5 April 2020
It was under Viljoen’s command that soldiers invaded townships to kill black people
The thing about President Cyril Ramaphosa is that he is a very humble and polite black person who, like the rest of us, was taught never to speak ill of the dead.
This upbringing, at times, eschews truth and makes heroes of people with blood on their hands. Let me explain.
Ramaphosa issued a statement following the death, on his farm in Mpumalanga, of General Constand Viljoen at the age of 86. The president said “Gen Viljoen’s principal contribution was his success in demobilising conservative resistance to the transition in our country at a critical point in our history. He risked alienation by his community and long-standing supporters by mobilising conservative groupings to participate in the political and constitutional negotiations that yielded our democratic dispensation”.
As our country’s chief diplomat, Ramaphosa probably felt he needed to find something good to say about Viljoen, however hard the task may have been. It was unnecessary. Especially because he couldn’t bring himself to being honest about who Viljoen is and what, in fact, the racist represents in our eyes. We who, unlike Viljoen, don’t have the luxury of passing away at our own farms.
What the Ramaphosa statement did was help clean-up the narrative about Viljoen, who the general media reporting represent him as a quasi-hero of sorts who brought us from the brink of war in 1994 by “demobilizing conservatives” who wanted war.
The truth though is that the conservatives who killed Chris Hani, Sabelo Phama and many others ahead of the 1994 election acted like they wanted war. Like they were possessed of courage. But they, like many, feared death.
No doubt Viljoen and his ilk were overcome by anger and bitterness that they will soon have a black commander-in-chief at the Union Buildings. A few racists, imbued with an adventurist spirit, went to defend Lucas Mangope in the then Bophuthatswana but, the amateurs they were, got themselves killed, humiliated and their lifeless bodies beamed all over for the world to see.
When Viljoen said ahead of the 1994 elections that he and his anti-democracy group could take over government through a coup “in an afternoon”, he communicated his deep-seated hatred not only of democracy, but what it meant for him: the takeover of government by black people.
He and his ilk didn’t want what we all wanted. He and his ilk were happy with apartheid South Africa. A South Africa where black people were afforded only inferior education, poor health, electricity just for a handful and, in general, a population condemned to a life of want while he advocated for a “boerestaat” where blacks are not allowed. This is General Constant Viljoen. An army chief of prime minister John Voster when PW Botha was still defence minister. He is no democrat to be celebrated. He has blood on his hands.
In fact, Viljoen and his anti-black soldiers hunted down Toivo ya Toivo, a hero of the Namibian liberation struggle, and his Swapo comrades. Toivo spent years in Robben Island. Viljoen is also responsible for the Cassinga Massacre where only 12 soldiers were killed but 298 children were slaughtered in Operation Reindeer by SADF. Viljoen has blood on his hands.
So, when the racists eventually agreed to participate in the last leg of negotiations and the elections, led by Viljoen, they were aware that the transitional government was prepared to meet them at their point of need – a need for military adventure. They were acutely aware of how war destroys countries.
And, Nelson Mandela, who would be president, had a duty to charm the racists to participate in an electoral process he knew they would lose. That they fell for his charm, in addition to fearing further bloodshed as seen in Boputhatswana and their losses in Namibia, does not make them heroes.
The truth that Ramaphosa, this polite black person who doesn’t speak ill of the dead, side-stepped is that Viljoen was the head of the SADF at the height of repression. It was under Viljoen’s command that soldiers were sent to black townships, killing our people at will, forcing many to seek refuge in foreign lands.
If we agree that apartheid was a brutal, evil system, Viljoen was at the very core of that system. When Ramaphosa reminds FW de Klerk that apartheid was a crime against humanity, that reminder applies even more so to those like Viljoen, who sent killing machines into black areas to hunt people like Peter Nchabeleng, Onkgopotse Tiro, Elias Motsoaledi, Mosibudi Mangena, Winnie Mandela, Steve Biko, Robert Sobukwe and many others. If we were a different breed that did not apologise to its oppressors, Viljoen would have been subjected to a process to face consequences of his actions. But we chose reconciliation. The descendants of Viljoen’s murderous reign continue to populate Alexandra, Diepsloot, Zandspruit informal settlements. Today, they sit like ducks waiting for coronavirus to eviscerate them. Their poverty, enforced with hateful enthusiasm by Viljoen, has ensured that social distancing, necessary to defeat coronavirus, is impossible in their shacks (See pages 6-7).
Ramaphosa shouldn’t make heroes of people like Viljoen. Many of our people went missing, running away from his soldiers. He is the reason many didn’t come back alive from exile. Viljoen is the quintessental, enthusiastic enforcer of apartheid not worthy of a presidential reverence.