its erstwhile opponents.

The stage for this had already been set by Botha who, since 1985, had been extending feelers to the ANC and its imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela. These negotiations by proxy largely occurred through a series of clandestine meetings, initially between Minister of Justice Kobie Coetzee and Mandela in Cape Town, but soon with a much larger group until, on 5 July 1989, Mandela met P W Botha. Little more than a month later, Botha would be forced to step down from the presidency in favour of De Klerk. By that stage, the first direct contacts between the ANC in exile and the NP government, through the National Intelligence Service, were already in process.


In the eyes of many ordinary white voters, the political process which gained momentum after February 1990 and which led to the elections of April 1994, appeared to realise their worst fears. A black nationalist party, strongly suspected of being controlled by a communist élite - a belief following years of NP indoctrination - was, by 1994, on the brink of seizing power from the Afrikaner. In hindsight, it is evident that De Klerk and the NP believed that they would be able to control the negotiation process and thereby effectively determine the outcome. Many believed they were negotiating from a position of strength. Yet, once the genie had been let out of the bottle, it was impossible to control. The ANC and its allies could not be put back in the bottle…

For full text see: http://www.iss.co.za/PUBS/ASR/7No4/Contents.html

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