Operation Thunderstorm: behind the killing in South Africa


The African National Congress on June 21 suspended negotiations with the white minority government following the massacre of 39 people in Boipatong township. The Boipatong killings appear as part of a pattern of government-sponsored violence, which the following article explains. It is abridged from the July issue of the ANC magazine Mayibuye.

From sources within government circles and the ANC's Intelligence Department, Mayibuye has unearthed a chilling two-pronged plan of the Nationalist Party regime for the transition.

Operation Thunderstorm and Operation Springbok. These are the official names of the regime's two-pronged strategy to thwart democracy. The final aim is to force the ANC into an entrenched coalition with, at least, the NP.

Operation Springbok aims to prevent the ANC from forming a government on its own. Normally this would not be sinister. It would be fair competition where a party strives to attain maximum advantage in a democratic dispensation.

The difference in this case is Operation Thunderstorm. As its name suggests, this operation seeks to devastate the country. It is meant to wreak havoc in order to force the ANC to accept Operation Springbok.

Describing the core of Operation Thunderstorm, a senior official of the ANC Intelligence Department says: "Every plan and action — particularly on the question of violence — is aimed at weakening the ANC so that it is eventually forced into a constitutional coalition. At the heart of the plan is the NP goal to be the main partner in a future government, controlling all levers of power — particularly the army, police and intelligence."

Operation Thunderstorm is designed to weaken the ANC physically through violence and create a climate of uncertainty. According to the plan, when the NP finally forces the ANC into a coalition, the people would be only too happy to see an end to the violence even if their sociopolitical conditions are not addressed.

Forces involved

Thunderstorm was left in the hands of the Department of Military Intelligence (DMI). The National Intelligence Service (NIS) was informed about the operation but does not carry out any ground operations.

The main strategy of Operation Thunderstorm is to unleash violence using secret networks of the DMI and the "former" Security Branch of the SAP [police]. This is backed by intensive anti-ANC propaganda involving:

  • Blaming the ANC and particularly Umkhonto we Sizwe for the violence. This would also include a deliberate campaign of character assassination directed against selected ANC leaders.

  • Fomenting divisions within the ANC and the alliance by trying to isolate the South African Communist Party and so-called radical ANC elements, especially the Youth League. On the other hand, efforts would be made to portray the regime's response to violence positively. For this purpose, the South African Broadcasting Corporation and the regime's network in the printed media would stand it in good stead.

Other measures envisaged as the plan matures are:

  • selective arrests of cadres of the ANC and its allies; and

  • possible restriction of newspapers highly critical of the government.

The first and most important phase of Operation Thunderstorm has long been in operation. This is reflected partly in the support given to organisations like Inkatha. Another aspect is the arming and deployment of criminal gangs. The aim is to unleash random violence in black areas in order to dissuade people from openly supporting the ANC. For this purpose, both hit squads and armed bands from hostels are used.

The regime's plans have been adjusted from time to time to meet new realities. The generals behind these plans are said to be seriously concerned with:

  • campaigns of mass action;

  • the exposés in some newspapers;

  • failure to substantially weaken the ANC; and

  • the creation of viable self-defence structures in some communities.

As a result, a number of these generals and some senior NP leaders find the temptation to resort to more repression difficult to resist. The recent call-up and De Klerk's threat to declare a state of emergency reflect this tendency.

What is also alarming are the bills that the NP has rushed through parliament. The bill which will allow the regime to tap telephones and violate privacy is directed primarily at the ANC and its allies.

Related to this are bills on "direct and indirect intimidation", SADF conscription, detention without trial and so-called private

How it works

Operation Thunderstorm aims to root the idea of "black-on-black violence" in local and international public opinion.

Random shootings, which appear not to be linked to any political rivalry, form part of this strategy. To confuse matters further, the professional hit squads are provided with arms of Soviet origin — weapons previously associated with the ANC. The train and vigil massacres and, more recently, the murder of 18 people on the eve of June 16 are an example.

Training and support for elements within Inkatha and criminal gangs is crucial for the operation. Inkathagate and other revelations are only the tip of the iceberg, says a security operative.


In the [urban areas around Johannesburg], hostels are used as barracks and training centres. They also act as places of retreat for forces that have attacked townships. With official sanction, many former occupants of hostels have been driven out to be replaced by people who are operatives of Operation Thunderstorm.

Judges and human rights groups have protested at the release of "common criminals" long before their jail terms expire. Sources within the security establishment say the reason is not difficult to find: many of them have been recruited to take part in the violence.

The operation also relies heavily on infiltrating agents into ANC structures. "The amounts of money and other perks, including cars, promised some of the agents have been regularly increased", says an ANC security operative. Depending on the location of an agent, their briefs include the gathering of general intelligence and operational information of immediate use in the violence as well as provocative actions aimed at discrediting the ANC.

A special and very small DMI unit has been assigned to operate within and control the activities of the extreme right wing. "Because of the unreliability of some elements in the right wing, the selection and recruitment of persons to pilot the right-wing campaign of terror and intimidation is considered as primary", says an ANC senior intelligence officer. "By keeping some right-wing armed groups operational and their activities regulated, the regime would be able to force the ANC to accept the inevitability of a coalition with the NP."

Northern Transvaal plan

As part of Thunderstorm, a special plan for the Northern Transvaal has been worked out. One of its central themes is "Opspoor en uitwis van vyandelike strukture" — Tracking down and eliminating enemy

A unit is to be — or has been — created to mobilise the forces necessary to carry out the plan. Propaganda is at the centre of the strategy, and it includes controlling media reports to discredit "radical" organisations. The plan aims to influence the population as follows:

  • Infiltration of "enemy structures" to help eliminate them. Special targets will be the ANC, "radical" church leaders, trade unionists, workers' structures in factories.

  • Play the "Charterists" (ANC) against the Black Consciousness groupings and foment ethnic tensions.

  • Select certain coloured and Indian leaders from all levels of society — business, religion, education, sports and medicine — and convince them that the government is right and realistic and that their future lies with the NP.

  • Create a climate in which pro-NP forces can operate freely.

Mayibuye sources are unable to explain why this particular region has been singled out. "We can only surmise that the strength of the extreme right wing might have led to its selection as a pilot area", says an intelligence analyst. "However, the plan is applicable in any part of the country."