Commanding the guilt (Constand Voljoen interview on Apartheid)

   ‘They do not know what they are talking about. When calling for the prosecution of apartheid officials, they speak about causing mayhem in the country’.

He commanded the armed forces of a notorious regime. He formed and led an ultra conservative party during the last phase of apartheid, and played a great role in the transitional period that led the country to black rule. He does feel proud of it. Then why is Constand Viljoen disregarding his own past?        He was waiting for us in a red lorry, just off a rural road. The man looked like a simple aide of a farm lord, in a khaki working uniform, with strong hands and thick fingers surrounding his waist. He waived at our arrival, hopped on his lorry and drove off at a dusty path that led to a wealthy country house, surrounded by hectares of farmland. We were in the midst of South Africa’s most fertile land, in the province of Milonga. Completing seven decades of life, he was about to speak about his last years as apartheid official. And his current views over issues of high importance for South Africa’s ten years old democracy. ‘In the early nineties the whole world expected a change in South Africa’, he starts, while holding a white cup of black tea.

‘We were very dissatisfied with the way Frederik De Klerk carried out the negotiations. We believed that it betrayed our drive for self-determination. Mr De Klerk was under enormous pressure, not only from the ANC but also from the rest of the world. And we agreed in that we had to essentially change. But we believed into a gradual change, within a period of let’s say 20 years, which would have been much more stable and sustainable’. In addition, we wanted a change in the basis of a federal state. This is what we had in mind while Mr De Klerk was rushing towards a single state’. The Afrikaner minority were overwhelmed by the winds of change blowing in the country, changes that could not easily be tolerated nor absorbed by them. In direct contrast to the official political white leadership of the time, ‘we feared that the black majority would use excessive power over the white minority. Thus, we objected the direction Mr De Clerk chose. We had many options to act, including military force, we were prepared, and we had made nationwide preparations in case we decided to use armed force’.

In 1993, General Viljoen mobilised 50 to 60 thousands of armed Afrikaners in preparation for war with the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.»We had computers in all centres with the details of all the men we knew we could really rely on’, he continues, ‘there is no doubt that if we decided to follow the violent way we could have dissolved or postponed the 1994 elections’. Nevertheless, we all realised that the ANC would soon become government, because of the overwhelming international support. So at that time we chose not to press for our demands through violence, and I took the final decision that in the frame of events in 1994 it would be wrong to choose violence. Thus after negotiations with the ANC we decided to move for a constitutional solution.’ He had succeeded in convincing Afrikaners to accept the new status quo and move within the framework of that period.

He led Afrikaners in negotiations with the ANC, and agreed that if a certain percentage of whites voted for his newly born party, the Freedom Front, it would be received as a vote in favour of self-determination. The limit was set at 35% of the registered Afrikaners. The road to a peaceful transition was finally open. ‘On the elections day I felt sorry that black people did not have the right to vote for so long. And sad, for that the new constitution did not allow different groups to maintain their identity. It allowed cultural and linguistic differences to be subjugated to the ANC’s intentions for a mixed society, where differentiation would not count much’. The FF succeeded in gathering 37,5% of the Afrikaner vote. This allowed them to negotiate further, and include their ideal of white self-determination in the new constitution.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Ten years have passed since then. General Viljoen led his party in the1999 elections, thus establishing himself as a central, conservative but realist figure for the white minority, and as a main protagonist behind the peaceful transition for the whole political system. Nonetheless, he cannot neglect, as he says, that ‘the ideology of black power is widely spread in Africa. If black nationalists take over control, in any country, they tend to stick to it as long as they can. Today we suffer. Crime problems in the Milonga province, where I live, are the second worst in the country. Crime is a big concern for the farmers; we are very vulnerable to it. Criminals appear to find the Afrikaner farmers so vulnerable that direct much of their activity towards us. I believe that there is political motivation behind this type of crime.’ He is anxious when looking on the example of the nationalist president Mugabe in neighbouring Zimbabwe.’

At present, there is a tendency throughout Africa, to confiscate or simply grab white land and redistribute it to blacks. President Mbeki in Parliament stated that he would block any such development, and that he would make sure that this would never happen.  However, this does not mean that black South Africans will not develop more sophisticated ways to achieve redistribution of farm land. It is highly likely to have something similar to what happens in Zimbabwe, by using a more sophisticated method to achieve it’. We must be very careful with the way we handle the land question, it is a very sensitive issue. We need to make sure that rural stability, which is essential for producing food, will not suffer’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       But isn’t this a somewhat rightful claim, taking that white supremacists had been taking advantage of resources while leaving black majority suffer for years?

Gen Viljoen claims that the historical version that has prevailed for the apartheid years is unjust. ‘Often people believe that we have only done atrocities in South Africa, but this utterly wrong. If you just consider the development that South Africa had over the years, and in comparison to the rest of the continent, you will clearly see that we have helped blacks a great deal. We have done things to their benefit, like the financial growth that was sustained through our guidance and creativity. The black unemployment rate at that time was much lower than in any other country in the continent. It is wrong to say that we excluded blacks from job opportunities, yes, we had certain practices that were unacceptable, but within the frame of that period, I can say we made considerable positive things as well’, he underlines. Having in mind his ideology and past, the general seems quite fair in his judgement, I thought. He seems to be more focusing on things that can unite, rather than insisting on views that could cause controversy and hatred in this fragile society. In the complex little world of South Africa though, this is just an impression, taking that he is supporting the idea of a racially isolated, Boer state. ‘Afrikaners love freedom’, he rushes to say, ‘and by freedom, we mean the right to decide for yourself rather than letting other people decide for you. The ANC must realise that if they do not recognize differentiality, if they do not give minorities the assurances they need, if they let fear to infiltrate minorities, in the thought of that they will be completely overshadowed by majority ethnic groups, then we must expect some big problems. Us Afrikaners face such a problem. We must find a way through which we would feel secure as a group, through which we will survive this transition to the new South Africa’.

Of course, that was not coherent enough. How can a country benefit when a racial group insists on establishing a state within a state? He would come quickly to change his tone: ‘Black Nationalism is actually a type of racism. It focuses on the blackness of skin. If we were given the chance to work and live in the country, to have a future in South Africa, then I do not foresee many Afrikaners supporting the idea of a separate state. I would say that in 1994, uncertainty had influenced our thought for a separate state. But in referendums that followed, it appeared evidently that Afrikaners really wanted to be members of this new South Africa. Whether we will maintain this stance will depend on how South Africa treats and works with us and on how secure we will feel within it’. He was referring to ‘affirmative action’, a method used in a few western countries to cope with problems in regards to people of different minority groups being excluded from the production process. In the previously white dominated South Africa, it focused on bringing black youth into jobs they never had access to in the past. The general believes that this is done to an extreme level. ‘White youth that just finished school, entered university, or even begun to work, have very small relation to, and no responsibility for apartheid. ‘Affirmative action’, makes them feel they are being discriminated. They do not feel responsible for apartheid and cannot conceive why they cannot compete on equal terms, but at the basis of their skin colour. This type of racism is included in our constitution, and which is utterly illogical.

The perception that the black extra majority will determine our children’s fate has started to dominate us, and has led much of our youth to flee the country’. ‘In a way, history repeats itself.  We now face the danger of abolishing the essence of democracy. When you reach the point in which we are today, with a powerful single party dominating the political agenda, then democracy is unhealthy. We have a long way until our approach to democracy becomes mature. It is something that we must overcome; different ethnic groups must survive the dangers of having a vast black political majority as rulers.  Black solidarity persists in South Africa, and is being strengthened by ‘affirmative action’, tending to become a form of segregation, a new form of apartheid. The international community and the ANC should move against this’. In present South Africa, the voices that acknowledge the social anxiety regarding the racial question, among them many white liberals, argue that racial relations would have been much better off had the responsible for the apartheid regime’s policies paid a price.

General Viljoen replies that ‘White liberals may not have realized it, but the transitional period of 1994 was very dangerous. It would have been foolish to do it in any other way than the reconciliatory, with which Mr Mandela has handled that period. His stance at that time gave us hope. We must understand that in a society like ours, the issue of racial tension is still here, it is still in the air. Moreover, I would say that in the new South Africa we should all be working towards eliminating the racial question. The use of hate rhetoric is definitely not helping towards this direction. They do not know what they are talking about, when speaking about causing mayhem in the country’. To my question on what form would this mayhem take, he replied that ‘we must continue to look upon this new country in a way that would benefit its entire people, not only the whites. Provoking havoc is the worst service you can provide’. He did not want to take his answer any further.   While dawn had made its presence more than clear, Mrs Viljoen asked whether we would like to stay over for the night. It was the general’s 70th birthday the next day. The farmhouse would be filled with former apartheid officials. And, having four hours of driving back to Johannesburg ahead of us, I hesitated to turn down her offer. Gen Viljoen turned his head quickly to say ‘no, no, it is ok, they are fine’. His reply did not leave any room for negotiation; my eye pupils were forced to shrink back to their normal size. Had to pretend I was still focused on the interview. But then again, why not direct a question that would have been appropriate for the majority of the people that would attend his next day’s fest?   -Sir, do you have any guilt for any of your actions as commander of the apartheid’s military forces?   ‘My mistakes are the country’s mistakes. It is very easy to judge the past. If you put yourself in the frame of the political circumstances of that era, not only in South Africa, but within the international framework of that period, with the cold war, the east -west divide, the communistic danger, etc if you think of all these factors, I am not surprised we followed that route. Nonetheless, I believe that it was a mistake not to proceed in negotiations with the blacks at that time. Political power is not important. People’s prospects are. Political power means nothing if you cannot provide people better life standards, better public services’.

As his lowest political moment, he acknowledges the 1999 elections, in which he realised that ‘Afrikaners sought to become a part of South Africa, that their financial interests overcame the importance of maintaining their Identity. So since I realised that I could not influence politics at that stage, I decided to return to my farm- which I had neglected all those years of participating in politics and in military forces- and work on some farming ideas which I was preparing for some time. I prefer to spend my last years in developing my farm so that I could leave something concrete to my family, for which I would be truly proud of, since I am a farmer’. He crossed his hands, and while seated leaned forward for a moment, while facing the floor. ‘I am much more proud for my life as a farmer than my life as a public official’. A second later, he asked for an end to this interview.

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