10. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hughes) to Secretary of State Rogers 1

No. 490


  • South Africa: The Invisible Government

A South African law, soon to take effect, further strengthens the secret police at the expense of an open society. While there is no visible threat to white domination, the government continues to extend its repressive legislation.

The Latest Club. Under South Africa’s weird blend of parliamentary democracy and totalitarianism, the government has once more passed another bill to further limit civil rights. A recently enacted law makes legally unanswerable to the courts the Bureau for State Security, a combined police and intelligence agency. In essence, the new legislation forbids disclosure of any information concerning BOSS (an acronym bestowed by the English-language press), even in judicial proceedings, without the government’s authorization. The government, for example, can prevent accused persons from testifying even in their own defense, if it wants to suppress their evidence. The law is vague enough to encompass most public discussion of police activities and may silence future criticism in this area.

Who’s BOSS ? Formed earlier this year by a merger of military and police intelligence, BOSS has a direct line to Prime Minister John Vorster. It is headed by General H.J. Van den Bergh, probably the strongest man in the country after Vorster. The two men have been close friends for years, dating from when both were imprisoned during World War II by the Smuts government for pro-Nazi activities. Van den Bergh, who rose to be head of the Security Branch when Vorster was Minister of Justice, has successfully crushed white and non-white opposition in the country; he even felt strong enough in 1968 to crack down on extreme-right Afrikaner critics of Vorster.

Overkill. There is no imminent foreign threat, and Pretoria’s military and police power have the internal security situation under firm control. An arsenal of legislation already exists, providing for indefinite detention without trial, house arrest, banishment, and other forms of intimidation, so that the BOSS law will not really cover any serious chink in the government’s defensive armor.

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Embarrassment. The law, however, will plug the few remaining loopholes that permit publicity damaging to the regime’s efforts to improve South Africa’s image overseas. One recent subject of press coverage has been the death of James Lenkoe, a Lesotho national caught in a minor pass raid, who was reputed to have hanged himself in jail. A public inquest has suggested the likelihood that he was electrocuted during police interrogation. An on-going trial of a liberal anti-government newspaper has given publicity to torture and brutality in prisons.2 In 1968 Gabriel Mbindi, a South West African, became the latest of a number of political prisoners to have his case for damages stemming from police beatings settled out of court by the government; the case was widely publicized in the English-language press. The act also reflects the government’s mounting resentment of overseas-financed legal aid programs for political prisoners. The BOSS law will probably stop all this.

No Signs of Loosening Up. In spite of a booming economy and an ever increasing standard of living for whites (and for some non-whites too), a growing trade with black Africa, and a desire to establish better contacts with the outside world, South Africa’s repressive legislation has multiplied in the past decade. The fact that the government is so strong and yet still goes to such lengths to quell even mild criticism suggests that South Africa has no intention of easing rigid controls or of liberalizing the political system.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 23 S AFR. Secret; No Foreign Dissem; Controlled Dissem. Denney initialed for Hughes.
  2. See RAF RM–3, “South Africa: Further Curbs on Press Freedom,” April 10, 1969 (Confidential/No Foreign Dissem/Controlled Dissem). [Footnote is in the original.]