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Uncovering the Past for a Better Future

Resource type: Grantee Story

South Africa became a democracy in 1994. The political negotiations which led to democracy were accompanied by high levels of violence as elements of the “old order” sought to destabilise the political transition. A sinister, unidentified “Third Force” promoted violence between opposing political movements and carried out a series of massacres in informal settlements and on commuter trains. Many in the democratic movement suspected – but could not prove – the involvement of the South African Defence Force (SADF), the country’s military.

The extent to which ministers in the apartheid Cabinet and other senior members of the ruling National Party were involved in provoking the violence or had knowledge of the military’s role has never been disclosed. In 1992 the President at the time commissioned an internal inquiry by General Steyn. Its findings were classified and never publicised. Shortly after Steyn reported to President de Klerk several generals were dismissed.

Purpose and Impact of the Grant

A key objective of the South African programme is to advance reconciliation by providing South Africans with the means to understand and come to terms with the human rights abuses of the past.

Fourteen years after the Steyn Report, an Atlantic grantee, the South African History Archive (SAHA), has obtained and published it. With Atlantic support SAHA uses the Promotion of Freedom of Access to Information Act to retrieve records about human rights abuses which are not yet in the public domain.

The Steyn Report reveals that senior generals in the SADF had indeed established a clandestine project “Öperation Pastoor” to destabilise the transition to democracy. The military supplied weapons to opposing political forces, recruited mercenaries to carry out the massacres, placed bombs in the offices of anti-apartheid groups and used agents to fan extensive internecine violence between the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). A third of all acts of violence could be attributed to military sources. Senior officers in the military were also involved in the planning of an aborted right-wing military coup.

The publication of the Steyn report provoked strong media and public reaction and has strengthened the democratic government’s commitment to civilian oversight of the military.

The publication of the report is a sobering reminder of how close the military and right wing forces came to scuttling the transition to democracy and how extraordinary an achievement post-apartheid democracy is.

By bringing clandestine illegal activities of the apartheid police, military and intelligence services to light, SAHA hopes to ensure that similar actions will not be repeated in the future.

Related Resources


Human Rights & Reconciliation

Global Impact:

South Africa


SAHA, South African History