The forgotten soldiers

“‘Forgotten’ is an understatement; we have been wished away.” A former member of the African National Congress’s now defunct military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), finds a rare point of agreement with a former conscript in the apartheid regime’s South African Defence Force (SADF) who says: “We are sitting here, up shit creek, no paddles and there is nowhere to go. And that’s why we are now sitting here saying — we fought for this country to make it a better place.”

The vast majority of the nearly 100 interviewees in a recent study of male former combatants “feel they have been badly let down by those who propelled them into action and inspired their lives as combatants”, writes Sasha Gear, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR).

Her study, Wishing Us Away: Challenges Facing Ex-Combatants in the “New” South Africa, is based primarily on detailed interviews with former MK and SADF members, as well as some who operated within self-defence units (SDUs).

The report stresses that this sample omits other important groups, such as the Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the Inkatha Freedom Party’s self-protection units, and women members of the liberation armies.

At the time of Gear’s interviews —1999 and 2000 — none of the interviewees was a member of the new national defence force or the South African Police Service. There are tens of thousands of such ex-combatants, but “little is known of [their] present situations”, she observes.

“Indeed, many former fighters, who often carry with them decades of militarised experiences and the accompanying burdens of these have, as one respondent put it, ‘just disappeared into South Africa’.”

Betrayal is the overwhelming experience the majority of the study’s interviewees record. Their difficulties in finding employment after demobilisation in the post-1994 period, their perceptions of ideological abandonment and their experience of stigmatisation fuel many of the interviewees’ sense of marginalisation.

“We are spanners to fasten bolts,” one says. “After the bolts have been fastened, we are sidelined.”

“Thrown outside like morning mucus,” complains another.

One former MK member says: “The disparities that exist now are not only between ourselves and our white counterparts but our comrades as well, that have become, overnight, bourgeoisie and they are driving flashy cars and sleeping in very expensive hotels; they fly over our heads.”

Both MK and SADF members say they have been discarded by their former organisations, and members of both who attempted integration into the new South African National Defence Force detail their difficulties and frustrations with the process. MK respondents emphasise their “distance” from the ANC, Gear writes, but also their ongoing and paradoxical loyalty to the organisation.

“This marginalisation, they say, results from a lack of interest on the part of those in the structures, disempowering bureaucracies, and a politics of nepotism and patronage.”

By contrast, Thokoza SDUs who participated in the study do not express this particular sense of betrayal. But unemployment and a need for recompense are frequently as pronounced a concern as for other groups.

For some SADF members, abandonment began during the conflict: “There were 10 000 of us sitting in Angola,” a conscript says, “and we hear on our radios Pik Botha saying, ‘I deny categorically there’s any South African troops in Angola.’ ... So what are you, dead already when you’re there? How would you feel?”

And for a former member of the SADF’s special forces, his sense of ideological abandonment centres on his church: “You — the church — taught what was right and what was wrong, and now you change overnight with the political system.”

Some former MK members report that they’ve become “a laughing stock” and targets of humiliation: “Those who in the past accused them of naivety in thinking that anything could come of their struggle continue to ridicule them as misdirected idealists who have wasted their lives,” Gear says.

The study notes that former combatants nowadays tend to receive public attention only in relation to real or imaginary security threats. This further stigmatises them, Gear argues.

Her study does not attempt to measure the involvement of former combatants in violence “but rather to understand how violence features in their lives — and to consider them as both victims and perpetrators”.

There’s a “very big silence out there regarding soldier histories”, Gear says. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the country’s major attempt to “uncover our violent history”, but it “left the experiences of ‘ordinary’ soldiers largely invisible”.

Often, former combatants’ family members and friends are “in the dark about what their soldier relatives have been through. And few today seem interested in uncovering these experiences, while some may even have interests in keeping them hidden.” But “not engaging with their experiences and focusing on former combatants primarily in relation to crime may have serious consequences for their reintegration specifically and reconciliation more generally.

As such, important insights into and opportunities for reducing violence in South African society are likely to be missed.” Last year saw the formation of the Tswelopele Pilot Project, which funded the publication of the CSVR report. This initiative is housed at Technikon SA and attempts to facilitate former combatants’ reintegration through the provision of psycho-social support and reskilling.

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