South African apartheid’s ‘Total Strategy’

South African JWN commenter Dominic and I have both started working on trying to find a good–preferably primary-source– articulation of the “Total Strategy” developed by the apartheid regime in 1976-77 with a view to being able to do a good comparative study between that and what is probably the Bush administration’s authoritative articulation of the ‘Global War on Terror’, namely the National Security Strategy document of September 2002.
We’re not quite there yet. Any other interested JWN readers are warmly invited to join our little project. Also, if you yourself are unable to contribute to this work but know of someone else who might be interested, please forward this post to them!
The quick background on the ‘Total Strategy’ is that in 1974-76 two disastrous sets of things happened to the “security situation” and the “security strategy” pursued up until then by the apartheid bosses:

    (1) Portugal’s massive African empire completely collapsed, “handing over” control of the two large southern African states Mozambique and Angola to national-liberation movements that were firmly African-nationalist and because of the nature and history of their struggle favorably inclined to the Soviet Union.
    This was seen as the “collapse of vital buffer states”. Plus, of course, the example of victory provided by the nationalists in those two countries might–it was feared in Pretoria– serve as inspiration to SA’s own majority Black and other non-White populations… And
    (2) In 1976, the sprawling, Black-only “townships” of Soweto incubated the Soweto Uprising, a revolt by disaffected Black youth that spread rapidly through most of the country’s urban areas. The youth were rebelling against the perceived passivity of their own elders as much as against the continuation of White control. They sought to make the country “ungovernable”, and were much more radical than most of the older-generation supporters of the existing nationalist organizations.

You could say that the combination of those two sets of developments, both outside and inside the country, acted as a kind of “9/11” for the leaders of the apartheid government. They described what they saw happening as a Soviet-orchestrated “Total Onslaught” on the good, White, Christian, pro-western values that the apartheid system sought to uphold. This Total Onslaught had to be met with a “Total Strategy”, that would be pursued simultaneously both inside and outside the country and involved many elements of social control, and social and political manipulation, at many different levels– not just the immediately “military” level, but also including that very prominently indeed.
It does sound a lot like the Bush administration’s GWOT already, doesn’t it? I guess my aim is to flesh out this hypothesis as much as possible.
Dominic doesn’t think this portion of Vol. 2 of the TRC report gives much useful info about the TS. However, I think it’s not a bad place to start, especially paras 108-139 and 152-165.
Dominic has found a couple of really helpful (though still not primary) sources. One is a book that I think he picked off his bookshelf called

12 thoughts on “South African apartheid’s ‘Total Strategy’

  1. WarrenW

    I’m curious as to the purpose of the comparison, is it strategic or is it ideological? By this I mean, is it to see how to win at or defeat the GWOT or to make the GWOT seem just like the (losing) Total Strategy for rallying the troops?
    Strategically, the comparison is a little like comparing two different armies that both use flanking manouvers or that both use artillery. You might learn something useful, but, of course, the success of one effort won’t predict the success of the other.
    Ideologically, (or propagandistically) it might be effective, but logically it’s like saying that since Botha used bullets and Bush is using bullets, they’re both racists and they’re both going to lose, so fight on. That won’t hold up. Just to belabour the obvious, the ANC is different from the Jihadists.
    In any case, it should be interesting to see what you learn.

  2. Dominic

    The National Security Strategy of the USA (NSSUSA) is a most peculiar document.
    George W Bush is quoted like a living Lenin at the beginning of each section, and in the entire Introduction.
    What he presents is not Marxism, of course, but rather Manichaeism, the eternal struggle of good and evil.
    It makes you realise that Clausewitz’s understanding of strategy as the definitive overall plan and end, and tactics as the variable means to that end, is still not understood, let alone accepted.
    There is no clear distinction between strategy and tactics in the NSSUSA. There is no sense of strategy as progress. The end is simply the preservation of what is presumed already to be. It is “an historic opportunity to preserve the peace”. Strategy as forward movement is left unstated. It is “fudged”.
    The document drives the reader’s attention towards frequent bullet-pointed lists, preceded by “We will:” or “The United States will:” and the like. These are means, or in other words tactics, and are the actual content of the documents. But the word “tactics” never appears.
    From this point of view the document is a sleight-of-hand, or what South Africans call a “schlenter”. The “Total Strategy” was also a schlenter. In fact it was the very same schlenter. It was not a strategy at all, it was an ensemble of tactics in search of a strategy.
    There was no actual forward movement in it, only a defence of the status quo. That was its weakness, and that is the NSSUSA’s weakness, too.

  3. Dominic

    I’ve now read Alan Emery’s “Opposition to Apartheid and to American Empire” and I think we can and must do better. His idea seems good but is weakened by his adoption of a doctrinaire post-modernist sociological schema (seemingly abandoned half way through); an eclectic gathering of narrative material that promotes the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the Democratic Party (DP) and takes the African National Congress (ANC) for granted; and a confusion between strategy and tactics.
    The ANC-led liberation movement’s non-racial strategic goals were firmly set 50 years ago at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted. The movement’s tactics were “unity in action”, or in other words broad-front or popular front. This strategy and these tactics held fast for over 40 years, and brought victory.
    The BCM and the DP had nothing to do with this strategy and these tactics except to oppose them at different times and to yield to them in the end.
    In my opinion the old regime has to be examined separately from the liberation movement. Its tactics were many and varied but its strategic position was always hopeless and never looked like being solved except in quite crazy dreams.
    The quote to the effect that “it is the flight of the intellectuals from the ancien regime that signals its demise” is great (and apt for the USA of George W Bush as well) but Emery actually does not do it justice. His examples are poor, in my opinion.
    When it comes to present-day parallels on the anti-Imperialist side, I have to say that I think WarrenW is right for once in his life to the extent that “the ANC is different from the Jihadists”. The difference is that the ANC had a firm strategy which they were able to project in many different tactical ways, always based on unity in action with the largest possible coalition of forces. The jihadists, not.
    The parallel between the old SA regime and the present day USA is good, though, and Emery spells it out quite well in his very first paragraph. Subjectively, their problem is the same. There is no way to imagine a way forward, except in mad dreams. The dream of the USA maintaining its present relative position in the world indefinitely by force of arms is just as mad as the old-regime South Africans’ similar dream. The second-best dream of holding on in the hope of something turning up is even worse: it’s pathetic. Objectively, the inexorable rise of a more certain and single-minded power is irresistable. That determined power is not Bin Laden, who is a bogey-man similar to the Soviet Union in relation to apartheid SA.
    It is the single-minded power of the anti-Imperialist masses of the whole world that is slowly turning the US over. In the end, like the South African whites, the US will be relieved to be beaten. May that day be soon!

  4. Alex Broner

    Perhaps the similarity lies in the sense of “total war” or world war. Both regimes are surrounded and frightened. Their worldview prevents them from understanding why everything seems to be crashing down on them. With out truly understanding what makes their enemies tick, they are incapable of driving them to give up. In short, both regimes suffer from a massive intelligence failures that have nothing to do with “data collection”.

  5. tc

    This is going to rquire some hard reading before one can post a useful response. However, I am always reminded of the admonition of the late Edward Said that the liberation and anti-imperialist movements in the Arab world, especially the Palestinian but also those in Lebanon and Iraq could learn a lot from the example of other third world movements including India, South Africa and Latin America. A major difference between the 2 theaters (South Africa versus Middle East) is that the former was an important but subsidiary theater during the cold war while the Middle East is currently at the heart of the American strategy to maintain global hegemony. Accordingly I suspect that the events in the Middle East will continue to unfold along a more vicious trajectory. If one includes the lack in the Middle East of visioniary leadership such as that that guided the struggle against the aparthid regime in South Africa, the full scale of the current tragedy becomes clear.

  6. Kanish

    A better comparison might be the counter insurgency policies pursued during the Malayan emergency . See stubbs for a good introduction to this period.

  7. Dominic

    Funny you should say that about Malaya, Kanish.
    Here is the end of an article from Providence, Rhode Island, yesterday, by a man who has been watching “Apocalypse Now Redux” and comparing the spin then with the spin now.
    (1969, by the way, was the date of the ANC’s Morogoro Conference where they adopted the document called “Strategy and Tactics”.)
    I found the article at:
    It goes like this:
    It’s Iraqization, stupid.
    And what of the camp itself? Western reporters are rightly terrified of traveling anywhere outside the Green Zone. So for all we know, the rebel “terror” factory on the banks of Lake Tharthar is back in business. And since the good guys say they took no prisoners, there’s no one to interrogate about the alleged cohort of dead foreign fighters, which supposedly included foreign Arabs, a Filipino and, for good measure, an Algerian. (The war against terrorism, like the one against communism, must be portrayed as a worldwide struggle.)
    Back in the Heart of Darkness, Marlon Brando isn’t quite finished torturing Martin Sheen. Tightening the screws, he reads from another Time-magazine bromide, dated Dec. 12, 1969: “Sir Robert Thompson, who led the victory over Communist guerrillas in Malaya and is now a Rand Corp. consultant, recently returned to Vietnam to sound out the situation for President Nixon. He told the president last week . . . ‘that things felt much better, and smelled much better over there.’ ”
    Of the half-dead Sheen, Brando asks, “How do they smell to you, soldier?”

  8. tc

    I suspect that the claim that the Global Strategy response of the former South African aparthid regime and the current US adminstration is not a strategy as such but a mere collection of tactical responses is a weak claim. There is indeed stratgey, defined by a set of coordinated actions seeking to serve an overarching vision. That the strategy is flawed is not in doubt. The current US stance is overeaching and the US economy cannot support such hubris indefinitely. Yet the US strategy posits control of oil resources especially those in the Middle East as the linchpin of a global strategy to maintain US hegemony. Political control by proxy has broken down by 1990-1991 so direct US military intervention is now the norm inthe Middle East. Almost every Arab country now boasts a US base or US military persence. But a flawed strategy can still incur enormous costs on all parties concerned. Victroy after 40 years is not a solace. Consider the fate of the Algerian revolution, a case where a general adverserial outcome for the French was also not in doubt. Nevertheless the horrific events of the war of independence led not to victory but to a state of perpetual turmoil. Unlike South Africa, the Arab Middle East has no equivalent leadership to that developed under the ANC. More importantly, I see no prospect that such a leadership in opposition is to develop anytime soon. The best that can develop (at least in the Levant if not the entire Middle East) is a modified sort of Bantustan leaderships (encourgaed by outside powers) focused on ethnic and religious minorities and stalking their worst fears of the other. The alternative leadership currently contesting for power, that of the islamists, is dead ended as convincingly argued by Roy Olivier. It is a time of internal political crisis in the Arab World that appears to stay with us for the time being.

  9. Dominic

    TC, you write of “strategy, defined by a set of coordinated actions seeking to serve an overarching vision.”
    The strategy here would be the “overarching vision”, wouldn’t it? Something independent of the “co-ordinated actions”, the means or the tactics which may be used to achieve the strategy. That vision, you say, is “to maintain US hegemony”, in other words the status quo. A second “American Century”, presumably to be followed by a third, and so on.
    This vision is not different in kind from the idea of the perpetual Afrikaner (“Christian National”)Republic of South Africa or the former German Nazi idea of the “Thousand-Year Reich”.
    Not different either from the idea of Octavian, self-named Augustus, who for the sake of eternal continuation, bleached the life out of the Roman republican institutions, while retaining their dead forms. The eventual result of his actions was a fifteen hundred years of fixed relations, in due course rationalised as feudalism, and only overthrown by the republics of Italy, the Netherlands, England and France, in bourgeois revolutions.
    You praise the “leadership … that developed under the ANC” while ignoring the content of that leadership, as if it had nothing to say for itself. In fact, the leadership had plenty to say about strategy and tactics. What distinguishes the ANC’s strategic goal from the old SA regime’s, and the present US government’s, is precisely that it was not a fixed, but a revolutionary one.
    It aimed to set the country free, with every intention of going further, in what is called the “National Democratic Revolution”. This is not a final, but a transitional condition. We are free to create a better life and to shed the legacy of the past. That is a strategy with useful content. A strtegy which only aims to boil the pot for another hundred years or two is not worthy of the name. It is hollow, lifeless, even necrophiliac, as Freire would put it.

  10. bbm

    At University I studied apartheid South Africa’s “total strategy” developed under premier PW Botha. It could be an interesting comparison, not only for similarities but also differences. Total Strategy was itself based very closely on US experiences in occupations and wars and the SA state also drew on the Israeli experiences later when it was developed further into the Joint-Strategic management plan (forget the exact jargon), with linked up local units of security forces, other state groups, businesses, etc. There is excellent primary material in the African Studies Library at the University of Cape Town. You might also want to speak to the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconcilliation at the University of the Witwatersrand. This was a research area of their director (Dr Graeme Simpson) during the 1980’s (before he moved there).

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