Constand Viljoen: A Boer general in Africa

Heinrich Matthee writes on the life and career of the former SADF head, turned politician

Constand Viljoen: A Boer general in Afrika

22 April 2020

Constand Viljoen, the former head of the South African Defence Force, died on 3 April 2020. His legacy in quelling the African National Congress insurgency in South Africa and in threatening an Afrikaner revolt will remain disputed. However, the constitional order would have looked very differently if he instead of FW de Klerk had been negotiating with the ANC.

Viljoen was of average length and with steely blue eyes, soft-spoken but straight-talking. When talking to him, one gained a sense of principles and precision, sometimes a twinkle of humour. Like some of the ancient Roman generals, the military and farming were his twin passions. It showed in his calloused hands and his appreciation of the sounds, smells and colours of Africa’s landscapes.

Family losses

Viljoen was born on October 1933 on a farm in Standerton. Viljoen’s paternal grandfather, a deeply religious man, fought in the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) for the Boer republics against the invading forces of the British Empire. As a child, Viljoen’s father, Andries, watched helplessly how two of his sisters and a brother died in front of his mother in the British concentration camp of Standerton. 26 000 women and children died in a similar way.

Viljoen’s father was a supporter of Jan Smuts, the Boer general that became the MP of Standerton, a South African prime minister and an adviser to Winston Churchill. Viljoen’s father died in 1947 when he was fourteen, before the National Party took over.

After centuries, the Afrikaners saw themselves as Western Africans, but due to stronger foreign powers and more numerous local groups they often risked being subjugated. How could they move away from a history of dominating or being dominated without losing their protection? This dilemma also shaped Viljoen’s life during the apartheid period of 1948-1994.

Africanizing military doctrine

Viljoen joined the military in 1951 and left it in 1985. He was a soldier’s soldier, loving the active life and maintaining high standards. A general commented dryly when Viljoen was still a captain that he saluted as if he was a general. His peers found that he was willing to listen to new ideas and differ from supereriors. A man in a hurry, he could assess a situation, make a decision and quickly follow it through.

Viljoen, by the late 1960s commander of the Military College at Voortrekker Heights in Pretoria, and a group of younger officers transformed military doctrine. Until then, South Africa’s static military doctrine predominantly reflected British colonial needs and the experiences of two World Wars.

Southern Africa’s wide spaces, long distances and limited skilled manpower pool made this approach untenable. Viljoen stated that the doctrine had to be based not on keeping territory, but on luring the enemy to an advantageous battlefield. The own forces then had to destroy enemy forces through disruptive surprise, superior mobility and firepower.

Frontline general

The Cold War dominated military thinking in his time. The anti-communist Viljoen was also concerned that Soviet Russia and China would ride the wave of black nationalisms in Africa, and establish communism in Southern Africa through conventional conflict or insurgency. Viljoen later maintained that the collapse of the USSR could also be linked to the attrition suffered on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Southern Africa, the latter in the 1970s and 1980s.

As head of the South African Army (1977-1980) and head of the SA Defence Force (1980-1985), Viljoen insisted that a general should also lead from the front. It gave his superiors heartburn, but he made several surprise appearances on the battlefront to direct military operations against SWAPO guerrillas in Namibia and in support of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels in Angola.

Among the troops, he was called Stofstrepie (little dust trail), because of the energy and speed with which he carried out his plans. His conduct elicited strong respect and loyalty from those who served under him, also long after he stopped being a military commander.

Eventually, Angola became a battlefield for MPLA forces, Russian and East German trainers and finally about 50 000 Cuban troops. As the historian Leopold Scholtz notes in The SADF and the Border War, commanders like Viljoen and the later general Roland de Vries tested and developed the mobile warfare doctrine. Despite sanctions, the arms industry developed relevant arms. They ranged from the Ratel armoured personnel carrier to the self-propelled G6 cannon and were often comparable or better than others at the time.


Since the 1960s, Viljoen and his fellow-officiers tried to apply the counter-insurgency lessons they had derived from studies of Malaysia, French Algeria and Indochina to South Africa. David Galula’s dictum, that such struggles were 20% military and 80% political, dominated.

Victories were not final, but meant to buy time for the politicians to craft outcomes that would quell the insurgents’ popular support. The population’s support, not enemy forces, became the centre of gravity for campaigns. Already since the late 1960s, Viljoen was critical of too slow reforms and too few resources by politicians to address the political aspirations of black groups in South Africa.

As the historian Hermann Giliomee writes, in the 1960s and 1970s, the security apparatus maintained authoritarian but flexible forms of control with relatively low numbers of police, soldiers and political prisoners. Co-existing with it, was a democracy for whites with civil rights and proper administrative procedures.

Viljoen later stated that the relative effectiveness of the security forces might have created a false sense of security for some politicians and their constituencies.

The 1977 White Paper on Strategy echoed the French general Andre Beaufre’s thoughts. State resources had to be mobilized by coordinating the various state departments and sociopolitical reforms instituted to gain the support of the population. When PW Botha, an active defence minister since 1966, became prime minister in 1978, a national security management system was established to pursue these aims.


In the 1950s, the African National Congress (ANC), one of several black opposition groups in South Africa, became closely allied the South African Communist Party (SACP). As the historian Stephen Ellis discusses in External Mission, the SACP after negotiations with Mao tze Tung in 1960 decided on creating an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Nelson Mandela, who was a member of the ANC and SACP leadership since 1960, attended the founding meeting of MK. Their first sabotage attacks occurred on 16 December 1961.

One of the SACP’s thinkers, Mac Maharaj, described in the Financial Times of 26 July 2016 how Mandela would order books on successful insurgencies and counter-insurgencies from him when he was in London. Mandela and Viljoen had a common reading list.

The ANC and SACP expected to gain bases and support from many African states and to win within six months. However, by the mid-1960s, due to security police action and some help by Western security agencies, many MK leaders and operatives, including Mandela, was in prison, underground or in exile.

The ANC would not be the major actor in black politics until the late 1970s. The Boers would remain their term for the security forces and all those they considered as oppressors.

Soldiers and principles

Viljoen was very critical of “crude, cruel” and counter-productive counter-insurgency methods. When a Special Forces team informed him of a mission to assassinate Chris Hani, then a MK commander, in Lesotho, Viljoen immediately asked whether Hani’s wife and two children would also be in the house to be destroyed by a pipe bomb. When they indicated that they did not know for sure, Viljoen cancelled the mission. He did not make war against women and children, he explained.

After he retired in 1985, the dirty dimensions of the war intensified on both sides. At the Kabwe conference in 1985, the ANC and SACP changed the rural guerilla strategy, which had largely failed. The focus shifted to destroying the state’s authority in the sprawling black townships. More than six hundred local civil servants or others seen as not supporting the ANC were burnt to death or killed by necklacing, a tyre put around their necks that was set alight. The distinction between hard state and soft civilian targets became very fluid. Farmers and their families and mall visitors were attacked.

Dirty hands

The SADF had to increase its support to the police, also using Special Forces to gather intelligence and using targeted killing of suspected insurgents. Viljoen later accepted responsibility on behalf of the SADF for the dirty dimensions of the conflict. He maintained that armchair judgments would be inappropriate:“The interaction between strategies caused an unworthy character on both sides…I wish to warn against easy judgement against uniformed people from both sides.”

European, US and African security actors continue to face many of the operational and ethical dilemmas Viljoen faced while being involved in counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency struggles. Many of these actors will have the challenge, under more favourable circumstances, to show how they could do it better. Or worse.

Selfrule in Africa?

In the late 1840s, when British authorities allowed Griqua captaincies and the Sotho monarchy, a manifesto by the Voortrekker migrant farmers pointed out that the British government allowed the coloured population “”self-government and all the privileges of liberty.” Why were such rights to self-government now denied to them, who had obtained the land through barter? “Had we perchance been coloured, it might perhaps be possible, but now we find it impossible, because we are white African Boers.”

More than a hundred and fifty years later, it was again the sentiment among many Afrikaners. In a 1992 referendum, after the ANC had been unbanned, 875 000 people from different white cultural communities voted “No” against further negotiations. They, like Viljoen, thought that FW de Klerk had been giving away too much to the militarily much weaker ANC.

When farmers approached Viljoen in 1993 to lead conservative Afrikaners, he reluctantly agreed. With three other military and police generals, they allied with the CP, and the far-right Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), in the Afrikaner Volksfront (AVF).

Many military veterans were in Viljoen’s core team. Well-organized farmers of the Boere-KrisisAksie and members of rural commandos, many of whom had laid peaceful siege to Pretoria a few years earlier, provided the backbone of his organization.   Some famous war veterans, like Willem Ratte, also advocated for passive resistance among Afrikaners who did not accept the authority of a new ANC-SACP government.

Looming conflict

Viljoen considered various options: Calling out a volkstaat, an own territory for Afrikaners, in part of South Africa and defending it against others. At the time, flags and posters at the entrance to CP-controlled towns reflected this direction. Viljoen calculated that some in the SADF and many in the commandos would support him, a force of 50 000 men or more. He thought that most who stayed on the government side would refuse to act actively against their own people.

His alternative was an IRA-type option with small-scale attacks combined with political pressure, also to disrupt the elections, and then to replace FW de Klerk as the negotiator on behalf of Afrikaners. Sabotage actions and arms thefts did occur in the run-up to the elections.

Viljoen stated that he would be able to take over a part of South Africa in an afternoon, but the head of the SADF, general George Meiring told him that the problem was what he would do the next day. Meiring travelled to military bases to also order them to abstain from involvement. Viljoen’s twin brother, Abraham, a theologian and anti-apartheid activist who knew about the risk of conflict, as well as Western actors, facilitated discussions between Viljoen and Nelson Mandela.

Meanwhile, divisions in his front and the fiasco when AWB men invaded Bophuthatswana to restore the homeland government, weakened Viljoen’s political space to act. FW de Klerk was also unwilling to agree to an Afrikaner referendum to prove support for a volkstaat.

A lonely peace

March and April 1994 were tense times in South Africa. Viljoen’s finger was on the trigger, but he did not pull the trigger. He went along with an ANC concession to a section in a new constitution that would allow Afrikaners self-determination under limited conditions.

Viljoen trusted Mandela. Many of his supporters did not. However, in the new majoritarian system, the ANC and most citizens were very relieved that peace was at hand.

The Inkatha Freedom movement, a Zulu nationalist ally of Viljoen, also insisted on more Zulu autonomy before stopping their poll boycott. At the last minute, Viljoen co-founded, registered and led the Freedom Front as a party that could promote more Afrikaner autonomy in the ANC-ruled order. By 2020, the section on self-determination, however, was a dead letter.

Reluctant politician

Among career politicans, Viljoen often looked slightly out of place. He seemed to miss some of the nuances of political debates and intrigues among Afrikaners.

In an interview in 1997, Viljoen described himself as follows:”I am a task-oriented person who does not save myself or other people to achieve goals. Obviously, I am a man in a hurry who has difficulty adapting myself to the slow pace of politics. Yes, I am a happy man, as long as I play a useful role, as long as my life is not wasted.”

It was perhaps telling that the leaders of African guerilla movements like his ally Jonas Savimbi and his erstwhile enemy Nelson Mandela could win and keep the personal respect of Viljoen. Some Afrikaner politicians could not.

History’s dilemmas

Most settler communities, from America to Africa, face moral and other dilemmas about their position. One key historical dilemma of the Afrikaners had been partially solved in the 1990s. They had moved away from from that part of their history that entailed domination over other groups. Did they gain sufficient protection from their historical risk of subjugation and insecurity?

Their responses since 1994 to the pressures of violent crime, a struggling economy and the removal of Afrikaans from public universities varied. They ranged from entrepeneurship and voting for opposition parties to the renewed building of own institutions and reaching out to other communities. Hundreds of thousands became members of the Solidarity Movement. Tens of thousands emigrated. Their history would remain contested in Africa.

Life and death in Africa

In an interview a few years before his death, Viljoen said: “When I die one day, I will probably die thinking of my troops. They have been excellent. Coloureds, black troops, white troops. The best army in Africa.”

After his retirement from politics, Viljoen still assisted Mocambican leaders in rebuilding their agricultural sector. He advised Afrikaner community leaders to build institutions that could survive under a neglectful government. When he was mugged and his trousers torn for his wallet during a town visit, he chased the two muggers into a public toilet, where the police could later arrest them. In his seventies, he physically helped fellow-farmers to put out fires in the grassland savanna and striking mountains of the Ohrigstad and Lydenburg areas.

His former troops and his former enemies always knew in which spirit he would deal with the vagaries of life in Africa. He died on his farm, surrounded by his wife Risti, most of his five children, and grandchildren, “with peace in his heart.”

Dr. Heinrich Matthee is a political risk analyst for companies in the Middle East and Africa