As an adolescent, Malan developed an interest in the military by studying the exploits of the Union Defence Forces during the Second World War. He was fortunate to be given an opportunity to enrol in Dr Danie Craven's Physical Training Brigade in 1946, where he later matriculated. In 1950, he attested into the Permanent Force and completed a BScMil degree at the South African Military Academy in 1953.
Malan, whose father was an influential Member of Parliament throughout the 1960s, was earmarked for high office early in his military career. He was sent on numerous international courses, which included the Regular Command and General Staff Officers' Course at the United States Army General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. On his return in 1962, he rose rapidly through the ranks and was promoted to the rank of brigadier at the age of 38. He served alternatively as Officer Commanding the South African Military Academy, South West Africa Command and Western Province Command, prior to being appointed Chief of the South African Army in 1973. In 1976 he reached the high point of his military career when he was chosen to be Chief of the South African Defence Force, with the rank of general. During this term, he transformed the South African Defence Force from an under-staffed and badly-equipped organisation into an efficient fighting force characterised by good training, discipline, high morale and first-rate equipment. He held this position until appointed as Minister of Defence in 1980. As Minister, a post he held until 1991, Malan became a somewhat controversial figure after applying himself with total commitment to countering what he viewed to be 'a total onslaught' on South Africa.
Even though he spent the last years of his life in relative obscurity, Malan continued to command the respect and loyalty of his military peers. Maj-Gen Gert Opperman stated in his eulogy at the funeral that Malan would best be remembered as a soldier who became a leader of people and as a general who implemented many administrative changes in the Defence Force, changes which earned him great admiration in the wider military sphere.
Ditsong National Museum of Military History
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