De Klerk ousts 16 for plotting against reform Officers accused of covert attempt to discredit ANC

December 20, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President F. W. de Klerk dismissed 16 military officers, including six generals, yesterday for involvement in secret and illegal campaigns to harm and discredit political opponents of the government.

Mr. de Klerk said he was acting in response to an internal investigation of the South African Defense Force, which found that "a limited number" of military operatives were involved in illegal, unauthorized activities. He did not specify the wrongdoings but said "the findings will lead to the conclusion that some of the activities have led to the death of people."

The dismissals amounted to the first admission by the South African government that top military officials continued to wage a covert campaign against organizations affected by Mr. de Klerk's lifting of a ban in 1990 and that officials possibly were involved in political assassinations.

In addition to the 16 officers who were dismissed, seven defense force members were suspended pending the outcome of investigations. Mr. de Klerk did not name any of the officers involved but promised that the names would be made public as soon as the officers had been notified.

Mr. de Klerk said top government officials had not been aware of the activities, which he termed "serious and unacceptable."

Government opponents have maintained for years that there was a sinister force, usually referred to here as the Third Force, directed by right-wing security officials with the aim of disrupting the country's reform process and preventing black majority rule.

But Mr. de Klerk and his Cabinet ministers repeatedly brushed aside the charges as unsubstantiated until a highly regarded judicial commission recently uncovered military intelligence files outlining a dirty-tricks campaign against Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

The ANC, Mr. de Klerk's main political opponent, said it was "sad that it took him so long to respond to a situation that has been glaringly apparent."

"There is clearly a Third Force operating within the security forces which fosters violence, with the objective of preventing South Africa's transition to a just and democratic society," said Mac Maharaj, a member of the ANC executive committee.

Mr. Maharaj said the ANC commended the president for acknowledging the sinister activities of his security forces. He said the dismissals were a step in the right direction but did not go far enough toward ending such activities.

Richard Goldstone, the judge whose commission on violence uncovered the military intelligence files, said he welcomed Mr. de Klerk's action. He described Mr. de Klerk's announcement as a firm step.

The de Klerk government suffered a serious blow when the Goldstone Commission on Violence stumbled upon an operations room for South Africa's military intelligence agency. The commission discovered files showing that the South African Defense Force had hired a notorious killer to run a covert operation that was to use prostitutes and drug dealers to discredit ANC officials.

The operative, a convicted killer named Ferdi Barnard, had worked in the past for a shadowy agency within the military intelligence apparatus known as the Civil Cooperation Bureau. The CCB, which was linked to several assassinations in South Africa and neighboring countries, was disbanded by Mr. de Klerk in 1991.

That action was taken after another embarrassing revelation for Mr. de Klerk, when it was learned that his government had funded activities of the Inkatha Freedom Party, an ANC rival, in a yet another campaign to hurt the ANC. Mr. de Klerk promised then to clean up the security forces and put a stop to their political campaigns.

Mr. de Klerk lifted a 30-year ban on the ANC and began negotiating with its leaders in 1990. But some members of his government are not ready for the changes, and Mr. de Klerk has said that he is not prepared to hand over the country to Mr. Mandela and his followers without guarantees that whites and other minorities will be protected.

The ANC is the most prominent and popular political group in the country, and polls indicate it would easily win a democratic election if one were to be held.

The government has been negotiating the terms of the election and a new constitution with a variety of parties, but the ANC is the most significant party in this process.

Analysts in the ANC believe the government is trying to weaken the organization so that it will be forced to make concessions guaranteeing whites certain protections and privileges. The ANC, in an attempt to get the process moving faster and get into power as soon as possible, has already offered to share power with Mr. de Klerk's National Party.

But independent political scientists say Mr. de Klerk's position has been weakened by the revelations about misconduct within his government. Some also question whether he still controls the military as he tries to move the white population toward a government that would be run mainly by blacks for the first time in South Africa's history.

His action in dismissing and disciplining 23 military people is apparently designed to quiet the latest scandal and also to show that he is capable of reining in the troublesome military apparatus, which once manned the front lines in the battle to maintain apartheid.

Mr. de Klerk said an investigation would continue under Gen. Pierre Steyn, who was appointed last month to conduct an investigation into activities of the military intelligence agency.

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