The problem of Pomfret

People in Pomfret are tired of talking about the mercenaries. “We only know they went to get bread, that’s all we know,” says Maria Dala.

The men who “went to get bread” had not just gone round to the corner café.
Hidden among thorn trees in the remoter reaches of North West province, Pomfret doesn’t have a café; the fruit and veg stall where Dala stands is the only retail business to be seen. “Getting bread” meant boarding a plane that was supposed to take them to guard a mine in the Congo—then spending a year in a Harare prison after a coup plot in Equatorial Guinea was exposed. 

Pomfret’s roads still have names like General Liebenberg Avenue and Askari Street, reflecting its origins as a South African Defence Force (SADF) base. In 1989 it was given over to the veterans of 32 Battalion: the Angolan soldiers from the FNLA and Unita movements, who had fought for the SADF against the MPLA government in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, the tennis court once used by white SADF officers echoes with the shouts of children playing soccer. Calls of “boa tarde!” (good afternoon) ring out as a passer-by spots a neighbour sitting on the stoep of one of the neat houses. 

No one appears destitute, but their choices are limited. Fernanda Zilia, an elderly woman blind in one eye from a cataract, cares for two grandchildren: “Their father died in August. He went to Pretoria to work for security.”

In Pomfret, “security” is a code word for mercenary work.

Across the road lives Victoria Kamea: “My husband died in 2003. I’m still in the house, and I get money from Mandela. Mandela gives me R700 a month. Without this I would die of hunger.” 

“Mandela money” (child-support grants or pensions) and “security” are Pomfret’s two sources of bread. Not everyone qualifies for Mandela money, which is why the town has acquired a reputation as a mercenary breeding ground, even though most of the “security” men have long since moved away. 

Last week South African National Defence Force General Bobo Moerane confirmed that the town would be closed owing to contamination from an asbestos mine, and the residents offered housing at various other South African locations.

African National Congress local councillor Domingos Kapanga, who left Angola as a child with his parents, says he intends suing the government to stop the closure. “It is not asbestos that is stopping us from staying here,” he said. “They say the people are highly militarily trained and they become a problem for security.” 

Angolans constitute the large majority of Pomfret’s 6 000 people who have developed a strong sense of community.

“We can’t leave until the South African government gives us money,” insisted one woman. “They brought us from Namibia and promised this was the final place for us.” But others complain about the remoteness of Pomfret and the decaying infrastructure: “One day there’s water, then none the next.” 

“Let the government be accountable to the people, let us have what we deserve as South Africans,” Kapanga says. “If they don’t, there’s a country called Angola waiting for us.” 

For Kapanga’s generation, Angola exists only in parents’ stories. Nevertheless, Angolan ambassador Isaac dos Anjos confirmed that the Angolan and South African foreign ministers had discussed the possible return of the veterans and their families to Angola. 

The veterans themselves talk of returning to Angola “if God so wishes”, yet the country remains for them a remote memory. Santos Daniel says he is from Silva Porto. Having left Angola at the time of independence, he knows only this colonial name for the city now called Kuito. “We have nothing here, but we have nothing out there either, so it’s better to stay where we are.”

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