JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Almost everyone in the know, including President Nelson Mandela, has dismissed as absurd a recent military intelligence report claiming that a host of disgruntled black leaders was plotting to overthrow Mandela's government.
For weeks, all eyes in South Africa have been focused on Gen. Georg Meiring, the military chief who handed Mandela a top-secret communication that implicated Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the president's former wife, and several other prominent officials, including the deputy defense minister, in the alleged left-wing conspiracy.
Public outrage over the unsubstantiated report cost Meiring his job--the 58-year-old general has announced that he will take early retirement at the end of next month--and has inspired a spirited debate on radio talk shows and across dinner tables about his possible motives in passing the report to Mandela.
But as the nation obsesses about the sketchy details of what appears to have been nothing more than an elaborate hoax, military officials aligned with the ruling African National Congress are quietly rejoicing in what they see as the debacle's legacy: the long-awaited elevation of the first black soldier to the country's top military post.
With the unexpected retirement of Meiring, an old-school Afrikaner who earned his stripes in the apartheid-era South African Defense Force and whose scheduled retirement was more than a year away, the chief's door has swung wide open for Lt. Gen. Siphiwe Nyanda.
Nyanda, a former sportswriter, learned to carry a weapon during the ANC's underground military campaign against the white minority government in the 1970s and went on to receive formal military schooling in the former Soviet Bloc. In the last years before black majority rule, he was chief of staff of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing.
Nyanda, 48, was named Meiring's deputy last year, and although no formal announcement has been made, military analysts and defense sources said his promotion is a done deal. The expected appointment, they say, is all the more satisfying because Nyanda was among those the Meiring report tried to discredit by implicating them in the alleged coup plot.
"Gen. Nyanda's taking over will bring a new sense of urgency for the need for tolerance of cultural diversity within the military," said Mark Malan, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Johannesburg.
With Nyanda's promotion, the armed forces will not only gain their first black commander, but the military's small faction of former black-liberation guerrillas will also get the strongest indication yet that the tide has turned against the entrenched white bureaucracy that is a holdover from the apartheid-era armed forces.
There are fewer than 17,000 guerrillas from Umkhonto we Sizwe and the African People's Liberation Army, another underground group, among the country's 93,000 soldiers, and they have complained bitterly about the slow pace of integration into top positions.
Nearly two-thirds of the country's military jobs are held by personnel who worked for the apartheid-era regime. Meiring got his post under then-President Frederik W. de Klerk and was kept on by Mandela, who wanted to calm white soldiers who he feared might turn against his government.
"Gen. Nyanda's appointment is important at a symbolic level," said Laurie Nathan, head of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town and an advisor to the Defense Ministry. "It reflects a formal commitment on the part of the defense minister and the president to speed up the transformation of the defense force and is also a signal to the former [guerrillas] that they now have their champion heading the institution."
That's not to say that Nyanda will be welcomed by all. Defense Ministry spokesman Puso Tladi said the appointment of any black to the high-level post will "create ripples" of resistance among whites. Even some blacks have expressed reservations about the former rebel leader's qualifications, particularly if he were required to lead the armed forces in battle after just four years in a traditional military organization.