Those close to him have said the retired chief of the South African Defence Force died on his farm at Ohrigstad, Limpopo, on Friday. He was 86.
He was partly credited with preventing the outbreak of armed violence by disaffected white South Africans prior to the post-apartheid general elections.
He leaves behind wife Christina Susanna Heckroodt, four sons and a daughter.
Below are some of the highlights of Viljoen’s life, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Viljoen succeeded General Magnus Malan as Chief of the South African Defence Force in 1980.
He had been the senior SADF military officer directing Operation Savannah in 1975. He is also credited with planning the first major airborne assault in South African military history, Cassinga, a raid carried out against SWAPO insurgents. Despite his rank, Viljoen was present during the battle, offering what was described as a “swashbuckling” front-line leadership, which won him the respect of many fellow Afrikaners.
Viljoen was credited by some with making overtures that helped lead to white South Africans’ acceptance of universal suffrage and free elections, such as with his famous speech at the Broederbond annual assembly in Voortrekkerhoogte, saying of the Black South Africans in his army, As hulle kan veg vir Suid-Afrika, kan hulle stem vir Suid-Afrika! (“If they can fight for South Africa, then they can vote for South Africa!”).
In 1993, Viljoen and fellow retired generals formed the Afrikaner Volksfront (Afrikaner People’s Front), an umbrella body for conservative Afrikaners. However, Viljoen had strained relationships with the leaders of other right-wing parties, who considered him too moderate.
Immediately prior to the 1994 elections Viljoen had a force of between 50,000 and 60,000 trained paramilitary personnel at his command, with the ability to seize large sections of the country. The force was assembled in preparation for war with Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, as a potential contingency to protect Afrikaner interests.
In March 1994, Viljoen led an effort by several thousand Volksfront militia to protect the bantustan president Lucas Mangope, in Bophuthatswana against a coup d’état. Despite being requested not to participate in the action because of extremist views, militants of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging also advanced into Bophuthatswana, sparking clashes with the security forces.
Immediately after the incident, Viljoen split from the Volksfront. and initiated a legitimate election campaign, co-founding and becoming leader of the Freedom Front, a new political party representing white conservatives. His decision to take part in the elections is believed to have prevented armed resistance by the far right and on the occasion of his retirement from politics, the South African government recognised him for preventing bloodshed.
In 2001, Viljoen handed over the leadership of the Freedom Front to Pieter Mulder and retired from politics, citing his frustration working with a parliament dominated by the ANC.
In 2003, it emerged that Viljoen had been a target of the Boeremag paramilitary right-wing group, which considered him a traitor who had underhandedly sold out the Afrikaner people.
(Compiled by Charles Cilliers)