/ 13 March 2007

SA’s war veterans confront demons in the bush

Amid the majestic beauty of South Africa’s Magaliesberg mountain range, veterans of the battle against whites-only rule are trying to banish demons that still haunt them.

Matlapeng lodge, the setting for an ”eco-therapy” session involving around a dozen ex-combatants, translates from Xhosa as the ”Place of Stone”, but tears flow freely and deep-seated fears are revealed by the former warriors.

”It’s a cleansing process. You’ll all change in a way,” said Gavin Robertson, a psychologist with the National Peace Accord Trust, whose brief is to help heal a society which was scarred during the apartheid years.

While much of Africa has been blighted by civil conflict in the last few decades, the initiative is the first of its kind on the continent.

Its tranquil setting near the town of Derby, about 150km north-west of Johannesburg, is seen as the ideal environment for people who have for years suffered in silence.

After hiking up a hill to the lodge, the veterans have a session with Robertson where they speak of the anger and sense of abandonment they feel towards the government they fought to install.

They then spend 24 hours deep in the bush, before being woken before dawn by the beating of a drum. Afterwards the groups go inside a hut housing a traditional Zulu sauna in which they are meant to sweat out their fears.

Inside, many weep openly and even burst into song and prayer. The cleansing process is completed when they jump into a nearby rock pool from where they felt free to talk about their problems.

”I have nightmares, I see shadows, the people I killed,” said Victor Nqukwe, a former member of the now ruling African National Congress’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.

”I was trained in Tanzania. When I came back in 1984, the whites killed my father and my brother so I joined the comrades to fight apartheid”.

”Sometimes, I speak nicely with people and all of a sudden, I don’t know why, I need to fight,” added Nqukwe, who admits he had problems with alcohol.

He feels he has been abandoned by his former leaders as well as by the democracy for which he fought until the first multiracial elections in 1994.

”I am angry. They promised me a house, I had nothing. They promised me a job, I had nothing,” said the 49-year-old.

Jobless, he lives in an informal settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg with his three children and his wife, having to scrape by on the R600 ($87) that her work as a cleaner brings in each month.

Sipho (42) a former ANC militia commander, also spoke about his belief that he is being pursued by one of his victims.

”He was buried with his firearm and his knife. It’s a curse!,” he said.

Robertson said that such feelings were widespread and hence the need to confront demons in a setting that is rather different from a couch.

”Many ex-combatants think that they have been cursed for what they have done in the past. Classical psychotherapy would be useless for them,” said Robertson, adding that the traditional rites observed during the eco-therapy enabled the men to make peace with themselves and reintegrate into society.

The programme evokes memories within some of the veterans of the environment in which they fought their war.

Some reacquaint themselves with guerilla techniques, camouflaging themselves and even setting tripwires to alert themselves to the approach of an intruder, man or animal.

They are not allowed food until after the bathing session and the only props they are given are water and a length of string and pieces of coloured fabric, from which they are expected to craft a ”prayer string”.

Each bit of cloth attached to the string is meant to signal a commitment to abandon vices such as drug abuse and violence that have consumed them or else sometimes a prayer to their ancestors.

There are estimated to be around 140 000 former combatants, mostly either members of Umkhonto we Sizwe or so-called ANC self-defence units (SDU).

The Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) also had a sizeable armed wing as did the more radical Pan-Africanist Congress.

In the early 1990s, the ANC and IFP’s fighters turned on each other and the resulting violence left up to 20 000 people dead.

Fighters from all the groups are attending the sessions at Matlapeng.

And if some remain reluctant to talk about their experiences, they find other ways to express themselves.

One ex-combatant, Glen Mbuli Mkmva, scratched his name on a rock between images of a man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and a civilian.

”This is my past and this is the future I would like, to be a decent man,” reads the inscription. – AFP