How Constand Viljoen conned Madiba into believing in his SADF coup threat

General Constand Viljoen, right, seen with former president Nelson Mandela. Picture: Twitter / @louis_lrossouw

Did the last leader of the apartheid-era defence force really contribute to a peaceful transition to democracy, or did he extort damaging concessions from black people from the then future president, Nelson Mandela?

On Friday, 3 April, General Constand Viljoen, the former chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF), and founder leader of the Freedom Front, passed away.

In expressing his condolences to General Viljoen’s family, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that he will be remembered “for influencing conservative movements into abandoning plans for military resistance to the democratic transition”.

In this assessment of a small part of General Viljoen’s controversial life, President Ramaphosa is not wrong. As someone who observed how General Viljoen conducted himself, I can confirm that some of the last-minute decisions that he took helped to smooth the path to the successful implementation of our negotiated settlement.

However, I do not think that this is all that we should remember about General Viljoen, nor that this ultimately defines the character of the man.

General Viljoen was one of twins. His twin brother, Professor Abraham (Braam) Viljoen, is a theologian, and he lectured at the University of South Africa (Unisa). When I was a political prisoner, and studied theology, he was one of my lecturers. In the thoughtful responses that Braam Viljoen gave to my assignments it became clear that politically the two Viljoen twins were miles apart.

When I was eventually released from prison we became friends. I found Braam thoughtful and supportive of the ANC.

Although Braam and Constand did not see eye to eye politically, their shared brotherly love never waned.

Thus, when I was told by a concerned Braam that Constand was ready to carry out a coup, I knew that I had to take it seriously.

Braam was convinced that the only thing that could stop Constand from proceeding would be a meeting with [then ANC president] Nelson Mandela. To set up such a meeting was no simple matter.

Viljoen was involved in the occupation of Namibia, and led the charge of the SADF into Angola. His hands were dripping with the blood of our comrades.

I shared what Braam told me with Madiba; initially he was reluctant to meet, but eventually it was decided to proceed.

The meeting was tense. As Madiba and General Viljoen started talking they kept on standing, facing each other. Madiba allowed General Viljoen to talk first.

Viljoen complained that he felt the ANC was not sympathetic to the idea of Afrikaner self-determination. He was upset that the negotiations between the ANC and the National Party of FW de Klerk had sidelined rightwing Afrikaner political groupings.

He said it was pre-determined that the negotiations would lead to a unitary state, which “his people”, would “never” accept, and concluded with an ominous threat that he had worked out a coup plan that would put an end to the negotiations and democratic elections.

Madiba responded carefully. He said that in a conventional battle with the SADF, the liberation army of the ANC, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), would not be able to prevail, and Viljoen would probably be able to pull off a coup.

Having conceded this, he asked Viljoen what he thought would happen afterwards? Madiba described to Viljoen how MK would resume guerrilla warfare against his Boer government. The international community would isolate such a regime, and resume economic sanctions.

Having sketched this devastating scenario, Madiba said to Viljoen: “Is the wasteland that South Africa will become really the future that you want to bestow on your children?”

Viljoen responded that this was not intention, but that the “legitimate concerns of his people” were not being addressed. Madiba replied that he was prepared to convince the ANC to address those, but then Viljoen must let go of his coup plans.

Although Viljoen did not agree to stop his plotting, he agreed to start a process of engagement with the ANC, which was to be led by comrade Thabo Mbeki.

In subsequent engagements with the ANC negotiators, Viljoen pushed for the ANC to accept the idea of an Afrikaner Volkstaat, and the protection of the property rights of the Boers.

The sunset clauses were also strongly backed by Viljoen because it created employment security for Afrikaner civil servants. It was also agreed that the integration process of the SADF and SA Police (SAP) would not affect the rankings of the white officers in those forces. This resulted in the absorption of our MK liberation fighters under the unreconstructed command of former apartheid officers. It was hugely disrespectful to our liberation fighters, and it was one of the greatest mistakes of the negotiations.

Viljoen and his apartheid generals were insistent on an amnesty process before they would shelf their coup plans.

This led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), with the travesty that the “human rights violations” of liberation fighters were treated as similar to the atrocities that SAP and SADF members committed.

Consequently those white torturers and killers got off scot-free, while liberation heroes were treated like criminals. This was shameful and a denial of justice.

All of this was extracted under the threat of that planned rightwing coup.

The question remains: was there collaboration between the coup plotters, and De Klerk’s National Party negotiators, to use the coup threat as a negotiating tool?

What we do know is that an important facilitator of the negotiations with Viljoen was Professor Willie Esterhuyse, a close friend of comrade Thabo Mbeki.

Professor Esterhuyse also had close links with the apartheid National Intelligence Service (NIS). One must be either naive, or downright stupid, not to connect the dots…

General Viljoen is on record to have told PW Botha and De Klerk there was no military solution to South Africa’s problems, and that it had to be a political solution.

This does not sound like someone who was ready to carry out a coup.

The Sunday Times referred to these comments by Viljoen as a sign of some “enlightenment” from him. I believe that would be an erroneous conclusion, and that something far more sinister was at play.

Viljoen was not concerned with preventing black South Africans from voting, he was concerned with securing the apartheid-accumulated wealth and land ownership of whites. In order to extract guarantees for that, he used the threat of a coup.

General Viljoen was not a benevolent Boer general. He was a mafiosi, using blackmail tactics.

The generals of the SADF were far less enthusiastic about a coup than what he claimed.

General Georg Meiring, Head of the Army, was strongly opposed to the idea. When Viljoen told him: “You and I and our men can take this country in an afternoon,” Meiring retorted: “Yes, but what do we do the morning after?”

What we do not need to speculate about is that by the time General Viljoen met with Madiba he knew that he did not have the support of the Chief of the Army, which was essential for a successful coup.

Viljoen had another serious problem with the fractious coalition of white right wingers that was supporting him.

His Achilles’ heel was the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB). In March 1994 there were rumours that the ANC was going to overthrow the puppet homeland government of Lucas Mangope. Viljoen rushed to Mangope’s assistance, together with the AWB, who went on a shooting spree against unarmed and helpless civilians. They ended up being repelled by members of the Bophutatswana Defence Force.

The whole so-called “Mangope rescue expedition”, was a disaster. Viljoen blamed the AWB, but the writing was on the wall.

How was Viljoen going to pull off a coup if he could not carry out a minor operation? Shortly afterwards, Viljoen formed the Freedom Front, and announced his participation in the elections of 27 April 1994.

Folklore has it that Viljoen was “seduced” by Madiba to participate in the elections. Reality was far more sinister. The “Mangope rescue” debacle exposed the emptiness of Viljoen’s coup threat, but by then it had served its purpose in having extracted guarantees for property rights and job security for whites.

Viljoen’s Freedom Front managed to secure a meagre 2,2% of the vote. It is sad that 2,2% of white rightwing voters, with their racist apartheid history, extracted so many compromises that impacted on the lives of millions of black South Africans.

Even if all of the white population are counted together, they are only a small fractional minority compared to the millions of black South Africans who deserve much better. The negotiated compromises were evidently not justified.

Years later, as South African ambassador in the Netherlands, I encountered General Viljoen again.

At a dinner at my residence, which Viljoen attended, I asked him what the ultimate intention of the SADF attack into Angola was. His answer startled me: “To go through to Luanda, get rid of those MPLA communists, and put Savimbi in power.”

When remembering the illegal SADF invasion of Angola, we must also not forget the illegal occupation of Namibia, and the atrocities that the SADF committed against the civilian population.

These atrocities were committed by the soldiers of the SADF. As the commanding officer, Viljoen had to take the ultimate responsibility. That is why he was so insistent on securing amnesty.

Was General Viljoen ever sorry for what he had done? I do not think so.

The last time I had anything to do with General Constand Viljoen was when I asked him to sign the Declaration of Acknowledgement of Guilt, of the Home for All Campaign. We asked white South Africans to acknowledge their guilt, and to accept that they had all benefited from apartheid.

Viljoen’s response revealed the defining character of the man. He said that he had nothing to be sorry about, and was “proud” of what he had done to “fight communism”.

So Viljoen went unrepentant to his grave, and ultimately that is what defines apartheid’s last Boer General. He was a confidence trickster, racist, and unrepentant war criminal.

Carl Niehaus. Picture: Gallo Images

Niehaus is an ANC veteran and a member of the NEC and spokesperson of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association.

This is an edited version of the live lecture that Niehaus delivered on the Radical Economic Transformation Facebook Group Page. The full length text of the lecture can be read here and the video recording can be watched on YouTube.

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