De Wet Potgieter, Total Onslaught: Apartheid’s Dirty Tricks Exposed (Struik Publishers, 2008)
During Apartheid’s final decade, South Africa was engulfed in an all encompassing civil war, not unlike if the KKK and the Black Panthers went head to head with AK47s in every city from Chicago to Montgomery. Throughout the 1980s, children fought police in township streets, African National Congress (ANC) units attacked white suburbs, and rightwing Afrikaners blew up black churches and murdered white liberals. South Africa’s political system clearly was in crisis.
According to De Wet Potgieter’s Total Onslaught: Apartheid’s Dirty Tricks Exposed, the nation’s Bureau of State Security, BOSS, secretly manipulated and devastated South African society during the conflict. Examining a handful of seemingly isolated events including state-sponsored orgies, covert assassinations, and media scandals, Potgieter connects Apartheid’s myriad of government enforcement agencies to a cast of nefarious characters responsible for plotting crimes committed in the name of Volk and Vaderland.
Potgieter’s most compelling examples are those showing how the National Party launched scare tactics and abused South African tax dollars for its own benefit. The author documents how undercover police officers driving state-issued “Mercs” and BMWs with fake plates attempted to murder and brutally beat a young Afrikaner actor for performing in an anti-conscription play. He shows how the government’s authorship and printing of anti-ANC pamphlets under the auspice of sympathetic European rightwing organizations. And he recounts the murder of David Webster, a well regarded white academic, who was shot at close range by Ferdi Barnard, a policeman turned jailed sociopath, for his liberal politics. Though sometimes veering dangerously close to conspiracy theory, Potgeiter’s detailed account of the South African connection to Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme’s 1986 assassination is gripping, as the writer digs deeply into long-time National Party leader Peter Willem Botha’s classified declaration that Palme, whose government supported the ANC, was an enemy to the South African state.
But while many of Potgieter’s connections are convincing, his masculine colloquialisms and rambling style don’t do his subject justice. Along with the book’s lack of an introductory background essay for the novice reader, Potgieter’s inability to separate his characters’ motives from his own commentary gives the narrative a tangential, sloppy feel. However, the chief problem with Total Onslaught is not aesthetic, but rather it is its lack of black voices. Reading Potgieter, it seems only whites were affected by “dirty tricks.” Total Onslaught shouldn’t be completely disregarded, as it provides a rare glimpse into the devolution of Apartheid politics in South Africa, but the curious reader will be left wanting to know more.
Alex Freedman is a writer who lives in Boston.