South Africa


Undeniable: Memoir of a covert war

Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, as South Africa stumbled its way to a messy peace and equally messy transition to democracy, stories of a “Third Force” – especially in the then-KwaZulu and on the East Rand – were legion. The stories re-emerged after the Marikana massacre, as Philippa Garson recounts in ‘Undeniable: Memoir of a Covert War’ (Jacana).

We sat crouched behind an outside toilet next to a clump of nondescript brick buildings, somewhere on the outskirts of Durban. Our source had arranged this highly unorthodox interview and now here we were, huddled together in the darkness, all three of us yoked together in furtive discomfort.

He was describing how Inkatha impis launched attacks on their foes in a weaving snake formation. “You have to see it to believe it. The induna controls the whole thing. As the snake runs down the hill, the first person breaks the window and doors, the second throws in petrol bombs, then as people start running out the rest of the snake kills them with spears, knives or guns. They kill anything in their path. Even chickens and dogs.”

“Come to Daddy,” he said, pulling his huge R1 rifle towards him, as he squatted on his haunches in front of us in the dark. He stroked his gun distractedly, as if it was an object of affection. And clearly it was.

Like many other actors in this restless war without rules, he trusted his weapon and little else.

“There’s no law and order here. It tends to get to you after a while. I get nervous when I go out. I never know if I’m going to come back. I could be ambushed and that’s that.” He glanced around him, as if he expected it to happen at any minute.

The guy was a sinister yet strangely seductive presence, a hulking, nameless, faceless man with a weapon. All we knew about him was that he was a young warrant officer based “somewhere in southern Natal”. He wasn’t allowed to give interviews, yet here he was, divulging some of the messy secrets of his opaque tribe.

He was tall and broad, bulked out even more by a bulletproof vest. It was impossible to deny it, and I hated to admit it even to myself, but there was something sexually compelling about this masked warrior.

Until now white policemen had evoked only fear and hostility in me. Out in the townships they were surly and uncooperative with “lefty” journalists like us. During my student days they’d stormed our marches with whips and batons, scattered our protests and parties with tear gas, and busted us for smoking weed: they were no more friends with us than with the township residents they so roughly policed.

And by now I’d seen them in action enough to know that they still regarded those mostly ANC-supporting township residents as the enemy, even if their leaders were talking peace. It wasn’t so easy to tame a snarling beast that had been bred to combat any manifestations of black power inside and outside the country’s borders.

The man now crouching in front of us was white, but it was only the small patches of pale skin around his eyes and his white Durban accent that gave his race away. How then, I wondered, in the midst of a fiery battle at night, could witnesses tell that some of the men in balaclavas they reported seeing taking part in attacks were white? Not that it mattered whether a masked man was white or black – there were plenty of blacks in the special forces too, including the turned comrades or askaris – but where did all those reports of masked whites involved in violence come from?

What the cop told us next was astounding. He was not just wearing a balaclava to disguise himself from us. “We wear balaclavas when we go in. You can’t walk around a township with a white face,” he said. Although this practice wasn’t allowed, his colleagues did it regularly and his commanders turned a blind eye to it. “They don’t know but they know.” Although it was more common for the SADF to go in “black face”, the cops did it too, he said.

So this was standard practice? He portrayed it as a survival tactic. Cops doing the rounds in patrol vans were easy targets in a province awash with AK-47s, so they preferred to go out on foot, wearing balaclavas and blackening their faces and hands to camouflage themselves, he said.

“I’ve had personal incidents when I’ve been crouching in the bush and suddenly had an instinct. The next minute you’re staring into someone’s eyes. He’s sitting right next to you. These guys are super-quiet. They wear shorts, go around barefoot and they know the area. They’ve lived there all their lives. Especially the Inkathas. They’ve been trained in things like tracking from when they’re small.”

So this was where these stories came from? Not myths at all, but part of the lived experience of the people at the coalface of the violence. The cop may have been describing a survival strategy but the implication was clear: how easily then could these masked men commit crimes and escape undetected? There had been enough reports of their participation in the burning of shacks, in encouraging the “Zulus” to kill and in attacking people themselves.

This guy may have been macho and bold but he was also a nervous wreck. He reminded me of those hapless youngsters portrayed in countless war movies about Vietnam, boy-men stumbling around in dense, alien terrain, getting drunk and chain-smoking to ease their fears, pulling their triggers in all the wrong places at all the wrong times.

Compared to the dirt-poor, defenceless victims of this war, this lowly warrant officer was a king: he was white, he was armed and he was drawing a salary. Yet he was also a casualty – stressed and morose and prone to barricading himself in his room, he told us. By his account he was underpaid, overworked and under-protected, forced to buy his own bulletproof vest because there were not enough to go around.

The way he described it, the anarchy in this blighted province was as much about disorganisation and rivalry between the various armed forces – the army, the South African Police, the KwaZulu Police – as it was about the power struggle between Inkatha and the ANC.


The newspaper headline grabbed my attention: “Activists decry talk of ‘third force’ at Marikana.” I was sitting at the table with my parents over breakfast.

“Gee, Dad, a third force? What the hell are they talking about?” According to the latest government spin, murky forces intent on destabilising the ANC and its union allies had been behind the strike that had led to 34 miners being shot dead by police.

“Just the usual ANC propaganda,” he muttered over his toast and marmalade.

Had we been catapulted back in time?

But I was no longer that impatient young reporter arguing over the news with my father in the dining room of my childhood home. I was a visitor now in post-apartheid South Africa, a too-solicitous daughter hovering over him lest he take a tumble, a middle-aged parent of argumentative and rebellious children myself.

Giant ferns waved at us through the window, towering up from the courtyard of the apartment complex in which my parents now lived, just two blocks up the road from our old house.

Just the day before, my father had trotted unsteadily down the sidewalk to show me the house. Its neat 1920s face was broken open; the massive holes chopped out to make big modern windows were like huge, droopy eyes. Walls had been bashed out. The place was barely recognisable. Exposed to the elements, the staircase we had once slid down on tea trays at dawn looked diminished. It was no longer our grand old house, just someone else’s big, messy, half-completed project battered by rain and temporary neglect.

When I read that headline in the paper, I felt a bitterness welling up. Is that all the third force ever was, and still is? A neat propaganda tool wielded by the ANC to deflect attention from its own role in violence?

Since the turbulent pre-democracy 1990s, when so many journalists were hunting for it, the notion of a third force has cropped up repeatedly. When xenophobic violence flares, allegations about third force agents provocateur invariably surface. The term remains controversial and up for debate. And I’m still obsessing over it. I keep finding reasons to return home, to revisit all the unanswered questions. I can’t put it to rest.

The sanitised political narrative that prevails today is of a “peaceful transition” to democracy. It’s as if this bloody chapter of the early 1990s has been erased from collective memory. But the unavoidable truth is that thousands of people, mostly poor, died invisible deaths during this time.

Do we even know how many there were? 14,000, say some sources; 15,000, 16,000, say others. Where is the nation’s grand monument to those people whose names seldom made it into newspapers, the victims of one massacre after another, totted up as mere numbers, and inaccurately counted at that? If not a monument, where then are the headstones? Instead, the remains of many lie buried in unmarked graves.

The “born-frees” may be tired of hearing about the hallowed Struggle heroes, about the dream come true. But what of the bloodbath that was visited on their country in apartheid’s death throes? Here there are no sanitised or clichéd stories to grow weary of. International audiences, too, recall rosy images of the Mandela miracle but seem blissfully unaware of the anarchic, three-way war, the orgy of violence, that preceded elections.

Some who were caught up in the thick of it are still deeply traumatised and don’t want to talk about that time. Others who know a lot fear prosecution, even after all these years, and won’t talk.

Of course, for the thousands who fought, and for the many others who lost their families, their friends, their property, their ideals and their own sense of safety, amnesia is not an option. The trauma runs deep, imprinted in the bones, passed down to their children. But for the rest, there is this strange blanket of silence and denial, underneath which lies a tangle of contradictory truths that defy being stitched into a single narrative.

For its part, the ANC government has avoided digging too deeply into what happened. In mid-2019, a court found that political interference by the ANC had stopped the National Prosecuting Authority from dealing with 300 cases of deaths from violence that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had put forward for further investigation. Just as the National Party kept its secrets under wraps with its denials and window-dressing exercises like the Harms Commission, so too the ANC has thwarted the exposure of so much of the truth about the covert violent activity that threatened the path to democracy. Why?

Perhaps the answer is simple: once in power the ANC had to face the challenges of governing. The loyalty of the security forces and the civil service was paramount. More damaging exposés could threaten the country’s fragile stability. Buthelezi had been coaxed away from civil war at the final hour. To hold him to account for the season of killing that took place under his watch could send him back into fight mode.

And the ANC did not want to make itself vulnerable to potential prosecutions either.

But some mutter darkly about deals that were struck between the ANC and the apartheid-era security forces to prevent the unmasking of high-ranking ANC officials who were apartheid spies, to stop more information about the ANC camp atrocities from leaking out, and to maintain the corrupt networks and secret slush funds that flourished during the era of covert activity, and continue to flourish, involving players from both sides. A lack of truth and justice around the terrible crimes perpetrated during this period has contributed to a culture of impunity that persists today, they say.

And there are still no satisfactory answers to the question of how much responsibility lies on the ANC’s own shoulders for the conflict that claimed so many lives. To what extent did the violence help or hinder its hand at the negotiations? To what extent was it responsible for some of the atrocities committed by the self-defence units? Although these community-based structures did not fall under the ANC’s command, they received weapons and training from the organisation.

What’s more, the ANC never really “suspended” its armed struggle. In the late 1980s, it had more success than ever before in setting up an underground network of cells, both with Operation Vula and with other initiatives, bringing arms secretly into the country. After the unbanning, these activities continued as a precautionary measure should negotiations with its adversary fail. When ANC-supporting communities came under attack, there was no shortage of deadly weapons. Often these landed up in the hands of young teenagers, gangsters, loose-cannon MK soldiers. And after the conflict, many of the guns were not recalled.

Yet the ANC has accepted little responsibility for the violence of the transitional era. Perhaps a cloak of shame around its own complicity contributes to the climate of denial and suppression of truth that has prevailed within the ANC ever since 1994.

But for all the shadows that linger, we do nevertheless know so much more now, decades later, than we did then. Over the years, much has been revealed about the clandestine forces that stoked the violence of the transitional period. We know that a third force or, more accurately, several third forces existed, stirring outbreaks of violence that ultimately led to thousands of deaths and the destabilisation of the whole country. DM

Undeniable: Memoir of a Covert War by Philippa Garson is published by Jacana Media and is also available as an ebook.


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