THE landmark decision by President Frederik de Klerk to dismantle a complex system of ``security management'' - which entrenched military influence in government decisionmaking - has been widely acclaimed as a bold step toward the restoration of civilian rule and accountable parliamentary government. It has also been interpreted as the first step toward ending the 42-month-old state of emergency, which has been characterized by the increasing influence of top security officials from the military, police, and intelligence services.
Addressing a police parade in Pretoria Tuesday, Mr. De Klerk announced that the controversial National Security Management System - which had become a ruthlessly efficient vehicle for repressing anti-apartheid protest - would be replaced with a less-structured system under civilian control. The process would downgrade the pervasive State Security Council.
A senior government official said, ``In theory the State Security Council was merely another Cabinet committee to coordinate security decisionmaking in Government. In practice it was calling the shots and had become a kind of super-Cabinet.''
De Klerk said one of the main aims of the changes was to confirm the Cabinet as the ``highest policy making and coordinating power.'' His other stated motives were better goal achievement, cost efficiency, and the elimination of military interference in other government departments.
The sweeping move by De Klerk, after less than three months in power, could hasten the fall of security officials already reeling from blows delivered by recent political decisions to loosen constraints on anti-apartheid dissent and free veteran leaders of the outlawed African National Congress.
The police force - already destabilized by orders that it must accommodate rather than crush black dissent - is facing a further setback over detailed allegations that senior police officers were involved in ``hit squads'' that assassinated scores of anti-apartheid activists over the past 12 years.
De Klerk has promised action against offenders if the allegations are proved to be correct.
His move to demilitarize his government will further undermine the waning fortunes of Defense Minister Magnus Malan and Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok, who are increasingly seen as out of step with De Klerk's tentative efforts to restore the rule of law and civilian rule.
Although De Klerk has already taken several steps to downgrade the role of the security officials in government, his decision to publicly announce the dismantling of once-sacrosanct military-dominated structures has surprised both his critics and supporters.
``Unlike his predecessor [Pieter Botha], De Klerk has no power base in the security establishment and has a totally different approach,'' says Jacques Cilliers, who formerly served on the secretariat of the State Security Council. ``You don't undertake this sort of fundamental restructuring without a degree of commitment.''
De Klerk said the move would lead to the loss of many jobs in the military, but he ruled out any possibility of a military coup in a defense force which depends heavily on a conscription Army.
Mr. Cilliers says the security situation was so serious when the Botha government opted to impose a state of emergency in June 1986 that resorting to a heavy-handed response was its only option.
``De Klerk only has the gap to take this step because violence has receded and the whole international climate has changed dramatically,'' he adds. ``If there was a resurgence of the level of violence and ungovernability of that period, De Klerk would have no option but to revive the security management system.''
The secretary of the State Security Council said in a briefing two years ago that anti-apartheid resistance can best be countered by simultaneously upgrading black living conditions and ruthlessly suppressing dissent and eliminating black revolutionaries.
The De Klerk administration says it seeks to draw black leaders into an open-ended process of dialogue and consultation aimed at negotiating a new order based on consent rather than coercion.
The National Security Management System permeated every level of the society from the grass roots to the highest levels of government.