Trapped in the web of military power: President de Klerk is powerless to act against the hard men of South Africa's army, a former intelligence officer tells John Carlin in Johannesburg

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A DISAFFECTED former senior South African intelligence officer says that contingency plans exist for a military takeover if the old white-dominated order is ever genuinely threatened. Colonel Gert Hugo, who resigned his commission in July 1991 after a 12- year career in military intelligence, says that he and his commanding officer received a top-secret message from Pretoria in early 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela's release. The message amounted, he said, to a plan for 'a silent coup' in the event of the African National Congress reaching the threshold of power.

Whether President F W de Klerk is aware of the schemings or not, he is powerless to act against the hard men in the military, Col Hugo says. The South African Military Intelligence have so much dirt on the cabinet - so much evidence of complicity in past crimes - that the generals have become untouchable.

'In early 1990, shortly after Mandela's release, all SADF (South African Defence Force) groups in South Africa received a top-secret signal from Pretoria. I was the senior intelligence officer in Group Eight, East London, at the time. The signal, which was addressed only to the top intelligence officer and the commanding officer, warned of a threat of uprising, anarchy and revolutionary overthrow spearheaded by the ANC.

'The hidden message, but it was absolutely clear, was that we had to make contingency plans for a total military take-over when this happened. My officer commanding, for example, envisaged imposing martial law - judge, jury and executioner.'

And Col Hugo, who retains close links with the military, said the plan still exists today. 'Under lock and key at every group headquarters is an operational contingency plan with a copy at army headquarters. It's a contingency plan for a coup.' Those in the know, he said, are sworn to keep the plan hidden, even from their fellow officers.

Senior officers of 'MI' secretly empowered in the 1980s by then President P W Botha to control their country's political destiny, show no inclination to bow to the apparent drift to democracy in the 1990s. The openness which goes hand in hand with unfettered democracy is the biggest threat to the generals' power, said Col Hugo.

After a number of conversations over a six-week period, Col Hugo agreed to give an on-the-record interview. Engaged in dirty tricks operations as recently as last year, he has worked closely with the most contentious, and least known, figure on the South African political scene today, General Christoffel van der Westhuizen, the head of MI.

Gen van der Westhuizen is the man whose name appeared in an earlier signal document authorising 'the permanent removal from society' of four black political activists assassinated in 1985. He is the man who must ultimately take the blame for the MI plot revealed in the Independent last month to kill the London-based police defector, Dirk Coetzee. Such has been Mr de Klerk's powerlessness that, three months after the initial exposure, the general has not even been suspended from his duties, leaving him free to deploy MI's vast resources to the task of covering up his tracks.

Col Hugo takes it as read that MI have been turning the wheel of political violence which has claimed 7,000 lives in the past two years. 'Some of the attacks, some of the train massacres for example, bear the unmistakable hallmarks of the Special Forces reconnaissance regiments. Others are pure Koevoet (the fearsome 'Crowbar' police unit used in the Namibian war).'

The phenomenon generally of 'black-on-black' killings - the township wars between Inkatha and ANC supporters - 'has been a dream come true'. But now, after countless allegations of orchestrated mass murder, Mr de Klerk is under growing domestic and international pressure to axe some heads. Why doesn't he?

'The most powerful reason why he can't act is that he and his ministers don't know even the half of what is still going on today, but they're still implicated because many of them were part of the system under Botha. If he were to go after 'Joffel' - the in-house nickname for Gen van der Westhuizen - he would send a message to other senior officers with dirty hands and the spin- off would be that all would open up, all the beans would spill. The top brass, simply, have got too much dirt on the cabinet.'

Another reason for Mr de Klerk's paralysis is that, in the worst of cases, he fears 'a take-over, a palace coup or whatever'.

The perceived threat represented by 'the enemy', the ANC, was magnified '2,000 per cent' by a military intelligence apparatus eager to secure high budgets from the politicians and by individual officers eager to enhance their own importance and that of their operational regions.

An example of this hyperbole is provided in a secret military document obtained by the Independent and dated as recently as 17 January 1991, which shows that the ANC is still classified as 'the enemy' and is perceived to have intensified its 'revolutionary momentum'. 'Aim of Enemy', the document says, is 'to take over the government of the RSA through negotiations, whilst retaining the ability to violently overthrow the government'.

The secret military document reveals detailed contingencies involving political manipulation - including the media - and counter-insurgency urban operations in which 'attention must be given to the protection of white residential areas'.

As chief of Ciskei intelligence, Col Hugo watched the unfolding of what he called a classic 'total strategy' scheme to develop, through the creation of a political party known as the African Democratic Movement, a perfect replica of the Inkatha project. The difference being that whereas the branch of the Zulu nation represented by Inkatha was recruited to the 'total strategy' cause in the mid-Eighties, the ADM and the leader of the Ciskei, Oupa Gqozo were enlisted in 1990, well into Mr de Klerk's rule and after negotiations with the ANC had begun.

'A front company was set up in the Ciskei called International Research and headed by an undercover SADF intelligence officer, Kommandant Anton Nieuwoudt. The task was to win Gqozo's confidence at a time when he was leaning towards the ANC and poison his mind with stories of ANC plots to kill him. Having reduced him to a paranoid wreck, they set about - just as they did with Buthelezi and Inkatha - buying off tribal headmen and getting them to join the ADM. Politically the ADM is as close to the government as Inkatha - unquestioned allies against the ANC.'

In the short term, the violence and the manipulation has an effect. But in the long term, as a rebellion right now against Oupa Gqozo in the Ciskei indicates, it all seems so counter-productive. Why do they keep going?

'The problem is that still today, 60 per cent of SADF officers cling to the total onslaught theory, and respond to it as they always have. The official view is that the enemy has not changed. The Communists are in the country now and even if they're down now they'll rise up again unless checked. That gives you an idea of how deep the indoctrination goes.'

But it is not only ideology that motivates the SADF's hidden persuaders. 'There's the perception that negotiations will be helped along in De Klerk's favour - that is, in favour of the whites - if the machine keeps turning over. There are simpler motives. Like the fear that, 'God] I'm going to lose my job]' There's the motivation of being guilty as hell. And very, very important to understand these people, there's the buzz of the game, the addiction to power.'

JOHANNESBURG (Reuter) - Judge Richard Goldstone, who is probing violence in South Africa, has ordered a company investigating the erasure of taped police radio messages on the night of the Boipatong massacre to stop its inquiry, the Johannesburg Sunday Times said yesterday. He ordered the consultants Grinaker Electronic Agencies to halt investigations after discovering the firm had business links with the South African Defence Force.

The newspaper also reported that Wilhelm Verwoerd, 30, the grandson of the former South African prime minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, the main architect of rigid apartheid, has joined the African National Congress.

(Photograph omitted)