A black and white caricature of history
Military Veterans Bill tramples upon reconciliation
Dave Steward, Politicsweb
21 June 2011
MILITARY VETERANS AND THE NEED FOR RECONCILIATION
The 1993 interim Constitution which opened the way to our first universal elections on 27 April 1994 requires that South Africa's "legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge" should henceforth be addressed "on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation."
Unfortunately, the spirit of ubuntu is decreasingly evident in the manner in which we deal with the past. The latest assault on national reconciliation has come with last minute revisions to the Military Veterans Bill which is currently before Parliament. The original text of the bill correctly defined veterans as any South African citizens who were involved on all sides of South Africa's ‘Liberation War' from 1960 to 1994; who served in the Union Defence Force before 1961; and who had served in the new South African National Defence Force after 1994.
Then, suddenly at the end of May, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans decided to excise from the definition of military veterans all those who had served as national servicemen in the SADF and who had served in the old Union Defence Force. As a result, some 600 000 former servicemen who fought in the border wars, World War II and the Korean War would no longer be eligible for veteran benefits. According to the Deputy Minister of Defence conscripts performed a national service and were "not disadvantaged by serving the Defence Force". Responsibility for conscripts finding themselves in destitute circumstances could accordingly "not be blamed on the State".
Organisations representing SADF veterans are, unsurprisingly, incensed. They point out that many thousands of former national servicemen who were wounded, disabled or suffered serious psychological problems were, undoubtedly, disadvantaged by their military service. Many are destitute as a result of their military experience and are as much in need of official assistance as are veterans from any of the other military formations. Critics add that the proposed definition of military veterans is also completely out of line with international practice and requirements.
The real reason for the new definition probably lies in the cost of providing services to all the veterans who would have qualified under the old definition. Cutting out 600 000 national servicemen and veterans of pre-1960 wars would leave greater resources for distribution to veterans from the non-statutory forces - including MK veterans. The proposed new definition is, however, a prime example of the type of unfair discrimination that is prohibited by the Constitution.
The incident follows the decision of Freedom Park near Pretoria to remove the names of all the SADF servicemen who fought in the border war from the wall of remembrance in the park. The wall of remembrance nevertheless includes the names of Cubans, Angolans and others who died in the war.
The management of Freedom Park explained that the names of the SADF soldiers did not appear on the wall because the United Nations had declared apartheid to be "a crime against humanity." Kebby Maphatsoe, the National Chairman of MK veterans, insists that one cannot "equate the former freedom fighters, who were fighting for freedom of the people of South Africa, with the former soldiers of SADF who were fighting an unjust war."
This is neither good history - nor is it good for national reconciliation.
Our recent history is far more complex than the black and white caricature that is currently being force fed to South Africans. The United Nations declaration of apartheid as "a crime against humanity" was supported by a third world majority in the General Assembly that was led by totalitarian states and third-world dictatorships. Hardly a single constitutional democracy supported it - even though they vociferously and unambiguously condemned apartheid.
From the beginning of the 1980s the South African government was itself trying desperately to find some way out of the injustices and absurdities of apartheid and by 1986 had already repealed more than 100 apartheid laws. The challenge was to find an alternative that would not end in chaos, racial domination or the imposition of a communist government in terms of the two-phased revolutionary theory supported by the SACP. Virtually all of the members of the ANC's National Executive Committee were also members of the SACP.
Southern Africa was undoubtedly a major arena in the global struggle between the Soviet Union and the West which was prosecuted primarily through surrogate wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The Soviet investment in the southern African theatre was backed by massive support for the Marxist-Leninist MPLA government and the deployment of 50 000 Cuban troops in Angola. The management of Freedom Park should remember that the SADF originally became involved in Angola in 1975 with the tacit support of half of the member countries of the OAU.
Nor is it axiomatically so that "freedom fighters" were necessarily fighting for what we now regard as freedom. As Sam Nujoma pointed out in the late 1970s, "The question of majority rule is out. We are not even fighting for majority rule. We are fighting to seize power in Namibia for the benefit if of the Namibian people."
Had the SADF not succeeded, with great tenacity and courage, in holding the line on the Namibian border until the collapse of the Soviet threat, it is most unlikely that our subsequent history would have turned out as it did. A Soviet-backed SWAPO victory in Namibia would have made it difficult or impossible for the South African government to proceed toward a negotiated settlement as it did in 1990.
Genuine reconciliation requires us to honour all those who genuinely believed that they were fighting for their country in the turmoil of our deeply divided past. Only on this basis will we be able to build a future characterised by understanding - and not vengeance; reparation - and not retaliation; and ubuntu - instead of victimisation.
Dave Steward is Executive Director of the FW de Klerk Foundation.
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