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Anti-apartheid Veterans Left in the Lurch

Resource type: News

The Irish Times | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]


The South African government has introduced a Bill that will give pension and healthcare rights to the 56,000 registered veterans of the struggle against apartheid, but critics say the scheme does not go far enough

IT IS 25 YEARS since Trevor Ngengemane first risked life and limb as a foot soldier for the military wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which fought against South Africa’s apartheid-era security forces.

As we walk slowly towards the wooden shack he inhabits at the back of his parents’ house in Nyanga township, a large urban settlement on the outskirts of Cape Town, the MK veteran says that despite the passing of time he still suffers from flashbacks and nightmares linked to his combat experiences.

“Life was very stressful back then, as we operated underground. You never knew what was going to happen. The security forces were searching for us; we would ambush them in the townships – it was back and forth. I still find it hard to sleep at night, because that was when much of the fighting took place.

“I joined MK as a teenager in 1986, and only a year later I was wounded during a gun battle with security forces in Cape Town. I had to have an operation on my leg, but I returned to the fight to help my comrades. I was committed to winning our freedom,” he says.

As the years have passed, however, Ngengemane has had a growing sense that South Africa’s ruling party leaders have forgotten about the sacrifices he and his comrades made to defeat apartheid.

Today he lives in poverty, unable to secure menial work because of his leg injury and unqualified for most other types of employment. “After [the first democratic elections in] 1994 I went into South Africa’s new [integrated] army, but the integration process was very slow so I took demobilisation and returned to civilian life. Once at home, though, I found life very difficult.

“I could not find full-time work because I had no training or skills – all I knew was how to be a soldier. I feel like the government has abandoned me, as there was no reintegration programme to help me adjust. Even though I was shot and cannot get work, I don’t get a special pension or even a social grant.”

Ngengemane is one of tens of thousands of ex-combatants across South Africa who have found themselves on the margins of society, despite the sacrifices they made.

In the early years of the post-apartheid era, most former combatants remained patient in the hope that they would receive compensation in the form of pensions, social benefits, healthcare and skills training once democracy had been fully established.

But as assistance has failed to materialise they have become increasingly vocal about their plight, with some warning that, unless government helps them properly, some could take matters into their own hands. Although the government has initiated a number of reintegration programmes over the past 15 years, these have proved mostly ineffective.

Dr Hugo van der Merwe of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation says veterans have to struggle for years to get pensions (which are not universal) because of the bureaucracy of the process.

“People have to prove they were involved in opposing the apartheid regime militarily [to get a military pension], and this usually comes from being vouched for by a person who was higher up in the chain of command of [their] organisation . . . But many senior resistance people have died, and many people who took up arms used fake names while they participated, so this has caused huge problems when it comes to people trying to get their service number, which is needed to access a pension and medical assistance,” he says.

FOR AN EXAMPLE of how ex-combatants can destabilise a country, you can look at the role Zimbabwe’s former liberation fighters played in their country’s political crisis and economic collapse over the past 15 years.

In 1997, disgruntled veterans from Zimbabwe’s independence war of the 1970s instigated violent street protests that prompted the government to give them huge unbudgeted payouts; analysts say these contributed to the country’s economic decline. They were also encouraged by President Robert Mugabe to invade thousands of white-owned farms at the turn of the century, and this development led to the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector.

In August, South Africa’s parliament approved the Military Veterans’ Bill, the government’s latest attempt to address the needs of ex-combatants, which deputy defence minister Thabang Makwetla described as “vital to the future and stability of this country”.

The Bill, which provides for pensions, healthcare, education and transport, as well as housing, job placement, business opportunities and counselling, has been cautiously welcomed by most of the war veterans’ representative bodies around the country.

A total of 1.6 billion rand (€149 million) has been set aside to pay for the roll-out of the benefits scheme to the 56,000 former combatants on the government’s register of veterans.

But South Africa’s main opposition, the Democratic Alliance party, as well as many ex-combatants, have raised serious concerns about the benefit scheme, especially around how many people are eligible to apply.

The Bill has become increasingly controversial since it was tabled in parliament without its financial implications to the taxpayer made clear, in contravention of parliamentary rules and of the law.

In the absence of an accurate financial breakdown, one firm of financial risk analysts, Alexander Forbes, has claimed that if all 56,000 registered military veterans qualified for all of the benefits, the cost would amount to 65 billion rand (€6 billion), and if the payouts were reduced through a means test, the cost could drop to 19.6 billion rand (€1.8 billion).

David Maynier, the Democratic Alliance MP and shadow minister for defence and military veterans, has muddied the issue by telling parliament last month that the 1.6 billion rand the department of defence and military veterans has allocated to pay for the initiative over the next three years is not the right figure to work from.

“They assumed that there are 56,000 military veterans eligible to apply for benefits, when the broad definition of ‘military veteran’ in the Bill means that there may be up to 850,000 military veterans eligible to apply for benefits,” says Maynier.

Igshaan Amlay of the Struggle Veterans Action Committee, which represents about 36,000 veterans, says the Military Veterans’ Bill is good in theory but that the government needs to put people in place who know who the veterans are and where they operated.

Members of the former South African Defence Force, the armed liberation movements and the defunct Bantustan armies are all eligible to apply for benefits. But thousands of self-defence unit and self-protection unit members, who were asked by the ANC during the 1980s to make the townships ungovernable, believe they should be allowed to apply for benefits.

“Everyone talks of MK, but they infiltrated from abroad and operated in small groups. What about the people who were on the ground inside South Africa, those who manned the barricades when the townships burned? South Africa would not have been changed without them,” says Amlay.

He adds that many veterans have expressed concerns that the benefit scheme could be open to corruption and nepotism at the administrative level of the benefits initiative, possibly favouring those who have retained close links to the ruling party over the years.

There are also concerns that because MK military veterans played a significant role in President Jacob Zuma’s election as leader of the ANC, in 2007, the new initiative is designed to repay their support rather than to look after the broader group of veterans.

Van der Merve agrees with Amlay that the benefits system in operation to date has been abused, and says the suspicion is reinforced by the government’s silence on the issue of benefit fraud.

“There are many veterans who believe that thousands of people who registered as ex-combatants were never involved. While there have been government audits to weed out this corruption, the reports have never been made public due to political sensitivities,” he says.

As to whether ex-combatants are a threat to South Africa’s fledgling democracy, Van der Merve believes that less likely when it comes to the MK veteran.

“I don’t think widespread public violence by ex-combatants, as occurred in Zimbabwe, is something that will happen in the near future in South Africa.

“This is partially because there is a definite sense [MK is] an active group within the ANC structures, and certain ANC leaders draw on their support. Zuma did so for his campaign to become party president in 2007.

“But the worry is that it will take years for the benefits to trickle down to the rank-and-file members, and many of these people are dying. We have been told by ex-combatants that they are going to funerals of comrades almost on a weekly basis.”

Liberation: The human cost of South Africa’s struggle for freedom 

Twelve hundred former fighters talked about their experiences for a 2006 report, Only Useful Until Democracy, published by the Atlantic Philanthropies. It concluded they were “struggling to move out of the past and become fully engaged citizens in the ‘new’ South Africa”.

17% said they had been injured fighting and left with a permanent disability.

56% still relive their experience while awake; a similar proportion suffer from combat-related nightmares.

13% were classified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, defined as a pathological anxiety that occurs after someone experiences or witnesses life-threatening trauma.

60% were single as they are unable to form stable relationships.

64% were students when they entered the conflict, bearing out frequent accounts of giving up their chance of an education to join the armed struggle – which they wanted to be compensated for.

26% had completed secondary school.

70% were unemployed, almost three times the national rate of 25 per cent.

73% believed South Africa’s political leaders had forgotten about them after apartheid was defeated.

84% said the compensation they received was inadequate.

47% said they had “wasted their time for nothing” when asked whether they had achieved anything for themselves by getting involved in the armed struggle.

34% said they would not get involved again if a similar situation arose.