Apartheid South Africa’s‘Total Strategy’: A Policy Analysis

by Niall Paltiel

About the author

Niall is a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Aberystwyth. His focus currently is primarily on Russian Intelligence and Terrorism & Counterterrorism studies.


Apartheid South Africa’s ‘Total Strategy’ was the reaction to a multitude of factors and influences coming to the fore, both domestically and internationally, that were far beyond the scope of the Apartheid regime to control. They ranged from international isolation to domestic political conflict with various liberation movements and the brutal enforcement of a race-based societal model. All these pressures factored into the Apartheid states’ decision in the late 1970’s to implement a far reaching and enveloping policy that became known as ‘Total Strategy’. In particular, four key components of the strategy were developed in order to counter what were perceived as the most important domestic issues facing the regime. This report will take a three-fold approach in its search to explain and analyze the four key parts of the Apartheid states’ ‘Total Strategy’ policy. Firstly, it will describe the ‘Total National Strategy’ policy and its four key components, as well as the relevant historical context that brought about its existence. The second argument will analyze the policy, including why it was adopted, as well as the main factors and key persons involved throughout that helped shape the policy and decision-making process. Finally, this essay will evaluate the shortcomings of the policy, as well as any potential alternatives.

Historical and Political Context

In analyzing South Africa’s ‘Total Strategy’ it is imperative to mention the historical context in which said strategy emerged from. ‘Total Strategy’ is the result of a plethora of factors, both domestically and internationally, all pressing down on the Apartheid regime within a relatively short period of time during the 1970’s. Abroad, exclusion and ostracization by the international community resulted in South Africa being left incredibly isolated turning it into an increasingly volatile state, which was incredibly sensitive to any developments that compromised its national security objectives. It compounded South Africa’s regional insecurities, and the regime sought the ‘Total Strategy’ as the best possible tool to address them. That was the first factor that influenced the formulation of ‘Total Strategy’. Throughout the 1970’s South Africa’s cordon sanitaire (a revealing term describing the French containment foreign policy in Europe after World War I) of Rhodesia and the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique steadily fell apart. Portugal withdrew from its colonies in 1974 and Rhodesia remained in a state of conflict until 1979 when Ian Smith’s government was replaced by Robert Mugabe. It was a disaster for the Apartheid security apparatus as previously the Portuguese colonies and Rhodesia had aided South Africa in destroying Black liberation movement bases in the region forcing their fighters to disperse further north to states such as Zambia or Tanzania, thus making it harder for them to coordinate their actions and infiltrate South Africa. Thus, with governments in Zimbabwe and Mozambique that aided the liberation movements and were sympathetic to the plight of Black South Africans at the border, the Apartheid regime felt increasingly pressed to respond brutally to any perceived insurrection within its borders.

Increase in domestic resistance to Apartheid was another contributing factor in the formulation of ‘Total Strategy’, culminating in the Soweto Riots – a demonstration in 1976 by Black schoolchildren over the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium language in local schools. The response from the regime was swift and brutal, an estimate of between 180 to over 700 people were killed over the two days of rioting, mostly by the police. This was a watershed moment for the Apartheid state, as it began to not distinguish between every riot, protest and direct action taken against it and viewed them all as part of a wider plan to topple the regime by enemy forces. It is from this context that then Prime Minister P.W. Botha came to view that there was a so-called ‘Total Onslaught’ campaign being undertaken against the Apartheid state, both within South Africa and internationally. This ‘Onslaught’ was a claim that South Africa was under a coordinated assault from foreign entities seeking to destroy the state. As has been stated, the period of 1975-78 during which Botha rose to power was characterized by numerous security concerns and issues that evolved at an incredibly fast pace. Since his promotion to Minister of Defense in 1966 until his appointment as Prime Minister in 1978, Botha had increasingly sought to centralize and consolidate his own political power, as well as the power of the military. This had resulted in the creation of a state run by the so-called ‘securocrats’. Botha had also been quoted in Parliament on several occasions during the twilight years of the John Vorster administration calling for the need to adopt a ‘Total Strategy’ to counter the increasing threats South Africa was facing at home and abroad. Indeed, once assuming the role of Prime Minister, Botha immediately set about the process of implementing such an idea through enunciating a ‘12 Point Plan’ to carry out the aims of the ‘Total Strategy’ in 1979.

It should be noted however, that Botha was not the originator of the ‘Total Strategy’ notion. The first public mention of the need for a ‘Total Strategy’ was by General Charles Fraser, Chief of the Army from 1966 to 1967 who emphasized that “counter-insurgency must be a carefully coordinated system of actions – political, economic, administrative, psychological, police and military”. These aspects were eventually all core components of the ‘Total Strategy’ policy later.

Characteristics of the ‘Total Strategy’

Eventually, it was the product of numerous security and national pressures all weighing down upon the Apartheid regime in a short time span. Some of the main factors involved were the collapse of South Africa’s regional allies: Rhodesia and the Portuguese Empire, as well as an increase in domestic violence and resistance towards the Apartheid state such as the Soweto Riots. Whilst the notion of a ‘Total Strategy’ was first devised by General Fraser, its main supporter and backer was Botha, who sought to find an efficient all-in-one solution to the plethora of pressures bearing down upon the Apartheid regime. These pressures were labelled as a ‘Total Onslaught’: a perceived coordinated attack by many hostile elements, domestically and internationally, that sought the destruction of Apartheid South Africa. Therefore, in this sense ‘Total Strategy’ was defined as a “comprehensive plan to utilize all the means available to the state according to an integrated pattern in order to achieve the national aims within the framework of specific policies.”

Such a grand strategy needed complicated coordination between economic, social, political and security policies hence, a ‘12-point plan’ was developed to put the ‘Total Strategy’ policy into practice and prevent the perceived ‘onslaught’. The first six points all deal with what are essentially domestic political matters, more specifically race relations and they rely on four central components that defined the approach the program would take. Each of these components of ‘Total Strategy’ were all designed to confront a specific major perceived segment of the ‘Total Onslaught’. It was hoped by the Apartheid leadership that by breaking down and addressing the main perceived segments of the ‘Total Onslaught’ individually, rather than an overarching approach to the whole issue, that the ‘Total Strategy’ would provide a tailored solution to South Africa’s security concerns.

The first article of ‘Total Strategy’ involved the resolving of the many structural problems, such as the need to create a Black middle-class population. However, it refused to rescind work related laws that kept Black people in poverty, facing the Apartheid system that had developed throughout the 1970’s as well as against “Black resistance which had
developed as a result.” This component went hand in hand with the wide scale policy of reformation President Botha was pursuing at the same time. He had recognized that Apartheid was too rigid a system to survive and, hence, this component initially sought to ‘improve’ or even do away with several infamous Apartheid laws that had come to represent, in the eyes of the international community, the entire system of Apartheid. These included the Mixed Marriages Act (which banned persons of different races from marrying within South Africa) and section 16 of the Immorality Act (which banned sex between Whites and non-Whites). Although, ultimately, pressure from more extreme
elements within the Apartheid regime prevented either of these laws being completely removed and instead only minimal concessions were given.

The second component comprised engaging with sectors of South African society that had previously been considered hostile elements towards the National Party in its struggle against the ‘Total Onslaught’. It was targeted at the White, English-speaking segment of the population, given the huge influence they had over areas such as business and the
media. There had long been a division at every level of White society between the English-speakers, who tended to be more liberal, urban and tolerant, and the Afrikaners, who were historically an insular, conservative and very rural based populace. This part of ‘Total Strategy’ thus sought to bridge the divide between the two groups and present a unified White front in order to confront increasing pressure to end Apartheid both domestically and abroad. Ultimately, however, this component did not have much success as the regime made minimal headway in swaying the anglophone media and, business-wise, a wave of disinvestment occurred throughout the 1980’s which only accentuated South Africa’s economic problems.

The third component was the co-opting of an entire class of ‘insiders’ to be used as abuffer against an alleged mass of ‘outsiders’ that threatened the regime. These alleged ‘outsiders’ ranged from ‘communists’ to ‘terrorists’ but, in reality, were normally various Black liberation movements. The ‘insiders’ were to be drawn primarily through the creation of a new Black middle-class population. They would then act as a political buffer for the regime in order for it to gain time and space to further develop relevant policies to counter these outsiders. Ultimately, this failed due to the inability of the regime to create a visible and sustainable Black middle-class population, given the many restrictions and laws that
hindered precisely such development.

The fourth and final component of ‘Total Strategy’ involved a reorganization andrationalization of the state and its apparatus, in order to ensure a more streamlined, efficient and rigorous bureaucracy that would be able to carry out the needs of the stat with brutal efficiency. Here, especially, major work was needed. In the final years of the John Vorster administration there had been large amounts of bureaucratic infighting between various sections of the South African government. Chief amongst these was the conflict between the Bureau of State Security and the Directorate of Military Intelligence over the direction of South Africa’s security policy. Botha sought to clearly establish
operational boundaries between the various agencies as well as slim down the evergrowing amount of government departments. In reality, he paved the way for greater control of the government by ‘securocrats’, defined by Jane Duncan as “officials located in the security establishment that have the power to influence government policy in their
favor.” This resulted in the increased militarization of the state which, in turn, led to increasingly heavy-handed security operations on the various liberation movements and people of South Africa.

Evaluation of Apartheid South Africa’s ‘Total Strategy’ Policy

One of the most critical issues regarding South Africa’s four central components of ‘Total Strategy’ was that they were embedded in the presupposition that the majority of the South Africa’s Black population was either neutral towards, or not supportive of, the various liberation movements engaged in actions against the Apartheid government, and that only a minority of South Africa’s Black population were involved in these movements. Indeed, whilst most of it did not take part in any direct action against the Apartheid state, the vast majority of the population were sympathetic to the liberation movements. This central, and false, line of thought within the Apartheid state thus bled into two major flaws that crippled the effectiveness of the domestic aspects of ‘Total Strategy’ over the 15 years it endured.

Firstly, despite the acknowledgement by the Apartheid security apparatus that counterinsurgency operations were ‘80% political and 20% military’, the SADF (South Africa Defense Force) and SAP (South Africa Police) were either unable or unwilling to approach resistance to the state in any form other than a heavy-handed military and security approach. Indeed, the reality more often than not was “80% military and 20% political.” This brutal military-security approach was taken in part because of the belief that only a small part of the South Africans was in support of the various liberation movements. Hence, when undertaking operations, the security and military apparatus were often given a very wide legal scope in which to carry out their operations, as those that they were combatting were branded as terrorists or enemies of the state. This resulted in brutal and repressive tactics being employed by the security and military apparatus in combating the liberation organizations, and human rights of ordinary citizens were often blatantly
ignored. It should be noted however that it was not merely due to the Apartheid regime sanctioning these forms of operations, which resulted in such brutality occurring. Many within the security and, to a lesser extent, the military establishments were ardent supporters of the Apartheid regime and what it stood for, especially given that both establishments held huge sway over the state under Apartheid during the period of ‘Total Strategy’. This ultimately resulted in a steady increase in hostilities, and significant decrease in race relations, over the entire period of ‘Total Strategy’ spanning from 1978 until 1994.

Secondly, the ‘Total Strategy’ policy could not (albeit in the minds of its implementers it attempted to) answer the ‘national political question’ of how to ensure the exclusion of the Black population from political participation. This question demanded that the regime seek an alternative policy, which the majority of the population would accept, to that offered by the various Black liberation movements, who sought the complete removal of the Apartheid system. However, no viable political alternative was ever properly considered, as any solution that maintained Apartheid in any form would have led to further opposition by the majority of South Africa’s population. This opposition had been steadily growing throughout the 1970’s, as seen in events such as the Soweto Riots.

As a result of the unwillingness of the regime to recognize that including the Black population in the political process was vital in resolving the ‘Total Onslaught’ within South Africa; the first, second and third components of South Africa’s domestic ‘Total Strategy’ policy (restructuring Apartheid system, reaching out to anglophone Whites and creation
of a Black middle class supportive of the state) were all jeopardized. The Apartheid regime was unable (and unwilling) to structurally reform itself to appeal to the majority of the South African population, given that the only acceptable method to do this involved ending its own existence. It also alienated many White anglophones through not being able to offer a more tolerant and inclusive political system and failed to remove major obstacles preventing Black South Africans from forming part of the middle class, which resulted in the lack of a significant Black populace supportive of the state. Whilst the Apartheid regime did manage to structurally reorganize itself, this was mostly done to enhance the efficiency of security and military operations, as well as give the securocrats more sway over the state. Hence, due to the stark ideological contrasts between the Apartheid regime and the vast majority of the South African populace, as well as the regime’s willingness to enforce its ideology through repressive tactics, alternate policies the government could have successfully pursued were hard to envisage by the state. One attempted policy was the formation of the Tricameral Parliament – a superficial attempt at giving Indians and colored’s voting rights and representation in government through the creation of their own separates houses in order to appease them and build a diverse support base for the government. However, Whites still held the majority of power within these new structures, ensuring the status quo stability.

Since the Apartheid regime’s four key domestic components of ‘Total Strategy’ policy were based on the false presupposition that the vast majority of South Africa’s Black populace were indifferent to the various liberation movements; this line of thinking spawned two crucial flaws, which hindered the efficacy of ‘Total Strategy’. Firstly, ‘Total Strategy’ failed, in part, due to the heavy-handed security apparatus. Secondly, the unwillingness of the Apartheid regime to include the Black population in any meaningful political participation hindered most of the domestic components of ‘Total Strategy’. Hence, by refusing to permit the majority of South Africans into the political process the regime had already placed itself in a situation where it had merely bought more time for itself through the use of heavy-handed security operations. Yet, this time was not used to attempt any major reforms or pursue other policies due to the ideological commitment to Apartheid by the regime.


In conclusion, this report on Apartheid South Africa’s ‘Total Strategy’ policy has demonstrated three points. Firstly, it has described the ‘Total Strategy’ policy, with regards to the four key domestic components, as well as what their outcomes were. Secondly, it has also sought to analyze the ‘Total Strategy’ policy and its origins by demonstrating the
main factors and key persons involved in relation to its domestic components. The factors ranged from regional insecurities, such as the collapse of the Portuguese Empire and the fall of Rhodesia, to increased domestic resistance, as seen in the Soweto Riots. The key persons involved in the whole process were Botha and General Fraser. Whilst Fraser was primarily responsible for roughly outlining the future for South African counterinsurgency policy during the late 1960’s, it was Botha who had called and pushed for a concrete version of this policy. Indeed, Botha almost immediately sought to put ‘Total Strategy’ into practice following his ascension to the Prime Minister position.

Finally, this report has evaluated the overall strengths and weaknesses of the ‘Total Strategy’ policy, with regards to the four key domestic components. It has found that, ultimately, they were not enough to resolve the numerous problems and threats, perceived or otherwise, against the regime. Whilst the efficiency and brutality of the Botha regime
did manage to extend the existence of the Apartheid system through its heavy-handed combination of military power and legislation, it was not able to sufficiently confront any of the issues that were supposed to be addressed by the four key domestic components of the ‘Total Strategy’.


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