The inquiry - led by legal heavyweights including Judge Ismail Mahomed, the chief justice, and Judge Richard Goldstone, a member of the Constitutional Court and the United Nations war crimes prosecutor in Bosnia and Rwanda - seems a bizarre development after four years of stable democratic government in South Africa. The events leading up to it, however, are even more so.
Rumours of a coup plot, which this weekend overshadowed President Bill Clinton's grand photo-opportunity tour of South Africa, began to circulate at the beginning of the month after Robert McBride, a senior official in the Department of Foreign Affairs, was arrested in Mozambique. Local police allegedly caught him "red-handed" in a dusty border village, surrounded by AK-47s, with $11,000 (pounds 6,600) in his pocket. His lawyers deny he was arrested with weapons.
It was a huge diplomatic embarrassment. Mr McBride, a former ANC guerrilla, was already a controversial figure: in 1986 he planted a bomb in the Magoo Bar in Durban which killed three women. During his years on Death Row he further affronted conservative whites by marrying the lawyer who campaigned to save him from the hangman. Robert McBride is mixed race; his wife Paula is the white daughter of a director of Anglo American, South Africa's most powerful corporation.
In 1992 Mr McBride was released as part of the political horse-trading between the old apartheid regime and the ANC. His subsequent appointment to a job in foreign affairs infuriated whites for whom he will always be the Magoo Bar bomber.
That Mr McBride was buying guns for disgruntled former senior members of MK, the ANC's old guerrilla wing, planning to overthrow the government seemed the most outlandish of a host of theories, which included claims that he was gun-running for East Timorese rebels or even the IRA. McBride sympathisers, meanwhile, suggested he had been set up by powerful right- wing enemies, still running South African military intelligence.
Paula McBride, back prison visiting in Maputo, insists her husband was on a daring one-man intelligence mission, though the security services have dismissed this as nonsense, and the government has denied he was working under cover for it.
Vusi Mbata, Mr McBride's co-accused, has apparently told Mozambican police that his companion was buying guns for the East Timorese Fretilin guerrillas, with whose struggle he sympathises. But the coup theory persisted, particularly in the right-wing press, which was leaked a separate military intelligence report, endorsed by General George Meiring, chief of the armed forces. This report, handed to President Mandela a few weeks before Mr McBride's arrest, claimed a coup plot had been hatched.
Crucially, President Mandela has instructed the judicial inquiry to focus on how the military report was compiled, verified and subsequently treated, rather than the allegations it contains. He told today's South African Sunday Independent he believes the coup claims were a "distraction" and that there are still elements in the armed forces loyal to the old regime. Privately, his aides go further: there never was a coup plot and the president was lied to.
The government believes the McBride case and the military intelligence allegations are separate, but that Mr McBride provided a "hook" upon which unsubstantiated claims could be hung. General Meiring yesterday confirmed he is to give evidence to the inquiry, which he said he welcomed.
Whatever the finer points of the entire murky business, it has to be seen against the tensions and hatreds surfacing in the lengthy campaign to blend the old apartheid-era Defence Force and the ANC's former guerrillas into a combined military. A week before Mr McBride's arrest, an independent report by British military advisers, overseeing integration, concluded that white army commanders - mainly Afrikaners - were thwarting the process, and that white officers' attitudes towards their new black colleagues were "hardening".
Meanwhile, disillusionment among rank and file former MK guerrillas is growing - justifiably so, if the British report is correct. Higher up the ranks, distrust reigns. Senior ANC officials in the Defence Ministry have even claimed white generals are bugging their phones.
The minority Democratic Party has welcomed the inquiry, saying South Africa's transition to democracy is vulnerable. Defence spokesman James Selfe has suggested a lack of trust between the president and senior military commanders, saying: "Unless this faith and trust exists, instability stares us in the face."Reuse content