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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Trauma and Distress

All themes explored thus far inform understandings of ex-combatants psychological health. It is abundantly evident that many of them experience a wide range of stresses in their transition from military life to civilian life. It is beyond the scope of this study to assess the mental health of the ex-combatant respondents. Rather, this section outlines some of the views presented by respondents themselves on the matter.

Specific questions on the issue of psychological distress brought about by militarised experiences elicit diverse responses. Importantly, the line between manifestations of traumatic war experience and stressful transitional experiences is often blurred and the two may become intertwined. Understandably, more recent experiences of trauma can predominate. MK/SDU respondents, for example, tend to focus on the problems in their current lives as the main source of distress.

Since the demob[ilisation], in the townships people provoke me and I try to keep my emotions under control. I ended up having asthma. I need counselling. When you think about all those things that happened to you and how you were treated, you can go mad ... Inside I am boiling ... It's killing my mind. [MK/SDU]

Generally, MK/SDU and Thokoza SDU respondents are less vocal than other respondents in response to questions about how their war experiences have impacted on them. Several are clear, however, that they, and/or their former colleagues, suffer as a result of these experiences.

It affects me painfully. It is difficult to forget since you saw those things. [MK/SDU]

Many of us have changed. They have changed a lot because of this violence thing. [Thokoza SDU]

There is a range of possible explanations for their often limited expressions on this matter. These likely include, for example, the fact that for many of these respondents, violent experiences continue to be a stressful feature of their lives, and one which in some respects has become 'normal'. Another factor, as the following respondent explains, is the lack of exposure to western concepts of trauma and depression. Linked to this is their marginalisation from services offered in this field. The majority of these respondents emphasise their general lack of exposure to a variety of social processes, such as education, recreational activities, support, and employment.

It was not within our culture [to] say a person is traumatised. It is a western thing which we never knew. Most of the youth were being traumatised ... but [we understood] 'traumatised' ... [as] talking about deep, deep, deep trauma where you miss your mind, you don't know what you are doing. But [people] like us, ... you can say we have effects on our mind which need to be counselled [so that] we can go to a normal stage. But we live with those kinds of things because we are not yet being exposed to that. [Thokoza SDU]

In contexts of poverty and marginalisation, psychological well-being is not often regarded as a priority. Nor is violence-related trauma necessarily recognisable as distinct from other stresses.

I can say that maybe all the Thokoza youth maybe need the psychiatrists - maybe one by one attention. But those [other] kinds of things are going to be [seen] as the problem: 'Now I'm not surviving. I'm not working, I'm not going to school, I'm not doing this and this and this'. [Thokoza SDU]

Several respondents emphasise the necessity of putting their traumatic experiences behind them in one way or another, in order to 'carry on'.

I have seen many things. There is nothing I can say. What I say is let's go on with life; these things have passed. [MK/SDU]

I try to ignore those things and take them out of my mind and face the future. [MK/SDU]

I can say that during that time when those things were happening, we sometimes became furious, furious of the heart, the angriness of the heart. There is a time that we remember that our friend passed away, but it is not something on our mind. Life goes on. [Thokoza SDU]

In addition, it is the nature of military experiences to generate a notion of manhood that disallows expressions of vulnerability. Masculine identities forged as combatants frequently militate against seeking help or support. To do so would erode the sense of 'manhood'.

We were saying, 'I can stand by myself and carry a gun and make my own defence'. And then that kind of thing makes you to be more strong and not take in any words from other people ... One of the problems [stopping people from seeking assistance] is that the language we talk is ... 'I'm a man'. [Thokoza SDU]

Thokoza SDUs are certainly not alone in their understanding of trauma as equivalent to 'missing your mind'. Some SADF respondents resented questions on traumatic stress, appearing to assume that any acknowledgment of this would amount to an admission of having completely lost their minds. This is particularly the case with recce respondents, who claim that ex-Special Forces soldiers are stigmatised by being portrayed as having gone 'bossies', or 'cuckoo'. Furthermore, the equation of invulnerability with masculinity and being a successful soldier was equally applicable to dominant discourse among SADF soldiers.

The philosophy was a case of cowboys don't cry. You have to be tough. [Parabat]

Female relatives of former conscripts frequently point to their relatives' refusal to seek support, and raise concerns about the psychological needs of their family members in a society where psychological vulnerability is still largely treated as taboo.

"You're a trained specialist ... Your means of doing it is by fighting, shooting."

The psychological impact of military and combat experiences varies widely. Some respondents, for example, feel that these events have not had a negative impact on their mental health.

When I take a look at myself right now, I tell myself that I am all right, I am not affected in any way. [Thokoza SDU]

I never went for counselling and I think I don't have any problem. I don't know, maybe some can see me having a problem, but myself I don't have any problem. [Thokoza SDU]

Former recces maintain that post-traumatic stress is rare amongst this category of former soldiers. As highly trained military specialists, they say they were mentally prepared for the demands of the job.

We underwent such a rigorous psychological selection it is almost impossible for a guy who didn't belong there to get there ... If you think [that] out of a selection of 800 people only 12 make it, then you must realise that the guys who eventually make it are psychologically very strong ... I mean we were prepared for [combat], we were trained for that. It's experience that happened, you just put it behind you, ... there's no side-effects ... I mean I don't have bad dreams or anything like that ... You have got your exceptions. [Recce]

They emphasise the issue of choice, and believe that national servicemen / conscripts and other Citizen Force soldiers are more likely to have experienced the military as traumatic because they were not participating voluntarily.

We were properly trained, well disciplined and most of us had the choice of being there, and I think that made a big difference. If you go to our national servicemen, you might find [traumatic stress] amongst them, but in Special Forces there's a few individuals. [Recce]

There are people that went cuckoo because they couldn't handle the situation but then it was normally military servicemen, guys who actually did not want to be there ... They were forced to be a soldier and many of them were indeed in situations which they did not like. It can be very traumatic for a guy of 18 years old who doesn't want to be there and the next day he's standing there between 50 or 100 bodies. He's never seen a dead guy in his life before [and] now he's participated in creating the dead. It did happen that those guys couldn't handle it. [Recce]

The permanent guy is there out of free choice ... he feels very strongly about [the] army and he goes to be the elite ... But [for] the guy who works and is a family man [and] gets called up under the citizen force system and is sent to the border [it's different] ... If you're not a soldier in your heart it will be very difficult to kill somebody ... Those guys were not [there] out of free choice. It's that or jail. [Recce]

Interestingly, the experience of moving from the 'secure' and structured lifestyle of the military into the uncertainties of civilian life is depicted by recce respondents as much more traumatic than most combat experiences.

"Most of us don't know what debriefing is 'cos we never had it ..."

Conscripts and Citizen Force respondents point out that some people emerge from their army experiences apparently unscathed, or alternatively make relatively quick recoveries. In contrast to former Special Forces members, however, all of these respondents make reference to negative psychological consequences of their army experiences.

Some people will get over it and some people can't. [Conscript group].

A central source of bitterness is the lack of psychological support they received. Their general sense is that the well being of national servicemen was of little or no concern to the military.

The big incitement in my mind is against the SADF/State/SAMS, they really had bugger-all idea of how to support someone with PTSS ... The system was not set up to help people ... On Thursday [I was] holding a guy bleeding out his life all over my browns with my R5 [firearm] black and hot after an ambush. Friday [I was] on a flossie49 back to klaar out50 and Monday driving to work. No support, no debriefing. Once you are klaared out they owe you nothing. ["AT"]

I always remember this oke scream because we were told not to get off the raatel ... This guy took about two steps. Katoong! And now his leg was off and he was lying there going 'Aaag, Aaag'. And then you can't help that guy. Now, I can still see that oke screaming ... You have to leave him to scream. You first must clear your own way to get to him and then get him out ... After we had casevaced51 that guy, I saw the guy against the tree was my friend from Honeydew, then there was another guy crawling like this - he had been mowed in the back ... Two shot next to me ... One night you'll just hear, 'Brrrrrrrr' coming down the road and you don't know what it is. And then they came - kha-kha-kha-kha-kha-kha - full blast. We left all those dead just like that... (The next guys come and pick them up). So it's like endless. And you're supposed to be normal when you come out. It's crazy [laughs]. 'Okay everybody get on the truck, go to the airport, off you go'. Land in Bloemfontein ... About two days later, 'Sign here', had a little parade [and] 'Cheers'. Welcome to civvies street. [Conscript group, follow-up interview]

Respondents agree that the worst affected soldiers are those who experienced combat on the 'border'. Little reference is made to psychological effects of being deployed in South Africa's townships. While most respondents had spent time on the border, a few had also been deployed in the townships. One of these respondents says that he experienced this as more distressing than combat in Angola,

I actually found that my stress levels were higher working in Kwasene from 1989-1994 than all the time in Angola. I would rather have three months in Angola than a month in the townships. ["AT"]

But experience of direct combat is not a precondition for trauma and distress. One respondent, for example, draws attention to the potentially traumatic impact of the military training programme.

Some are/were just suffering from the way the training dehumanised them. Some of my flash-backs I used to get, and my most vivid memories, were those memories of training. Some guys just couldn't handle losing control of their lives for two years, and quite a few committed suicide just for that reason ... - not that the SADF gave a damn for PTSD, and I'm sure that they knew about it at the time. ["AT"]

It was not only soldiers who were exposed to these situations. Members of police units whom respondents encountered in the operational areas are also identified as a grouping vulnerable to traumatic stress.

The police have never had any psychological training - never - not even the Koevoet units. Anybody could have got in there. They didn't have psychological training or selection. There's a lot of policemen who I believe are suffering. I saw a bloody ex-policeman the other night that I think is completely way out of his head [Recce]

In South West the police force [and the SADF] were actually working closely together. And that's where a lot of those okes turned the table as well; they went through the same. [Conscript group, follow-up interview].

In contrast to these former SADF combatants, few MK/SDU respondents speak about psychological issues relating to their combatant days. Instead, they tend to focus on present hardships. One interviewee, a psychiatrist who has worked with liberation-movement cadres, outlines several sources of distress for MK fighters, and draws attention to the specific psychological problems arising from experiences in exile.

I went over to the ANC camps to see all the patients who were already unwell there, who suffered from mental problems arising out of the military situation in exile. The problems they met often were that [when they left for exile] they were not soldiers but they had to traverse the wild, through Botswana, through Swaziland, through Mozambique, to go to the camps outside ... Some of the youngsters that I saw ... who were hoping to go to train, were just idealists - not really suited to the situation that they ended up in: an austere environment, in a camp. Some of them were used to the comforts of the home, but they had made this decision to go out. So that was the cause of psychological problems for some. Others would go out and meet the comrades ... and feel that they were not being received [well], they were not being trusted.

I don't know, in the initial assessment before people were accepted into camps, whether there was some harshness involved ... Interviewing methods or whatever could have been difficult because there was always this threat that they were taking spies into the system. Some of them suffered as a result of that but accepted, 'Well it had to be done'. Yet others did actually get traumatised, get thrown into jail in Uganda or somewhere for a while, and they would come out and say, 'I had not done anything' and then became quite bitter - those were some of the ones I saw. The other thing was some were disappointed: they wanted to be in the army and they fell ill because of malaria and they were sort of bypassed. Others were hoping to be sent to study ... but they were not amongst those who got those opportunities ... And one other group are post-traumatic stress victims, either because of their exposure to combat situations in Angola [or] because of treatment by the ANC or by the opposition. [Psychiatrist key informant]

According to this interviewee, the ANC made some effort to provide psychological support to cadres returning from exile.

I went over to the ANC camps to see the people who suffered from mental problems. The idea was to see them there, and then when they come into South Africa, to assist them in their resettling. [Psychiatrist key informant]

Unfortunately, however, these intentions were not realised.

Unfortunately, once they came in, we were unable to check on them ... so they just disappeared into South Africa. Once in a while one of them is sent by the family, 'Here's one of your people who's suffering'. And I'll treat them as part of the Community Psychiatric Services. But the fact is, they have disappeared into South Africa and we suspect that they would be in need of help most of the time. [Psychiatrist key informant]

Efforts to address the psychological needs of ex-combatants across the political spectrum have been woefully inadequate. It is suspected that thousands of those caught up in the past conflict remain in need of psychological assistance.

Some additional manifestations of distress

The potential for traumatic stress to manifest in flashbacks to combat experiences, nightmares, short tempers, and aggressive behaviour has already been touched upon. Respondents report a number of other ways in which traumatic war experiences and transitional stresses continue to play out in their lives, or the lives of their ex-combatant relatives.

For example, exaggerated startled responses are commonly reported by SADF respondents.

For many years I used to take cover due to cars backfiring ["AT"]

"A lot of them become loners ..."

There is a tendency among some ex-combatants to avoid contact and interaction with other people, and to withdraw into themselves instead. This is most frequently reported in relation to former conscripts.

They can't socialise very easily. Up to today my brother hates going into a group of people. They do become very anti-sociable. They pull themselves away from people and society and they sort of go and hide in their little corner ... A lot of them become loners. [Wife/sister of conscript]

Like you sort of lose your confidence ... [Before] I was like everybody else, I mean [I'd] go to parties, have a jol ... When I came back everyone said, 'You've gone so quiet now. You're not the same person' ... Everybody seemed so open about things and noisy. I just didn't feel that I fitted in anymore. I got old somehow, if that makes any sense ... If I had a choice I'd go and live in the mountains by myself ... You just don't feel happy within a crowd ... If you're looking for me, you'll see me in the corner. [Conscript group, follow-up interview]

In addition, this tendency to withdraw is sometimes accompanied by an inability to maintain personal relationships. A number of respondents report a difficulty in intimate relationships with women specifically, especially in the period immediately following national service.

You can't trust somebody, you don't want to get too close to them because you're scared to trust. You sort of don't care too much about things. Since the army, you know, 'love' is a four-letter word. You don't know what it is. [Conscript group]

Some MK/SDU respondents also refer to the impact of conflict on their personalities and their ability to interact with others.

I believe that even with those ex-combatants who are above water [employed] there's a commonality. Before the violence I used to be somebody who cheered up somebody else. But I'm no longer that person ... I realise I prefer to be very much on my own. I sit in the car and watch them partying ... I don't feel like laughing ... [We need] something to make those who are still alive to be like relaxed and happy and be able to integrate with the community nicely. [MK/SDU]

A number of respondents say they are regularly told they are 'so serious'. For some, a sense of 'normality' in terms of personal interactions can only be found in the company of other ex-soldiers.

People have said to me, 'Lighten up hey' and 'Geez, what's wrong with you? You're so serious.' I started feeling, 'Jus like, is there something wrong with me?' But then [for a military commemoration] I saw all these guys who were with me [before] ... I suddenly realised I was with a whole lot of 'normal' guys, serious guys. I was back at home. [Parabat]

In contrast to these difficulties, some former conscripts attribute their competencies in the corporate world to their military service. According to these respondents, leadership skills, efficiency and discipline are some of the positive results of their military experience.

The military has taught me that it is essential to plan, to make budgets and deadlines and that continued upward communication is essential. When my seniors give me a request, I take it as an order and will do everything in my power to fulfil that order. ["AT"]

Interestingly, these positive effects are sometimes reported as the outcome of a transmutation of negative effects.

I used to be a 'follower' as a child. Now I am a leader. Aggression changes with time - it mellows - into a like for confrontations. This makes a good leader in my view. ["AT"]

"That's why sometimes we drink ..."

Levels of alcohol and drug abuse are purportedly high amongst some former combatants. Respondents confirm that solace is frequently sought in the use/abuse of substances.

Thokoza SDUs comment on their use of drugs during their days as combatants. A combination of dagga (marijuana) and mandrax, known as 'thula', became an 'instrument of war', and was smoked to dull their fears and keep them awake.

I smoked mandrax. Some smoked mandrax because they didn't have that strength to go and attack. We didn't allow liquor. You cannot take liquor and go and attack, so we used the mandrax. [Thokoza SDU]

I started [smoking] when I was an SDU. Before I got [thula] eish, I was scared! There was this fear, you know, when you are close to something happening. [After I started] it means even if I would hear a gunshot I would run to fetch the gun. You could cope, you see. [Thokoza SDU]

The extent to which former SDUs continue to use drugs is unclear. While one of the above respondents has managed to kick the habit since the end of the conflict, the other says he occasionally succumbs to the powerful urge to smoke thula again.

Several relatives of former conscripts also report that the military experience turned a lot of former conscripts into 'alkies' and 'druggies'. Some, they claim, used marijuana and alcohol on the border as a mechanism to cope with traumatic experiences, as well as with boredom. For many, say these respondents, substance abuse intensified following return from the army, as former servicemen were able to access harder drugs that were not usually available in operational areas.

Conscript respondents often refer to increased alcohol consumption during their period of service. The following respondent describes a common manifestation of war trauma: nightmares. In doing so he refers to how he uses alcohol to cope with its ongoing alienating effects.

It was horrific. You were coming back home [from the border] and you were going to bed at night and waking up in cold sweats and screaming and you didn't want to sleep because you'd hear these mortars and rifles and R1s and AKs going off ... That zone, it's in your mind, you can't sleep and nobody understood that. You wake up ... screaming and you are shouting, 'No! No!' or 'We are coming, we are coming, we will be there'. And there was nobody around to help you to get out of that. Anybody who says they never woke up having nightmares when they came back from the border is bullshitting. I still get it. My wife doesn't understand, 'No, it was just a dream' [she says]. That wasn't a dream, it was like reality. That's why sometimes we drink. [Conscript group]

MK/SDU respondents more commonly attribute alcohol and drug abuse among ex-combatants to poverty and unemployment.

Other guys get involved in smoking dagga, others in drinking [because] when they look, their families are poor. A person thinks about such things, such as, 'Maybe if I did not go to exile I would have finished my education and be able to help my family'. [MK/SDU]

I used to say it was better to stay drunk and now I realise how bad this thing is. Most of [my APLA colleagues] have passed away. Before I was in the Service Corps, I was frustrated and took a lot of alcohol. I just wanted to drink, to find solace in drinking. [APLA woman]

Because [the SDUs] are not working, when they have a chance to get money, they drink. We think that is caused by being unemployed. And the drugs, I don't know who it is that is selling drugs. [But] the reason for them selling drugs to people is due to not having jobs. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

As the following respondent points out, substance abuse contributes to heightened levels of aggression and violence.

The problem is drinking. When they have drunk or smoked their drugs, there is now a problem and they want to fight you. But if they could work, the person who sells drugs would disappear. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

The attraction of suicide

Suicide amongst ex-combatants was reported in all respondent categories with the exception of recces. Other than some Thokoza SDUs, all respondents commenting on suicide understand it as directly related to militarised experiences. Although the focus is on suicide and suicidal tendencies since combatant days, several respondents make mention of colleagues who committed suicide during the combatant period itself. Furthermore, while ex-combatant respondents are no longer in the military, many of those involved in past conflicts remain within the SANDF, where inherited and contemporary pressures have also contributed to a number of successful and attempted suicides among serving personnel.

I've got their photos with me ... One of them (we were both members of the military police) ... hanged himself one day ... I understand he had arguments with some of his colleagues ... It was the weekend, they were drinking and then ... one of them hit him with an empty beer bottle. He didn't react. Instead he went home, his wife gave him food and went to sit with him ... 'What happened? It looks like you're not okay'. He said, 'No, go and sleep'. And then he [put] the volume a bit higher on the radio and hanged himself. He was an ex-combatant but he was still a serving member of the SANDF, and he was from exile. [MK/SDU]

Many MK/SDU respondents say that they know of former colleagues who have committed suicide. For the most part, this is interpreted as an attempt to escape from neglect, disappointed expectations, and the pressures that accompany unemployment.

I have ... about ten [friends] - oh, when I count correctly there's another one ... There was our fellow comrade who drank poison. He killed himself, because of problems that we are outlining here [our betrayal, unemployment, family pressures, demobilisation problems, violence in the community, etc.]. I have a cousin-brother who I was with in Transkei, who was a PAC. He also killed himself by drinking poison. Many others have shot themselves because of the situation that we are in. [MK/SDU]

It's like this Saturday we buried a friend of ours who shot himself last Monday. His problem was that the government was using us as their tools and at the end of the day they dismiss us and don't care about us anymore. [MK/SDU]

The conscript respondent quoted below describes the motives behind the suicides of several of his friends. Military service and war experiences in Angola, he says, totally changed the trajectory of their lives. Dramatic personality changes, relationship problems, the inability to secure employment, and substance abuse are, amongst other manifestations, typical in his army network of former 'border' cases. In the absence of support for people like himself, the consequence, he says, is a powerful sense of isolation. He claims that he is one of only three of his group of ten army friends, who have not taken their own lives.

Six of my army friends committed suicide. All blew their heads off. One ou jumped in front of the train and he was my best bud. He just took a bottle of brandy one night. He sent his girlfriend next door. He said, 'Okay, well the next train's got my name on it'. Those were his last words. They found him behind the house in 17 pieces. Welcome to the funeral. Out of ten of us [there's] about three left. I'm one of them. [Laughs]. All of them were divorced or separated or something ... [Their suicides have happened] gradually, I'd say it's over about the past ten years. I suppose you try fit in for the first eight. Then you say, 'No, I'm not going anywhere' ... You feel like you just had enough ... It's like you can't ... give [anything anymore] and you're insecure, and even if somebody gives you a job, you still feel a bit touchy [about] what they're going to find out next. [It'll be] 'Cheers [says his name] here's another ou' ... You don't even trust yourself. Uh-uh, no, you don't ... With [my friend], he used to just go mad, go wild you know, just pick a fight with somebody ... [He would] get banned from that [bar] and go to the next one. He used to drug and told me he just decided on the train. [Laughs] Then there was the others as well ... They'd just leave a short note like, 'Sorry, had enough'. The one guy went in the bathroom [and] blew his head off and that was it. He didn't want to make a mess [so] he does it in the bath. [Laughs] I mean, stupid. [Conscript group, follow-up interview]

Within the bounds of the research this is an extreme case. Nevertheless, other respondents also regularly point to the psychological plight of significant numbers of former conscripts.

Ex-Thokoza SDUs' reports on suicide differ from those provided by other respondent groups. In instances, like others, they refer to their friends having committed suicide 'because of the way the violence has affected them'. But their discussions on the issue are dominated by references to gun accidents.

You'll find that we are sitting like this. Maybe I am carrying a gun, I am busy playing with it. By mistake it happens that I shoot my friend. Here is my friend dying, there is nothing else that I can do. What is left for me [to do but] to put [the gun] on me and shoot myself. Then everything could be silent. It's not that I am just sitting in the kitchen and thinking of killing myself, no. I don't remember a friend doing that. [Thokoza SDU]

It happens that someone plays with a gun [and] then finishes up shooting himself. It means ... some of our friends ... shot others by mistake, things like that. We are also those who kept telling ourselves that we knew guns - only to find that we shoot ourselves. [Thokoza SDU]

Psychosocial support

Traditional cleansing rituals

Several respondents in the MK/SDU and Thokoza SDU categories (as well as IFP SPU respondents) refer to the role of traditional cleansing rituals in removing the harmful effects of violence from ex-combatants. This information was provided in relation to questions about respondents' psychological well being, and their potential for future violence. Cleansing rituals are considered by some respondents to have extracted the violence from their beings and prepared them for their non-combatant lives.

An ex-Thokoza respondent explains, for example, how, after the SDU had participated in a community cleansing ritual, the number of suicides amongst these ex-combatants declined.

At one stage we had to do like a traditional ritual. Members of the SDUs had to be taken to a Sangoma or Inyanga ... We were taken there to be cleansed with mutis and things like that and then there were some slaughterings that were done, people donated in the township [for the ritual] ... Before that there were a lot of suicides ... [and afterwards] the number went down, of people killing themselves. [Thokoza SDU]

Thinking back to their combatant days, many MK/SDU respondents report having attended rituals conducted by sangomas52 where they received muti53 or indelezi to assist them in their combatant duties. This muti made them brave and good with weapons. At the same time, it was believed to 'block' their attackers' guns, so that they could not be harmed.

You can use the witchdoctor to block a gun; the witchdoctor performs a certain ritual so that when they use the gun on you the bullet does not penetrate you ... I underwent a ritual ... to make [me] excellent in using a gun. [MK/SDU]

When we fought, we used 'things' to defend ourselves from being hurt ... After washing your body with it, you don't get scared ... because it protects you. [Inkatha SPU]

When the conflict is over it is also important for ex-combatants to be cleansed of the muti. It is believed that this affects both their own capacity for violence and plays a healing role. According to respondents, these rituals were usually organised by the respective organisations or, in the case of Thokoza SDUs, their community.

I have to undergo the same ritual to get rid of it because if I don't do that, I will always be gun crazy. [MK/SDU]

We went to [the traditional healer] to be cleaned, to get rid of bad things, we all went there. [Thokoza SDU]

These rituals clearly play an important healing role. However, as the following respondent points out, some former combatants continue to be affected by their violent experiences.

There are no bad dreams which come to me. At the end of the war, we were taken and washed with muti and such things. A ritual was made on us. We prayed and asked for forgiveness from God for our sins ... Even now there is nothing that is affecting us. There are some of us who are like mad but I don't know why this is happening. There are some that we think this violence has affected them. [Thokoza SDU]

"We are counselling ourselves ..."

Most respondents regard their relationships with their former colleagues who survived the war as very precious. Indeed, many feel that those they fought with are the only people who really understand them.

I live with these comrades, I hang out with them because they know my situation and where I have been with them. We live just like that. [MK/SDU]

The bonds formed through the militarised experiences are often presented as those they value and trust most. But the disbanding of armed formations has meant that maintaining these relationships is often difficult. Ex-soldiers are now preoccupied with trying to make it in the individualistic civilian world. A diminished sense of camaraderie and unity amongst former colleagues is registered as a substantial loss.

Before the liberation, we were together, united. But today somebody must look after his own pocket. [MK/SDU]

There is no unity like before when we fought together. Some of [the SDUs] left this place and some are still here [but] everybody is now looking after himself or herself. [Thokoza SDU]

The loss of this camaraderie is exacerbated by the estrangement from others that is often experienced. This is emphasised particularly by participants of the conscript focus group and by MK/SDU respondents.

The anger does get worse because you have got nobody that you can speak to because nobody can understand what you have been through. [Conscript group]

Despite the loss of friendships, and the reduced sense of unity, ongoing interaction with former colleagues continues to play an important role in the lives of many former combatants. Several respondents amongst Thokoza SDU and MK/SDU groupings, for example, consider this contact to constitute a form of counselling. As we are sitting like here, we are believing that we are counselling ourselves, like having debates, talking about our problems. We feel better because we are counselling ourselves. [MK/SDU]

Thokoza SDU respondents, particularly, place importance on the role of the group to keep alive the memory of their friends who died.

As we are brothers, I can remind my brothers that, 'Do you remember that this is the day so-and-so passed away or this and that happened?' ... We talk about our brother, good things our brothers used to do when they were alive. [Thokoza SDU]

For these former SDUs the primary function of the group, when it refers to the past, is to reminisce about the 'funny times' they shared.

We remember that, 'Hey, we did this and that;' then we laugh. Sometimes it's a thing, a mistake [we talk about like] maybe [someone] fell with an AK ... We always talk about everything. [Thokoza SDU]

Similarly, SADF respondents say that discussion at their get-togethers, when about their army days, is generally restricted to the humorous incidents and shared experiences. More personal or difficult memories, explain several SADF respondents, might only come out in one-on-one interaction, but even then, not usually in much depth.

Even when you talk about it, you don't talk about the day we killed that guy, you talk about the day that the guy rolled the vehicle, the funny incidents ... I can't even remember us talking about the day Pik was killed. [Recce]

In contrast, MK/SDU respondents' discussions generally revolve around the difficulties of their present situations.

We do talk ... We are in groups discussing things that are happening, especially in our government ... We talk about these things, but the results are not evident. We are still in one place. It's like we pour water on a duck's track. I would put it like that. [MK/SDU]

We do not see results, because that very person experiences the same problem. [MK/SDU]

These discussions, it appears, tend to feed their sense of despair and hopelessness, as they talk and talk but nothing changes. There is little to provide a sense of hope that their circumstances will improve.

"We need something to refresh our minds ..."

None of the respondents have, according to their accounts, received any form of professional psychological assistance. The only support that a minority of respondents (amongst MK/SDU respondents) have received comes from the generosity of a few individuals in their communities who have acted in their own capacity in attempt to assist the ex-combatants.

There was a woman in our area who was a social worker. I used to visit her and she would comfort me and tell me that everything was going to be fine. She used to keep us busy, she would take us to town and walk around with us. I ended up becoming interested in farming because her son was doing agriculture in school. He would tell me all about it, about the lawn mowers. I started to mow lawns for people and maintain their gardens in the townships. [MK/SDU]

Many respondents in the MK/SDU category feel that they would benefit from professional support. For most, however, this does not appear to be an option. Service providers in their localities are over-stretched or barely existent.

A person is traumatised but the issue is that there are no places where one can go and seek help. This thing ends up affecting you. [MK/SDU]

Alternatively, the cost of seeking help is prohibitive,

But in [relation to] going to professional counselling, we haven't got money, [we are] bankrupt. So we are just remaining here, counselling ourselves. Some are committing suicide. I have a friend who committed suicide due to this trauma problem. [MK/SDU]

I went to [try to see] a social worker here but ... I did not get [to see] her ... So now if I have a problem, where can I go? Because travelling [from] here to town, you can take the last R3.00 [with] which you could have bought bread to share with children. [MK/SDU]

Access to psychological services is out of the reach for most South Africans, not only former combatants. In addition, there is little awareness of the potential benefits of these services, which feeds a general reluctance to utilise them. This situation, according to the following interviewee, has contributed to increases in self-medication and substance abuse.

They would more readily misuse alcohol and drugs than seek help. And well, [if] I think [about] the general population: soldiers, police, teachers and other people, they hardly ever reach the psychiatrist by themselves. They go to the GP and the clinic and they use alcohol. They do not come to us as easily as they should. If they are unemployed they have to go to the government clinics ... [where] there are millions that are in the queues everyday, and the Mental Health Services are loaded in the same way. [Psychiatrist key informant]

One possible solution to this significant problem, he suggests, is the establishment of special clinics for ex-combatants.

I wish that they had a special clinic [where] they would treat so-called veterans ... I don't think that we'd be creating a special group of people - ... an elite group. We have to be realistic with those who have expectations. We have to accept that they did sacrifice a lot. That's probably the last group [of ex-combatants]. It's a group that will ultimately die out over the next fifty years or more, but we have to accommodate them now. [Psychiatrist key informant].

Similarly, female relatives of former conscripts call for psychological support services to be provided to former national servicemen in need.

They should form support groups for these guys. I think, because of the times we are living in, they are realising that they need help. But they don't really know where to go. They won't go to a psychiatrist but they might go to like a group where there are other guys. [Wife of conscript].

Although none of the Thokoza SDU respondents said that they have received counselling, or know where they could access such services, there has been an attempt to provide psychological support-services to former SDUs and SPUs from the Khatorus townships. This has purportedly seen dramatic results. Respondents in the parent/care-giver focus group, for example, repeatedly refer to the benefits of the National Peace Accord Trust's counselling initiatives. The following respondent, whose SDU son went on one of the Wilderness Trails co-ordinated by the National Peace Accord Trust, points to some of the beneficial effects this has had for her family:

These children were taken in groups ... A person would leave them in the mountains with food for 21 days ... They would take them many kilometres away [and] leave them there, [saying], 'On such a day you have to be at such a place'... They were able to climb a mountain and come down [through] the river ... There's this small spaghetti [tin which they were given]. He is able to eat that spaghetti for a day, and not go hungry ... All those who came back from counselling, came back knowing [how] to save money, to save in the house [and] that he must not harass you. Always he says something that would build you as a parent, 'Mama ... I'm going to a certain friend of mine, and I'll come back [at] such a time. If someone looks for me tell him that I will be there'. So we found that these children now ... can no longer hide things even if it is difficult. Even when he has beaten someone, he comes back and tells you that, 'I have come across a certain trouble'. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

This was the only initiative identified by respondents that aims at providing psychological support to some ex-combatants. Although there are a small number of NGO-based initiatives in different parts of the country that are attempting to cater for the psychological needs of ex-combatants, these are too few, over-stretched and under-resourced.


49 'Flossie' is a South African military colloquialism for a large troop-carrying aircraft.

50 'Uitklaar' or 'klaaring out' was a purely administrative process that soldiers underwent on leaving a unit (for leave, following operations, or final discharge). It involved completing an 'uitklaar' form and handing in one's military kit.

51 The evacuation of a casualty.

52 Sangomas and Inyangas are traditional healers. They are differentiated from each other by the different methods they employ in their work.

53 Muti is traditional medicine.

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.