Obituary

Jannie Geldenhuys: Apartheid soldier

Former chief of the South African Defence Force and a member of the all-powerful State Security Council

16 September 2018 - 00:00 By Chris Barron


Gen Jannie Geldenhuys, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 83, admitted that he kept quiet for 10 years about the assassinations of prominent ANC activist Dr Fabian Ribeiro and his wife, Florence, in 1986.
He was chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF) at the time and a member of the all-powerful State Security Council, which approved "unconventional" operations against ANC activists.
The assassinations were carried out by SADF special forces answerable to him.
He told the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997 that he was briefed after the hit, which was authorised by and executed under the direction of special forces commander Gen Joep Joubert. Geldenhuys said he took no action against Joubert because he was told the police were investigating and he did not want to "meddle".
When a judicial inquest failed to identify the involvement of the special forces or Joubert he kept quiet, he said.
The Ribeiro killings remained among the most sensational unsolved murders in SA until 1996.
Joubert told the TRC that Geldenhuys had instructed him to draw up a plan on how special forces could provide support for the police security branch using "unconventional revolutionary" methods.
He said he explained his plan, which called for the "elimination" of ANC activists identified by the security branch, to Geldenhuys, who gave him the go-ahead.
Geldenhuys denied this. The special forces unit created to carry out the plan became notorious as the Civil Co-operation Bureau. The first head of the CCB was Joubert, who reported directly to Geldenhuys.
The TRC heard Geldenhuys also authorised Operation Katzen, which aimed to sow havoc in ANC-aligned resistance politics in the Eastern Cape by creating an underground organisation that would play a similar role to that of the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal.
When the leader of this organisation, former Ciskei security boss Charles Sebe, was sentenced to 12 years for destabilising the homeland, Geldenhuys helped spring him from jail. He applied for but was denied amnesty for his role.
In 1995 Geldenhuys, along with former defence minister Magnus Malan and 19 other security force officers, was arrested and charged with murder in connection with Operation Marion, which involved training Inkatha hit squads in the Caprivi Strip in 1985. When they returned to KwaZulu-Natal they slaughtered 13 women and children in KwaMakutha.
The officers were acquitted in 1996, but the supreme court found that the SADF-trained hit squad had carried out the massacre with the assistance of the SADF's military intelligence unit.
Geldenhuys, who had a reputation as one of the best combat generals SA produced, was born in Kroonstad in the Free State on February 5 1935 and matriculated at Hoërskool Voortrekker in Bethlehem. He joined the permanent force in 1954 and completed a bachelor of military science degree at the University of Pretoria. At the age of 41 he was made chief of army staff operations and promoted to major-general.
In 1977 he was put in charge of South African forces in what was then South West Africa. He succeeded Constand Viljoen as chief of the army in 1980 after directing Operation Sceptic, at the time the largest mechanised infantry operation launched by the South African military since World War 2.
He became chief of the SADF in 1985 and was centrally involved in the negotiations that led to the withdrawal of Russian and Cuban forces from Angola, and the independence of Namibia in 1990.
US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Chester Crocker, who facilitated the peace talks, got to know him well and developed huge respect and liking for him.
CHILDREN'S STORIES
Crocker found him cerebral, direct and unpretentious. He'd heard about his reputation as a "soldier's soldier" who rose to the top "through some of the toughest line commands of the SADF".
But when he first met him "he did not look much like a senior soldier", he wrote in his account of the negotiations. "He looked like the sort of man who valued his privacy and disliked dressing up for formal events."Crocker said he was not surprised to learn later that Geldenhuys was a published poet and author of children's stories.
Geldenhuys, he wrote, had "a disconcerting habit of doing crossword puzzles or falling asleep during [foreign minister] Pik Botha's windier monologues".
Few things irked Geldenhuys more than the "myth" that the SADF had been defeated by the Russians and Cubans in the massive battle of Cuito Cuanavale that ended the war in Angola in 1988.
Had that been the case, the Russians and Cubans would never have agreed to peace talks and withdrawal from Angola, he wrote in his book Ons Was Daar (We Were There).
The fact that Namibia became a multi-party democracy with a sound constitution rather than a totalitarian state like Angola was thanks to the success of the SADF, he wrote.
He believed the South African government failed to capitalise on the platform provided by the SADF. It was completely out-negotiated by the ANC in what was more of a "takeover" than a "politically agreed settlement", he said.
Geldenhuys, who'd had Alzheimer's disease for a number of years, is survived by his wife, Marie, and three children. A son was killed in a military plane crash in 1991.
1935-2018

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