The death of Magnus Malan (81) on Monday marks the passing of one of the most powerful and notorious leaders of the apartheid era.
To his enemies, he was a figure of fear and hatred, one of the monsters of an evil system. To his colleagues and subordinates, he was a figure of awe, the general who reorganised the military and then reorganised the country along military lines.
He rose rapidly in the ranks. A one-year officer’s course in the US led to his promotion as officer commanding the South West Africa Command (where he led the war against Swapo), and then chief of the army in 1973 and chief of the defence force three years later.
During this spell, the military was transformed, becoming far larger, more efficient and more aggressive – particularly after PW Botha became prime minister in 1978.
The irascible Botha appointed the more gregarious Malan to his Cabinet as defence minister and they became a double act who few dared to challenge.
They insisted the country was facing a Total Onslaught, requiring a Total Strategy in response.
Malan’s military also helped to set up, arm and fund the Renamo terrorists in Mozambique and, together with the US, Unita in Angola.
Malan played a key role in the subsequent negotiations that led to South Africa’s withdrawal from its Namibian colony (and Cuba’s withdrawal from Angola).
In 1986, shortly before a heart bypass operation, he warned: “Those who chant loudest?.?.?. should take note. We have not even started to use our muscle and capabilities.”
The military began to assume roles previously taken by police, and Malan, whose special talent was for macromanagement, spearheaded the creation of the National Security Management System, which brought policing, intelligence and civic affairs under the sway of generals.
It was headed by the State Security Council, which in turn set up the Civil Cooperation Bureau (CCB), a death squad network whose task was to assassinate opponents at home and abroad.
Like thousands of others, I had personal reasons to keep an eye on Malan.
In 1989, the Harms Commission of Inquiry found that I was one of the CCB’s intended assassination victims.
They botched the job, but succeeded in murdering a close friend of mine, Dr David Webster. It later emerged that the decisions to kill David and I were taken by the State Security Council, on which Malan had a prominent seat.
As it happened, during this period, I would regularly sit alongside this bald, bulky, intimidating figure in a very different capacity: as a sports fan watching boxing matches.
Malan would plant himself in the press seats as a guest of the promoters, exuding a strong whiff of power and entitlement despite his bluff good-old-boy bonhomie.
By then, his long spell in a corruption-mired government had given him a taste for the high life, and the low.
Whatever his involvements, Malan was considered untouchable in the 1980s, but to retain that position he and his forces resorted to ever more brutal methods. As the “unrest” escalated, so did the military’s reach.
In 1984, the military occupied black townships and began to fund, organise and train black proxy forces – in particular, Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement.
It is estimated that close to 20 000 people died in political violence during the 1980s and early 1990s, many as a result of military intervention.
Malan’s demise coincided with Botha’s.
When then president Nelson Mandela insisted Malan be dropped as defence minister, he had no qualms about acceding.
Malan and several other military officers were charged with commissioning a massacre of 13 people (including seven children) in Kwa Makhuta in 1987, but he was acquitted.
He later gave evidence to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, admitting responsibility for raids into neighbouring states, for setting up the CCB, and for the deaths that resulted. However, he insisted that these were “legal acts of state”.
The commission condemned his actions, but the state’s prosecuting authority decided it was not in the “national interest” to charge him or any of the other military brass.