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Last Updated: Friday, 23 May, 2003, 14:52 GMT 15:52 UK
SA soldiers face the past
By Catherine Fellows
BBC Focus On Africa magazine

South Africa is still trying to come to terms with its violent past, both in internal conflict and military intervention across southern Africa.

Deacon Mathe
If you kill someone or see your friends being killed, it goes to your hard drive, but sooner or later it bursts out
Deacon Mathe, chairman MK veterans' association

During the apartheid era, every white man was liable for conscription into the army, in which he would serve at least two years.

Several thousand black men and women were trained in military camps run by the liberation groups, MK and APLA.

The legacy of these conflicts is in some cases massive mental trauma, stemming from the shame and horror at the activities these soldiers were forced to carry out.

"You don't talk about it," Dave Swart, one former soldier, told BBC World Service's Africa Live! programme.

"I don't anyway. This is the first time in years, and it feels kind of strange."

I feel privileged to be confided in by a man who has not even told his wife about what he went through - all his friends were killed when the armoured vehicle he was travelling in, in Angola, was hit by a rocket.

Cannon fodder

Another soldier, Fred Wollentine, told me how in his last month with the parachute regiment, his group were warned that not all of them would come out of Angola alive.

Dropped on a Swapo base, his unit became cannon fodder and he was shot in the leg and shoulder, while the soldier who tried to help him was shot dead.

Post-war trauma
Escape through drugs/alcohol
Lack of interest in world
Lack of hope
Lack of ability to care about people
Although a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was set up in the new, post-apartheid South Africa, "There are a lot of skeletons in a lot of cupboards on both sides," Professor Philip Frankel, an expert on military psychology and sociology at Witts University in Johannesburg, told Africa Live!.

He added that when he approached ex-combatants for his own research, he often met with the response: "Why don't you go and read the TRC reports?"

"The TRC was a very valuable exercise. It gave a lot of people the opportunity to make clear what they had done under apartheid, and to apologise for it.

"Psychologically it was a process of tremendous cleansing for a lot of people."

Fred Wollentine
Fred Wollentine's unit suffered when no back-up arrived
But he added that problems remained because the TRC had not been all-encompassing.

"Many did not come forward for fear of prosecution despite assurances to the contrary," he said.

"I think there are a lot of people who still need to speak."

Researcher Sasha Gear, who has spent the last few years interviewing ex-combatants for a recently published report on the challenges these former soldiers face in the new South Africa, said ex-soldiers needed to be educated about the symptoms of trauma.

"Often their experience is one of total isolation and alienation," she said.

"They think they're going crazy, that there's something particularly wrong with them and it just adds to the sense of separation that they feel from other people in their communities."


Deacon Mathe, chairman of the veterans' association of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK), said he agreed with the findings.

"If you kill someone or see your friends being killed, it goes to your hard drive, but sooner or later it bursts out," he said.

Afrikaans resistance party soldier
The apartheid conflict is a huge source of trauma
"Everything changed. I would pick up the phone and forget to give the message to the person, put a kettle on to boil and let it burn - I even thought children were colleagues of mine turned to midgets.

"Twenty years later, I always want to sit where I can see the door in case of enemy attack."

He added that the trauma had had a "very terrible" impact on his family life.

"You come back a hero, but after some time, the family asks: 'What are you bringing to us - are you bringing conflict? Are you bringing fun? What value are you adding?'

"Some of these guys were in places where there was only one TV channel. So someone changes the channel and there's conflict, you react too quickly, violently."

Complex relationship

Sasha Gear's report quotes terrible stories of domestic violence by both South African Defence Force and MK veterans, and notes that many have found employment in pseudo-military security firms or criminal gangs.

But she stressed that the relationship between ex-combatants and South Africa's pervasive violent crime is a complicated one.

"Certainly we had people who said they thought they were more likely to react violently or aggressively and they connect that to their military experiences, but they also pointed out that they know others who don't have such experiences who are just as prone to violence," she said.

"I would say that South Africa's militarised and conflictual history is an important factor in the violence that we are seeing now but it can't be reduced to that."

I managed to escape conscription but friends of mine experienced the horror of being in the South African army while apartheid was crumbling in 1991. A school friend had an emotional breakdown when two room mates committed suicide within the first three months of service. Another friends fiance returned from service a different man, paranoid, violent and impulsive. She called off the engagement. Not every experience of conscription was bad, I have many friends who enjoyed their two years, but for many the damage was permanent.
Athol Moore, South Africa

I have no regrets doing my national service, I met some fantastic guys in the SADF and I am still in contact with some of them to this day, almost 17 years later. I was one of the lucky ones, I had been shot at many times by our own hastily trained, young and nervous infantary troops and by the enemy and never been hit. I saved many lives and never took any. I have no nightmares, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. I hold no grudges to any members of society either.
Raymond, UK


When I forgive
The one who has done me wrong
I cheat the Law of Hate
For to whom evil is done
Gives evil in return

When I turn the other cheek
I cheat the Law of Fate
For what goes out
Must come back
To find familiar base

That is where
The world has got it wrong:
Paying back hate for hate
Spawns a cycle of violence
And a defenceless state

Emmanuel Aiah Senessie (Sierra Leone)

You have made much of South Africa but the same things happened in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. For us it was even more personal. After the war I could drive past the place where my best friend was blown to pieces by a rocket, and half expect to still see parts of him in the tree. In the end I found peace in my religion and with my new friend, a former guerilla fighter.We shared about our dead friends, lost dreams and what would have been if not for the war. And in the end he has lost his farm to Mugabe's "war veterans" and I have fled to a far off land. At this year's Anzac parade I wept for the wasted lives.
Andy, Australia

Use the form to send us your experiences of conflict, which will be published below.

What should the rules of engagement be in a conflict?

Can former enemies learn to live with each other in peace?

Africa Live! will be discussing these and other issues on 28 May at 1630 and 1830 GMT.

Your E-mail address

Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all emails will be published.

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04 Mar 03  |  Africa
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16 Jul 02  |  Africa


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