My part in the struggle

Andrew Donaldson, a non-pensionable military vet, writes on his efforts to sabotage the apartheid war machine


MILITARY veterans, don’t hold your breath, and I’m certainly not holding mine, but David Mabuza has promised that long-awaited pensions will be paid out “as soon as possible”. 

This, in a nutshell, was the gist of the deputy president’s message to former combatants in Mahikeng, North West, at the weekend: government has at last approved the pension rollout. As he put it: “We are excited that finally the obstacles that were preventing us from dispensing the necessary services to military veterans have been overcome.”

The last time government was in such geed-up state over military pensions was, I recall, in 2012—when government had also just approved a rollout. That year, there was much chatter in certain quarters about the urgent need to compensate disgruntled former guerrillas for their role in the struggle. 

This was not because this ragged bunch posed any real threat to civil order but rather because they were a potential source of embarrassment to the ruling party, which was then preparing to celebrate its centenary.

More importantly, 2012 was also an ANC electoral conference year. Jacob Zuma was campaigning for a second term as party president and, in this regard, the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association had been dragooned into duty as some sort of Nkandla home guard, and were allegedly threatening to visit violent misfortune on those opposed to Butternut’s leadership plans.

However, once Accused Number One and the MKMVA’s so-called “patron” was returned to office, he appeared blithely indifferent to their plight and for the better part of a decade these flea-bitten scruffs were largely ignored by the ruling elite.

Funnily enough, 2022 also culminates in an ANC elective conference, one in which another beleaguered party leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, will hope to see off a stiff challenge from the Radical Economic Transformation faction and be returned to office for a second term. 

Perhaps we should not be reading too much into who is once again promising to give military veterans their pensions. Any similarities, it is said, between then and now may merely be coincidental, etc. 

Some things have changed since 2012. Many veterans, as if by magic, grow younger with the passage of time. The ANC has disbanded the MKMVA, much to the vets’ and the RET faction’s chagrin, and government regards the SA National Military Veterans’ Association, allegedly an altogether more pliable and less deranged lot, as the official representative organisation for former servicemen and combatants. 

For my money, though, the MKMVA are the better cabaret performers. Like the All Blacks and the haka, they have made the toyi-toyi their own, their dance moves are legendary, and have even received glowing write-ups in the New York Times.

All this is perhaps only of academic interest to white South African males who were conscripted in the former SADF. Government has made it clear that we are not eligible for pensions or any assistance as outlined in the Military Veterans Act of 2011. 

This is a bit of a bugger, actually. When it came to actual “soldiering”, no-one did more of the hard-core military stuff, the dirty work, than most of these national servicemen and, as such, they are surely due some compensation for what they were bound by law to endure. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, and some context is perhaps in order. A much-quoted 2006 survey of some 1 200 former combatants revealed they were “struggling to move out the past and become fully engaged citizens in the ‘new’ South Africa”. 

Almost three-quarters believed that politicians had “forgotten about them after apartheid was defeated”, while nearly half felt that they had “wasted their time for nothing” in the armed struggle. Largely uneducated and unskilled, 70 per cent were unemployed, while 84 per cent claimed the compensation they had received to date was inadequate, if non-existent. 

The Military Veterans Act was meant to address all these concerns and more besides. There was talk of pensions, healthcare, education and transport, as well as housing, job and business opportunities and PTSD counselling. Some R1.6-billion would be set aside to pay for the roll-out of these benefits to the 56 000 former combatants on the government’s register of veterans.

It was all very pie-in-the-sky. Questions were raised about implications to the taxpayer and the lack of accurate financial breakdowns. And, of course, there was the matter of who was eligible to apply for compensation. In this regard, the Act defined a “military veteran” thus:

“A South African citizen who rendered military service in any statutory and non-statutory organisation, on all sides of the liberation War, from 1960 to 1994. A military veteran is also someone who served in the Union Defence Force before 1961; or became a member of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) after 1994, and has completed his/her military training and no longer performs military service, and has not been dishonourably discharged from that military organisation or force.”

White male conscripts, as mentioned, do not qualify. This was made clear in parliamentary deliberations in May 2011 by deputy defence minister Thabang Makwetla. It was felt that they were not “full-time” members of the SADF and thus, unlike Permanent Force members, undeserving of government assistance.

Makwetla further argued that while the definition of a military veteran may be broad, the government’s social assistance proposals were primarily aimed at former members of the liberation forces and those in the statutory forces whose names appear on the state’s database.

I’m rather pleased Makwetla made that distinction, which still holds, for I feel my own contribution to the liberation struggle has been sadly overlooked. 

True, it was not a significant one, and it hardly bothered the apartheid monolith in the way that, let’s just say, my friend Carl Niehaus claims his covert activities struck fear in the hearts of the racists. 

But it was something, all the same. I must however point out that this was not a role I actively chose for myself, but rather one into which I inadvertently fell, like a drunk collapsing into a stupor. 

It happened a few days into basic training at Youngsfield, in Cape Town, when about 600 of us, all raw rowe, fresh out of high school, were given a consciousness-raising lecture on the full enormity of the seditious campaign waged against the country by the hostile world out there—and, given that this was 1978, the world out there was indeed hostile. 

There was the usual guff about Jewish conspiracies and the secret messages in pop music. Nothing a good Christian Nationalist education hadn’t warned us about.

But then an excitable second lieutenant began explaining the meaning of those embroidered patches that girls were sewing onto their jeans. This was eye-opening stuff, better even than television.

A patch of an apple? This meant that the girl was a virgin, and she was putting out a message that her “cherry" was ripe for the taking. An apple with a bite taken out of it? The vuil slet has lost her virginity. A butterfly? She was now flitting around, clearly looking for more. Yeah—but more of what? Well, said this lieutenant, if she was wearing a T-shirt with the number “69” on it, then it was . . .  (dramatic pause) . . . oral sexual perversion

This was how a nation was brought to its knees? Through oral sexual perversion? It was at this precise moment I realised I could be a socialist, or even a Marxist.

Over the two years that followed, I did what I deemed necessary to retard the day-to-day efficacy of the SADF, particularly 10 Anti-Aircraft Regiment, where I was a lowly gunner. I don’t know if MK or Apla, or even the Cubans and Russians were paying much attention, but had they been, they may have even regarded me as some sort of ally. A useful idiot, certainly. But an ally all the same.

Minor acts of sabotage included feigning illness to skive off taking part in parades and physically demanding military exercises, sleeping on guard duty, going AWOL, not cleaning my rifle, stealing beer from the NCOs’ mess, reckless experiments with the opioid analgesics filched from the medics, and smoking dagga. 

A more serious blow to the apartheid defence machine was the deliberate smashing of valves in a mobile radar station, an important component in an anti-aircraft battery. The reason for this was not in any way ideological, but rather to get the technical support guys out to fix the thing. This took a while, which meant we didn’t have to dig a bloody great hole in the ground in which to “hide” the radar during daft war game manoeuvres while they tinkered with the machine’s guts trying to find the problem. 

Added bonus: we could all then catch up on some sleep—and provide an excellent window of opportunity for MiGs to attack a nearby key installation of national importance. Like a koppie somewhere in the Karoo. 

That was one of my more better operations. Others, which we needn’t discuss here, were not as successful, and I was punished rather severely as a result. On the whole, though, let’s just say that when PW Botha told Parliament in January 1987 that the security forces “will leave no stone unturned in their endeavours to defend our country and its people” he had obviously not taken my behaviour into consideration.

None of which means I deserve a military pension. But I have no problems with other veterans seeking assistance from government, and I wish them well with their efforts. I must warn, however, against unrealistic expectations. 

Consider the demands of the 53 alleged “military veterans” who held defence minister Thandi Modise, the aforementioned Makwetla and minister in the presidency Mondli Gungubele hostage at a Pretoria hotel in October last year: an immediate, once-off payment of R4.2-million each for some 9 000 members of the former MKMVA. This was not even preposterous, it was just plain old-fashioned dumb.

Compare that to the R1.6-billion that was supposed to set aside for the roll-out of pensions and other benefits to those on the government’s register of veterans in 2011. This was roughly R28 500 each for the 56 000 registered. That’s chump change. But I don’t think government can even afford that now. They just don’t have the cash.

The talk of military pensions will probably continue. At least until the end of the year, and the ANC’s national conference.