Opinionista Kylie Thomas 28 September 2015

Open Stellenbosch, apartheid, and ‘the third force’

Amanda Gouws refers to the ‘third force’ being invoked in relation to the Open Stellenbosch Collective. Applying this terms to a movement seeking to achieve social justice is not only insulting, it also depends on widespread historical amnesia. But there is a way in which raising questions about the ‘third force’ takes us to the root of what is preventing substantive change in our country. This involves a consideration of the murky secret, and not-so-secret, connections between our universities and the military-industrial complex that constituted the apartheid state.

In a recent article in response to #luister published in Die Beeld and on the Stellenbosch University website, professor of political studies at the university Amanda Gouws calls on people to listen to young people in the debate on transformation. At the same time, she warns Open Stellenbosch against alienating potential allies and dissipating their goodwill if the movement is too critical of the work in service of transformation that others have done in the past.

She goes on to write: “When #OpenStellenbosch feels comfortable with strange bedfellows, such as those bearing placards that state ‘one settler one bullet’, it does nothing to promote their cause. It also adds to people starting to think that there is a conspiracy on the go to destabilise all universities. People are asking whether a ‘third force’ is involved. It is dangerous when people start asking questions such as these, as it draws attention away from the true problems with transformation on campuses.”

It is important to note that Gouws chooses to ignore the numerous statements issued by the Open Stellenbosch Collective repudiating violence in no uncertain terms and clearly articulating an anti-racist position. Just as the right-wing movement Afriforum Jeug has described Open Stellenbosch’s call for equality as a ‘total onslaught’ on Afrikaans and Afrikaners, Gouws here refers to how the ‘third force’ has been invoked in relation to the collective. Drawing on these terms that describe state-sanctioned forms of violence perpetrated under apartheid and applying them to movements seeking to realise justice in the post-apartheid context can only be understood as paranoid scaremongering. Applying these terms to a movement seeking to achieve social justice is not only insulting, it also depends on widespread historical amnesia. Asking questions about the ‘third force’ has always been a dangerous thing to do in South Africa, but whether or not asking these questions draws attention away from “the true problems of transformation” can be debated. There is a way in which raising questions about the ‘third force’ takes us directly to the root of what is preventing substantive change in our country. This involves a consideration of the murky secret, and not-so-secret, connections between our universities and the military-industrial complex that constituted the apartheid state.

What was the ‘third force’?

The term the ‘third force’ is used to refer to how violence was engineered by shadowy parties under apartheid who had a vested interest in sowing fear and violence. We still don’t have a clear understanding of the multiple forms of state-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence made to appear as ‘ethnic conflict’, or what was also termed ‘black-on-black violence’ under apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) investigation into the violence perpetrated by the ‘third force’ was severely limited by the fact that those responsible for the violence perpetrated under apartheid for the most part refused to testify before the commission. When they were forced to appear at the hearings, as in the case of the security policemen responsible for the murders of anti-apartheid activists at Post Chalmers in the Eastern Cape, they lied to the commissioners. What the TRC did find, however, with regards to the ‘third force’ was that “a network of security and ex-security operatives, acting frequently in conjunction with right-wing elements and/or sectors of the IFP (Inkatha Freedom Party), were involved in gross violations of human rights, including random and targeted killings”. In 1992 an investigation into the ‘third force’ violence found “that components of the South African Defence Force – DCC (Directorate of Covert Collection), Army Intelligence, Special Forces and the 7th Medical Battalion – were involved in a wide range of illegal and/or unauthorised activity. These included the establishment of arms caches; […] the planting of weapons in Swaziland to discredit the ANC; […] involvement in a chemical attack on Frelimo, and corruption for personal gain”. The ‘third force’ incorporated front companies and drew on those who were once in the Special Forces or other military or police units and ‘redeployed’ to civilian jobs. In relation to Project Coast, the chemical and biological weapons programme of the apartheid regime, the TRC report notes: “The image of white-coated scientists, professors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, laboratories, universities and front companies, propping up apartheid with the support of an extensive international network, was a particularly cynical and chilling one.”

The military-industrial-academic complex

Who were the scientists and professors who produced chemical and biological weapons and where did they work? Who was responsible for the violence of the ‘third force’? And just as importantly, where are these perpetrators now? We know that Dr Death/Wouter Basson is alive and well and working as a cardiologist not too far away from Stellenbosch, at least for now, as there is a petition circulating to have him struck off the medical register. Basson is infamous for the crimes he committed under apartheid, but what of all the other doctors who worked in service of the state and all the scientists who developed and manufactured weapons for the apartheid regime? What does the department of electrical engineering at Stellenbosch University have to do with the arms trade? Why is the vice-chairperson of the Stellenbosch University Council one of the founders of Reutech, a subsidiary of Reunert, one of the largest and most lucrative private arms developers, manufacturers and suppliers not only in South Africa but in the world? Why was he employed by the engineering department during apartheid and why is he an extraordinary professor to this day? Who was involved in the production of enriched uranium used to produce nuclear weapons during apartheid? What role did the professors of engineering at the University of Pretoria play in the development of arms under apartheid and why are they still using public funds to produce weapons? Why is the head of the department of engineering at the University of Pretoria the project co-ordinator for the Damascus Armor Development Consortium? Who profits from this research and development into the production of arms?

Why is it so difficult to find the answers to these questions? Why have these questions largely gone unasked? The story of how universities in South Africa were not only complicit but actively supported the apartheid regime remains to be told. It is widely acknowledged that Stellenbosch University played a key part in developing and maintaining the ideology of apartheid. What is less widely known is the instrumental role the university played in producing the military-industrial regime that was the apartheid state. We need a forensic investigation into the research conducted at our universities and the uses to which it was put. We also need to expose what is preventing the transformation of institutions of higher learning in the present. This goes beyond decolonisation of our curricula and built environments, and even of the structures that govern our institutions. If we recognise the relation between educational institutions (particularly universities) and the violence of apartheid, this raises the question of universities and the role they play in the persistence of inequality and violence today.

How do we begin to reimagine and restructure post-apartheid universities? This is a question that is perhaps best taken up at Stellenbosch University, where peaceful protest is labelled ‘total onslaught’ and the production of new forms of technology to bring about mass death is considered ‘excellence’. This in turn needs to be linked to the desire of students to be released from the stranglehold of a university council that continues to serve the interests of those who operate according to the corrupt and deathly logic of apartheid. DM

Kylie Thomas is member of the Open Stellenbosch collective and a lecturer at Stellenbosch University. She is the author of Impossible Mourning: HIV/AIDS and Visuality After Apartheid and teaches and writes about violence during and after apartheid and about South African photography. She has also worked as a researcher with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.


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South Africa is in a very real battle. A political fight where terms such as truth and democracy can seem more of a suggestion as opposed to a necessity.

On one side of the battle are those openly willing to undermine the sovereignty of a democratic society, completely disregarding the weight and power of the oaths declared when they took office. If their mission was to decrease society’s trust in government - mission accomplished.

And on the other side are those who believe in the ethos of a country whose constitution was once declared the most progressive in the world. The hope that truth, justice and accountability in politics, business and society is not simply fairy tale dust sprinkled in great electoral speeches; but rather a cause that needs to be intentionally acted upon every day.

However, it would be an offensive oversight not to acknowledge that right there on the front lines, alongside whistleblowers and civil society, stand the journalists. Armed with only their determination to inform society and defend the truth, caught in the crossfire of shots fired from both sides.

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