Coping with contradictions

Print edition : June 20, 1998

The process of restructuring the defence and police establishment has proved a challenging task for new South Africa.

THE most striking aspect of the recent appointment of General Siphiwe Nyanda to succeed General Georg Meiring as the Chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is that it took the political leadership more than four years after the attainment of freedom to entrust the leadership of the country's defence forces to a soldier with a proven record of fighting in the liberation struggle.

Indeed, but for an apparently adventitious combination of circumstances, some of whose finer details are still obscure, the change in the SANDF leadership would not have taken place for another year. However, following the contretemps over the so-called Meiring Report, Gen. Meiring decided to resign ('re-negotiate his contract') with effect from May 31, more than a year ahead of the expiry of his contract on June 30, 1999 (Frontline, May 8, 1998).

There are profound ironies in the sequence of events that culminated in Siphiwe Nyanda's appointment. The Meiring Report was handed over to President Nelson Mandela on February 5, 1998. However, it was the end of March before a decision was taken to appoint a commission of inquiry headed by Chief Justice Ismail Mohammed to "report urgently to the President on the process relating to the compilation, verification and subsequent treatment of the Report."

General Siphiwe Nyanda, the new chief of South African National Defence Force, takes the salute for the first time at a ceremony in Pretoria on May 29. His predecessor, General Georg Meiring, is on the right.-ADIL BRADLOW/ AP

Between these two developments, Robert McBride, a former Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) operative who had joined the foreign service, was arrested in Mozambique on March 9, apparently on suspicion of being involved in illegal arms deals. Soon after his arrest, there were reports in the press, clearly based on leaks from unidentified structures, suggesting a link between McBride's arrest and an "intelligence report" with the Government about a "left wing conspiracy" to overthrow the Government.

Implicated in that alleged conspiracy were McBride, who was already linked to outlandish conspiratorial activities in countries far afield; Siphiwe Nyanda, a decorated officer of the MK, Lieutenant General and Chief of Staff of the SANDF, and the seniormost black officer in the force who was widely slated to succeed Meiring as the Chief of the SANDF; and, perhaps to give even more colour, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The Meiring Report, which apparently names more than a hundred other persons, has not been released.

The Meiring Report, which President Mandela viewed as 'preposterous' even on first reading, was duly discredited by the Judicial Commission and Gen. Meiring put in his papers. However, the impression is inescapable that but for the McBride arrest and the inspired leaks in the press about the 'conspiracy', the Meiring Report may well have lain buried and Meiring may have served out his contract. Since neither the Meiring Report, nor even the Report of the Commission that apparently found the claims about a plot against the Government 'inherently fantastic' has been published, the whole situation continues to be clouded.

Yet another irony is that while Siphiwe Nyanda is now Chief of the SANDF, his alleged 'co-conspirator', McBride, languishes in a Maputo prison, with no indication of when or indeed whether he will be tried, and if so on what charges.

SIPHIWE NYANDA, perhaps needless to say, is a black African, a veteran of the Umkhonto weSizwe in which he occupied the position of Chief of Staff - a position he also held in the SANDF before his appointment as Chief of the SANDF. As an MK leader, he was a trophy and a target whom the old South African Defence Force (SADF), several of whose operations against the liberation forces were led by Meiring in various capacities before he became Chief of the SADF, would in all likelihood have captured and killed. Siphiwe Nyanda's brother Zwelibanzi Nyanda, was killed along with another African National Congress (ANC) member, Keith McFadden, on November 22, 1983 by a security police death squad led by the convicted apartheid assassin Eugene de Kock. The ANC 'safe house' in Mbabane in Swaziland where they were in transit was firebombed. (The incident, just one of numerous such, is recounted by Eugene de Kock in a recent book, A Long Night's Damage, Contra Press, Johannesburg, 1998.)

Gen. Meiring is white, an Afrikaner from Free State, quintessentially a member of the old guard, and a professional soldier described also as a "keen hunter and cook who enjoys spending time on his small holding". He had commanded many operations against the liberation forces during his career in the old SADF before being appointed chief of the old SADF, and continued as the chief of the restructured SANDF under the new dispensation.

A similar phenomenon prevails in the restructured South African Police Service (SAPS) in which veterans of the old South African Police (SAP) continue to thrive. For instance, Gen. Johan van der Merwe, who was the National Commissioner of the old SAP, also headed the restructured SAPS as National Commissioner for nearly two years after the country became free. He is currently appearing as an applicant before the Amnesty Committee of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, acknowledging his involvement in various crimes after years of denial.

An indication of the consensus that prevails on presumably 'sensitive' matters such as national defence, safety and security in the new South Africa is the generosity of the tributes - not to speak of pensions and severance packages - paid to those who served the apartheid regime without apparent qualms, on the occasion of their retirement after further fruitful years under the new dispensation. This has been the case with General Meiring too even though the circumstances of his leaving, controversial to say the least, have not been fully explained.

"He put the interest of the SANDF above his own, and he did the right thing of stepping down without any pressure from any of us. That is typical of a great man, which he is," said President Mandela. As a true 'professional', it is frequently stressed, Meiring and his colleagues from the old SADF worked in wonderful harmony with the equally 'professional' personnel of the Umkhonto weSizwe and the Azanian Peoples Liberation Army (APLA, the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress), to effect the integration of these forces into the SANDF.

IT would perhaps not be generous to ask if the integration has really resulted in the fundamental 'transformation' of the SANDF - the new buzzword in the ANC since Mafikeng. After all, the guiding principle of 'politics in command', which defined the liberation struggle, has inevitably had to be modified in the altered circumstances of the liberation movement now functioning as a party of government.

The Defence Minister recently criticised, not for the first time, moves by sections of the SANDF to commemorate events like the Cassinga massacre. On May 4, 1978, the South African Air Force carried out bombing raids from its bases in what was then South West Africa on Cassinga in Angola where it was claimed that the 'operational headquarters' of the South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO), which led the Namibian liberation movement, was situated. According to official admission, over 800 'terrorists' were killed in that attack. The reality however was that Cassinga was not the headquarters of SWAPO but was only a camp for refugees from Namibia, and the toll, which included hundreds of women and children, was almost twice that number. There was no glory in Cassinga; but sections of the restructured SANDF continue to view that 'battle' as one of the achievements of the old SADF, a great victory in the battle against 'terrorists', which deserves annual commemoration.

Thus, there is an annual admonition by the Defence Minister against moves to commemorate Cassinga or expression of outrage when medals are issued to old SADF personnel for their acts of heroism in the struggle against 'terrorists'. However, the same Defence Minister and indeed the political establishment as a whole also participated in the ceremonies marking the '75th anniversary of the South African Navy'. Whose navy and whose 75 years, one may well ask.

CONTINUITY and change; tradition and transformation; perceptions about the past, the present and the future interwoven with nostalgia, rage and hope. South African society as a whole is facing the challenges of resolving and reconciling these contradictions. Some of these contradictions appear in sharper focus in the case of structures such as the SANDF where the weight of tradition and history is not merely heavy but also heavily differentiated and segmented. Few people can claim that the SANDF as a whole cherishes the same heroes, commemorates the same battles, mourns the same martyrs.

There are also more immediate problems in respect of the internal structures of the SANDF - personnel, training, management, discipline, security and intelligence. Integration too, not merely of the liberation forces but also of the various homeland forces, remains a problem, as has been pointed out in the report of a British military advisory and training team. Some of these have acquired a dramatic, even sinister, dimension in two recent incidents of theft from an SANDF base and the hijacking of an army truck loaded with ammunition in the Free State. Although such thefts from army bases have been taking place and have been linked to the so-called cash-in-transit heists, the theft from the Tempe military base near Bloemfontein of what the Defence Minister described as 'weapons of war' has raised many disturbing questions. Despite such developments, though, the sense of danger, so integral to the culture of the liberation movement, seems to lie dormant.

Above all, transformation remains a key issue. In an interesting intervention in the press on the 'sorry saga' of the Meiring Report, following the decision of Gen. Meiring to resign, Siphiwe Nyanda himself maintained that "the challenges of transformation are major". During the debate in Parliament on the defence budget last month, Defence Minister Joe Modise said that he made no apologies for using colour labels as a measure of progress and transformation in the SANDF. According to the latest figures, while 70 per cent of the SANDF as a whole (current strength about 93,000) is black as against 30 per cent white, only 29 per cent of the officer corps is black. Black representation at the crucial middle and junior levels of the officer ranks is lower than at the senior levels.

Siphiwe Nyanda brings to his new job not merely his proven military training and experience but even more important an understanding of the history and politics of the liberation movement. Not for nothing did he choose as his MK name Ghebuza, the name of the general of the forces of King Shaka, one of the great military leaders of southern Africa.

Equally significant is the fact that his first public exposure in South Africa in July 1990 was as a political prisoner when he was arrested, along with MacMaharaj (now Minister for Transport) on charges of spearheading 'Operation Vula' - a standby ANC operation that was in place for over two years before it was uncovered. Its objective was to provide reliable information to and communication links between the ANC's external structure in Lusaka and its internal structures within the country about the ground reality in South Africa.

The country was seething in the late 1980s even while the regime, which had already begun talking to Nelson Mandela in prison, was considering releasing him and other political prisoners and starting negotiations. Inherent in the operation were plans to resume the struggle if the negotiations collapsed. The regime, obsessed by the perceptions of threats from communism, projected it as yet another instance of the South African Communist Party (SACP) conspiring from within the ANC to seize power through violent means. A document prepared by the old South African Police describes Siphiwe Nyanda, along with MacMaharaj and Ronnie Kasrils (now Deputy Minister for Defence), as Central Committee members of the SACP. However, though like many others Siphiwe Nyanda underwent training in the Soviet Union and East Germany, he was never in the SACP even according to an equally hostile but politically less uninformed account of complex relations between the ANC and the SACP. (see Comrades against Apartheid by Stephen Ellis and Tsepo Sechaba, James Currey, London, 1992).

Born in Soweto on May 22, 1950 in a family with strong links to the ANC, Siphiwe Nyanda enlisted in the liberation movement at an early age. Before joining the MK, he was a sports reporter, a vocation that he still seems to cherish. During a radio interview following the announcement of his appointment, he spoke rather more freely and easily about football and his hopes for Bafana Bafana, the national football team, in the World Cup than on the tasks in his new job.

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