How effective was the policy of ‘Total National Strategy’ in combating the perceived threat from the ‘Total Onslaught’?

Essay, 2008

26 Pages, Grade: 1b


The South African government’s preservation of apartheid during the 1970s was confronted with contradictory dilemmas. The need for permanent semi-skilled, rather than unskilled migrant labour, for a capitalist economy contradicted the apartheid policy of development in separate spheres: serious urban unrest, illustrated by the Soweto riots in 1976 when 575[1] people were killed, forced the realisation that repression alone was unsuccessful in quelling black agitation and that reform of the apartheid system was required, whilst the introduction of hostile governments in neighbouring states removed South Africa’s buffer zone protecting it from African clamour for the overthrow of apartheid. This ‘Total Onslaught,’ perceived as being orchestrated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, threatened to replace South African apartheid with Marxist communism by overrunning white supremacists with a black proletariat. Under the emergent leadership of Pieter Willem Botha, the government adopted an all-encompassing policy of regional security measures with concomitant domestic reform between 1978 and 1984 to provide the “resolution of the conflict in the times in which we now live” that demanded “inter-dependent and co-ordinated action in all fields. It is therefore essential that a total national strategy” is “formulated at the highest level.”[2]

Factors crucial to a critical analysis of Total National Strategy (TNS) include the re-organisation of government and the role of the military. South Africa’s regional foreign policy, particularly the proposals to create a constellation of southern African states, the destabilisation of frontline southern African nations and the impact of international intervention, particularly by the United States of America, on South African regional policy were also determinant elements in the effectiveness of TNS. The inherent reform policies of TNS, including the tricameral parliament, black municipal reform, black trade union legislation and the upgrading of black local services, together with the response and reaction to these reforms by white, black, coloured and Indian groups and the international community will also be discussed to assess the cogency of the strategy.

TNS was established as a functioning policy by the reorganisation of government and the inclusion in government of technocrats, bureaucrats and members of the security establishment. Geldenhuys and Kotzé extol P.W. Botha’s leadership qualities and style, with a willingness to adapt more evident than in his predecessors in the National Party leadership, defending his streamlining of government. However, they ignore that reorganisation reinforced the top down approach of Afrikaner Nationalism and greatly strengthened the state executive – namely P.W. Botha, initially as Prime Minister and thereafter as State President from 1983, and the securocrats, consisting of military, police, intelligence service, civil service and important government ministers serving on the State Security Council (SSC). Central to the restructuring of government was the formulation of the National Security Management System (NSMS), implemented in 1979, and the elevation of the pre-existing SSC to a policy making chamber under the chairmanship of Botha with responsiblity for all aspects of TNS. The SSC superseded the Cabinet regarding the implementation of TNS. Moreover, the NSMS was also deployed at regional level through Joint Management Centres consisting of members of government departments, and at local level by Management Centres, as well as nationally. By so doing, an infrastructure of white supremacy permeated all levels of government whereby whites were encouraged to react to the threat of Total Onslaught from wherever it came. As Selfe succinctly argues, the aim of the NSMS was the preservation of white supremacy by maintaining the apparatus of apartheid at all levels of society and not the resolution of the grievances of the black majority. Therefore, the organisational framework around which TNS was moulded efficiently reinforced apartheid throughout all levels of society by creating a system of patronage reliant on the preservation of white supremacy, but was ineffective in remedying black grievances against apartheid and thereby failed to remove the need for allegiance to black Nationalist movements.

Davies and O’Meara assert that although TNS was a military concept, having been extrapolated from the writings of French General André Beaufre’s colonial Algerian experience, it was a combination of political and military responses and was never designed as a singularly military strategy. However, this argument fails to take account of the massive impact of militarisation and its contradictory role. The strength of the military in the SSC, and the associated overlapping of military and political spheres, confused the objective of TNS to find the equilibrium between reform and coercion. The campaign to ‘Win Hearts and Minds’ (WHAM) of the black populace by the use of military doctors, engineers and teachers in the townships contradicted sharply with military brutality. Nolutshungu’s argument that TNS became less dependent on political means and more on coercion by military means is therefore preferred to Davies’ and O’Meara’s argument, particularly once reactionary opposition to reform manifested itself. Magnus Malan, initially chief of the South African Defence Force (SADF) and thereafter Minister of Defence from 1980 to 1991, wrote defensively that “institutional counter-revolutionary action must take place within certain parameters …Government institutions can therefore not be permitted to act illegally and do as they wish.”[3] But this is exactly how the SADF operated. Increased militarisation was emphasised by the SADF’s own submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that, between 22 to 28 March 1985 and thereafter, the “SADF become involved on a large scale in support of SAP (South Africa Police) in combating unrest.[4] ” When the SADF did not act overtly they increased oppression and acted illegally by covert means. Witness for example the ‘Third Force’ murders of 13 members of a church congregation in KwaMakutha, including women and children mutilated so severely that some were eviscerated[5], by members of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha support. During the trial of Malan in June 1996 for ordering the murders, it became apparent that the SSC sponsored the Inkatha hit squads as the “chief minister” - presumably Botha, had - “hinted that ‘offensive actions’ were still a requirement, meaning the use of ‘hit squads.’”[6] The prosecutor in Malan’s trial eruditely encapsulated the covert activities of increased South African militarisation by comparing it to “the owner of a vicious bulldog who unleashes it upon a crowd of people and cannot be heard to lament the fact that it chooses to savage a young child.”[7] TNS was therefore ineffective because militarisation distorted the political and security aims of the strategy because the “nationalist government ordered the security forces to take abnormal action not covered by normal legislation.”[8] The balance between reform and coercion could not be found and the security establishment, under the influence of the military, regressed to the tried and tested fallback position of oppression and state-sponsored tsotsiism .

A central facet of TNS was the requirement to create a Confederation of Southern African States (CONSAS). The collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola and Mozambique, although both were not initially targeted as CONSAS member states, the emergence of Soviet Russian backed Cuban troops in Angola and the collapse of Iain Smith’s white minority rule in Zimbabwe, followed by the victory of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU (PF) party, not being South Africa’s preferred candidate, destroyed South Africa’s cordon sanitaire protecting the country from anti-apartheid foes to the north. The creation of CONSAS would have established South African hegemony in the region and established South African capitalism as a viable alternative to Marxism which was pervading Angola and Mozambique, concurrently gaining the approval of the western world for South Africa as a bastion of anti-communism. South Africa was the main trading partner of Malawi and Zimbabwe, economically subjugated Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, depended on migrant workers – particularly from Lesotho and Mozambique – and provided the transport and port facilities for imports and exports of several southern African states. CONSAS would formally increase the dependence of southern African countries on South Africa. CONSAS would not, however, hold only economic benefits for South Africa but would provide “a common approach in the security field, the economic field and the political field.”[9] The use of economic leverage would dissuade CONSAS members from supporting the African National Congress’ (ANC) guerrilla war being waged from bases in member countries and provide the South African government with an argument against sanctions, inasmuch that sanctions would also hurt South Africa’s economic partners in CONSAS. Moreover, the inclusion of the independent black homelands of Ciskei, Transkei, Bophuthatswana and Venda in CONSAS would confirm their statehood officially associating them with black majority ruled states thereby legitimising apartheid by international acceptance.


[1] Worden N., The Making of Modern South Africa, (Oxford; Blackwell Publishing, 2000) p. 135.

[2] P.W. Botha, Minister of Defence, quoted in the “African National Congress Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” at (accessed on 1 April 2008).

[3] Magnus Malan, My Life With the SA Defence Force, (Hatfield; Protea Book House, 2006), p.188.

[4] Major General B. Mortimer, “South African Defence Force Submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” at (accessed on 3 April 2008).

[5] “The New York Times,” 12 March 1996, at (accessed on 1 April 2008).

[6] Brigadier Cornelius van Niekirk quoted in Dixon N., “New Evidence: Apartheid Terror ordered from the Top,” Green Left Weekly at (accessed on 1 April 2008).

[7] Timothy McNally, State Prosecutor, “The New York Times,” 12 March, 1996, at (accessed on 1 April 2008).

[8] General J.V. van der Merwe, Commissioner of South African Police, “Submission to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee” in Coleman M. (ed.), A Crime Against Humanity: Analysing the Repression of the Apartheid State, (Johannesburg: Human Rights Committee, c1998) p. 7.

[9] R.F. Botha, Minister of Foreign Affairs, quoted in Hanlon J., Beggar Your Neighbours: Apartheid Power in Southern Africa (London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1986), p. 14.

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How effective was the policy of ‘Total National Strategy’ in combating the perceived threat from the ‘Total Onslaught’?
University of Stirling
Apartheid and Resistance in South Africa, 1948 – 1994
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ISBN (Book)
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South Africa, Apartheid, Communism, Total National Strategy, Total Onslaught
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Murray Baird (Author), 2008, How effective was the policy of ‘Total National Strategy’ in combating the perceived threat from the ‘Total Onslaught’?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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