President Ramaphosa goes MIA

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the implications of "war veteran" blackmail


The African National Congress battles to reconcile the pressing demands of real life with the imperative to not tread on the toes of powerful party factions. This leads to tortuous semantic egg dances by government ministers and officials.

Take the July violence. Here was an orchestrated eruption of looting and arson in which at least 330 people died and scores of billions of rands of damage was done to factories, shops and businesses. For almost a week, the arterial links between the country’s industrialised hinterland and its primary port were severed. Rail and fuel pipeline networks were sabotaged and a cyberattack shut the biggest harbour in Africa, with severe knock-on effects to supply chains. A million rounds of ammunition were taken during a slick heist.

But, for politicians, reality is what they describe it to be. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The president initially called the July events an “insurrection”. However, in the face of much cabinet squabbling over the subtleties of what would be the correct definition from the Marxist-Leninist lexicon — maybe it was a “counter-revolution” but it definitely wasn’t a “coup attempt” — the officially approved terminology settled upon for July tumultuous events was “unrest”. That’s somewhat like describing as a “burp" the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed Pompeii.

The same desperate scrabble for euphemisms is occurring around the most recent dramatic events, where a large group of self-proclaimed “war veterans” held for three hours in a barricaded room the Defence minister and her deputy, a minister in the Presidency, and 23 assorted government officials. The men presented an extensive menu of demands, including R4.2 million for every person belonging to their military group, and that President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President David Mabuza be brought to the room to address their concerns.

The incident was only resolved when the elite police Special Task Force, using stun grenades, smashed into the room and rounded up the gang. The ministers and officials were unhurt but three of the gang were hospitalised.

In most societies, discharged soldiers taking government representatives hostage — it is not clear whether or not the gang was armed — would be called treason. At the least, phrases like “political thuggery”, “intimidation by threat of violence” and “unconscionable blackmail” would spring to mind.

But in South Africa, the narrative has to be massaged because the ministers and the hostage-takers are nominal allies. These were “struggle” veterans. They were ANC boytjies.

Defence Minister Thandi Modise was eager to downplay the seriousness of what occurred. While the government delegation was “uncomfortable” at being held “against our will”, it wasn’t such a big deal, she said.

“We were not ashamed, we were not threatened … We didn’t feel our lives were in danger … It wasn’t a blood bath. It was people talking.” At one stage, said Modise, the hostages joined the hostage-takers in singing old liberation songs.

“Not all upheavals in a country is (sic) a source of embarrassment. We felt safe.” The incident, said Modise, demonstrated that South Africa is a “mature democracy” where “we will go to any instance to hear concerns for any citizen”.

No matter how one understates the seriousness of the events at the St George’s Hotel outside Pretoria, the strategy of the hostage-takers seems to be working. The presidential task team on military veterans was quick to release a list of steps being taken to address veterans’ discontent.

On the cards are improved healthcare, pension, social, educational and housing benefits for them and their families. The state will channel investment to the “socio-economic activities” of veterans. Land will be provided for farms and residential settlement. There may be presidential pardons and the expungement of criminal records.

Of immediate interest to those arrested would be the concessions around criminality. According to media reports, there were 56 hostage-takers, of whom one remains in hospital, while 53 have been charged with kidnapping and conspiracy to kidnap and released on bail of R500 each. That leaves two alleged participants inexplicably unaccounted for.

Out of the 53 charged, 11 have previous criminal convictions. These range from robbery to murder. At least one of the accused was granted amnesty during the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in 1994; amnesty was invariably sought for serious crimes like murder and maiming.

The ANC is opening Pandora’s box. Despite its ideological affinity and fraternal ties with its Zanu-PF counterpart in Zimbabwe, it has learnt nothing from history. The rapid descent of that country into chaos, following land seizures by military veterans, was hastened by the selfsame veterans holding President Robert Mugabe hostage in a Harare hotel until they had extracted from him an enormous cash “pension” package that torpedoed the fiscus.

As in Zimbabwe, Ramaphosa’s administration is finding that the further in the past the “struggle”, the more people who claim to have been heroic participants in it. The Liberation Struggle War Veterans (LSWV) group that led the hostage-taking claims to represent 40,000 military veterans, although it has never been able to provide a verifiable membership list.

LSWV is only one of a motley array of groups claiming to represent struggle veterans. Most are simply front organisations of the Radical Economic Transformation faction of the ANC and serve as private militias to support disgraced former president Jacob Zuma and put the fear of God into Ramaphosa and his reformists.

There is much expedient academic coyness regarding the number of combatants there were against apartheid. The Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Padraig O’Malley Archives, which because of its eponymous compiler’s political sympathies had unparalleled access to the liberation movements’ records, notes that while around 21,000 people registered as liberation army members, the actual military muster outside South Africa’s borders was probably in the 9,000-12,000 range.

Even if the benefits bonanza can be restricted to an already exaggerated figure of 21,000, it should be remembered that there is no legal distinction between the former combatants of the liberation forces and SA’s regular army of the time. At the 1994 amalgamation of the former foes militaries, the SA Defence Force had about 85,000 full-time personnel. They, too, will be looking forward to their goodies bags.

To the Ramaphosa administration, none of this much matters. Whether one calls it what it is — treasonous mutiny — or soft soaps it as a Kumbaya sing-along of nostalgic comrades, it is clear that this is a government running scared.

It tried to face down the RET forces over Zuma’s arrest and their response was the July insurrection. Ramaphosa folded like soggy cardboard.

The RET forces are now pressing their advantage.

A fortnight ago the LSWV hijacked a meeting at the ANC’s Luthuli House headquarters in Johannesburg, occupying the building overnight and eventually forcing its evacuation over what the ANC delicately phrased as “a security breach and non-compliance with Covid-19 protocols”. Last week, they held hostage some of the most powerful ministers in Ramaphosa’s cabinet.

Our president, however, is MIA — Missing In Action. Or should that be Missing, Inaction?

A week on, Ramaphosa has not yet said a word about the hostage saga. There have been no reassuring “My fellow South Africans…” homilies on television. Despite daily being on the campaign trail for the 1 November local elections, Ramaphosa has steadfastly ignored the appeals for comment from the media pack surrounding him.

Ramaphosa hasn’t even proffered his stock-in-trade euphemism, “I am shocked…”.

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