DURBAN - Former struggle soldiers’ ongoing frustrations with difficult living conditions, rampant poverty and the government’s failure to provide for them, means that many are willing to do anything to have their voices heard.
This is the stern warning from former uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) KwaZulu-Natal chairperson Themba Mavundla.
It comes in the wake of an incident in which former soldiers held Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thandi Modise and her deputy Thabang Makwetla hostage at St George’s Hotel and Conference Centre in Irene, Pretoria, on Thursday.
The former liberation fighters demanded an audience with President Cyril Ramaphosa last week.
Mavundla decried the living conditions that many former soldiers faced, saying it was shameful to see many dying poor when they had sacrificed so much of their lives for the country’s liberation.
“The fact of the matter is that many of our members have died with sore hearts because the liberation they fought for has not yielded anything for them,” said Mavundla.
He also confirmed that some of the former soldiers involved in the hostage episode were from KZN.
“For years we have been pleading for our members, but it appears that the pleas have been falling on deaf ears and now it gets to a point where people have nothing to lose,” Mavundla said.
The former MKMVA chairperson said some of the key areas that needed urgent attention include:
- Fast-tracking the provision of proper welfare for former soldiers, including the provision of housing and access to proper medical care.
- Provision of counselling services to former soldiers who need such.
- A speedy process of the repatriation of the remains of soldiers who died in exile.
“The truth is veterans have families that need to be fed, so it is important they get adequate support and access to economic opportunities as well,” Mavundla said.
He pointed out that addressing such matters demanded a level of commitment from ministers and department officials.
“Some of these things that soldiers are calling for do not need massive budgets, they just require commitment on the part of the government and it is important for the departments concerned to make provisions for former soldiers,” Mavundla said.
Another former MK member, Babsy Sithole, said he was not entirely shocked about last week’s development.
He noted how in many countries, former liberation combatants were accommodated for the role they had played in the country’s fight for freedom.
He added that in some countries former liberation war veterans were given land, free housing and their family members received free education.
“It is only in this country where veterans die poor and there is hardly enough money for them to get proper funerals in many instances,” said Sithole, who is a former bodyguard of Struggle stalwart Harry Gwala.
Sithole said that last week’s events should be a warning to the government of the desperation of former soldiers.
“When people have grown desperate they are willing to do anything in order to be heard. For a very long time we have been talking about the dire conditions in which some of our comrades live and it does not look like the authorities have listened. That is how you end up having an episode like that. Last week’s episode has been a long time coming and it should be a wake-up call to all concerned,” the former MK member said.
He noted how successive defence ministers had promised to address the plight of former soldiers without producing any tangible results, calling on the government to act swiftly in order to avoid what he labelled an embarrassing incident.
Meanwhile, the 56 military veterans who were arrested for the alleged hostage situation last week are expected to make their first court appearance this morning.
The 56 people, including seven women, were likely to face charges of at least three counts of kidnapping. The police used stun grenades to defuse the situation.
Fired ANC employee and MKMVA spokesperson Carl Niehaus, who weighed in on the matter, said it was not a hostage situation.
“It is incorrect and unnecessarily alarmist to allege that a hostage situation unfolded at the St George’s Hotel and Conference Centre. At no stage was there any violence or threat to the lives of the two ministers and one deputy minister.
“It was a total over-reaction for special forces to have been sent in, which used excessive force to resolve a non-existent hostage and non-violent situation,” he said.
The ministers detailed what transpired, saying they had had a meeting with military veterans but it could not progress as the veterans demanded that President Cyril Ramaphosa and Deputy President David Mabuza be the ones to address their needs.
When they reached a stalemate, the trio opted to leave, but the veterans allegedly blocked the exit.
Although they spent hours in the room, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said there was no violence.
That sentiment was echoed by Modise, who said their lives were never in danger.