Magnus Malan and Mao

Hermann Giliomee on the late former minister of defence and SADF head

The recent death of General Magnus Malan, the former head of the SADF and later Minister of Defence, brought to mind two interviews I conducted with him.

The first was in the grim winter of 1986 just after the declaration of a general state of emergency and with no end in sight of the unrest, which had broken out in September 1984. I was writing at the time for the somewhat left leaning quarterly, Die Suid-Afrikaan, and had miraculously secured an interview with the minister.

In certain circles of the University of Cape Town, where I was a lecturer of political studies, he was regarded as even more of a political demon than President PW Botha. It was speculated that he was behind the militarization of South Africa and was planning to turn the regime into a military dictatorship, through the imposition of martial law followed by a military coup.

My first question in the interview of 1986 was whether the winning of "hearts and minds" was as important, for the combating of racial unrest, as it was in a war where insurgents had to be fought. Malan's answer was surprising: "The state must satisfy the expectations of the masses, who have huge needs. The radicals want to exploit this situation. I have on my desk Mao Zedong's red book - go read it. This is how the enemies of South Africa are driving their assault."

In that period it was generally accepted that the top rung of the ANC was a coalition of nationalists and communists, all strongly inspired by the writings of Karl Marx. Cosatu was also seen as an organisation relying upon Marx rather than Mao. But Malan did not think that it was, in the first instance, a class struggle that was being fought in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Rather it was a case of a revolutionary elite using poor people, living in dreadful circumstances, to take to the streets on their behalf against a state authority. In South East Asia it is still Mao rather than Marx on whom revolutionaries rely upon for guidance in trying to mobilise the poorest of the poor.

Magnus Malan was a member of the first white military generation that received an academic training in military studies He went to university during the 1950s when revolutionary war increasingly displacing the conventional kind. In the thirty years after receiving his BSc Mil in 1953 at the University of Pretoria, one revolutionary war followed another: Malaya, Algeria, Vietnam, the Portuguese colonies in Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

In his interview Malan underlined one point in particular: "You never lose this sort of fight militarily. You lose it diplomatically, politically, economically and on similar terrain. The military or security aspect is only a small component." At the same time Malan believed that the black masses were more concerned with the betterment of their living conditions than in full democratic rights. He clearly did not believe that a liberal democracy was appropriate for South Africa.

It is a bit silly, as was done in many articles on his death, to present Magnus Malan as a sinister figure responsible for the ‘militarisation' of society through the framework of the total onslaught, total strategy and the State Security Council. In the first place South Africa was never really militarised and, in any case, military conscription for white males was introduced in 1967, well before Malan became head of army and of  the defence force.

Secondly, in the 1970s South Africa was under increasing diplomatic, economic and political pressure. Coordination and coherence in decision making was urgently needed, particularly as the Vorster government managed the country a bit like an outmoded family shop. South Africa became militarily involved in Angola in 1975 without clear goals being identified or followed. It could easily have ended in catastrophe. If a properly functioning state security council had been in place, such a situation would probably have been avoided.

General Malan became head of the army in 1973 and in 1976, at the age of only 46, head of the defence force. Four years later, in 1980, he became minister of defence in PW Botha's cabinet. After PW Botha he can be credited with building up of the armed forces into one of the most formidable in Africa.

On the State Security Council PW Botha and the politicians still had much more say than the generals. General Jannie Geldenhuys, head of the army in the second half of the 1980s, estimated that he spoke for a total of twenty minutes during his time on the council. General Malan and his successors always insisted that the defence force was, as in the British tradition, required to loyally serve the civilian authorities. There was never in talk within the officer corps of a possible coup d'état. To emphasise the distinction between the military and the civilian roles Malan, on being appointed Minister of Defence in 1980, refused to be nominated to Parliament but insisted on fighting a parliamentary seat.

Malan was one of the architects of National Security Management System which reported the State Security Council. Below the NSMS there Joint Management Centres for twelve national regions, sub-JMCs for metropolitan centres and mini-JMCs for each town, where officials and businessmen met under the chairmanship of a military or police officer. The JMCs provided information on local security issues and acted as an early warning system by spotting areas of friction and identifying bureaucratic obstacles to improvements in living conditions in the townships.

Malan wished to launch a large scale housing programme in the most turbulent townships to win ‘the hearts and minds' of the oppressed people and thwart the efforts of radical to establish control over them. He and the military officers quickly ran into the turf battles, particular the Department of Constitutional Development and Planning under whom housing construction in the townships fell. "South Africa" is one of the most difficult countries in the world to govern", Malan told Harvard's Samuel Huntington in 1986. It is a sentiment many ministers today would echo.

Malan never contemplated seizing power.  He told me in the 1986 interview:

"A military regime is never a solution, just a deferral of the problem. South Africans were the very last people who would have accepted a military coup." This principle of a non-political military, from which Malan did not deviate, was one of the most important reasons for the peaceful transition to democracy in 1994.

Malan went along when the cabinet in December 1989 decided to lift the ban on the ANC and some other extra-parliamentary organisation, but he remained deeply sceptical of the wisdom of negotiating with a that section of the ANC committed to the ANC's National Democratic Revolution, that had been drafted by members of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s.

Malan was a proponent of the cross-border operations aimed at attacking the "terrorists" - as they were called - before they infiltrated the country. I asked him what he thought of the view, expressed by the National Intelligence Service that the security forces should have limited their operations to within South Africa's borders. His answer was: "Such people do not understand war. If we had allowed the ANC insurgents to cross the border in great numbers we would have ended up in a full scale and bitter war, which would have had ten times more fatalities and which would have made a settlement impossible."

As a proportion of the total population South Africa's political deaths were - along with Northern Ireland and Israel - the lowest of all major ethnic conflicts of the second half of the Twentieth Century. The reasons are complex but the cross border operations were probably one contributing factor.

A huge blot on the name of the defence force was the existence of a Civil Cooperation Bureau whose internal section was guilty of murders on ANC cadres and other gruesome deeds. General Malan's claim that he was unaware of what was going on in the unit is generally not accepted. It could be said, on reflection, that it would be much better if a person with a civilian background had been the political head of the defence force in the 1980s. There is a good reason why this is the situation in Western countries.

In my 2008 interview with him I asked him why the hearts and minds strategy did not work so well in the 1980s. He said: "The big problem was the poverty of so many black people. We had to build houses for them on a huge scale." But he ran into bureaucratic turf battles and inertia. He dismissively referred to "ministers who were gods on their own territory" Chris Heunis would warned him "Keep your paws out of my departments area."

In the interview he was also highly critical of the way in which a political settlement was reached. "We won militarily but lost politically." FW de Klerk had the personality of a negotiator but was not actually a negotiator. He was unbelievably bad in his choices of negotiators. From this point Nelson Mandela had the upper hand over FW de Klerk and De Klerk simply retreated.

Until the end Malan did not believe South Africa was fit for a majoritarian form of democracy in which a single party drawing almost all its votes from blacks dominated the political process. He remained convinced that a system in which the minorities enjoyed a significant share of the power was the only way in which the country would be governed well and would prosper.

This an expanded version of an article that first appeared in Rapport

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