Ramaphosa must beware of the 'war vets'

RW Johnson says the President is storing up trouble for himself by pandering to this mov

News over the holiday included a report of President Ramaphosa chairing a meeting of “struggle military veterans” including Kebby Maphatsoe’s MK Military Veterans Association, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army and the Azanian National Liberation Army. The meeting occurred after a march through Durban city centre by MKMVA members protesting against “illegal foreign migrants”.

During their march the vets attacked and looted a number of shops including shops owned by foreigners and promised that they would “clean” the city centre of migrants. This was merely the latest of a growing series of xenophobic violent incidents in KwaZulu-Natal, which has gravely disturbed the ANC there and nationally. Ace Magashule flew down to Durban to meet the vets and warned them that their various demands could not be met immediately.

As in Zimbabwe it was perfectly clear that most of the “vets” were too young to have really participated in the armed struggle which ended, effectively, in late 1989. Only a few of the marchers had military uniforms and it was clear that they couldn’t march properly. The MKMVA is anyway disowned by real MK vets who point out that very large sums of money have been appropriated by the MKMVA leadership during the time that Maphatsoe was a deputy minister of defence and military veterans in the Zuma government.

Maphatsoe’s own military record was not credible and effectively he is just a supporting act in the Zuma-RET coalition. The two Azanian bodies mentioned are essentially fictions. Azapo was always tiny and never managed to mount an armed struggle of its own.

Chairing a meeting of looters

Nonetheless, Ramaphosa – who seems never to have met a pressure group he doesn’t want to make concessions to – then listened to the MKMVA demands. These made it fairly clear that the attacks on foreigners were merely an opportunistic way of gaining publicity and the government’s attention for the demands were essentially a grab for state resources.

The MKMVA wanted one-off lump sum payments for their contribution to the struggle – a fantastical demand thirty years after the struggle, particularly given that the contribution to the struggle by the MKMVA vets is, to put it politely, yet to be verified.

Secondly, they wanted a blanket presidential pardon for all their members’ unspecified crimes. Thirdly they wanted to be given jobs at SOEs and finally they demanded housing, bursaries, and membership of burial schemes.

It turned out that a government task team headed by Deputy President David Mabuza has been meeting the vets ever since November 11 following earlier threats of xenophobic violence but the situation has become so serious that Ramaphosa had now taken the chair.

Ramaphosa’s spokesman, Tyron Seale, issued a statement in which he said that consensus had already been reached on many points and that “President Ramaphosa commended the constructive, principled manner in which the military veterans raised their concerns and he assured the veterans these issues will be resolved”.

This is fantastical stuff. Ramaphosa is the weakest president that South Africa has ever had but even he must be well aware that this is a preposterous bid by a thuggish rabble. After all, real struggle veterans were rewarded after 1994 either with MK pensions or by incorporation into the SANDF and thus continuing military careers.

If you compare war veterans who fought in major wars for Britain or America – far richer countries – there is absolutely no question of their being given pardons, housing, lump sums or guaranteed public sector jobs. And, heaven knows, the South African state faces huge pressure on the fiscus and cannot possibly afford to countenance these absurd demands.

Has the South African state ever abased itself so low before? Not long before these “war vets” were looting shops and intimidating people in the centre of a major South African city. Shortly afterwards the country’s President is happy to sit down with the looters and congratulate them on their “constructive, principled manner”. We have seen Ramaphosa kneeling to the Zulu king but this beats that record hollow. As a demonstration of the state’s weakness this latest abasement was without parallel.

Ironically, I was reminded of the scene when Giscard d’Estaing’s prime minister, Raymond Barre, had to face striking steel workers in the late 1970s. Barre had been an academic and never previously a politician and prided himself on spelling out the literal truth. Surveying the forest of banners and placards held by the angry strikers he told them that, first, there was absolutely no money with which the state could gratify their demands. And secondly, he wished to inform them, they were already by no means badly paid and even if the state had more money to give away, he could think of a long list of better causes which deserved it far more than they did.

It was rather magnificent in its apolitical, indeed, anti-political way, but occasionally such home truths need to be spelt out. What happened with Maphatsoe’s irregulars was quite the opposite, with their nonsense on stilts taken quite seriously.

The Zimbabwe model

There are many points to note here. First the war vet phenomenon. This was first seen in Zimbabwe (where they quickly became known as the “wovvits”, which is how they were pronounced). They might have amounted to nothing had not Mugabe not opportunistically seized upon them, gratifying their financial demands and then turning them into a little private army of his own and using them as the spearhead of his farm seizure policy from 2000 on. To some extent this seems to have been because Mugabe was wary of the power of the regular army and police, headed respectively by Constantine Chiwenga and Augustine Chihuri.

However, the rise of the MDC could only be contained by the continuous use of force – to rig elections, intimidate voters, and murder and torture MDC activists. In the series of polls I conducted in Zimbabwe between 2000 and 2008 the MDC regularly ran ahead of Zanu-PF by, usually, something like 60% to 23%, so it was crystal clear that Zanu-PF could not survive a free election. But with the Mugabe regime depending centrally on force, over time the army and police assumed the central role and the wovvits ceased to be a factor. They could only be sustained by a continuous flow of patronage and money and once this was cut off they melted away.

Long before its end the Mugabe regime had become a thinly disguised military dictatorship. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s Vice President, was a key figure in this because his long career at the head of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) had given him strong and permanent connections into the security establishment. But the 93-year-old Mugabe had the lunatic ambition of installing his wife, Grace, as his successor. The army declared that only a veteran of the independence struggle would be acceptable as a successor.

Mugabe attempted to move against the generals but that was the end of him. Within weeks Mnangagwa was President, Constantine Chiwenga was Vice President and Augustine Chihuri, the police chief who had sided with Mugabe, had fled abroad. Mnangagwa has reshuffled the army high command for he fears competition from Chiwenga. That is, Zimbabwean politics has become military politics although, as is now normal throughout the states of southern Africa.

Organisational manipulation through state subsidies

Thus the war vet phenomenon is only a phase. In South Africa it exists partly because the army is too weak to be a factor and because, amidst a general state of lawlessness, the Zuma faction, having lost state power, found it useful to have its own little private army. Moreover, the MKMVA provides the security guards who guard Luthuli House (young men in their thirties who couldn’t possibly be real MK veterans) - and who could thus, in the last analysis, control the ANC nerve centre. In effect, the MKMVA is a private army for hire and is offering to transfer its allegiance to Ramaphosa if he is willing to meet their price.

All this was only possible because Ramaphosa allowed Maphatsoe to remain deputy minister of defence until 2019 - and thus able to funnel resources to his ragged little band of irregulars. Now that Maphatsoe has been replaced that source of patronage has dried up - which is doubtless why the so-called vets are striking out and looking for a new patron. Ramaphosa is clearly being measured for the role, one which he may indeed accept.

The way in which the MKVMA war vets have become a factor of some importance in South African politics is merely another example of the manipulation and penetration of notionally independent organizations by the ANC or interests within the ANC. Under Mbeki’s presidency, for example, the Traditional Healers Organization (THO) sprang to considerable prominence and the medical profession was forced into an awkward acceptance of these sangomas as their virtual equals, the bearers of traditional wisdom.

In fact the THO existed thanks only to government subsidies. Their function was to give racialised support to Mbeki’s crazy policies on Aids and balance off the largely white medical profession. This worked well enough to suppress what should have been a gale of protest from proper doctors about Mbeki’s denial of science. Once Mbeki fell, the subsidies stopped and the THO vanished.

Another case is the South African Council of Churches, a potent and outspoken body against apartheid. The ANC had no interest in seeing the SACC continue in such a powerful and autonomous role after 1994 so it encouraged a large number of independent African churches to join the SACC.

Many of these were decidedly wacky but all of them were happy to receive discreet subsidies from the state in return for which they would support the government on every issue. This has worked so well that the SACC had little to say about Mbeki’s Aids policies or corruption under Zuma. In practice if the Anglicans, Catholics or Methodists wish to speak out they have to do so on their own and take the flak that goes with that. Effectively they have been neutralised.

The war vets’ demands reflect a keen consciousness of the centrality of state patronage. All their demands are from the state – housing, jobs, bursaries and so on. Indeed their agenda is a practical expression of the philosophy of the state as the employer of last resort which has such resonance throughout the public sector. And employment in the public sector is regarded as sacrosanct. If two million people in the private sector lose their jobs, that’s regrettable. If 400 people lose their jobs at the SABC, that’s a crime against humanity.

Xenophobia: a monument to government fecklessness

The war vets’ exploitation of popular resentments aimed at foreign workers and merchants draws attention yet again to the government’s absurd fecklessness on the issue of immigration. In a country with over ten million unemployed operating an open borders policy means leaving a whole series of unexploded bombs lying around for anyone to exploit politically at will. This is not, or should not be a debate about xenophobia or about African countries having supported the ANC in exile.

There are three key points. First, in a society suffering high unemployment, resentment of foreigners for taking economic opportunities is quite inevitable and if government does nothing to control this situation, people will take the matter into their own hands. Secondly, South Africa only has adequate water resources for a maximum population of seventy million people, a figure we are fast approaching. Immigration control is essential to stop us exceeding that figure. Thirdly, Africa is in the middle of a huge demographic expansion and if nothing is done scores of millions of more people will attempt to flood into South Africa – with dire consequences.

What is clearly unacceptable, however, is to have a rabble masquerading as war vets deliberately fomenting disorder and looting shops, especially when that rabble is directed by forces inside the government itself and is aimed at creating trouble for the present administration in order to advance the interests of corrupt elements now called to account before the Zondo Commission.

If, instead of dealing with such outrageous behaviour with a display of firm governance, Ramaphosa seeks to curry favour with the looters by buying them off, he will not only pile up trouble for himself but will fully deserve that trouble when it comes – and the ignominy that accompanies it.

R.W. Johnson

An initial version of this article stated that Kebby Maphatsoe was (still) Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans. This is not correct. The present incumbent is of course Mr Thabang Makwetla. We apologise for the error.