They fought apartheid in South Africa. Now they want veterans benefits.

PRETORIA, South Africa – Lesley Kgogo was 17 when he swapped a school uniform for a military fatigues and joined the armed wing of the African National Congress in the fight to overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa.

He was one of thousands who trained and slept in bush camps in other countries, then returned to join the insurgency that ultimately helped topple the repressive white minority government.

More than 40 years later, in a democratic South Africa now ruled by the African National Congress, Mr Kgogo slept outside party headquarters in protest, joining dozens of other veterans who say the government that they helped install ignored their great personal sacrifice. .

They are asking for benefits which they say were promised to them years ago when the armed units were dismantled – pensions, housing and scholarships for their children.

“I liberated the country, people are taking advantage and I am still nothing, not even respected by my own government,” said Mr. Kgogo, who is 58 and lives in Soweto.

Some of these veterans of South Africa‘s liberation struggle caught the country’s attention last week with a divisive protest that landed 53 of them in jail. On Tuesday, they were charged with kidnapping.

Police and prosecutors said the charges stemmed from an incident last Thursday when veterans barricaded the doors of a hotel ballroom and refused to let Thandi Modise, the Minister of Defense of the country and veterans. She was detained with two other government officials. After nearly three hours, the police broke down the door and arrested the veterans.

Veteran protesters say their frustration has boiled over but the authorities’ response has been overstated.

Among those who fought to liberate South Africa from apartheid, some joined the ranks of the new government, while others became successful business owners, capitalizing on political ties forged in exile. But many more have fallen into poverty and despair, and now a group of disgruntled veterans are clamoring for a share of the spoils of freedom.

The South African government has admitted that dozens of former freedom fighters have not received the benefits promised. But officials blamed obstacles, including an outdated database and the very definition of who is a veteran. A spokesperson for the Department of Defense and military veterans estimated there were at least 20,000 veterans of the liberation groups, and that the government has compensated 495 since 2016, has offered trauma counseling to 4,500 veterans and their families, and promised to repatriate the remains. dozens of fighters who died in exile.

Ms Modise, a former guerrilla fighter herself, said that before tensions rose last Thursday, she joined the veterans in singing liberation hymns, “because those were our songs too.” Afterwards, she said of her politically awkward confrontation with her former comrades: “We weren’t threatened, just uncomfortable being held against our will.”

She was recently appointed Minister of Defense and promised to investigate the reasons veterans did not receive their benefits. She had met with ex-combatants as part of a working group set up by President Cyril Ramaphosa in November to address bottlenecks in the granting of benefits.

The 53 ex-combatants – including several women – were indicted on Tuesday in a crowded courtroom inside a prison where many liberation-era fighters were executed by the apartheid regime. A judge granted 42 of them bail of R500 – about $ 34 each – but kept 11 in custody due to previous convictions. Prosecutors have not ruled out the possibility of indicting them also with terrorism at the next hearing, scheduled for February.

Outside the prison, Mr. Kgogo and his comrades, some dressed in faded fatigues, sang ancient songs of liberation.

Like many government service programs in post-apartheid South Africa, the distribution of benefits to veterans has been marred by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

Liberation struggle veterans, mostly black men and women, also say their advantages are unequal to their white counterparts who were in the army of the apartheid government.

Lindiwe Zulu, South African Minister of Social Development, who has also fought against the apartheid regime, said: “We must step up the support the government must give to those who sacrificed their lives for the struggle.

In 2011, South Africa passed a law that recognized all veterans of any military organization as veterans and established the Department of Military Veterans, which was supposed to look after the plight of veterans of freedom. For many, this failed to fill the void left by the dismantling of their units at the end of apartheid.

“We took them to the camps and never taught them anything other than an AK-47,” said retired Major General Keith Mokoape, responsible for training and recruiting dozens of fighters.

Mr. Kgogo’s experience was typical. As a teenager, he traveled much of the way to neighboring Botswana to join the armed resistance, sleeping in the bush and training in threadbare camps.

The African National Congress, known as the ANC, sent him along with others to Cuba, the Soviet Union and North Korea, to learn the military expertise of his Cold War allies. Some sneaked into South Africa and bombed police stations, railway lines and, in 1979, a state-run oil refinery. They fought the all-white South African army in cross-border raids and proxy wars in southern Africa.

But Mr. Kgogo and others came back with little more than traumatic stories, which were forgotten by a post-apartheid South Africa waging new battles, like unemployment and corruption.

“We had nothing, we had no money. You came back with what you had left, ”Mr. Kgogo said. He said his son had to drop out of college after the promised state scholarship for children of veterans was never paid.

The soldiers returned as the ANC repositioned itself as the government of South Africa, with activists and politicians fighting for a place in the nascent bureaucracy.

Some fighters agreed to be integrated into the South African National Defense Force but found it difficult to take orders or fight alongside the white officers who were retained, but who had once been their sworn enemies.

Some, like Masechaba Motloung who trained in Uganda from 1990 to 1994, were demoted to lower ranks. She said she finally quit in frustration.

Mduduzi Chiyi was a major in exile in Tanzania, when he was redeployed to the South African National Defense Force, where he said his white colleagues viewed him with suspicion and ordered him to make their tea. Mr. Chiyi, who is among the veteran protesters, has also left the military.

Others said they had taken a meager pension, but with little formal education and no psychosocial support, they quickly fell into poverty.

General Mokoape admitted in an interview: “It was every man for himself.

“People have fallen through the cracks,” he said, and the recent protest “is a manifestation of that”.

Now, some veterans are sleeping under bridges and rummaging through trash cans for food.

“The few years I spent in the camps I trained a lot of people,” said Stanley Ndlovu, who turned his role of documenting the armed struggle for the ANC into post-apartheid work as a filmmaker for the public broadcaster. “Some of them, I find them on the street, picking up food from the trash, and I feel sorry for them. “

John Eligon contributed reporting.

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