PRETORIA, South Africa — Lesley Kgogo was 17 when he swapped a school uniform for 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 among 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 has slept outside party headquarters in protest, joining dozens of other veterans who say the government qu they helped set up overlooked their great personal sacrifice. .
They are demanding benefits they say were promised them years ago when the armed units were disbanded – pensions, housing and scholarships for their children.
“I liberated the country, people are taking advantage of it 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 the veterans barricaded the doors of a hotel ballroom and refused to let go Thandi Modise, the defense minister and veterans of the country. She was detained with two other government officials. After nearly three hours, the police broke down the door and arrested the veterans.
Protesting veterans say their frustration boiled over but the authorities’ response was overblown.
Among those who fought to free South Africa from apartheid, some joined the ranks of the new government, while others became successful business owners, capitalizing on political connections forged in exile. But many others have fallen into poverty and despair, and now a group of disgruntled veterans are claiming a share of the spoils of freedom.
The South African government has acknowledged that dozens of former freedom fighters have not received promised benefits. But officials blamed obstacles, including an outdated database and the very definition of who is a veteran. A Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs spokesman estimated there were at least 20,000 veterans of the liberation groups and that the government had compensated 495 of them since 2016, 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 herself, said that before tensions escalated last Thursday, she joined the veterans in singing liberation anthems, “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 defense minister and promised to investigate why veterans had not received their benefits. She had met with veterans as part of a task force set up by President Cyril Ramaphosa in November to address bottlenecks in the delivery of benefits.
The 53 veterans – including several women – were charged 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 500 rand – about $34 each – but kept 11 in custody due to previous convictions. Prosecutors have not ruled out the possibility of also charging them with terrorism at the next hearing, scheduled for February.
Outside the prison, Mr. Kgogo and his comrades, some dressed in faded fatigues, sang old songs of liberation.
Like many government service programs in post-apartheid South Africa, the distribution of veterans’ benefits has been plagued by allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Veterans of the liberation struggle, mostly black men and women, also claim their benefits are unequal to those of their white counterparts who served in the apartheid government’s military.
Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa’s Minister for Social Development, who also fought against the apartheid regime, said: “We need to step up the support the government has to give to people who gave their lives in the fight.
In 2011, South Africa passed a law that recognized all veterans of any military organization as veterans and created the Department of Military Veterans, supposed to deal with the plight of former freedom fighters. . For many, this did little to fill the void left by the disbandment of their units at the end of apartheid.
“We took them to the camps and never taught them anything but 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 and others to Cuba, the Soviet Union and North Korea, to learn the military expertise of its Cold War allies. Some snuck into South Africa and bombed police stations, railway lines and, in 1979, a state-run oil refinery. They fought the apartheid regime’s army in cross-border raids and proxy wars around southern Africa.
But Mr. Kgogo and others came back with little more than traumatic stories, which have been forgotten by a post-apartheid South Africa waging new battles, such as unemployment and corruption.
“We had nothing, we had no money. You came back with what you left,” Mr. Kgogo said. He said his son had to drop out of college because the state scholarship promised to children of veterans was never paid.
The soldiers returned as the ANC repositioned itself as the government of South Africa, with activists and politicians jostling for a place in the budding bureaucracy.
Some fighters agreed to be integrated into the South African National Defense Force but found it difficult to take command or fight alongside the retained white officers who had once been their sworn enemies.
Some, like Masechaba Motloung who trained in Uganda from 1990 to 1994, have been demoted to lower ranks. She said she eventually 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 white colleagues viewed him with suspicion and ordered him to make their tea. Mr. Chiyi, who is among the protesting veterans, also quit the military.
Others said they received a meager retirement pension, but with little formal education and no psychosocial support, they quickly fell into poverty.
General Mokoape acknowledged 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 below decks and rummaging through garbage cans for food.
“The few years I spent in the camps I trained a lot of people,” said Stanley Ndlovu, who turned his role as an armed struggle documenter for the ANC into post-apartheid work as a as a filmmaker for the public broadcaster. “Some of them I find on the street, picking up food from the trash can, and I feel for them.”
John Eligon contributed reporting.