About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Community Expectations, Perceptions and theStigmatisation of Ex-combatants

The perceptions that society and communities have of ex-combatants impact fundamentally on the nature and experience of their attempts to reintegrate into their communities. Ex-combatants are significant social players in South Africa and both play and are ascribed multiple and conflicting roles. They may, for example, be seen as political players, crime-fighters, outsiders and scape-goats. This section focuses on those roles and qualities that others attribute to ex-combatants.

Respondents were asked how they think they are perceived by those around them. The data collected on this subject therefore deals mainly with ex-combatant's own perceptions of others' perceptions of them. The limitations of the research meant that a broader approach was possible only in a few cases. In the East Rand township of Thokoza, for instance, in addition to interviews with ex-SDU members, a focus group was conducted with some of their parents/care-givers, and another with female personal partners of SDUs (whether the relationship was current or in the past). Turning to the SADF, female family members and partners of former conscripts also participated in a focus group. However, because both conscripts and their female relatives were silent on issues of stigmatisation and community perception, they are not cited here. This silence is likely explained by the fact that National Service was compulsory and most white South African men were enlisted. As such, conscription was accepted as 'normal'.

Most respondents describe perceptions of themselves as negative; many report the experience of stigmatisation. Nevertheless, perceptions that can be broadly categorised as positive do arise. For instance, ex-combatants may be perceived as leaders and protectors. Although such attributes are 'positive', the expectations that accompany them might, in fact, impact on individuals in very negative ways. These expectations usually accompany the cessation of conflict and the return of combatants to civilian ranks.

"We run to them ..."

Leadership is one example of a role that may be expected of ex-combatants. While the number of former MK combatants in government and other high-ranking positions is testimony to the ability of many to fulfil these roles, the expectation may also be imposed on others who are not equipped, or do not wish, to do so. This has been noted particularly in the case of former exiles when they returned to South Africa.

Communities expected returnees to play a leadership role and to give guidance. Sometimes the returnees had no support structures and people with no capacity to give guidance were forced into situations they could not handle. When these returnees failed to give the guidance the community required, they were rejected by the same community who had requested assistance. [MK, KZN]

This section, dealing with some of the broadly characterised 'positive' roles taken on by ex-combatants, draws entirely on interviews in the particular context of Thokoza. This is because respondents in Thokoza are rare in the emphasis they put on 'positive' community perceptions of ex-combatants. Most other respondents speak only, or primarily, about the ways in which others define them as outsiders. No doubt this is in part attributable to the broader research methodology applied in Thokoza where parents/caregivers and personal partners were interviewed (in addition to ex-combatants themselves). It is also likely to be related to the particular form that violence took in this locality: it was more intense and geographically concentrated than in most other areas. The possible impact of the nature of violence in Thokoza on current community perceptions is discussed below. The focus here is on perceptions of SDUs in the particular context of Thokoza. Findings cannot therefore be assumed to be applicable to other contexts. Furthermore, they should also not be taken as representative even of perceptions in Thokoza. They emerge from discussions with a small and particular group of people.

Some former Thokoza SDUs provide leadership within their community. There is little in the words of Thokoza respondents, to suggest however, that a prior expectation existed for SDUs to fill these roles. In this respect, the nature of the role differs from that assigned to returning exiles. Rather, it seems, some individuals have grown into these roles by virtue of their previous function in defending their community. Often, they had previously occupied positions of leadership in the self-defence structures. One Thokoza respondent clearly retains significant status in the community-at-large, as well as among other former SDUs. He does not resent his leadership role, but explains how he too feels stretched by the demands of the role. A considerable invasion of his privacy accompanies it and he feels ill equipped to handle some of the requests made of him.

I can't have privacy in Thokoza. All the people want to stay with me, complaining, doing this and that. Sometimes [a] husband and wife come and complain, and I'm still young to solve those [sorts of] problems . Sometimes someone can hate you [because] you didn't solve his problems they way he wanted you to solve them. [Thokoza SDU]

His status in the community is substantiated in interviews with family members of other ex-SDUs:

We are lucky [to have] a child like him. They're demanding too much of his brain. Why? Because he is holding all the cases of the children in Thokoza. Whenever a parent has a problem with a child, they go to him . He has become Thokoza's father. So we are appealing that they should get him another job where they can give him an office, where he [would] be able to work at human resources or whatever, because he is a child who surpasses even a policeman here in Thokoza. If a person like him, and [the] other youngsters who are working with him . can get given sort of social jobs to assist the parents to calm down those [children] who're still having anger, that would be very helpful to the parents and the community. He and his group are very helpful today in the community. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

Expanding on the drawbacks of such prominence, the ex-SDU member explains that his name is sometimes used in other peoples' power struggles. Indeed, his influence requires his involvement with and management of a range of diverse conflicts. Thokoza respondents suggest that these former SDUs generally (and not only this individual) continue to represent substantial political capital in the community. Bad-mouthing the SDUs can be used for political gain. Others seeking power in the community may attempt to co-opt them to create or entrench their own credentials. This could be achieved by getting the ex-SDUs 'on board' or, unbeknownst to the SDUs, using them as a threat to intimidate others. The fear the SDUs commanded in the past makes this possible.

There are people who want positions you see, at other people's expense. You find that he/she will go there using ... [our] names because the SDU before, was like a thing you could scare people with, like 'I am going to fetch amagents' [the guys]. [Thokoza SDU]

Moreover, former SDU members say that when they voluntarily lend their support to local politicians, conflict situations may arise as competitors attempt to outdo them.

A person who comes with something right, we support him. So only to find that maybe it appears that we prefer a certain [person] ... [According to other people] it's like we defend a specific person or that person misuses or is buying us to defend him in order to be protected. When we support the right thing in the township ... there is this thing that others would see that we favour a particular side and [say], 'Let me also pull from a certain side'. That is when it becomes a problem. [Thokoza SDU]

As is hinted at by this respondent, ex-SDU members may still be regarded as 'defenders' and 'protectors'. In addition to the potential of having this 'protector' role manipulated in local political struggles, some former SDU members continue to be regarded as valuable crime fighters in the community. SDU respondents themselves refer less to this particular role than do parent/care-giver respondents. The latter emphasise the importance of this function and claim they feel much safer for the presence of the ex-SDUs.19

Parents/care-givers also speak of positive social relations generated amongst the SDU members through the experience of the war. Unlike the roles detailed above, these are referred to as unambiguously positive. They speak of the SDU members' loyalty and commitment to one another that continues in the present.

They are one thing. That's why when [one] is hungry, the other feeds him. He is able to lose a cent that he has and give it to the other one. That is what I have noticed about them: they are united a lot. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

Parents/care-givers also regard themselves to have been unified through the experience of violence.

This war has built us anew, even the parents in Thokoza. Today your neighbour is like your sister. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

For some people in the community and family members, certain former SDUs have become an important pillar of support.

This group that is from counselling is advanced a lot ... They are able to leave you as a parent, satisfied and warm. They are the children whom, when we experience problems, we run to them. They can think more than an older person, and [help with things that] you as an older person ... would not be able to [sort out] ... Even when an older person is sick, they ... take him to hospital and check that he is admitted. They work like older people. As children they are very careful. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

This respondent attributes the capacity to offer this support to the counselling some of the Kathorus20 SDU members received. Parent/care-giver respondents repeatedly refer to the benefits for those who received counselling and participated in a course on peer counselling.21 They see this experience as the key variable at play in the future of these young ex-combatants.

We have children who are divided into two parties. We have children who did counselling, we have children who did not do counselling. So you find that those who did not do counselling, there is still that thing in their hearts ... There is a problem of some boys who did not go to counselling. There is one boy who did not go ... [and] he thinks he is still in the war. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

The discussion thus far has dealt with what have been broadly defined as 'positive' perceptions of the roles performed by and attributed to ex-Thokoza SDUs. It is important to bear in mind that the 'community perceptions', other than the SDUs' own understanding of these, are provided by a small number of parents and care-givers most of whom are, themselves, very active in the community. It is certainly not the case that they only speak of the positive. For example, they do not deny that some are involved in crime. What is striking however, is the extent to which some community members are committed to supporting the former SDUs in adjusting to life after the conflict.

When you speak to them, you must chat to them like their friends; you must not be harsh because when you are harsh, they are also harsh; they are guided by how you speak to them ... If you fight with them, they get angry, they jump on top of you and tell you that 'You will never tell us anything'. But when you speak to them nicely and show them that 'Where is your future if things are like this?' they can see. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

These respondents acknowledge that their own acceptance of, and commitment to their children are not necessarily replicated throughout the community. Indeed, the situation for many ex-SDU members and their families is complex and often difficult. In some instances, families of SDU members have not provided the necessary support.

Sometimes it depends on us, the parents, we do not want to face the truth. [The parents] were supposed to take him to counselling if they see that this child is still behaving in that way because they know that there is a person who has died due to that thing. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

Some families found themselves divided by the roles different family members played in the conflict, and this continues to impact on family dynamics and prospects for reconciliation.

[For] other children it happens that their parents were on other sides during the time of war. You would find that a parent was in IFP, and that a child was in ANC. That child is prone to harassment when he goes back home. [There] is not a parent who was standing at his side, you see. So children are harassed today. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

Respondents express particular concern about those who lost their parents in the violence.

Some of the children are orphans today. They are the ones who we hurt for because there are children who were separated [from] their parents and they do not study, they do not eat. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

In stark contrast to the words of parents and care-givers cited above, girlfriends (past and current) of former Thokoza SDUs speak of the fear with which others contemplate former SDUs. This relates directly to the SDUs' commanding and largely unchecked violent role during the conflict. Some of these respondents consider levels of fear to have subsided substantially.

I think [other people] are not afraid of them now compared to when there was violence. [Girlfriend of Thokoza SDU]

Others claim the fear remains powerfully present and point to the difficulties individuals may face in redefining themselves in the eyes of others.

You would end up being scared of [the SDUs] because they were heartless. When you said something wrong, you were beaten or shot at. That is why [people] were being scared this much. And even now some of us are still scared of them, because we tell ourselves that they are still the way [they were] in the beginning. [Girlfriend of Thokoza SDU]

I think it is difficult because when people are afraid of you, and now you have changed, we can't see you have changed. We can't see that, even if you do something [good they] just say, 'Ah no, he's pretending' you know. I think because people were afraid of them, it's difficult. [Girlfriend of Thokoza SDU]

These young women say that they too, as intimate partners of ex-SDU members, encounter the stigma attached to their boyfriends.

They say to me, 'How can you live with such a person?' [I say] because I still love this person. [Girlfriend of Thokoza SDU]

I tell those people, 'Okay this person was an SDU in the beginning [but] a person does change, so he is a fine person - not that [because] he was an SDU, now I must be scared to have an affair with him. Life can just go on as life goes on. He has changed, he is not like in the beginning.' [Girlfriend of Thokoza SDU]

Importantly, a minority of these respondents say they themselves are afraid of their partners or ex-partners. Similarly, some within the parent/caregiver group tell of certain ex-SDU members who are terrifying to their families. This, they attribute to a lack of counselling.

Stigmatisation during combat

"It's as if we're monsters ..."

Respondents from all ex-combatant groupings say that they are targets of stigmatisation as a result of their status as former soldiers.

Several respondents also refer to stigmatisation during their time in the armed forces. Former liberation fighters tell of being stigmatised both by their colleagues and by certain sectors of civilian society. In the examples provided by those who were in the SADF, the labelling emanated from elements in civilian society and the international press. Former SADF Special Forces members, for example, complain of propaganda disseminated during the war which was aimed at discrediting their military operations and which, they maintain, omitted to take into account the nature of war, military strategy and hierarchy. Some also complain of ongoing misrepresentation of their past military activities.

This house has got so many terrorists sleeping there tonight. If you go in, you sort out; you cannot switch on a light [and] say, 'Hey, who of you are terrorists?' ... It doesn't work that way! You go in, and you take out. If you throw a hand-grenade into a room ... the hand-grenade doesn't choose between children and women and men. So if there're fingers pointed at soldiers who killed civilians, the fingers must rather be pointed back at the intelligence that led them to that house. They were acting on orders, they got an order signed by the State President: 'Attack that target'. [Recce]

There's a lot of propaganda been put around by the current government and the international press about combat scenarios, it's as if we're monsters. [Parabat]

Certain incidents received more coverage than others. The notorious massacre at Kassinga in Angola in 1978 is regarded as 'possibly the single most controversial external operation of the (Truth) Commission's mandate period'.22 Critics of the SADF viewed it as a brutal attack on a refugee camp, resulting in the slaughter of 600 people, many of them women and children. According to the SADF, Kassinga was the planning headquarters of the South West African People's Organisation's (SWAPO) armed wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), and as such, a legitimate target.

This particular operation, the allegation was [that] it was a refugee camp, which still sticks its head up from time to time ... To my mind it was anything but a refugee camp, with respect. To my mind it was an enemy base which was well defended ... there were trenches, there were anti-aircraft positions which were shooting at us as we were exiting, and armoured vehicles arrived - a column of 20 or so, with tanks and all sorts of things ... The perception which came out afterwards [was] that this had been a turkey shoot of ... thousands of refugees. Also, some pictures were being distributed, apparently in Europe, which showed mass graves and all sorts of things ... In these glossy pictures ... they were alleging that there were also women and children in the mass graves [but] all you saw effectively was men in uniform or women in uniform ... It wasn't a refugee camp, there's no ways. [Parabat]

Former soldiers express anger and frustration about what they see as the misrepresentation of their military actions. Some speak of the impact that this has had on their personal relationships:

I was involved with a lovely girl who I wanted to marry. On one of my leaves, I came back and she was all standoffish. I said, 'What's going on? Why don't you want to come near me?' She'd heard these stories of the method to harden the national servicemen where you had this puppy to look after and then you had to kill it and cut it up or something. That's bullshit! I don't know where stories like that came from. I never experienced anything like that but it ruined the relationship, and she was such a lovely girl. [Recce]

For these soldiers, the belief is that anti-apartheid activists and propagandists deliberately generated such misrepresentation. Moreover, the secrecy surrounding military operations frustrated efforts to provide detailed explanations of military activities and specific events. Nevertheless, negative representations of the SADF were rare in white South Africa during the conflict, and energies were generally geared towards supporting the image of SADF soldiers.

A few liberation movement respondents say they too were labelled during the conflict period because of their military involvement. They refer to the disdain and cynicism that they were subjected to by those in the community who did not support armed insurrection, or considered such actions to be counter-productive.23 Labelling and targeting both between different organisations within the movement, and within organisations themselves are also reported.

Ex-Thokoza SDUs speak of a tendency during the conflict period, for criminal acts to be attributed to them. As the following respondent points out, this happened in a context where the line between criminal and political activity became increasingly blurred. Many were involved in crime under the guise of being SDUs, and others did crime 'on the side'. Genuine defence structures were sometimes involved in crime to finance their SDU activities, and criminals were employed by SDUs to secure weapons and funding. In this situation, innocent SDU members were also labelled as criminals.

Some of the people were doing their own business during the SDU activity [so] if there was any car theft, then people [would] say automatically, 'It's the SDU' ... [But] it was the criminal element. At our section we were different, we were surviving on donations ... At other sections there was no chance of collecting money because parents were not [there]. They were totally displaced from their parents ... [So] it was different and some of the people decided not even to join the SDU, just to do their own things. That's where the criminal element came ... But we can't deny that we ... had criminal activity during the violence. There was because some people ... went outside [the area and would] go and steal things there, and come back with them. [Thokoza SDU]

More generally, community perceptions regarding MK/SDUs participation in the conflict were not homogenous. Divisions arose over issues of tactics and certain practices, such as the 'necklacing' of alleged informers. This practice was officially disapproved of by the ANC and UDF leadership, although clearly supported by certain elements within both structures.

The increased involvement of youth at the forefront of violent struggle also contributed to inter-generational conflict.

At that time you were exposed to certain things you were not supposed to see ... I'm young and I [was] not having enemies with my class, I [was] having enemies with the adult - 'Lentwana iya phapha' - This boy is rude, disrespectful, uncontrollable - involved in politics [they would say] ... We [were] becoming more the enemy of the adult. That was my main worry. [MK/SDU]

An APLA cadre's story of exclusion and stigmatisation

Division and stigma were generated by a variety of circumstances. For one former APLA cadre, the experience of being labelled as an informer by his fellow combatants and those in other liberation movements structured his entire life as a combatant. Having a family member employed by the state security forces was particularly problematic.When we were running away from hippos [police vehicles], during '84 / '85 ... I preferred not to join [the activists] because I feared the stigma; like my father was a traffic officer, you see ... I believed I could not [be] fully integrated [or] enjoy [an activist] identity then.Later, when he did become politically involved, his choice of organisation meant that he was labelled and targeted by members of another liberation organisation. In fact, his first experience of violence was at the hands of ANC youth who, he maintains, in seeking to dominate youth politics, harassed him because of his PAC affiliation.I was nearly killed by ANC guys, ... I was labelled a 'Zimzim', something like that - the label given to Azanian cadres. [The ANC guys] ... saw us as a threat to their domination. There was a lot of violence between the different liberation movements; they never saw eye to eye. They came to my school [and] said I was spreading the Zimzim ideology. They associated anyone who joined an organisation with a name Azania, with a Zimzim - whether PAC or BCM [Black Consciousness Movement]. They tried to attack me and then some of my school mates told them I was not a Zimzim ... And one time I was wearing a badge [with] the 'Great and beloved Azanian leader' [on it]. The first time I realised that it's dangerous to wear that thing [was when] I saw students running away from me.Because of his father's association with the state security structures, this respondent was keen to prove his loyalty to the Azanian Youth Union (AZANYU). His attempt to do so did not work. In his desperation to be recognised as a bone fide supporter he spray-painted a wall with PAC slogans and names that he had read in a pamphlet. But the pamphlet provided faulty information and he misspelt the names of PAC leaders, increasing suspicions about him, which in turn led him to take more drastic action.So that gave me problems during my activity in AZANYU you see, so I tried to organise some guns and shoot the police ... [to] prove my loyalty to AZANYU.And it was to escape the difficulty of being a township youth with a traffic officer for a father (in combination with his political convictions) that he went into exile to join APLA.24 I went into exile to shift away from that stigma that my father is a traffic cop, [so] that I could have an identity of my own.In exile, the stigma of this family connection remained and he became an object of suspicion and derision at the PAC camp.When I reached exile they said I was an ANC person, later they said I was CIA, [then] they said I was going to run to MK ... [Then] they said I was an Inkatha member. Later they said I was an agent of the police ... In the APLA camp, when they said my arguments were controversial ... nasty words were thrown to me ... 'When we arrive in South Africa we're going to kill your father'. I said, 'I don't have a problem because to me a nation comes first, it's a nation ... not my family'.As a result, he says, of being regarded with constant suspicion, he became paranoid and has since been diagnosed as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. He attributes the illness to the stresses of exile, a fundamental part of which, for him, was being a target of suspicion. This, coupled with physical illness saw him spending much of his time in exile in camp isolation or hospital. While it is impossible to ascertain exactly when the illness commenced as well as what proportion of his experience of stigmatisation was induced by the illness rather than actual experience, it is noteworthy that his psychological condition mirrors his representation of his life as a combatant - a time dominated by suspicion and fear of suspicion.I started suspecting the [APLA commanders] that these guys were using muti [traditional medicine] ... I thought they could read people's minds you see ... I was satisfied because I thought they could read everything in my mind [and would] see whether I'm innocent or not. Instead they took me to mental hospital. I [was] there I don't remember how long, [then] they took me back to the camp. So I stayed there trying to prove my innocence, I told myself, 'I'm going to get well and one day I'll be deployed in South Africa and I'll prove myself.' I was never deployed; instead I got sick[er] and sick[er] ... I said 'No, I 'm giving up'. It was getting stressful because a lot of cadres were getting beaten up for punishment. The punishment was no longer exercises and doing positive things for the PAC, it was now beating up people ... When I came back to South Africa, they said, 'When you arrive in South Africa, you're going to sell us out, you're going to join the police.' What I used to tell myself was that when I arrived home, I [would] organise for the PAC so that those who persecuted me [would] feel small.

Current experiences of stigmatisation

"They take us in another way ..."

Former soldiers continue to be stigmatised and stereotyped in their post-military lives, say respondents. While it is their previous militarised involvement that makes them targets, for both former MK and SADF combatants, current circumstances play an important role in their stigmatisation. For many MK respondents, it is their own present situations that provide the main impetus for broader community perceptions of them. For SADF Special Forces, it is not their personal circumstances but rather the significantly altered political environment that affects the values and meanings attached to their former combatant role and status.

Intensifying feelings of betrayal and alienation amongst MK/SDU respondents is their humiliation at their current socio-economic circumstances. Other people, they say, question and ridicule their previous and continued devotion to the ANC, when, in material terms, they seem to have received nothing in return.

Some people in the community will tell us that we went to exile and fought for the country, [but] 'What do you have? Who are you?' and 'What's the ANC doing for you?' [MK/SDU]

[The community] take us in another way. It means that we are not people who are supposed to stay in the location because they ask you, 'Alright you were in exile, what have you benefited [because] you were in exile? Nothing.' [MK/SDU]

Those who humiliate them are sometimes people who did not sacrifice, but have nevertheless benefited in the new dispensation. Those who chided them in the past, accusing them of navety in thinking anything could come of their struggle, continue to deride them as misdirected idealists who have wasted their lives. Some ex-soldiers' anger and resentment intensify with the sense that even their former enemies have become beneficiaries of transformation.

In the locations you find that some whom we were fighting against not to trouble the community, are now laughing at us. They ask us 'What have you benefited, because it's us who have benefited?' ... It means that we are stupid in other words ... If we try to campaign [for the ANC] people ask you nicely, 'When [did] you start campaigning? You are still a pedestrian, you do not have a car, you do not have anything' ... So it is these things that discourage us. [MK/SDU]

It is ... [those who were cynical that the apartheid regime could ever by brought down] who are now in the fat. And they turn around in the corners and [say] 'Look at those mdlwembe [criminals / unruly people].' They call us mdlwembe now. [They are saying] that these ones had no direction because you see that they walk on the pavement; they were walking with their Umkhonto we Sizwe, which is now defunct. [MK/SDU]

In the domestic realm, ex-combatants' prior expectations that they would be able to support their families, together with the expectations of family members themselves, weigh heavily on many former liberation fighters. There is considerable pressure to provide and humiliation when unable to do so. It is this pressure, some argue, than can lead ex-combatants to get, involved in crime.

Families suffered you know ... For you to be known as an activist or combatant, the family [would] be under constant threats from the security [forces] ... Now your family ... say, 'Okay, we suffered, but now your people, the people you made us suffer for, are in power, so we need to benefit as well.' And only to find that you are unable to make ends meet. That kind of gets to you. If you are unable to put things on the table, that becomes a very big problem and that kind of pressure leads one to look at the things [he] can do. You ... look at the people who have resorted to crime ... and realise that maybe they're driving flashy cars, they have all this and you think, 'Oh God, I have these expertise, I was trained, I can strive in these conditions'. So you take these expertise and use them ... in a manner which is not consistent with what you were trained for ... [and] which is wrong of course. But the pressures that you get from your families and community become too immense for you. [MK/SDU]

The alienation from others is profound. The following respondent's inability to secure employment both informs and compounds his family's - and especially the younger members' - derision and dismissal of him.

We're staying at home with nephews, nieces, uncles, grandfathers ... [If] maybe a young man was lucky enough to find a job, he does not regard you as anything in the house. He doesn't want to hear what you have to say. He says, 'Hey don't tell me anything you hobo. I was not there in your early days; stay away from me'. You find that you are abused in the house. When you try to tell your grandmother, she says 'Hey leave him alone' ... That is why you see ... a lot of shacks. People are forced to leave their homes. This is an effort to find peace in the heart. He runs away from the problem in the home, that his nephew looks down at him ... The girls are worse. When you try to guide as an uncle, you become a target to be beaten. Such things trouble us inside ... The uncle is ridiculed; he has been trained as a soldier, but he is just an uncle. This is because of unemployment. [MK/SDU]

For him it is not the previous status of soldier that is used to denigrate him but the lack of a status for the present, a consequence of unemployment. His past is ignored.

This loss of recognition often paradoxically coexists with the experience of stigmatisation, and produces an increasing sense of detachment from other people.

If I am sitting with people, maybe chatting, some of them ... will say, 'There is that comrade'. I haven't said a word, [but it's] 'Ja, here is that comrade'. That means that ... you give them a certain impression; so we're having a problem as the members of MK you see. The way they look at us, we feel uncomfortable, we feel like we are dissociated from the community ... It is difficult to even try another life because we are staying in the location, unemployed. [MK/SDU]

Community perceptions of ex-MK combatants cover a broad range of attitudes. For example, a minority of community members sympathise with the ex-combatants, some respondents say. Then there are those that used to see them as heroes but don't any longer, and others - many of whom were effectively schooled in the discourses promoted by the apartheid order - who always regarded them in a negative light and continue to do so. The following respondents explain how some former enemies of MK fall into the latter category:25

Those who understood them politically from the beginning ... are still understanding. Those who were former apartheid instruments, as informers and other political parties, yes, of course, they use that negative attitude towards cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Because of the influence that they received from the apartheid system [they believe], 'These people look like animals, terrorists, this person is not good, he's too dangerous'. You look like a baboon or whatever to those people. [MK/SDU]

The way we look at it, there is a lot of difference between us and the community because some of them do not see us as people. They see animals, and we cannot sit with them ... -some of whom we were fighting against ... Even now, the way things are ... it is difficult, they do not welcome us. [MK/SDU]

While some MK/SDU respondents expressly state that their former enemies are the ones who regard them as 'terrorists' and 'animals', others suggest that other people in their communities have also come to view ex-combatants in this way.

They say that we are only criminals and we belong in jail. They say that we are a danger to the community, that we kill our wives and ourselves. [MK/SDU]

Although there are clear similarities, Thokoza SDU respondents speak about community perceptions of them differently than do MK/SDU respondents in other communities. They too say that some people see them in a purely negative light and refer to them as 'killers' and 'animals'. But others - the majority, according to the following respondent, - look upon former SDUs more positively. Respondents say that those who had closer proximity to the violence or war that the SDUs were involved in are more likely to have a deeper understanding of who the SDUs are, and the conditions in which they had to operate. They also appreciate that SDU members risked their lives to defend the community. Others, who did not share that experience, are quick to label them as 'killers'.

To [some] people we are like other people of course, and to others we look like dangerous people ... There are also the older people who [were] in this place since [the] violence started. So in our community, half of the // we could just say 30%, talk about us badly. They didn't know us at the times of violence. A lot of them say, 'These guys have no understanding, they are killers' - all these things. But [the ones] who lived with us, they know our lives and the things that affected us ... Those who like us are those who were present during the times of violence. They still want to live with us [now] ... as we are continuing with life. [MK/SDU]

These young men (who were boys when in combat) were involved in a much more intense and geographically concentrated form of violence than that to which other MK/SDU respondents were exposed. Their neighbourhood was a war zone, with the main road as the frontline.26 The conflict was, therefore, of a fundamentally local nature, as opposed to the more dispersed and disparate action between internal members of MK/SDUs and the apartheid state's security forces. Furthermore, the violence was, to a significant degree, of a territorial nature and entire East Rand communities were intensely affected. In contrast, violence in which other MK/SDU respondents were involved tended to target people according to either their association with the liberation movement, or the state. Perhaps the difference in the nature of the violence on the East Rand goes some way to explain the reported community perceptions of ex-SDUs in Thokoza. Several hundred young boys, without any training or prior military experience were mobilised en masse to fight the enemy and protect their families and communities from a war situation.

There was no training or time to study that you must use the guns like this. We just used things and suddenly we became soldiers because we did everything maybe [that] soldiers have to do. [Thokoza SDU]

The relationships between SDUs and community residents during the conflict were complex and often symbiotic. Indeed, communities can be considered to have frequently been direct and real beneficiaries of SDU actions. In large part, they were reliant on the SDUs for protection of themselves and their property. The support and co-operation from communities that some SDUs benefited from during the violence is indicated in the words of the following respondent:27

Any mother or anyone who I could find in the house [would help]. I could come with an AK[47] to her and [say], 'Hide this AK', and I [would] jump the fence [because] the police [would be] chasing me. She would take the AK and hide it, and she would not give anyone [information] ... All the community were supporting us. When the police were there, most of the mothers were out and helping us, doing funny things there so that the focus could be changed [and] you [would] get a chance to run. Even financially they helped us. [MK/SDU]

Moreover, Thokoza SDUs took up arms primarily in response to the rapidly deteriorating security situation and not for any political ideals, as was the case for many other MK/SDU respondents. Of the SDU respondents from this area, only two had a history of political activism (and were also members of MK). Others explain that they joined in response to the very violent context and that they knew nothing about politics at that time. Some SDU members were even press-ganged into the structures, say some respondents. Certainly, political relations were generated in the process of conflict, but many did not enter it in pursuit of a political ideal. Unlike MK and other liberation fighters who are now questioned as to why 'their ANC' is not providing for them, Thokoza SDU respondents do not raise this as a concern, and appear to have escaped the derision and fall-out of inflated expectations experienced by others. Despite this, they also face considerable pressure to provide materially in contexts of high unemployment.

The intention here is by no means to diminish the severity of the violence that took place in other areas at the height of apartheid repression, or in the early years of transition, but rather to suggest the different dynamics at play in different conflicts and possible ways in which these differences may impact on ex-combatant experiences. The significance of the Thokoza SDUs for their communities is reflected in the words of the mother of a former SDU. She herself was thoroughly involved during the violence, cooking for and sheltering 'the boys'. As well as praising the protection they provided, she situates responsibility for their deeds firmly with the communities that, in this case, supported and financed their actions.28

They protected us a lot these children ... You must remember that these children had no money. The person who had money was a parent who was able to take out R50.00 a week for the bullets. So if we look carefully, a Thokoza child has not killed a person. It was parents because it was the money of Thokoza parents ... but a child is the one who was using that gun. The money mainly came from the parents and we should not run away from that. Your child was able to save you with your R50.00 a week. [Relative of Thokoza SDU] On the other hand, because of the localised nature of the fighting and the nature of the roles SDU members performed, they continue to encounter the victims of their actions and vice versa. While some have managed to mend relations, in other cases this has not happened. One woman, for example, explained that she is taunted on a daily basis by the ex-SDU who killed her daughter and who continues to live next door to her.

An ex-SDU member tells how the SDU's previous actions impact on their current relationships with community members:

Some of them we are not on good terms [with]. Like some have lost their parents because we killed them and when they look at us they remember those things. Some have forgiven us, some still hate. Even with girls and so on, some are supportive but it's depending on the history ... Some were members of Inkatha, some were spies or sell-outs and some were witches and such things ... The other girls like us a lot because they thought that, politically [we were] good and that we were sort of liberating them. The others, who happened to be victims of actions see us in negative light. [Thokoza SDU]

These issues remain very much the 'unfinished business' of the pre-election conflict, and the complex set of relationships described are closely intertwined with issues of reconciliation. To some extent, the words of Thokoza SDUs resonate with those of MK respondents who claim their former enemies still see them as 'terrorists'. As such, social relations and discourses generated during the conflict continue in the present. However, an important difference is that Thokoza SDUs are the only respondents who refer to 'victims' at all. For other respondents 'victims' are subsumed under and hidden within the term 'enemy'. Indeed, in general and for very particular reasons, the word 'victim' is absent from militarised discourses.29 Thokoza SDUs' use of the word is perhaps related to the less formalised and extensive nature of these particular paramilitary structures. It may also reflect the SDU members' closer proximity to 'victims' in the conflict. Thokoza SDU respondents certainly spoke about 'enemies' during interviews, but seldom in relation to questions about community perceptions. Their words also suggest a level of randomness in relation to who became their victims, as well as acknowledgement that their actions were sometimes ill-conceived.

Maybe sometimes we had a complaint that someone is raping, then we [would] go and beat him. The hatred [for us] came from that ... Or maybe I did a wrong thing before, I was in a [state of] high emotion then ... so that's where the hatred comes [from]. [Thokoza SDU]

Fear generated by the Thokoza SDUs during the violence remains. However, as with other respondents, negative perceptions of them are said to emanate not only from those whose lives have been adversely affected by their action. They are also reportedly stereotyped by those who know little of them.

Parents accept them because they know where everything came from. [People] were there when the fighting started, so they are clear. Except a person who is from another section has that thing of saying, 'Phenduka children are naughty, they kill people, you must be afraid of those children'. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

They will talk about us [saying], 'Those are killers, they smoke drugs, they are crazy', those things. But another person, just like you sitting here with us right now, if another person tell[s] you that the SDUs from Thokoza are radical, are like this and that, then you at least know something different. You [would] be able to tell them that they are speaking lies. Because there are other people who talk without knowing the people he or she is talking about. [Thokoza SDU]

One interviewee who has worked extensively with former members of SDUs in other East Rand townships says that fear of former SDUs remains powerful. He highlights the extent to which the considerable respect some ex-SDU members command is underpinned by fear.

But there's that respect for them, that, 'Oh, so-and-so is a former SDU, you don't go fuck around with him' or something like that, 'because he can get all his connections to come and deal with you.' So it's fear and respect. You can mix fear and respect together, because you don't know which one is which. One would say it's respect, but there's a strong point about fear. Fear tending to respect. [East Rand key informant]

In contrast to what Thokoza respondents have said, this interviewee pointed out that while misperceptions and excessive generalisations regarding SDUs abound, they are often based on real experiences and incidents. Some former SDUs, he claims, do sometimes manipulate fear to get what they want, and it is as much the potential for action as the actions themselves that continue to influence these perceptions.

"The heroes of yesterday are now the villains ..."

Former combatants from across the political spectrum complain that they are targets of criminalising stereotypes. For different categories of ex-combatants, however, the problem is located in different sectors of society.

In the ranks of the former SADF, for example, it is ex-Special Forces members in particular who raise this problem. They maintain that they are targeted in this way because of their former Special Forces status.

A few of these respondents mention antagonism in social situations as a consequence of their military histories.

If you are at a braaivleis and the people say, 'What did you do in the army?' [You] say, 'I shot gooks and terrs'. And they will say, 'What's wrong with you?!' But in those days you were actually defending your country and it was accepted. Now the roles have changed: the heroes of yesterday are now the villains. [Recce]

But the media seems to be the main source of their frustration regarding criminalising stereotypes.

That security guard somewhere in the Cape that shot his wife and sisters and whatever, ex-soldier ... The fact that he was a soldier has got nothing to do with the point. He's a security guard, he's got a gun. Other security guards do exactly the same, they were never in the military but because he was a soldier they put it in the media ... This military thing is a bit out of context I think. [Recce]

Several state that their greatest fear, stemming from their militarised pasts, is that people in government or elsewhere may misuse the media to stigmatise and discredit them.

If somebody doesn't like you, and I'm just saying it could happen - say for instance in the government, somebody believes these ex-Special Forces hanging around could be a threat to society and become violent and so on, it is very easy to target a few of them to [see] who are their true leaders ... and you take Pieter and Kosie and you just put something in a newspaper which is so far from the truth. But you make the country understand in the Sunday newspaper that Pieter was involved in a car-theft syndicate - and he might have been a sheep farmer in the Karoo - but this week they're going to have another article in the newspaper, small little block somewhere in the back page, 'Sorry, Pieter was not involved'. That's what they do, it's all part of an ... irregular warfare type of strategy. It's happening, it has happened and it's still going to happen to many guys. Yes, that's what I'm personally afraid of, that it could happen to me. And with your family and your friends: like you just put my name in the newspaper, say somebody heard that I raped a black woman in South West Africa in 1991 or whatever. Who's going to believe me that I didn't do it? And ... the law say[s] I've got to prove it's not so. So ja, that's the only fear I really have. [Recce]

According to MK respondents, the key agents of their criminalisation are the police. This alleged stigmatisation of ex-MK members is one crucial facet of their complex relationships with the police - relationships that are often fraught with tension and sometimes violent.

We have tried to live in peace in our community but the only problem we have is the police ... Because we are MK soldiers, the police would make sure that we die. That problem won't change because it's still going on, even today. [MK/SDU]

If they arrest you, you won't come out easily because they know that you are an MK member and will tell you exactly that they know that you are a MK member. [MK/SDU]

Their analysis of this situation locates the reasons for their treatment both in the past and the present. The apartheid past generated negative attitudes of liberation fighters by police that, respondents say, continue to inform police practices.

They still have the same negative attitude towards the people who came from exile ... They are still implementing the same system [in] which they come and search my house looking for AK47s ... It sounds like the apartheid system is still in power in this country. [MK/SDU]

They come [to my] home searching for weapons ... They tell my mother that I'm a terrorist. [They tell me] I must bring all those AK47s [to the] police station ... If you were in exile, you are in shit because they'll harass you, they'll ask you about weapons [and] if you haven't got weapons they will charge you for nothing or arrest you for nothing ... They're still going on [with] that thing. [MK/SDU]

Other factors also contribute to negative perceptions of ex-combatants. On the one hand, for example, several respondents maintain that police deliberately criminalise ex-combatants because they tend to expose the police's own criminal activity. On the other hand, cases and allegations of ex-MK cadres' involvement in burglaries and cash-in-transit heists make them targets of suspicion, they say.

The police harass us and say that we MK members do crime and kill people because we have AKs and grenades, and that we mug people. [MK/SDU]

One day the police came to my house ... looking for me ... They told me that they were looking for AKs and hand grenades because they heard that I came from exile and that I was a member of MK ... I told them that they can search the house because I didn't have guns or anything and that I forgot about those things after I came back from exile. They beat me up and I was bleeding and I had arm fractures and [they] told me ... to tell my friends that they were looking for those guns and that if I didn't bring those guns to the police station they were going to kill us because they knew all of us. [MK/SDU]

Respondents speak of this treatment from police members in their own localities. However, although the views they express about the police may not be representative of the views of ex-combatants more generally, the fact that similar allegations surfaced during different focus groups suggests that the targeting of former soldiers by the police is not uncommon. Importantly though, the tensions between ex-combatants and police are located within a wider set of complex relationships. These are discussed in section, Violence and Crime.

Although SADF Special Forces respondents situate the bulk of the criminalizing stereotype problem in the media rather than policing, there are references to the latter. The words of a former recce, for example, echo sentiments expressed by his MK counterparts.

All moves we are trying to make or [things] we are trying to do [are considered with suspicion]. If we try to make more money, then we are suddenly illegal, we are dealing in drugs and whatever else ... I can bring you hundreds of cases. [Recce]

One respondent said he fears suffering the same fate as some former Special Force operators who have been arrested, wrongfully in his view. This respondent stated that his current employment situation renders him a specific target of policing interest. He runs a security company owned by a high-profile former CCB and Special Forces operator who has been under investigation for alleged involvement in various destabilising activities. The respondent's analysis of the motives of some of those involved in monitoring his activities relates to the earlier point regarding expedient and exploitative behaviour on the part of some people previously associated with the apartheid regime. (See section, Betrayal). He maintains, for example, that one factor at play is that former members of the apartheid state's security structures, who are now in the present structures, use situations like this to gain kudos and solidify their positions in the new order.

"The moment the boss finds out..."

Closely related to, and one consequence of issues pertaining to criminalisation of ex-combatants, is their marginalisation in the labour market. Both MK and SADF respondents consider their backgrounds in the military to count against them in their pursuit of employment opportunities. Some MK respondents say they are shunned simply because of their association with the ANC's military wing, and remark at the success of the broader processes of stigmatisation in branding them as violent, untrustworthy, terrorist beings.

Most MK cadres are untrustable to all other people. We were regarded as terrorists, as people who are terrible, who can terrorise everybody else. So now, if [somebody] has knowledge that this is an MK cadre he won't take you to come and work with him, because he doesn't trust you. [MK/SDU]

You'll notice that when they are going to look for the jobs, they won't find jobs. Because they are soldiers, many firms won't take them. [MK/SDU]

Although many ex-combatants have sought employment in the security industry, they are not always welcome.

Recently I was working for a certain security company. They discovered after five months that I was a member of MK, so I was dismissed. [MK/SDU]

In a similar vein, an ex-Thokoza SDU told of the frustration experienced when, following the end of the violence, SDU members were refused admission to local schools. They had dropped out of school during the violence but, when they later attempted to resume their educations were excluded, reportedly because of their reputation as being disruptive.

Former members of the SADF Special Forces also claim that they are discriminated against in the employment market. While for MK respondents, it is their military background in general that is the problem, ex-Special Forces soldiers understand the discrimination as resulting from their specific and 'special' military backgrounds and reputations.

I can give you names of highly qualified South African soldiers who can't find work because the corporate world doesn't want their names or ... their companies [to be] connected to anybody of a high profile coming from the previous era ... I've got a degree ... but they are not interested because my name is high profile like, and directly coupled to the past. If I tell people, 'But it was the old government who betrayed us, who fucked us in that way', they just don't believe it. [Recce]

If you were in a crack unit like the CCB, you cannot tell anybody about it, you're just pushed out of society, you're this baddy. The media makes you this baddy, everybody makes you this bad guy. You go and work in a place [and] the moment the boss finds out you were involved in the CCB, he fires you without asking questions: zjoo! you're out. It's happened to so many of my friends. [Recce]

It is largely for these reasons, say several respondents, that the security industry and mercenary outfits become an important alternative for many former SADF soldiers.

I should have done it a long time ago because security is very closely related to what we did in the past so it's more in my field of expertise and I should stay away from trying to do something else, to go into a corporate, which actually doesn't want you. [Recce]

There're a lot of guys with security companies running them on military lines, very successfully. But yes, so if you can't support your family one option was to join Executive Outcomes and a lot of people did. But that was just a way to get bread on the table. EO paid well and there was no work here so they were actually forced to do it ... Lot of guys, especially the specialists, went overseas with their skills, like the air-force guys ... Those guys are earning big money doing the same there. [Recce]

Nobody in South Africa wants them to work here, so they've got no option ... [Executive Outcomes gave them] a financial income. Because if you can't get a job in South Africa, what must you do? [SADF]

As one of these respondents points out, the security sector is a rapidly growing one and some former Special Forces members are purportedly doing very well in it. Others, however, say that their involvement in these enterprises is, in turn, called into question and surrounded by similar distrust. One respondent relates a string of, what are in his opinion, malicious misrepresentations of the company he runs.

Now we started the security company so immediately they say this is a private army. It's not a private army ... But what we are doing is that we are effectively preventing crime in this area ... So unfortunately [with] this camouflage uniform, people say it's AWB.30 That's not AWB, it's the American Desert Storm camo pattern. It was the cheapest material I could find ... It's so easy to discredit a person; it's so, so, so easy, it's unbelievable. [Recce]

This particular company's association with a high profile former CCB and Special Forces operator clearly impacts on the allegations and perceptions surrounding it, and makes it an extreme example. Similar concerns, however, were raised by others also working in the security industry.

What's going on in the security industry - everybody thinks the moment you've set up something like that, it's for a different reason than you pretend it to be. And that's the story of my life. [Recce]

One organisation that has contributed to the negative public image of former soldiers is the mercenary organisation, Executive Outcomes (EO). The organisation was the subject of controversy, and recent legislation aimed at curtailing its activities is a source of bitterness for SADF Special Forces respondents who perceive it as yet another attempt to marginalise them out of one of their few viable employment opportunities. Many are disgruntled with the mercenary image that is associated with the organisation, but are even more perturbed at what they perceive to be deliberate discrimination against former combatants. In respondents' argument for the legalisation of mercenary outfits, they make comparisons with other professionals who, unlike mercenary personnel, are entitled to use their skills outside South Africa's boundaries.

If you have to survive, you have to survive. What does government prefer us to do: to go and do proper structured professional training or rob a bank? How can the government allow a qualified electrician to work in the Arab Emirates? I'm a qualified Special Forces soldier, I'm not allowed to work there, why not? It's bulldust! I mean if the guys do go and start rebel movements and so on, ja, I think then clamp down on them and sort it out. [Recce]

Cash flow was the problem so ... I joined Executive Outcomes. I went back to Angola because they [were] the only guys paying a decent salary to the ex-combatants ... On the subject of being a mercenary, if a doctor is allowed to fly to Canada ... to sell his knowledge, or a civil engineer [to] go to Swaziland to build a dam - he's selling his knowledge. It's the same: we are selling our knowledge. But we were not allowed to do that ... I mean you know what a sore point it became ... And eh, we all led very comfortable lives ... the company was well established until this load of politicians start[ed] interfering and later works through United Nations to get rid of us. And then the Americans also did not like it because they were lobbying to get their own people in for training there, to get their influence inside Angola. [Recce]

The above respondent maintains that the legal manoeuvres to effectively close EO down are a further example of manipulation to score political points on the part of previous proponents of apartheid. For him, this is just another aspect of his sense of having been betrayed.

The government actually never wanted to legislate [EO] out. It's in fact, once again, the older parties that remain from the previous government and New National Party, those people. They actually forced the government to accept legislation against the activities of organisations like Executive Outcomes. The same people who organised that the guys lost their jobs, etcetera, are now preventing them [from] continu[ing to] make a living. [Recce]

"It's such a good story to say, 'here's another military guy that went cookies' ..."

SADF interviewees also raise another facet of stigmatisation to which ex-combatants may fall victim, that of being traumatised. They express frustration at the tendency to stereotype ex-soldiers, and particularly Special Forces as 'off the rails' or 'bossies' as a result of their military experience.

People have this amazingly weird image of Special Forces, but they're very, very normal people. They're not brain-dead, lost-it types, Vietnam style. [Recce]

It's very popular nowadays for people to write books about ex-military guys going haywire, and they normally want to emphasise the character by telling that he was in the Special Forces or the recces. And in fact they are very wrong about that because the people that went cuckoo because they couldn't handle the situation [were] normally the military servicemen guys who did not want to be there. [Recce]

We wanted to go and get into contact, getting into combat [was] all we wanted to do. That's what we were trained for. Now all of a sudden you've done that and it's, 'Oh no, I'm gonna have a wobbly and big traumatic stress' [mimics]. [SADF]

You know the other day they had a situation in the Cape: a guy killed his wife and I believe his sister-in-law, seven people he shot on the farm. And they claim that he was in the military. Then the investigating officers came back and said they can't find any military records of the guy ... It came out that that guy was actually in a security company, he was never in the military in his life. But it's now such a good story to say, 'Here's another military guy that went cookies' or whatever you want to call [it]. [Recce]

While most of these expressions of frustration are of a general nature and are intertwined with concerns regarding popular culture, one former soldier tells of his personal experience of being discredited in this way. He claims that in various work situations he has been 'fobbed off' as someone who is 'bossies' and therefore not to be taken seriously. But this has occurred in very specific circumstances. He alleges that it was a strategy of his employers to preserve the cover of their own illegal activities, which he was on the point of revealing.

Too many people in the corporate situation try to fob things off as if I'm maybe not all there because of my army experiences, to discredit me because I'm onto some things that are happening, involving sometimes senior management, and they've tried to sort of say: 'Hell, he's gone bossies. He's got post-traumatic stress because of his army days'... There's a stigma attached to me because of my military experience, and particularly because I was in Special Forces. It's, 'He's not all there'. [SADF]

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.