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South Africa’s liberation war veterans are angry: here’s why

Army veterans in military uniform give the salute
Umkhonto we Sizwe army veterans stand to attention during the 75th birthday celebrations of the governing ANC in 2017. EFE-EPA/Cornell Turiki

The late 1950s was an era of growing resistance to the apartheid’s state’s application of discriminatory laws in South Africa. The resistance, led by the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was met with harsh state suppression.

The massacre in 1960 of 69 black people protesting against being forced to carry identity documents that restricted their movement, was a turning point for both the ANC and PAC. It precipitated their move away from passive non-violent resistance towards the armed struggle.

In 1961, the ANC formed its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) (Spear of the nation). And the PAC formed the Azanian People’ Liberation Army (APLA). The aim was to violently challenge white minority rule. Both embarked on campaigns of armed resistance against the state, including acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

The most spectacular symbolic attacks on the apartheid state were the rocket attack on the fuels company, Sasol’s coal-to-oil refinery in Sasolburg; the Koeberg nuclear power station in 1982; and the South African Defence Force headquarters in Pretoria in 1983.

As state repression increased, especially after the Soweto uprisings of 1976 of schoolchildren many young black South Africans flocked to join the liberation movements and their armed wings in exile.

It is estimated that the membership of the ANC and PAC’s military wings in the 1990s stood at between 8000 and 10 000 members. These numbers swelled during the transition to democracy to 23 000 by 1994, and later to 33 000 members.

This last-minute spike raised eyebrows at the time, and in fact can be blamed in part for the unhappiness ensued. The numbers went up because it was felt necessary to boost the relatively small number of liberation fighters, compared to the apartheid-era South African Defence Force which had a total of 67 5000 active duty force and 360 000 in the citizen forces in 1993.

But the large signups were controversial, and created tensions that have simmered down the decades.

On top of this, the dismantling of these armed forces and that of the apartheid state was, in retrospect, managed badly. The result is that it left in its wake thousands of angry veterans who felt betrayed. In recent years they have come out vociferously against the ruling ANC. Most recently 53 veterans were charged with taking government ministers hostage in an attempt to get the government to fulfil promises they claim were broken.

For decades sociologists have warned that military veterans would use their skills to cause instability if their needs weren’t addressed. Lephophotho Mashike, who has researched the subject extensively called them a ‘a ticking time bomb’.

Demobilisation and compensation

The end of the armed hostilities following the end of apartheid in 1994 meant the establishment of a new united military – the South African National Defence Force. The former guerrillas and armies of the former nominally independent states of Venda, Bophuthatswana, Ciskei and Transkei, were either integrated into the new defence force or demobilised.

When the integration process was finalised in 2001, 44 143 names appeared on the collective Non-Statutory Force Certified Personnel Register. Of these, 15 805 were integrated into the South African National Defence Force, 9 771 demobilised and 13 117 neither integrated or demobilised.

Those who were demobilised weren’t considered fit to serve in the new integrated army due to ill-health or age. Each received a gratuity based on their years of service. They could choose to either receive a lump sum, or monthly pension pay-out.

Military veterans complained that the payments were inadequate. Many have remained destitute due to poor education, lack of marketable skills, health problems and inability to reintegrate into society.

A 2006 report titled “Only Useful Until Democracy” found that 73% of the military veterans believed that South Africa’s post-apartheid leaders had forgotten them. Over 84% believed that their compensation was not adequate, felt neglected and abandoned by the ANC government.

And a study I conducted in 2012 with researcher Henrietta Bwalya found that military veterans were frustrated by slow payments. They were living in abject poverty, felt used, neglected and marginalised in the new political dispensation.

In 2007 they finally seemed to have attracted the earnest attention they had been seeking. This was at the ANC’s National Conference in Polokwane at which Jacob Zuma was elected President of the ANC.

The conference pledged to provide veterans with extensive welfare support, adopting a resolution that committed the ANC to taking direct interest in the welfare and reintegration of its former soldiers into civilian life.

Two years later, and after Zuma had become the president of the country, the Department of Military Veterans was created. It was placed under the Department of Defence, with the remit of managing veterans’ affairs.

In 2011 the Military Veterans Act was promulgated. It obliged the state to provide military veterans access to healthcare, subsidised public transport, education, skills and job training as well as burial support. This was subject to meeting a needs test.

This raised the legitimate expectations of military veterans that they would now finally receive the benefits. But discontent remained – and even grew – as the Department of Military Veterans proved unable to roll out the benefits or even spend its allocated budget.

This has been largely attributed to the lack of capacity and poor administration in the department. This was reflected in the deliberations of Parliament’s Select Committee on Security and Justice, in March 2021.

The department has consistently under-performed in terms of meeting the needs of veterans. It’s plagued by mismanagement and corruption, including wasteful, irregular and fruitless expenditure.

Discontent among military veterans took on an extreme turn in October. A group of them allegedly held two government ministers and a deputy minister hostage. They demanded government jobs, R4.2 million (US$285 000) compensation each, land for housing, and free education for their dependants.

The group, calling itself the Liberation Struggle War Veterans, is made up of former members of Umkhonto we Sizwe, APLA and the Azanian National Liberation Army (Azanla) allied to the Black Consciousness Movement. This Azanian National Liberation Army was not officially disbanded during the negotiations to end apartheid as the Black Consciousness Movement boycotted the talks. They were therefore latecomers to the compensation process.

What needs to be done

Military veterans constitute a small but vocal constituency in the ANC and form a powerful political bloc that’s been closely aligned to Zuma.

It’s neither sensible nor desirable that the maladministration that’s affected their lives is allowed to continue, as a recent report by the public protector pointed out.

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