Liberation Armies Betrayed By Their Own Government

Members of South Africa’s liberation armies heeded the call to go and fight for their freedom and the liberation of their fellow countrymen. They returned home to find the country they fought for was not the promised land. It was a battle for survival –  against comrades, some of whom stayed behind and those with whom they fought. Those from exile had hoped to return as heroes. Like liberation armies that had won their freedom against oppressors, they thought they would return in a victory march. They thought they would be celebrated and the sacrifices they made compensated for in a better life. They believed in the law that was promulgated acknowledging their sacrifices and the commitment that the new democratic dispensation would provide for their wellbeing. Those who had sacrificed their education and jobs for the struggle would return to schools and be employed and those who lost limbs and health would be taken care of. They would receive special pensions. Well, that’s what they were promised. 

Very few of these promises have prevailed.

Comrades entered into a negotiated settlement. Their enemies, some of whom had committed the most heinous of crimes against them were suddenly their colleagues in public office. Their tormentors shared high office in the Government of National Unity. Comrades sat across their enemies in boardrooms to cut deals. Policies were carved which till today benefit only the few politically connected but largely made whites wealthier. 

Nothing much changed. A black president was in the union buildings, blacks could cast a vote but the economy remained in white hands.

The stench of betrayal began to set in.

Last week we reported on the humiliating circumstances that many members of liberation armies found themselves in when they were absorbed into the South African Police Services. They were not only absorbed into lower ranks but they had to serve under members of the former apartheid forces.

Military veterans are due benefits such as housing, pensions and medical care. In recognition of the sacrifices made by struggle activists, the interim Constitution required that legislation be enacted to provide for the payment of benefits by the national government to persons who had made sacrifices or served the public interest in the establishment of a democratic constitutional order. 

However, there have been administrative problems – from verification of a former soldier’s credentials, to getting onto the official veterans database without which they cannot get help, to the management and allocation of funds.

Some military veterans have struggled with getting former comrades to verify they fought alongside them and have never been able to access their benefits. 

Late last year, government acknowledged it had not formulated policies or regulations to enable it to administer some of the benefits which were due to ex-combatants. 

Several programmes which have been set up to assist ex-combatants have been scuppered in wrangles between various departments and factions, and just plain corrupt activities. 

A typical example is an anti-poaching programme that could have seen members of liberation armies absorbed into an initiative to fight the looting of South Africa’s coastline. It was scuppered due to the in-fighting between the departments of defence and the originators of the programme, the then department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries (DAFF). This department has since merged with the department of environmental affairs under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration. 

It was a well planned initiative which sought to absorb members of MK Veterans and other liberation armies into the fight against poachers on the SA’s coastline on the basis that they are unemployed and already had some military training and would be easy for them to do law enforcement activities. 

DAFF had already set up a crash course to teach them about fisheries and species identification in order for them to know and identify fish and the various regulations.
After two years of wrangling between the defence department and DAFF over budgets and the identification of MK veterans, the then Minister of DAFF Senzeni Zokwana approved the appointment of 38 veterans for the Western Cape. The initial idea was to have 40 veterans per coastal province – Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Kwazulu-Natal, and the Northern Cape. Due to the size of the Northern Cape however, twenty veterans would be employed in that province and the remaining twenty were to be split between the three bigger provinces.
At the time of the proposed initiative the country was lagging behind the international standard which required that at least one law enforcement officer should cover 5kms. The United States, which has a coastline of 3100km, approximately the same stretch as South Africa’s, employed over 21000 fishery control officers while South Africa employed only 175 in 2018. 
The appointment of the 38 veterans would have been a drop in the ocean compared to the tens of thousands of members whose hopes have been dashed by government’s failed promises. However it would have gone some way in the employment of these men and women who gallantly fought for the freedom of this country. 

Just last week, an MK veteran told me how he had been unable to get onto the veterans database and had not received the benefits. He had been unemployed for the past 9years, had struggled to keep his home and struggles from day-to-day. With the announcement of the Covid-19 relief fund of R350 per month, he applied and for two months since inception he, like millions others who applied, had not heard from the Department of Social Development. 

Writing here just over a year ago, Greg Mashaba wrote movingly on how comrades and MK members often reflected on the betrayal by both the enemy outside and within the ANC and how he, like others, had taken a decision to forgive and move on with their lives. He reflected on how he and other brave men and women had returned and “found ourselves in democratic South Africa embracing those who had betrayed us as apartheid informers and those who had sought to assassinate us in our sleep as death squad operatives”. 

Mashaba wrote: “The ability to forgive those who do us wrong is one with which very few are endowed. It is indeed a rare virtue which has eluded human-kind since time immemorial. Betrayal of one by those particularly close to us renders the task of granting forgiveness seemingly forever out of reach. Yet in both sacred scripture and our history books we read of countless episodes where those who had been wronged readily embraced the wrong-doer. The example given in sacred scripture is that of the prodigal son. For lovers of English literature, a classical example of forgiveness and mercy is given in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice. In the case of our own history the common example given is that of the founding father of our democratic nation, Nelson Mandela.”

Many ex-combatants will feel they have given much to the struggle for liberation with very little or no reward. While many have struggled with forgiving their apartheid oppressors and former comrades who turned against them to fight with the enemy, they now face the reality of betrayal by their own comrades with whom they fought and for which much blood was lost. 



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