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Vile, venal enemy of the people

Chris Barron | 2011-07-23 19:46:21.0
From left, then president PW Botha, his wife, Elize, and the man who pulled their strings, Magnus Malan, in Pretoria in early 1980s

Magnus Malan, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 81, was for 10 years arguably the most powerful man in South Africa.

PW Botha might have been the president, but Malan was the man he listened to.

Malan, who was Botha's most trusted general before becoming his defence minister in 1980, told him that South Africa faced a "total onslaught". Borrowing heavily from books he had read and passed on to Botha about the British experience in Malaya and the French experience in Algeria, Malan told him the only response that stood a chance against this was a "total national strategy".

This involved handing power over every facet of life in the country - social, political and economic - to the military. This power was exercised through the National Security Management System, which brought policing, intelligence and civic affairs under the control of Malan's generals and later the State Security Council, which incorporated a few cabinet ministers whom the generals listened to when it suited them.

The State Security Council generally met just before meetings of the cabinet. There was never any doubt about who called the shots. It was not those in the cabinet room.

The power relationship was amply demonstrated when the SADF launched its murderous raids on ANC bases in neighbouring states. Minister of foreign affairs Pik Botha was often informed, if not after the fact, then too late for him to object.

Malan was contemptuous when Pik Botha discovered that the SADF was continuing to support the Mozambican rebel group Renamo in defiance of the peace treaty SA signed with Samora Machel in 1984.

Supposedly central to Malan's total strategy was winning the hearts and minds of the black population, something only the military could do, he believed.

Ideally, this involved building houses, schools and hospitals. The revolution was about "getting a roof over your head, having food to eat, having education for your children, having a job to do and medical services", he said.

If he'd grown up in the impoverished township of Alexandra, he'd have been "the leader of the terrorists", he told newspaper editors. Political rights, he declared, was not a relevant concern for blacks.

As Chester Crocker, the driver of US policy in Africa in the 1980s, commented, Malan's idea of strategy was "wishful thinking".

When the townships went up in flames, Malan sent in the army, with guns rather than spades and trowels.

While talking hearts and minds, he set up the Civil Co-operation Bureau (CCB), a secret SADF hit squad. Among the assassinations he authorised were those of University of Witwatersrand academic David Webster and Namibian lawyer Anton Lubowski.

He also authorised Project Coast, which involved giving Dr Wouter Basson hundreds of millions of rands to develop a chemical and biological warfare capacity. Drugs were tested on Swapo captives, who were then dropped into the Atlantic from army helicopters.

A lot of this money financed fabulous lifestyles for Basson and his team, including posh houses, overseas trips in private jets and equipment that was then sold for personal gain without ever being used.

Malan's real power was his control of a seemingly bottomless secret SADF account, which cost the taxpayer between R4-billion and R10-billion a year.

Parliament had no oversight over how it was spent. Indeed, parliament, and the governing party itself, had little knowledge and less control over anything that Malan and his "securocrats" got up to.

In the name of "total strategy", he presided over a system of corruption on a truly epic scale. By the time the auditor-general was granted access to the relevant documents in 1991, most of them had been shredded.

How much was stolen, by whom and where it ended up will probably never be known. The estimate is that it ran into billions.

The attorney-general found that, between 1988 and 1990 alone, R12.5-million was spent on unauthorised CCB projects, much of it doled out to agents in great wads of cash to do with as they pleased.

Even after FW de Klerk supposedly shut down the CCB in 1990, Malan continued making unauthorised payments to operatives, R9-million, for example, in just one three-month period.

After the 1977 arms embargo, Malan boosted the capacity of domestic arms manufacturer Armscor with money from his secret fund.

By 1985, it was South Africa's largest exporter of manufactured goods.

It used 1500 private-sector subcontractors, making fortunes for favoured businesses and individuals.

Untold billions from the secret fund were spent on South Africa's nuclear weapons programme.

Hundreds of millions from the fund went into training and arming Inkatha hit squads to kill those aligned to the ANC and the United Democratic Front.

In 1995, Malan and 19 of his generals were charged with the 1987 massacre of 13 people in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMakhutha by these hit squads.

The high court ruled that the prosecution had not proven a link between the killings and Malan and his generals.

Both as chief of the SADF and defence minister, Malan presided over the mass destruction of wildlife in Angola and Namibia by the SADF, which made a killing out of elephant tusks and rhino horns smuggled overseas via South Africa.

Senior SADF personnel were also involved in smuggling diamonds from Angola.

Most of the proceeds went to Jonas Savimbi and his rebel outfit, Unita.

Significant amounts were pocketed by senior SADF officers.

Nobody knows how much went into Malan's pockets.

What is known is that he regarded the resources of the SADF as his to dispose of as and when he liked.

He arranged for a Puma helicopter to pick him and his sons up and fly them to Namibia for a spot of hunting.

He used military helicopters and other equipment to go on fishing trips with fellow cabinet minister John Wiley and a mutual business friend, Dave Allen, to Bird Island near Port Elizabeth.

Two coloured boys were said to have been sexually assaulted on one of these trips. In 1987, Allen was arrested for paedophilia and committed suicide. Wiley shot himself soon after.

Malan was born in Pretoria on January 30 1930. At 13, he ran away from home to join the Union Defence Force, but was sent home again in short order. His father, a professor of biochemistry and later Nat MP and speaker of parliament, left him in no doubt that he disapproved of his actions.

He also disapproved of his son's career choice, but was mollified when Malan obtained a BSc (Mil) degree. After a stint as a marine in the navy, he joined the army and did a one-year course at the US army general staff college at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

He came to the attention of defence minister PW Botha, who took a shine to him and propelled him up the ranks with a speed his fellow officers did not appreciate.

At 43, he was chief of the army, at 46, chief of the whole defence force and, at 50, minister of defence. All this without any operational experience, without ever leading soldiers in combat.

Full of bluster and tough talk, he himself never knew what it was like to be under fire.

This didn't stop him sending his soldiers into combat. In 1975, he sent them into Angola to fight with Unita against the MPLA. This turned into a full- blown war against Cuban soldiers, but, until 1987, Malan consistently denied to the South African public that his men were in Angola. He also consistently lied about the extent of casualties.

Malan was disliked by many of his senior officers, some of whom leaked the information that sent him to court for the KwaMakhutha killings.

They resented his meteoric rise as owing more to his carefully nurtured political connection with PW Botha than his abilities. They referred to him sneeringly as a "technocrat". After a few drinks, they called him an "idiot".

Constand Viljoen, who succeeded Malan as chief of the SADF, despised him. Viljoen was considered a true professional in a way Malan never was. Unlike Malan, he was popular with his troops and his officers, and Malan both resented this and felt threatened by Viljoen's superior qualities as a soldier.

Senior officers believed this may have explained Viljoen's premature departure from the top job.

Malan came across as a scowling, dour, humourless, autocratic bully.

The test of a good military leader is one who cares about his men and does his best for them. Malan did little or nothing for those who suffered post-traumatic stress fighting an undeclared, unacknowledged, increasingly ferocious war in a foreign land. He allowed bizarre and inhumane experiments to be carried out to "cure" troops suspected of being homosexual.

He sneered that those who objected to fighting on religious grounds were "mommy's little boys". He regarded conscientious objectors as criminals, sent them to jail and authorised smear campaigns against supporters of the End Conscription Campaign, which he banned in 1988.

When PW Botha resigned, Malan's star quickly waned. In 1990, De Klerk packed him off to the department of water affairs, where he sank without trace, emerging in 1993 only long enough to accept De Klerk's suggestion that he resign rather than be fired.

He regarded De Klerk with contempt. The feeling was mutual.

Malan, who died of a heart attack, is survived by his wife, Margot, two sons and a daughter.

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