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Pretoria's bid for `hearts and minds'. South Africa's military is running a semi-secret counterinsurgency campaign. The strategy is to neutralize black activists through bannings and detentions while winning the allegiance of moderates by improving life in black townships. But few blacks seem likely to be wooed into government-defined `power sharing'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 1988


In the last couple of months, the South African government effectively gagged 17 anti-apartheid organizations, banned 18 prominent black leaders, and temporarily shut down the opposition New Nation and South newspapers. It also built roads in tumbledown black townships, spent big bucks on much-needed housing there, and offered to give disenfranchised blacks a bit more political power.

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Confusing? Yes. But only on the face of it. For this is all part of a larger plan designed to combat what the government sees as a communist-inspired revolutionary onslaught by the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and its sympathizers. (The ANC emphatically denies it is a communist front.)

Drawn up by the South African military, the plan is patterned after classic counterinsurgency strategies. The idea is that years of neglect in black townships have created fertile ground for ANC activists. Remove the activists and begin improving black people's lives, so the thinking goes, and you remove the impetus for revolution. (One Western diplomat wryly summarized this as: ``Crush, create, negotiate.'')

``We have studied counterrevolutionary tactics in Malaya, Chile, El Salvador,'' says a ranking member of the State Security Council, a Cabinet-level body that advises President Pieter Botha. ``We're using the same hearts-and-minds techniques here. First we neutralize the enemy, then we win over the people so they will reject the ANC.''

To that end, hundreds of small military/civilian governmental groups, called Joint Management Centers (JMCs,) have been deployed throughout the country. They coordinate the ``neutralizing'' tactics with the remodeling of squatter camps and townships, into which Pretoria is pumping millions of dollars. The JMCs hope to build an image of ``good'' government among blacks to persuade them to join - not fight - the system.

But many political analysts question whether this will work. And after years of sluggish economic growth, South Africa simply does not have the funds for them - something economists and government officials alike admit.

Perhaps more important, critics contend, Pretoria is trying to deflect issues that even conservative black leaders see as vital: lifting bans on all political organizations, freeing political prisoners, scrapping discriminatory laws. These demands cut right across the black political spectrum and are unlikely to disappear - no matter how snazzy squatter camps become.

``The military thinks it can win this war,'' says Mark Swilling, a University of Witwatersrand political scientist. ``At best, their strategy will buy the government time. It will achieve acquiescence and control, but not cooperation.''

Not that some blacks do not welcome what the government is doing. Tired of turmoil and unrest, many just want to get on with their lives, regardless of who makes it possible.

That unrest, which convulsed black areas from 1984 to '86, is what sold politicians on a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan, the Security Council member recalls. The idea had been kicking around for a while, he says, but was not really accepted by the civilian administration until the townships blew. The first step: imposing the 1986 state of emergency, under which thousands of activists have been detained without trial.

Crackdowns on antigovernment groups and opposition press were inevitable next moves. More are sure to follow. ``You must take out revolutionaries if they are controlling the people,'' says the Security Council member. ``That's why the arrests and bannings. You can't concentrate on uplifting the townships if you constantly have to defend yourself.''