Concepts of grand strategy generally stress the requirement of governments to outline clear strategic goals, and to ensure that all elements of national power are co-ordinated by ministers and senior officials (civil service and military) to achieve them. In recent history, one state achieved the apparent success of devising a ‘total’ strategy and of establishing a bureaucratic framework to implement it. That state was South Africa, governed at that time by the apartheid regime of the National Party.

Up until 1974-1976 the National Party had established and reinforced a system of white minority rule in South Africa itself, as well as an illegal colony in Namibia. Pretoria had withstood international condemnation of racial oppression and also the generally ineffectual insurgencies of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO). However, the April 1974 military coup in Lisbon led to the end of Portuguese imperial rule in Angola and Mozambique, and the takeover of power by two national-liberation movements (the MPLA in Luanda and FRELIMO in Maputo) with a pronounced hostility to white minority rule. The downfall of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was also imminent.

To add to Pretoria’s troubles, the failed South African military intervention in Angola in 1975 (Operation Savannah) led Fidel Castro to send a Cuban expeditionary force to aid the MPLA, and Cuba maintained a sizeable task force in Angola until 1991. Moreover, the MPLA’s victory in the Angolan civil war encouraged greater anti-apartheid militancy and activism within the black majority in South Africa, as demonstrated by the popular rising in Soweto in April 1976. The National Party’s response to this combination of external and internal crises was shaped by the Defence Minister and (after 28th September 1978) President, P. W. Botha, aided by the high command of the South African Defence Force (SADF).

South Africa’s 1977 Defence White Paper was influenced in part by the writings of the French strategist, General Andre Beaufre. It presented an apocalyptic image of a ‘total onslaught’ by the Soviet Union and its allies – including Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, the ANC and SWAPO – to effect a Communist takeover of South Africa, aided by anti-apartheid activists and movements both within and outside the country. In response Pretoria would adopt a ‘Total National Strategy’ that would harness all means at its disposal to defend apartheid and undermine its enemies. The result was the militarization of South Africa’s domestic and foreign policy, encouraged by Botha, General Magnus Malan (his successor as Defence Minister), and the head of SADF military intelligence, Lieutenant General Pieter van der Westhuizen, a thuggish securocrat who could very well have provided Hollywood with one of the villains in Lethal Weapon II.

There was a self-serving and disingenuous rhetoric to ‘Total National Strategy’; the apartheid regime had continually claimed to be the defender of the nation against Communist tyranny, recognising that this helped both rally the white community’s support, while also cajoling the Western powers (notably the USA, Britain and France) to treat it as a Cold War ally. The aspirations outlined in the White Paper did not prevent inter-departmental squabbles from erupting between the SADF, police, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Intelligence Service. Nonetheless, ‘Total National Strategy’ did reflect the very real sense of paranoia that affected the white elite, in particular the politicians and policy-makers of the de facto War Cabinet, the State Security Committee (SSC).

What did this new strategy mean in practice? Firstly, it involved a campaign to destabilise the ‘frontline states’ that were backing the South African and Namibian national liberation movements, with Angola and Mozambique as the principal victims. Both countries became the target of South African aggression. Angola itself was subjected to eleven major cross-border incursions by the SADF between May 1978 and December 1988 which were ostensibly directed against ANC and SWAPO bases, but which also involved punitive strikes against the Angolan armed forces. Furthermore, Pretoria waged proxy wars against Maputo and Luanda, arming and equipping the UNITA insurgency led by Jonas Savimbi in Angola and the RENAMO movement in Mozambique, thereby exacerbating two civil wars which devastated both countries.

The second part of ‘total strategy’ involved state terrorism, involving the assassination of apartheid activists abroad, and death squad violence against domestic opponents conducted by the police (with its C-10 unit) and the SADF’s ‘Civil Co-operation Bureau’. The barbaric killings conducted by these ‘third force’ units were investigated by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee set up after the apartheid regime’s fall, as were the covert efforts by the police and SADF to instigate internecine violence in the black townships between the ANC and its political rival, Inkatha.

The moral implications of ‘total strategy’ should not be forgotten. Thousands died in township violence in the late 1980s-early 1990s, and the wars in Angola and Mozambique cost an estimated million deaths. Both countries were further impoverished as a consequence of the civil war and RENAMO – South Africa’s proxy – became notorious for its atrocities against Mozambican civilians. Yet there were also counter-productive consequences of Pretoria’s strategic decisions which the SSC were never able to resolve.

Firstly, with reference to the efforts to coerce the frontline states, Pretoria’s aims were contradictory. Was the objective to force Luanda and Maputo to abandon support for the black liberation struggle in South Africa and Namibia, or to achieve regime change? With Mozambique, the diplomats of the DFA believed that they had achieved a significant success with the Nkomati Accords of 16th March 1984, in which Botha and his counterpart Samora Machel agreed to stop supporting each other’s internal opponents. South Africa had forced its neighbour to stop backing the ANC, but van der Westhuizen’s military intelligence service continued to arm RENAMO regardless. In Angola, there was a mismatch between Pretoria’s appeals to President Eduardo dos Santos for mutual restraint, and the attacks by SADF special forces against strategic targets such as the Cabinda oil-fields. A US State Department mediator remonstrating with van der Westhuizen complained that the raids ‘tell the MPLA that you want to kill them, not do a deal’. The SADF intelligence chief’s reply – ‘I agree’ – demonstrated the lack of co-ordination in Pretoria’s Angolan policy.

Secondly, the proxy wars with neighbouring powers carried with it the risks of escalation. This was demonstrated by the Cuito Cuanavale campaign of September 1987-March 1988, when Pretoria responded to an Angolan government offensive against UNITA by sending a brigade of 3,000 troops across the Okavango River. An initially successful onslaught in which the SADF mauled the MPLA’s army culminated in an inconclusive siege of the government outpost of Cuito Cuanavale. Furthermore, in November 1987 Castro decided to reinforce the Cuban task force in Angola, raising its strength to 50,000 troops. The influx not only enabled the Cubans to reinforce Cuito Cuanavale, but also launch an armoured drive Southwards towards that threatened Namibia with invasion. US and Soviet mediation in the summer of 1988 averted a South African-Cuban clash, and SADF veterans maintain that the Angolan campaign of 1987-1988 was a victorious one for them. But the fact remains that by June 1988 South Africa was on the verge of fighting a total war.

Finally, the ‘third force’ operations of C-10 and the Civil Co-operation Bureau in South Africa itself threatened to undermine the rule of law itself. The SADF and police death squads became complicit in organised criminal activities such as ivory smuggling and arms trafficking, and the instigation of internecine violence between the ANC and Inkhata threatened to plunge the country into outright anarchy. By the time of Nelson Mandela’s release on 11th February 1990 the survival of white minority rule had become a lost cause. The only question was whether apartheid would perish with an apocalyptic race war, or whether South Africa could make a largely peaceful transition to democracy and majority rule. Thankfully, South Africans ended the latter rather than the former, but this was no thanks to the securocrats of the SSC.

So ‘total strategy’ was a failure, and anyone looking at South African history between 1978 and 1994 is entitled to ask him or herself why the National Party could not have avoided over a million futile deaths and all the atrocities associated with them – in South Africa and also neighbouring states – by waking up and smelling the coffee a lot earlier than it did. Yet there is a more fundamental point about strategy itself that can be gained from studying the latter years of apartheid: You can articulate a clear objective for implementation, and provide a clear institutional framework for the means of state power to be employed to achieve it. But it will be of no avail if the basic premises behind your strategic goals are fundamentally flawed.

Image: South African paratroopers on patrol in Namibia during the border war. Picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, posted by en:User:Smikect.


  1. Geraint, it seems from what you have written that the South Africans failed because of poor strategy, not because they adopted a total strategy employing all levers of state power? It isn’t clear what alternative they had, as such was the scale of the ideological challenge posed by African communism and nationalism in the 1970s that a military response was never going to be sufficient by itself, and that a full spectrum or total approach was the only one that had any chance of success, however slim. I therefore don’t think that the South African experience invalidates the concept of total strategy, rather it just highlights how much the strategic odds were stacked against them by this stage. Perhaps a less ambitious total strategy might have enjoyed limited success?


  2. I am aware that there was considerable dissent within the SSC over the decisions taken by their political masters. Notably when their arguments on strategy had been accepted, only for the Prime Minister PW Botha to deliver a completely different speech.

    I do wonder if the SSC really made the decisions, rather than providing an advisory / staff role to support the national politicians.


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