PRESIDENT Frederik de Klerk's bold action in sacking 23 military officers found to be involved in illegal activities to undermine his reforms has rocked the military and political establishments and created fears of a backlash from right-wing elements.
But if he succeeds in purging the military of such covert elements, the move could strengthen his position in multiracial negotiations and dispel the nagging perception that he is becoming a lame-duck president who faces the same fate as former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
"There is no doubt that De Klerk has taken the bit this time," says Jakki Cilliers, director of the independent Institute for Defense Politics. "This is the beginning rather than the end of a process that will reach the very highest echelons of the military. I think De Klerk will pull it off."
The African National Congress (ANC) commended Mr. De Klerk but said the move did not go far enough. "There should be full public disclosure of all criminal activities and attempts at destabilization," senior ANC official Mac Maharaj told reporters Saturday.
"There is clearly a `third force' operating within the security forces that fosters violence with the objective of preventing South Africa's transition to a just and democratic society," Mr. Maharaj said.
Western governments, the liberal Democratic Party, the United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa, and Judge Richard Goldstone, who heads a broader investigation into political violence, also applauded the action.
But De Klerk's allies are concerned about the awesome challenge now facing him: He must simultaneously retain the loyalty of the powerful military axis while flushing out its subversive elements to make it acceptable to the population as a whole.
The president acted in swift response to a preliminary report by a senior general appointed to investigate the intelligence services of the South African Defense Force (SADF), which has been widely interpreted as confirmation of the existence of a third force in the military bent on sabotaging a phased transition to majority rule.
In a private briefing, the SADF chief of staff, Pierre Steyn, identified military figures who were disrupting a transition to majority rule. Military analysts said the purge represented the beginning of the end for the SADF chief, Gen. A. J. (Kat) Libenberg, and the military intelligence chief of staff, Gen. Christoffel van der Westhuizen.
"De Klerk is using his constitutional position as commander in chief of the SADF to effectively take charge of the restructuring of the armed forces and tackle what has become his biggest political headache," a Western diplomat says.
The disclosures by De Klerk provide further corroboration of a report in the Monitor Aug. 24 that gave details of a third force centered in military intelligence and determined to preserve white power.
In reply to questions at a media conference Dec. 19, De Klerk rejected the use of the term "third force" but his description of the subversive activities of "members and units" of the SADF dovetailed with the description of the third force in the Monitor report. Unacceptable conduct
The tone of his reaction to the initial findings was that of a leader who has been consistently lied to by senior military advisers.
"I am shocked and disappointed, but I am also resolute," a grim-faced De Klerk said.
He said the information at his disposal indicated a "serious and unacceptable state of affairs. This cannot and will not be tolerated."
Since he became president three years ago, De Klerk has taken steps to curb the awesome power that the military wielded at every level of government in the administration of the hawkish President Pieter Botha. His decision not to name the sacked officers at this stage is seen as a recognition of the residual power of this axis.
De Klerk's description of "illegal and unauthorized activities and malpractices" by SADF members and collaborators - which had in some instances led to political murders - was his first admission that units within the SADF were sabotaging negotiations.
He has insisted in the past that he had no evidence of such action and that malpractices were the work of renegade individuals.
"There is no doubt that this is precisely the kind of action that De Klerk needed to take to restore his own credibility and demonstrate that he is in control," a Western diplomat says.
The Western diplomat says that De Klerk has found the courage to act because of the supportive role being played by UN monitors and because he now has a law that provides for granting political amnesty to state officials.
According to an SADF officer, who spoke to the Monitor on condition of anonymity, De Klerk's move took the military establishment unawares at a time when most of its members are dispersed around the country on their annual vacations.
"This has come as a shock to every soldier," the officer said.
There was no official SADF reaction, but former SADF officer Col. Jan Breytenbach, who founded a controversial mercenary battalion that was disbanded by De Klerk in response to pressure from the ANC earlier this year, warned of a military backlash unless the reasons for the dismissals were clearly linked to illegal actions.
"The state president must lay his cards on the table," Colonel Breytenbach told the Monitor. "He must spell out who has killed whom and in what circumstances. Unless he does this there will be a backlash."
The right-wing Conservative Party accused De Klerk of conducting a "witch hunt" against senior members of the SADF.
"We think there is a definite onslaught against the senior officers of the SADF from the left," says Conservative Party defense spokesman Willie Snyman, hinting that the Conservatives would side with the dismissed officers.
One SADF source told the Monitor the two generals who had been dismissed were Deputy Intelligence Chief of Staff Gen. Chris Thirion and Army intelligence chief Gen. Hennie Roux.
General Thirion is the deputy to General van der Westhuizen, who news reports have said gave the death order for anti-apartheid activist Matthew Goniwe, who was assassinated in 1985.
General Roux heads a controversial arm of the intelligence community that was initiated during a nationwide emergency declared in 1986.
The declaration was followed by widespread repression of the government's political opponents. Top officers vulnerable
Army chief Gen. George Meiring, who has caused a public controversy with his political statements in recent months, is also seen as vulnerable in terms of the investigation.
SADF's most senior officer, General Liebenberg, also has been linked in the past to covert military units that targeted anti-apartheid activists.
"It would appear that the strategy is to start with the second tier of generals and use them to implicate the top strata," a military analyst says.
James Selfe, executive director of the liberal Democratic Party and an expert on the military's hidden agenda, says De Klerk will not be able to escape the key issue of where political responsibility for the military lies.
"The rottenness of the era in which all this was born lay in the political parameters that were set," he says.