24 April 2009 — Youtube
In 1961, Nelson Mandela formed the military wing of the ANC to help in the struggle against Apartheid. It was known as ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ or ‘Spear of the Nation’ and often referred to as MK.
In 1990, when the first steps were taken to dismantle the Apartheid system, thousands of ex-combatants, who for years had been living in exile, began to return home.
But today, 15 years after Apartheid ended, the majority of those ex-combatants remain unemployed, many of them uneducated and living in shacks.
As South Africans prepare to go to the polls in their fourth general election since the end of Apartheid, Al Jazeera follows a group of former combatants who have stopped waiting for the compensation promised to them by the ANC and have decided to start their own business.
Despite the fact that they have been sidelined by the government they fought to bring to power, they all remain fiercely loyal to the ANC and believe that Jacob Zuma, the man predicted to become the country’s next president, will help South Africa’s Forgotten Freedom Fighters.
Daniel Monyepao – Alexandra Military Veterans Association
Daniel was born in the township of Alexandra, just outside Johannesburg.
When it was established in 1912, Alexandra was intended to house about 70,000 people. Estimates suggest that about 750,000 now live there.
Daniel joined the ANC in 1974 and went into exile in 1984 when he joined its military wing.
He received military training in Angola and also saw action on the border.
From there he was sent to the Ukraine where he was taught basic Russian and specialised in tactics.
“In the first weeks, many of us from Africa fell over in the snow and broke an arm or a leg. We needed to be taught to take small steps so we didn’t break any more bones,” he says.
In 1987, he left the Ukraine, returning to Angola where he published literature on the struggle.
In 1990, he chose to return to South Africa with his Angolan wife and was amongst the first of the veterans to be repatriated as negotiations for a new democratic government got underway.
He was happy to be home and felt that things were finally going to change in his country. But the housing, employment and compensation he was promised by the ANC have never materialised.
He was initially “very frustrated, having no food, no money, no job”.
“When I came back here the problems that I faced was that of hunger and the problem of being confused because promises were not delivered to us and we don’t know who we should face,” he says.
Along with several other former combatants from Alexandra, Daniel decided to stop waiting on the government and to do something for himself.
The men have been engaged in a two-year process of trauma counselling, life-skills training and business administration offered to them by an NGO called The Business Place.
He says: “Anger cannot change the situation we are in and we can’t wait any longer. We have to learn to help ourselves. Besides, we are survivors.”
Daniel relies on donations of food parcels from local vendors in the township and the MK Veterans Association pays his children’s school fees.
Despite the hardships he has endured since repatriation, he remains a fervent ANC supporter and says he will never leave the party.
He says: “The ANC has contributed a lot in my life and I call [the] ANC my mother. I [consider] it my parents.”
Lonny Nkosi – Alexandra Military Veterans Association
Lonny is the youngest member of the Alexandra group of military veterans enrolled at The Business Place in Alexandra township.
He was 15 years old when he went into exile.
“You know what they said to us? They said ‘Liberation first, education later’. We never went to school. We went to fight in the trenches,” he says.
In 1991, he came back to South Africa and joined the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
The integration of members of the armies of liberation into what was considered the army of the Apartheid government was disastrous.
“We don’t have the experience needed to be in a regular army. We are from a guerrilla army,” Lonny says.
He found the white majors, colonels and captains to be racist and he was eventually court-martialed and dismissed for stabbing a white officer.
“He called me a kaffir so I decided to discipline him,” he says.
After the army, he spent some time in prison for a crime (a car hijacking) he says he did not commit.
He got out about five years ago and moved to Alexandra where he joined the group of Alexandra ex-combatants. He is currently enrolled in a life and business skills training course.
Lonny feels that the government made empty promises to the former combatants but he believes that under Jacob Zuma, things will improve for men like him.
“Jacob Zuma he knows everything and he is the one who will help us. He knows our situation. He is not in the government yet, he is the ANC president and so when we vote I think he should be the country’s government.
“We met with him, we put our problems on him and he said he can’t help us at the moment until he becomes the country’s president, then he will consider us,” Lonny says.
He says crime is the number one problem facing South Africa and attributes the high crime rates to unemployment and poverty.
He says: “You can’t blame other ex-guerillas for committing crime. To find a job they tell you lots of things and when they find out that you were a soldier, so they couldn’t employ us. That is why some of us went for crime so that they can get something into their pockets and feed their families.”
Lawrence Molapo – Therapy facilitator
The term ‘ex-combatants’ refers not only to members of the liberation armies who trained and fought in exile but also to those who fought Apartheid from within South Africa.
Following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, as politicians sat in their offices negotiating the transfer of power to the ANC, violence swept through the townships of Kathlehong, Thokoza, Sebokeng and Soweto.
It was later proven that the Apartheid government fomented violence in these areas by giving support to Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) supporters, a Zulu-dominated party led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and often turned a blind eye to attacks by the IFP on ANC supporters.
The residents of the townships beset by the violence set up Self Defence Units (SDUs) in an attempt to protect themselves.
Soweto resident Lawrence Molapo was a member of an SDU.
“We are from a background where our families have been torn apart. Some of us were outside [in exile] and some … were inside the co
“The problem we are experiencing today is unemployment. Many of us were not in a position to go to school because of what was happening before; we have no houses – some of us stay in shacks – and of course some of us who are not working tend to be involved in crime situations.”
In 2006, Lawrence attended a four-day workshop run by The National Peace Accord Trust, an organisation that looks at the consequences of political violence and devises community solutions, and he has now become a facilitator on the programme.
“Having experienced the terrible things that were happening in the country then, I tended to be a very violent person. Having gone through the process I felt that no I want to change my life.
“If I can change my life, I believe that I can change other people’s lives,” he says.
Lawrence believes the collective trauma experienced by so many South Africans needs to be addressed before the country can truly heal and move forward.
“Having witnessed people being killed, being shot at in front of your eyes, you run away or you attack. You cross over people who are dead. That was terrible.
“Maybe to get rid of that we all have to come together, we leave the past but we learn from it then we move forward.”
He remains a committed ANC supporter and is a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association.
“As far as the government is concerned, slowly but surely they are coming to us. We have got hope because we are still in the structures, it’s a question of one’s situation now; you are in a hurry.
“You know, to be living in a shack while you fought for your country is a slap to your face but we cannot blame the present government. We support the government and believe that one day we will all be considered.”