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SA generals will defend black rule

TOTAL ONSLAUGHT was the name the South African Defence Force gave in the Eighties to what they saw as a combined African National Congress-Soviet-Cuban drive to impose communism on their land. Total Strategywas their response - proxy wars in Angola and Mozambique that left hundreds of thousands dead. As an added precaution they built six nuclear bombs.

Today, Total Onslaught is the name of a Johannesburg rock band. The SADF's secret weapon to neutralise the ANC is brandy and coke, South Africa's national drink.

Jovial toasts have been exchanged at the end of the half- dozen meetings the SADF high command has held this year with the top echelons of the ANC's liberation army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In contrast to the on-off talks between the ANC and the Afrikaner far right (currently off), which have dominated media attention in the past week, the encounters between Umkhonto (better known as MK) and the generals are progressing smoothly. They provide the most substantial single reason to believe that civil war will be averted after next year's elections.

They key to a stable transition to democracy lies not in the response of the white and black right wing - the Afrikaner Volksfront and Inkatha - but in the response of the security forces. The police, far less disciplined than the army, are struggling to shed their apartheid mind-set. Question marks still hang over the commitment of certain elements in the SADF to the notion of an ANC-dominated government. But the talks between the generals and the MK commanders have shown, according to insiders, that the top hierarchy of the SADF - the army, navy and air force - are at peace with the idea of an ANC-dominated government.

Pragmatism has got the better of ideology. They are now ready to make the leap into a democratic future and, more importantly, squash a right- wing uprising if it comes.

Until a year ago, the chief of the SADF, General Kat Liebenberg, refused to countenance any idea of talking to MK. He and the hawkish chief of the army, General Georg Meiring, would routinely denounce the ANC as 'terrorists'. At odds with the stated policy of President F W de Klerk, Meiring was giving his blessing to sinister plots designed to undermine progress towards a new democratic order. But public exposure, coupled with De Klerk's decision in December last year to purge six generals, had a sobering effect on the SADF. Abruptly, the generals' rhetoric changed. They had families, salaries, reputations to protect.

So it was that in a speech in April the chief of staff of the SADF, General Pierre Steyn, pronouced that the impending transitional government 'must succeed'; that the once contentious notion of absorbing MK into the SADF was now, for all practical purposes, a fait accompli; that the main problem now was 'how to legitimise the defence force in the eyes of the majority and control other paramilitary forces in the country'. 'Mutual confidence- building,' he declared, was 'of primary importance'.

That has been the task of the SADF and MK delegations since they began their bilateral contacts early this year - 'demystification', as one ANC source described it. 'Each side had to convince the other that they did not have horns on their heads.'

The venue for the meetings has been, of all places, the Military Intelligence College in Pretoria. It was here that young officers were taught to view Joe Modise, MK's top commander, as a bloodthirsty revolutionary; MK intelligence chief Ronnie Kasrils - white, Communist and Jewish - as the devil incarnate. Modise and Kasrils have attended all the meetings so far. A remarkable camaraderie has come to characterise the exchanges. Modise, in particular, has developed a jovial personal rapport with the moustachioed, imposingly Prussian Liebenberg. The ANC delegations have been hugely impressed by the SADF's professionalism. Already four senior SADF officers and four MK chiefs have been on a joint trip to the United States to learn about affirmative action to favour black advancement.

At the last bilateral meeting, 23 generals and Vice-Admiral Robert Simpson-Anderson of the South African Navy faced four MK delegates across a long table. Each SADF officer read a dossier, itemising the number of soldiers under their command, the number of tanks, armoured vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, jet fighters and destroyers. What the High Command sought to dramatise was the absurdity of MK - with a total force of 12,000 against the SADF's half a million - imagining they might be in a position, after an ANC election victory in April, to assume control of the SADF. The open-mouthed MK team absorbed the message loud and clear.

A deal has now been struck, the essence of which is that the SADF will loyally serve the new government on condition that the government does not seek to tamper with their institutional integrity - which means there must be no purges, no crippling cuts in the defence budget, no actions taken to undermine the armed forces' professionalism.

From the ANC camp the word is that while they will insist - with the SADF's blessing - on having a handful of black faces in the new general staff, they are prepared to accept the hawkish Meiring, who takes over Liebenberg's post this month, as overall SADF chief for the next two or three years. Where the ANC will place its emphasis will be the Ministry of Defence, under whose political control the generals have indicated they are prepared to operate.

The challenges and inevitable 'spats', as predicted by a diplomat in Pretoria, will lie in the detail. How, for example, to organise the multi-party peacekeeping force which, politicians have agreed, will watch over the April elections and will provide a pilot for the integration of MK into the SADF?

But the big picture, according to military experts who have been watching the unfolding bilateral drama, looks extraordinarily encouraging. Privately, ANC officials are stating with confidence that the SADF now offers a cast- iron guarantee there will be no civil war. Publicly, Meiring told his troops earlier this year: 'There is no reason to be scared. We must accept the realities of the changes taking place in the country with responsibility. We cannot remain stagnated in the past.'

(Photograph omitted)