Face to Face with Magnus Malan

In June 1988 I flew to Cape Town to interview the South African Minister of Defense, Magnus Malan. The world’s media was fixated on the conflict in Angola as the Cuban forces were thought to number over 54, 000 in the war-torn country. Meanwhile a controversial Nelson Mandela tribute concert, televised live to millions of people in over 60 countries, gave the anti-apartheid movement its biggest worldwide audience. Whitney Houston, George Michael, the Bee Gees and Dire Straits performed at the Wembley Stadium concert.

The lens of the world’s media this week zoomed into close-up on Africa’s Vietnam – Angola.

In the spotlight is General Magnus Malan, Minister of Defence since 1980.

This week JANI ALLAN flew where Eagles Dare, caught the ‘Superhawk’  on the wing and interviewed General Malan FACE TO FACE in Cape Town. 


MOST people love to talk about themselves. Not the Strong Arm of the SADF.

Perhaps he prefers war-war to jaw-jaw?

At any rate, General Magnus Malan feels that ‘there are more SEEERIUS things to do in life than to talk about one’s self.’

Right now, I’m sitting in the warrior’s waiting room in the H F Verwoerd Building in Cape Town, paging through Paratus.

A pair of MPs are there too. Discussing SEEERIUS things. The lady MP is wearing a mauve outfit, he chief accessory of which is a look of disapproval.

General Magnus Malan has the supreme confidence of an empire builder, a champion ballroom dancer – or the Chief of the South African Defence Force.

His has been a brilliant military career. At 43 he was appointed Chief of the Army – the youngest man ever to have held the post. Three years later, in 1976, he was made Chief of the SADF.

This is our Warrior and our Warlord.

I TAKE a mental flash polaroid.

There’s a broadscreen beam, the famous bak ore like the handles of the Currie Cuo beker – and the same quality of machismo as Robert ‘I-love-the-smell-of-napalm in-the-morning’ Duvall in Apocalypse Now.

Reluctant to draw first blood, I decide the safest strategy to commence engagement is with an inoffensive question on the serious things in life. Like National Security.

The Warlord beams. It was a sensible question. National Security is one of his geliefkoosde  topics.

‘If there wasn’t national security YOU wouldn’t be sitting hee-uh. I wouldn’t have been hee-uh and WE wouldn’t have the orderliness and stability we have today.’

IN South Africa, he continued, ‘we can lose just ONCE. If we lose ONCE we’ve had it.  There’ll be something new and we won’t be part of it. It won’t be OUR value system …OUR norms.

‘I’m not saying you’ve got to be desperate but you’ve got to be SEEERIUS. You asked me how important is security, I gave it to you!’

Never settle with words what you can accomplish with a flamethrower.

But are YOU a molto serioso person?

JAAAAA …’ Could that be a chuckle behind the camouflage?

‘Oh no. I enjoy life. Make no mistake! But the only time I really knock off is when I’m hunting or fishing. WHEN I can do it. Otherwise you’re on call seven days a week, 12 months a year.

‘But WHEN you do you really do it … That’s what I love about the Germans! When they do a thing they really do it. Whether it’s the work or the play.’

The mettle of any man, someone once claimed, can be determined by his menu: Real Men don’t eat quiche.

Instinctively you know that Magnus Malan doesn’t eat quiche: the warlord is no wimp.

As a RM, he’s amusedly tolerant of asinine questions about astrology.

‘Uh. JAAAAAAAA. I have a personal lady who writes to me about that stuff … SURE I believe it,’ he teases.

‘If you get letters from Nancy Reagan wouldn’t you believe it? Do you know when … uh … wotsisname? Reagan’s name?  Reagan’s first name? Ronald. Ronnie! Do you know when’s his birthday? Of course, Aquarius!

‘Ja, but this is the age of Aquarius. They say it will last for 2, 000 years. Lissen, you musn’t believe everything I tell you now. I don’t believe in the stars!’

A magnum force laugh goes with the magnum force personality.

At 14 he ran away from home to join the army.

Why not the circus?

‘I’m a military man,’ he says sternly. ‘I believe in order. I went to the PTB – Physical Training Battalion at Voortrekkerhoogte and I said I wanted to join.

‘They had the PTB and the YTB – the Youth Training Brigade. It was uhh … all the ja … uhh … naughty boys of that period!’

At one stage the OC of his unit at Diskobolos, Kimberley, was Colonel Danie Craven.

Malan’s brother, Avril, captained the rugby Springboks in the ‘60s.

‘Of course, yes, I also played rugby. Eighth man. What team do I support?

I support Defence! Whether it’s the Western Province Defence, Transvaal Defence, Free State Defence …

Is your name your destiny?

NO, he exclaimed. His uncle was Magnus who died in SWA in World War One.

So you would be Chief of the SADF if you had been called Flippie?

‘Uhhhhhhhhh! No! I couldn’t have been called Flippie! THAT I can guarantee you. I would have been Philipus.’

I quote from a description of him. ‘A staff and organisation man, an Eisenhower rather than a blood-and-guts Patton type.’ Care to comment?

He brushes aside the suggestion, brisk as a dandy brush.

‘Can I tell you what? The person that wrote that knows NOTHING about the military. That’s a dumb phrase to use in any case.

‘You never align yourself to other people. You align yourself to situations. You have certain challenges facing you and you have to convert those challenges into opportunities.

‘The challenges facing General Geldenhuys today are TOTE-ally different than those that faced me. Now therefore you get that phrase ‘The Right Man At The Right Time.’

Who is the right man?

‘Jissss. The best you have available. He should have the insight of the situation, adaptability, endurance, ability, courage … He should believe in himself. He should be religious. He should be strong. Mentally strong.’

Malan himself is not short on mental starch.

‘If we talk about a man who should command the SADF he should have operational experience. Otherwise all that I’ve been doing ….’

If only I had a little humility I’d be perfect.

Dit gaan nie daaroor nie.

‘What do I mean by total strategy’? I don’t use the phrase any more. I stopped using it ten years ago. Therefore you walked slap-bang into a pitfall!’ he says triumphantly.

HE frowned his forehead creasing, as he went on. ‘There’s a new phrase you should use. Talk about ‘revolutionary onslaught’. And then ask me how to define that.’

Getting the General talking about matters military is like a Gomma Gomma couch: easy to get into but slightly more difficult to get out of.

I manage to lurch out only when he’s told me after he’s told me what he’s going to tell me, he tells me what he wants to tell me and is about to tell me what he’s told me.

‘Let’s go back to it now. Let’s go and look and have a look, what’s happening in SA …’

With a swift touch of orange white and blue, he tells me that he takes his hat off to the State President.

‘I’m a small man in a team,’ he says with unconvincing modesty. ‘The important part is the team. And that’s my captain!’

In the early ‘60s he spent two years in the States on a series of US army staff courses.

It is reported that his American instructors singled him out as a possible future national leader. He was one of the men chosen to meet President John F Kennedy in 1962.

‘You want to know what President Kennedy said to me? Will you print what I say? Kennedy said to me ‘If you want to secure your future in South Africa, WATCH THE LIBERALS!’

He emphasises his point by beating out a slow tattoo on the desk top.

Do some nations have better built-in survival mechanisms?

FROM his formative years, he said, he had been exposed to youth movements that were ‘very proud of their flag and certain norms and traditions and so forth. I attended one on Monday. The flag ceremony at Oudtshoorn.

‘There were at least 5 000 primary school kids. I can assure you that to them THEY’LL be the survivors of SA. They’ve had the emotional experience. They’ve been intellectually convinced that this is the future of SA.

It’s got to do with WHAM. Winning hearts and minds.

Lets talk about beauty and the brass.

Nothing more beautiful than a crisp sunny day. A military parade. Good music. Good band. At ease? Then he’s a Glen Miller man.

Sure there’s a place for art in a warlord’s life. Have a look there … and there … that’s ART!

He points at super-realistic paintings of fighter aircraft which adorn the walls of his office. Gifts from his Defence Force artists.

What of those who believe one should draft beer, not citizens?

‘One of the biggest advances in South Africa is National Service! If you look at the National Service product, the chappie who’s done two years. They’re positive!’

HE continued: ‘We certainly don’t have any problems with our youths who’ve done national service. Are you with me? But that’s the part that never gets the compliment. We always think in terms of ‘OH by CRIKEY …!’

‘I’ll tell you something. Go to a hospital, any military hospital where you have wounded. And I’m talking about OPERATIONAL wounded. And get their next-of-kin. And see how their next-of-kin react.

‘I’ve NEVER EVER in my life seen such positive people. And I’m not only identifying whites … I can take you to the coloureds, the black servicemen  who do it voluntarily …

He added ‘They’re prepared to sacrifice the husband or the child for their country because they consider it an honour to die for their country!’

‘COGITO         ERGO    BOOM?’


The column was originally published by the Sunday Times on 12 June 1988.