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Poverty blights S.Africa's liberation army veterans
by Staff Writers
Soweto (AFP) Dec 14, 2011

As the armed wing of South Africa's ruling party Friday marks its 50th anniversary, its surviving ex-guerrillas are still fighting for recognition by the government they helped put in power.

Formed with the fierce aim to liberate the country through the barrel of a gun, the disbanded Umkhonto WeSizwe (Spear of the Nation) was a thorn in the backside of the apartheid regime.

Labelled a terrorist group, the force known popularly as MK had secret training camps in neighbouring African states and the Soviet Union, executing deadly sabotage campaigns on strategic state properties.

But the dream of ending white-minority rule in a war came to an abrupt end when Nelson Mandela, its first commander-in-chief, suspended MK's armed struggle upon his release from prison in 1990.

About 20,000 exiled combatants returned to join the national armed forces, in a South Africa focused on a negotiated settlement rather than engaging in war.

"We mark 50 years of sacrifice, 50 years of service to a just cause with absolute discipline," said Kebby Maphatsoe, the chairman of MK Military Veterans Association.

Launched with a series of bombs which rocked major cities on December 16, 1961, the MK -- with the help of friendly states -- moved from being an amateur unit to a fully-fledged combat army, fighting bush wars with other African liberation armies.

Some former MK fighters have risen to senior positions within the army and government, including President Jacob Zuma and current military chief Solly Shoke.

But with the glory of liberation wars now a distant memory, many MK veterans are wallowing in discontent, Maphatsoe said.

"Poverty among our members has fostered a deep sense of discontent. The association receives disturbing reports that some even live on the streets, with no benefits," Maphatsoe said.

"When we were demobilised, there was no plan about what to do with the pool of trained soldiers and commissars who were deployed in various countries," he said.

Eugenia Motloung, 41, was among the first combatants intergrated into the national army in 1995, after spending eight years in a training camp in Uganda.

She told AFP that "discrimination against former MK soldiers" forced her to leave the army in 2008, after 14 years of service.

"I was an experienced soldier but given a bottom rank of being a private. That was like an insult," she said in her Soweto home.

"I was later promoted to a corporal and remained in that rank for eight years."

Like many of her disillusioned comrades, Motloung opted to leave the force.

She currently has no steady income.

"We were the ones who played a pivotal role in preventing this country from not descending into anarchy after Mandela was released from prison," she said.

"Imagine what would have happened if we did not heed the call to lay down arms as ordered by Mandela. We were an army which was prepared to fight," said Motloung.

"Our skills and experience were pretty much disregarded in the national force. I had no future there," she said.

Like Maphatsoe, Motloung is pinning her hopes on the Military Veterans Bill, which is awaiting Zuma's signature.

The bill makes provisions for pensions, access to health care, housing and skills development for veterans. Maphatsoe said there is no reliable survey of how all the MK veterans are still alive or how they are faring.

"The government's response to our problems has been very slow but things are promising," said Motloung.

"I spent the best years of my life in the trenches. We were hopeful that the new government would take care of us. We were looking forward to freedom," she said.

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