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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Revenge Violence, Former Enemies and Reconciliation

Revenge violence

"Some of them are still having those minds of fighting ..."

Some of the ways in which the war relations - between opposing armed actors - may continue to produce violent or conflictual interaction have already been outlined. In the main, these consist of complex relationships between MK/SDU ex-combatants, the police they encounter in their communities, and 'gangsters' who during the apartheid years, they apprehended and punished. [See section, Violence and Crime].

This section explores other aspects of revenge conflict and violence, ex-combatants relations with, and perceptions of, their former enemies, as well as their appraisals of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It closes with the perspectives of Thokoza SDU respondents on the Thokoza Monument, a reconciliation initiative built to honour the lives of those who died in the violence.

While MK/SDU respondents tend to depict themselves as targets of police or criminal vengeance, in rare instances, they say that they, themselves, contemplate or intend avenging the deaths of their former colleagues who were killed by criminals. In this respect they mention killings both prior to and post-1994.

Maybe we fought with gangsters, let's say in 1993. Maybe they killed some of our friends and we didn't get a chance to fight them then. If I [were to] see them now, I would want to fight back. [MK/SDU]

I know some of [the criminals] who have killed our comrades (in '97 or '98) who were with us in exile ... and they killed them brutally. Even today they are still killing our comrades. Some we don't know who killed them, but some we know and we will get them ... We are still going to get our revenge. [MK/SDU]

Several former Thokoza SDUs say that they still fear attack from elements amongst their former enemies, the 'Zulus'.54 These respondents allege that these 'former' enemies are killing their friends in 'mysterious ways'.

Every time you meet [that person from the IFP] ... his look leaves you with a question mark. Anything can happen or not. You see, what is happening now is a trap. A slight mistake [and] you get hurt and it's not that you get hurt for hospital, but for death. [Thokoza SDU]

They talk about the nature of the danger as a 'trap' and distinguish it from past combat situations, where they were fighting 'face to face'. The threat now is more uncertain and difficult to discern.

We are being trapped, we are beaten little by little and we don't know who is going to be the next to follow ... [In] the past three weeks my friend was shot in a mysterious way, you see. [Thokoza SDU]

Every move you are making [the IFP people] will be watching you ... The way they are trying to attack us is no longer face to face, pointing guns at each other. Now we are hitting each other behind the back. [Thokoza SDU]

These respondents generally speak only of the threat from the other side and several insist that 'revenge is a bad thing'. The words of the respondent cited above, however, imply that this violence can work both ways: 'we are hitting each other'. As a relative of an ex-Thokoza SDU explained:

There are some of them who are still having those minds of fighting. Like our boys this side, those who are still angry with them. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

The focus group in which Thokoza SDUs reported these concerns took place not long after the shooting of one of their friends by a 'Zulu'. The incident happened during a soccer match at which the soccer team of ex-SDUs was competing with a team from the local hostel.55 According to one respondent, the victim of the shooting had fired shots in the direction of the opponents. Instead of having him arrested, hostel residents killed him, creating perceptions that hostel residents remain a threat to former SDUs. Despite this, both a team organiser and parent/caregiver in the same community state that soccer remains a practical means to reconciliation, and that one significant outcome of the tragedy has been a renewed commitment to reconciliation from both sides.

Notwithstanding this commitment to reconciliation, deep suspicion remains for some former SDUs. The following respondent, who has great status in the community, firmly believes that there are elements among the ranks of the former enemy who want him dead.

I have intelligence in the IFP area, even now, who are working for me. It's about my safety, because I'm not safe. [There are people] who will not stop at anything until I'm dead ... There's peace for everyone, I can move in Khumalo Street with the car but not taking a walk because [then] I will be a dead man. [Thokoza SDU].

During the research process, having been informed by a sibling that the 'Zulus' had been looking for him, this respondent changed his appearance in an attempt to further protect himself.

In SADF categories of respondent, the threat of revenge violence from previous enemies is rarely directly expressed. Many of these respondents do not refer to revenge concerns, and when a threat along these lines is perceived, it is articulated in different terms. In contrast to the fears of some MK/SDU and Thokoza respondents who maintain that they are specifically targeted as a result of their deeds as combatants, some SADF respondents refer to a more generalised revenge by 'Blacks' on 'Whites' in the form of violent crime. The way in which some of them perceive current violent crime as an extension of the conflict is discussed above [see section, Violence and Crime].

Attitudes to former enemies

"We used to call them 'terrorists' ..."

A number of respondents from both SADF and MK/SDU categories say that they respect their former enemies in their capacities as soldiers, and believe that they can see the war from one another's perspective. This is reflected in the way that some SADF respondents refer to ex-MK fighters and those whom they fought in South Africa's neighbouring states.

The army guys sometimes feel they were fighting a just war, as our opposition did. With the benefit of hindsight, had I been Black, I would have been one of their Special Forces guys. [Parabat]

I'm definitely racist because I do not believe that Black and White mix ... But as soldiers, if I can meet them I say, 'You bastard, you're lucky I didn't get you there in Angola' and he would say to me 'Likewise'... It was very interesting when I was with Executive Outcomes, to sit around the table with the guy who actually fought against you ... and he [would be] telling you, 'But you should have done that'. That is an excellent experience, you can't actually describe it: to sit with a guy against whom you have fought, pointing out each other's advantages and mistakes and things and then laugh about it and say how it could have been if this had happened or that had happened. [Recce]

He was fighting an ideological war and I was fighting, I think, exactly the same. I was made to believe I was defending my country, he was disrupting my country ... but still, we're soldiers ... There's no hatred. Obviously I'm never going to love an MK soldier, he's never going to love me either, but as soldiers we respect one another. [Recce]

Some MK/SDU respondents speak of their former adversaries from Inkatha in a similar way.

He knew the reasons why he was against me and why I was against him. But now we have to forget about such things. [MK/SDU]

Yes it's okay, we have renewed our relations. What I can say is that we are living alright with them, there is no fighting ... We don't look bad[ly] at each other or think about the past. [MK/SDU]

If you meet him, you just greet each other and pass ... No one will fight me if I join the IFP. I [can now] join any organisation I want. [MK/SDU]

An ex-Inkatha SPU agreed that relations with his former enemies are generally cordial.

It's fine because we get on well with them. We sit down and chat together ... Some of them think that if you are IFP then you are against ANC, but those who understand politics do not have a problem because they know that politics has many strategies for survival. [Inkatha SPU]

MK/SDU respondents understand this rapprochement between ANC and IFP protagonists to most often be the result of initiatives driven by political leadership.

The leadership at the top agreed that this had to stop ... If I don't follow orders given to me by my leaders, anything might happen. I [would] get detained, the organisation [would] not represent me ... That is why I say I have accepted everyone who is my enemy. [MK/SDU]

An ANC leader organised a meeting so that we can come and start living together in peace. [MK/SDU]

The way I see it we could have done that on our own, without the leadership coming in ... [But] there is something in the organisation, people who are products of revolution; such people want to fight all the time. Maybe that's why leaders had to intervene. [MK/SDU]

Several Thokoza respondents speak about the role of the South African Council of Churches in reconciliation initiatives in their community. In the words of the mother of an ex-SDU member:

We thank the Council of Churches. That's why, when the TRC came, it found that we were right. It was easier for us to say, 'We forgive you'. [Relative of Thokoza SDU]

In contrast to the SADF Special Forces respondents cited above, most participants in the conscript focus group see all 'Blacks' as their previous enemies. To differing degrees, perceptions of 'Black' as the enemy have not altered in their current lives. Rather, it seems, for these particular ex-conscripts, these perceptions are fuelled by their experiences in the 'new' South Africa.

The army experience entrenched racist attitudes, they say. Often they draw on the atrocities they witnessed or heard about in the operational areas to explain how this has happened. Their encounters with the enemy - what they have seen 'them' do - are presented as the basis for their argument that 'Blacks' are inhumane.

There is no respect for life, there never has been, there never will be ... They will walk past their own kind and they will hack them and keep on walking ... They cut babies open and they put hand-grenades and all different kinds of God-knows-what [inside]. [Conscript group].

Some focus-group respondents speak more about the role that formal and informal army discourses played in propagating these attitudes.

I did become racist in the army and I don't like it. It's just the way people [would] talk. You know, your friends don't come back because, 'a Black shot them'. You know, you were fighting Black, and now you must sit there and salute them ... You are brainwashed. They brainwash you. [Conscript group]

When you get to the border they start those information classes. Then you start thinking, 'Hmm man, this sounds like bullshit to me. This sounds like war against black okes and that's it hey.' We were brainwashed into thinking a black guy's not a human - he's sort of come out of the jungle. That, they taught me. I mean listen to how that guy went on [during the focus group]. I would say that he's still got it in his head. I mean if you had that drummed into you every Friday, 'blah, blah, blah, blah' - every Friday! - you're also going to start believing it. [Conscript group, follow-up interview].

This last respondent's views contrast starkly with those of his fellow focus group participants. As he goes on to explain:

We used to call them 'terrorists'. Who was the terrorist? We were terrorists as far as I'm concerned: ... We were sent to somebody else's country ... The former enemy was the bloody last government if you ask me. [Conscript group, follow-up interview]

Other focus-group participants claim that their current situation exacerbates racist attitudes. Most of these respondents perceive crime to be structured along racial lines, and consider Whites to be the primary victims.

There was a report today in the newspaper, '91 year-old granny raped'. For what? Because she is white. [Conscript group]

For them, violent crime represents the most powerful component of a broader assault against the white population, and particularly white males. Another key factor in this is affirmative action, which they believe is designed to discriminate against Whites, and to have negative economic consequences. They believe they are caught in the heart of a targeted process of marginalisation.

Circumstance says we are now ruled by a black government. They give shit for the Whites. The last White to walk out, switch off the lights - which is what you are seeing in Zimbabwe. It's going to filter to South Africa ... I have got some fundamental problems with the definitions of a racialist. You want to make somebody racialist, push him into a corner and you make him a racialist ... [The] definition of racialism in this world is if a white man disagrees with a black man. A black man can do what the fuck he wants, but he is not a racialist ... Leave me alone! We were born in Africa, leave us alone! [Conscript group]

These respondents perceive themselves, as white males, to be regarded as 'bottom of the shit pile' in the structures and discourses of the 'new' South Africa. They view 'Blacks' as consistently provoking them into a racial hatred.

They are taking a bit liberties, and they are doing it slowly, slowly - to push the White and push the White ... They antagonise you. [Conscript group].

Because of the vast numbers of white men who went through the SADF system, the conscript population is a particularly heterogeneous one. Views provided by other former conscripts over the 'ArmyTalk' internet chat-line, sometimes overlap with, but do not generally replicate these attitudes. [For further discussion see section, Betrayal]

Those of us who grew up under the old system are actually at a disadvantage. We have not been equipped with the social and communication skills to bridge the racial/cultural gap. ["AT"]

Maybe SA is fucked, but it is not that fucked yet ... I refuse to be pulled into any of this 'negativity' that seems to prevail ... (the old flag was a confusing ball of shit anyway ...) I still have a lot to say about the baboons running the country, and more [to say] about the baboons that used to run the country. ["AT"]

Contributions from recce respondents also depart from those of focus group conscripts. To a greater degree recces defined their former-enemies as soldiers rather than on the basis of race. One consequence of this, several of them say, is that they respect their former enemies: they were professionals pitted against each other in war. Although many recce respondents say they are racists, they emphasise that they do not regard 'Blacks' as 'inferior', nor can they justify the workings of apartheid, and the negation of another's humanity. Their military experience, it seems, provided them with a different basis for racial perceptions from that of some of the conscripts.56 Furthermore, while several of these respondents also regard their situations in present-day South Africa to be difficult, a large part of their anger is targeted at the previous government.

Despite this general trend, in instances the utterances of former recces more closely resemble those of some other SADF respondents.

Reconciliation for me is getting more and more difficult because of all the things that [are] happening ... They provoke now a racist hate that did not exist. I was always a racist, but I never hated. It's now getting to the point where I'm starting to hate. [Recce]

The location of blame, however, is different to that expressed by focus-group conscripts. Recces seem, instead, to attribute these attitudes to particular processes in society that they experience as marginalizing or stigmatising of themselves. One of these processes is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission57

Ex-SADF members' appraisals of the TRC

Several SADF respondents consider the TRC to have made an important contribution to society by providing information to families of victims of human rights violations.

On one side, it's good that things are coming out so that if you lost your son, at least now you know [what happened]. I'm not proud of the evidence that's coming out of the ways that Blacks were killed. [Recce]

I'm glad that there're people that can now say, 'Right my son was murdered, he's buried there.' So at least they get closure on that. And it's bad news. I'm not proud of that and I wasn't involved in that, but it's not nice to hear what some of the guys did to Blacks. It's not right. In my time it was war, genuine war. [Recce]

Despite these relatively positive sentiments, SADF Special Forces respondents particularly, view the TRC as a witch-hunt of apartheid state operatives. Although none of these respondents have themselves interacted with the TRC, some of their friends have done so.58 Participants in the conscript focus group tended to dismiss questions put to them on the TRC, making comments such as:

They had to find ways of screwing the white people more than what they can already do. [Conscript group]

Variations on this view are provided by other SADF respondents.

It's not bringing anything to the table that's constructive. It brings bad feelings and people are now more aggressive instead of solving the problem. [Recce]

The TRC serves no purpose at all and is nothing more than an ANC orchestrated witch-hunt. It has got nothing to do with reconciliation at all! It has all to do with revenge! ["AT"]

A common complaint is that the Commission was constituted entirely of people aligned with the anti-apartheid forces.

There is nobody on that TRC that [a] guy that fought under the previous government could feel is an independent or neutral guy. So when he walks into the building he's already in the camp of the enemy. They made a very big mistake there. They should have got people from another country if they really needed it. Or they should have divided [the commissioners amongst] the people [from both sides]. [Recce]

I believe that if the TRC remains true and fair and apolitical, it is an essential body for healing over a past. But unfortunately ... if anything, the opposite holds true. And that is not creating reconciliation, but rather bitterness and animosity. ["AT"]

The TRC, they claim, is a fundamental factor in the stigmatisation of ex-combatants who were part of the apartheid security forces. Those who have been 'hunted' down suffer the consequences of notoriety, and this hinders their reintegration into society. As one recce said of a former colleague,

This poor guy just did his bloody job [which] he was ordered to do. But now he's being hunted and his name is published in the newspaper. He is a bad, bad, bad murderer ... You still need a job to survive and if your name has been in the newspaper, [it's] 'Sorry' ... [That's] what's happening now with the TRC ... How does a guy like that feel when everybody zooms in on you. You're just this baddy. You cannot do anything right in society. They're making him a violent man which he never was ... Society's making him a violent man, not the military, not his past experience. [Recce]

To differing degrees, respondents concede that some of the targeted individuals did abuse their powers. But the TRC, they argue, has generally honed in on a few of the 'ground guys' who are made to take the flak for an entire security force strategy. In the face of what several of them see as an opposition-orientated process, their own former leaders and strategists rarely make an appearance. Consequently, the TRC process is regarded as another component in their sense of betrayal.

A lot of the people have carried the can for the generals ... There wasn't an operation that we did that wasn't sanctioned by government. You can't tell me that the State Security Council never knew ... So I feel for those guys. [SADF]

Political leaders all of a sudden don't know a thing. Adriaan Vlok is now pictured in the Huis Genoot with a Bible, a reborn Christian and he didn't know about Vlakplaas and he didn't know about Eugene de Kock. Of course he knew! Only when they start firing the generals is it that the generals come together and say, 'We must make a plan now to look after ourselves'. But they did not look after the people downwards. [Recce]

If people should have been punished they should have taken FW de Klerk, Pik Botha, the top cabinet members and [said] 'You are guilty, you maintained apartheid'. But that doesn't happen, they come to the guys at the bottom. [Recce]

The case of Namibia is held up by one of these respondents as having taken a more favourable route to reconciliation. In Namibia, all combatants were granted amnesty and no Truth Commission took place. The effects of this approach, it is claimed, have been more reconciliatory as far as ex-combatants are concerned.

I think nothing of the TRC. It's a waste of money and time. If we really want reconciliation we must reach the point where we say, 'It's over and gone.' Namibia is the perfect solution ... [There,] both parties agreed that there is total amnesty for all combatants and participants ... [We need] to say, 'We are now in a new future'. Why must certain individuals be taken out and punished? [Former soldiers] feel threatened: they don't know what might happen to them if they appear before this commission, whereas in Namibia the guy felt grateful, thankful to just to be able to lead a normal life ... because of that attitude of forgiveness. [Recce]

The views of other SADF respondents are more diverse than these provided by former recces. For example, some strongly condemn certain individuals who have testified at the TRC.

And I hope Wouter Basson sits [in jail] for ever. He would have been happy to test some weird disease on us. ["AT"]

Respondents tend to differentiate between various sections and units of the vast apartheid security establishment. The Security Police, Koevoet and the CCB, some consider as deserving of condemnation. Several also express shock and disgust at what they have learned through the TRC process, and there are those respondents who define their own military actions as unjustifiable. Most respondents distance themselves from these activities, arguing that they were professional, accountable soldiers. Sometimes, however, disclosures at the TRC are more closely linked to the units and structures to which respondents belonged, than is comfortable for them. A former parabat, for example, expressed outrage when some of the methods used to dispose of the SWAPO enemy he had been fighting, were revealed.

There is a sense in which these revelations constitute a loss for many of the apartheid state's ex-combatants, whatever they feel about the TRC. Indeed, today most ex-combatants' stories remain untold. The TRC process has gone some way in beginning to uncover our violent history. But by virtue of its role, the memories it provides are (unsurprisingly) almost entirely negative. Former soldiers feel that much of what they may have contributed and experienced has been lost.

In my two years on the border I NEVER once witnessed any atrocities committed by our own forces, NEVER! ... What I do know is that we gave good medicines etc., to the local population. Funny we never hear about that or the chopper brought in late at night in grave danger to casevac a local ... Will the TRC be complimenting us on this? ["AT"]

Because of the secrecy that shrouded military operations and indeed entire wars during the apartheid era, the experiences of former SADF soldiers have not been previously communicated. Like those of their counterparts, their war stories remain untold.

Ex-MK/SDU members' appraisals of the TRC

MK/SDU and Thokoza SDU respondents' views on the TRC diverge substantially from those of the SADF. Although they have numerous grievances about the implementation of the TRC's objectives, in broad terms they regard it as a positive initiative. In contrast to SADF respondents, several have more to say on the victim component of the TRC than on its perpetrator component. As soldiers in the liberation struggle, they themselves, and their former colleagues, often fall into both victim and perpetrator categories. From the victim's perspective, they identify a number of drawbacks. These include the matter of compensation, the emotional pain revived through the process, and the difficulty of being expected to forgive perpetrators as well as watching them walk free. Although issues of race were raised significantly less by MK/SDU respondents than by ex-SADF members, some also say that efforts towards achieving reconciliation are one-sided: black people are doing all the work.

This thing is causing me pain: when I see Whites ill-treating Blacks but talking about peace. In the news there was this fat boer who kept human beings in a shack with pigs. That [made it] obvious that these people don't want peace. We are trying to make peace but Whites don't want peace. They cannot put pigs with human beings. [MK/SDU]

In one focus group of ex-MK/SDU cadres, and unlike in other groups, particularly strong anti-TRC feelings were expressed by several respondents. These feelings revolve around a sense of exclusion. They feel that they have been left out of the process. Their views on the TRC echo those concerning the way they have been treated more generally by their organisation. Some see the TRC as a structure serving only people with power. In the same way that they feel they have been neglected while their former leaders have moved on (with their assistance) to powerful and productive positions, they regard themselves as having been marginalised by the TRC.

'Coming together' is a wonderful word, but in short, the only people who I know are reconciling are the big guns ... To me [the TRC ] is something that has been done behind the scenes ... It is a structure that they have made for themselves, the Madibas together with the Adrian Vloks. [MK/SDU]

They perceive the TRC as attending solely to cases of high-profile people. Again, linking with their other expressions of betrayal, they say that the ANC and the TRC only interact with, and follow up on cases of people they know. That many of them operated internally (as opposed to in exile) is a factor, they say, in not being 'known'. Their main complaint is that the TRC made little effort to involve those on the ground. Their grievances are also intertwined with the marginalised nature of the neighbourhood in which they live. They argue that the TRC's statement forms were never made available to them. In addition, none of the TRC hearings took place in their locality. The difficulty involved for them, in getting information on the workings of the TRC, and the opportunity to submit their stories is a source of bitterness. Those who wanted to make submissions say that they had to travel to Shell House, incurring substantial transport costs to do so. Here, they encountered confusing bureaucracy and feel they were treated dismissively because they are not 'known'.

The TRC failed to come here locally ... It only chooses those at that top ... How are you going to get to Shell House if you are not working and don't have money to catch a taxi? [MK/SDU]

The TRC existed, but it existed in name to some of us ... The problem that we had was that the forms did not reach us on the ground. Others don't understand what those forms are about. It was difficult for a person to go to Shell House and ask for forms. When he gets there, they ask, 'What kind of form are you looking for?' He would just keep quiet ... Those forms were supposed to be taken from Shell House to the [local] branches so that people could be told in clear terms about these forms. [MK/SDU]

The TRC never got here to our area. Here we are low people, our story here is not known. We are in the bushes, in the dark, there is no help that the TRC has brought. [They should have said], 'Lets go to those people deep down in Soweto to hear what happened.' [MK/SDU]

One respondent who did manage to make a submission draws on the unsatisfactory outcome of the investigation to further illustrate his disillusionment with the ANC and TRC. He and his mother approached the TRC in an attempt to find out the story of his brother's death. In 1976 his brother left the country to join MK. They were told by his friends that he had died in a military camp but this is all they knew, and despite their efforts to find out what happened, they remain none the wiser.

What I am talking about is [so] painful that I could take a gun and kill myself ... We do not see the work of the TRC. My mother had to struggle to try and solve this thing ... They have sent us to Bloemfontein, spending our last money. We only came back with empty promises, 'Wait, we will call you again'. There is nothing happening, there are no steps being taken. The TRC deals with favouritism. We cannot run away from that! [MK/SDU]

This lack of closure in specific cases is interpreted by some respondents as evidence of bias and favouritism in the TRC's functioning.

Like that comrade was supposed to be exhumed. So because he was not famous, they exhumed the [other] three [who were buried with him] but the one is still remaining. [MK/SDU]

The members of the TRC are in favour of one party. They are in favour of the ANC. His brother was in APLA [so that's why the case is not solved]. [MK/SDU]

According to these respondents, the workings of the TRC (in relation to its investigations of human rights violations) have further dashed their expectations.

These MK/SDU respondents' views overlap in a number of ways with those of recce respondents. Although approaching the question from opposite poles, and commenting on opposite processes (victim hearings and amnesty for perpetrators) both groups feel that the functioning of the TRC was partisan. Both feel that it operated to their detriment and that they have been deserted by their former leaders in the process. The outcomes of these betrayals have been opposite experiences. In the case of MK/SDU respondents, their betrayal is their marginalisation from the TRC (too little attention). Recce respondents' betrayal, on the other hand, has been the high-profile attention given to their former colleagues in the process (too much attention).

Regarding the issue of amnesty, MK/SDU and Thokoza SDU respondents often supply conflicting views. Where amnesty has worked to their own (or their friends') benefit, positive appraisals dominate.

Amnesty is a good thing because some of our comrades have applied for amnesty and they are free now. [MK/SDU]

There is, however, ill feeling on the part of some respondents at the large numbers of political prisoners who remain incarcerated.59 Furthermore, as is the case for the following respondent, many endured lengthy waits in prison before their cases were heard by the TRC.

I'm an ex-political prisoner who has been released by the TRC ... I tried by all means to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996 [but it] took so long to respond. I [was] released only in November 1998 ... Some people are released, some are not ... Most of our people are lying in jails all over South Africa ... They are angry and they ridicule the TRC. [MK/SDU]

Few MK/SDU respondents had, themselves, applied for amnesty, and said that they would not voluntarily do so. In contrast, Thokoza SDU respondents had all applied for amnesty for their roles in the war. The decision to apply, says one Thokoza SDU, took much explaining. He too criticises the TRC for not adequately educating people on its processes. Many of the prospective applicants, he pointed out, were convinced that they would be arrested for revealing their past actions.

The other thing which made people negative [towards] the TRC [was a] pure lacking of education and information. It was not fully given to the people to understand ... [At the beginning] my section [were] never [going] to buy the idea of going to the TRC ... They interpreted it without information [and thought], 'If I go there, automatically [the] police will be there, the government will be there [and] I was doing the wrong thing [so] the answer is that we are going to be arrested.' [Thokoza SDU]

While these SDUs did, in the end, apply for amnesty, the same reasoning is employed by several MK/SDU respondents. Without guarantees that amnesty will be granted, they consider it imprudent to apply.

I will not go and open a case that I have killed a person before they write me a letter [calling me] ... Why must I get myself arrested? I will never get myself arrested [by saying] that I killed a person on a certain day. What if that case is taken and turned into a criminal case, and not a political case? So we must be intelligent when we talk about things such as these. [MK/SDU]

Another point of concern for some MK/SDU respondents is that testifying before the TRC may not remain a matter of their own choice. They were unnerved by the possibility that they could be called to the Commission against their will.

[If] they come to say the TRC wants information about you, you also have to go forward [to testify]. That is why I say somewhere it is good, somewhere it is bad. [MK/SDU]

A lack of understanding of the criteria for amnesty colour some respondents' views of the process. The following respondent complains that his friend has not been granted amnesty despite his crime having been politically motivated.

Somehow the TRC is not doing well because some of the comrades have been sentenced but they were fighting for freedom ... They called [my friend] to the TRC and sentenced [him]. [MK/SDU]

It transpires that his friend had murdered IFP members in 1995 and 1996 as revenge for the killings of his friends and family members. Although the murders of those whose deaths he was avenging took place within the period falling within the TRC's mandate, the revenge killings did not. The respondent, however, expected that his friend would be granted amnesty because of the political nature of the revenge killings.60

Former Thokoza SDUs who, as a respondent category, have the most direct experience of the TRC, provide an interesting perspective on the amnesty process, particularly as it relates to issues of reconciliation and revenge. Many of them describe their relief at having had the opportunity to speak about their deeds, and having had these named. Yet, at the same time, they fear the potential consequences of having done this.

I revealed some of the things which I've done [and that] I was forced by the situation to do. In the TRC I testified that I was the one to give an order to this guy so that he would kill this one. So [now] it's free for me because I'm relieved you know ... I can take out [of me] the thing which is not good. It was not good for me to be a commander but ... I had nowhere to run. That's why I was involved here. On another side, I'm not relieved ... I told them what I did, and there are people who hate me now because I gave an order to kill his younger brother because he was involved in taxi hitman or Inyanga or what[ever]. [Thokoza SDU]

[The TRC] tried to help us by granting us amnesty so that we were not arrested, but there are other ways where it left us with a question mark. When you appear [at] the TRC you'll find that even the family of that person or those people [that] you did bad things [to] during that situation [are there]. Afterwards, when they look at you, how do they see you? Because one thing's for sure ... if I killed your brother and went to TRC, well - [it] doesn't count that I went to TRC - ... [It] can lead you to hurt me because now you know what I did to your brother. [Thokoza SDU]

We can say it brought peace but not enough, not enough the way we expected that the TRC [would] bring peace because now it brings back pain to other people, ... the families of those people who died. You come and confess 'I killed', which [before] they didn't know. [And now they can say], 'This is the person who killed' ... They might buy people to hurt you. [Thokoza SDU]

They fear that instead of confirming peace in their communities, the TRC process, by personalising the deeds of the conflict, may result in more violence. They have now provided the families of their victims with knowledge of their identities. A potential consequence, they say, is that they may become the victims of revenge violence.

A minority of other respondents also express fears they have about the TRC. Like the MK/SDU ex-combatants cited above, some respondents in other force categories also have anxieties that they may be called to testify before the Commission, a possibility that is perceived as threatening. In relation to the SADF particularly, the nature of South Africa's warfare in neighbouring countries remains largely undisclosed. Being in possession of some of this information is, for the following respondent, a burden, and something he fears may disrupt his life in the future.

I never did anything wrong but we participated in operations outside our country where people were killed. The guys I was with didn't apply for amnesty ... I gave it a lot of hard thought, not that I was one of the main guys, but I was there ... I personally don't believe that we were obliged to [apply for amnesty] but there may come a time when people feel we should have ... That is something that worries me to a degree. [Parabat]

The only interviews conducted with ex-IFP SPU members are also informative in this regard. These respondents were very hesitant to be interviewed at all. It emerged that they fear that, if they are seen to be discussing their previous combatant activities, their former superiors will attack them.

I was scared [to come to the interview] because I didn't know how the leaders were going to take it. They might hit me because I might be telling you the wrong things. That's what we are scared of. We are also scared of the people who were in charge of us at the training camp. [Inkatha SPU]

They acknowledge that the existing evidence for their fears is sparse; they do not themselves have proof that attacks of this nature have actually occurred.

There is one guy I saw who was beaten and I didn't know who hit him, but I just thought that it's 'them' because I heard people talking about it. [Inkatha SPU]

Nevertheless, they are convinced that their fears are well founded. A central factor in these fears is the TRC.

[Our former leaders] are very clever. If they hear any information about you or find out what you've been doing ... they don't say anything, they will just make sure that you are 'eliminated'. They know how dangerous you are [because of the information you have]. When the TRC meeting started, our organisation didn't like the TRC. We know that we have secrets and we know that they also know our secrets. They are scared. We think that if we say anything to the TRC, we might get into big trouble. [Inkatha SPU]

Similarly, a SADF respondent perceives the supposed suicide of his former colleague in the late 1990s to have been an assassination conducted by elements in the former state security forces who were attempting to prevent information being revealed. The respondent believes that his ex-colleague, a former Special Forces operative, was likely to be on the verge of 'talking' or betraying the security establishment.

He was a guy who probably knew and probably did a whole lot of fucking things. He was courageous to the point of stupidity. He would've spilt the beans, if the realisation dawned on him that the credo he had believed in all these years was hollow and false. [SADF]

Neither the SPU nor the SADF respondents are able to substantiate their allegations. Whether they are true or not, powerful suspicions and fears, which revolve around the truths of their pasts, have been instilled into these ex-combatants.

Thokoza SDUs and the Thokoza Monument

"They made it for themselves, not for my friends ..."

On 16 October 1999 the Thokoza Monument was unveiled in Thokoza's infamous Khumalo Street by President Mbeki and IFP president, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The monument is a tombstone displaying the names of approximately 700 people who died in the fighting that tore Thokoza apart during the early 1990s. The purpose of the monument is 'to honour those who lost their lives or went missing during the political conflict that engulfed Thokoza and the surrounding areas before and after the first democratic elections in 1994'.61 By providing a symbolic representation of the war, it signifies an attempt to ensure that, as President Mbeki said in his address: 'We will never [again] allow a situation where one South African treats another as an enemy ...'.

While Thokoza SDU respondents endorse these sentiments, they perceive the monument in a negative light. In large part this is a result of the process that culminated in the unveiling of the monument - one from which they were excluded. The monument represents for them an appropriation of their own initiative to remember their dead friends. As a result, it also signifies a betrayal by various community leaders and players.

They say that the idea of a memorial was their own, but that it was appropriated and adapted by other members of the community. The grievances expressed by the respondent quoted below are representative of the views of others who spoke about the monument.

Some of the organisations around here just stole the ideas, making [them] their own. Like the issue of the monument: we were the first people to consult the [town] council on land [for the memorial] and they promised [us] land ... in front of the graveyards ... We had that kind of a dream as youth of the SDU... [We were] just [going] to say [to] each and every victim, 'Come with a brick and then [that brick] will be part of the building [of our memorial]'. That was the initial plan. We were not going to confuse the community [by] being dominated by money ... We were not going to be getting donations from everywhere ... It was just going to be a simple thing that each and every community must be part of ... And then these people of the Displacees' Committee come in ... They took up the idea and said that they want to have ... something like a tombstone, but [they] go further [with the idea. They changed it]. [Thokoza SDU]

Thokoza SDU respondents feel that those who knew about their intention to build a monument let them down by allowing the appropriation to take place.

Like we did get involved, some of us ... were trying to intervene and ask, 'What is the whole thing of this?' The ANC knew that we had this kind of dream ... but it allow[ed] the project to take place. [Thokoza SDU]

Attempts were made only at the eleventh hour, they say, to involve the SDUs. This, they understand as expedience on the part of the organisers to present the memorial as an inclusive initiative.

Most of the SDUs were not even involved. During the time of unveiling [was] the first [time] ... we were called in by the ANC. [They were] trying to buy us to be part of that. [Thokoza SDU]

In addition, they allege that the motivations behind organisers' involvement were not always admirable. People used the monument, they say, to further personal agendas. This was at the expense of those who had made genuine contributions to bringing peace to the community. For them, the monument represents a negation of their own central roles both during the war and in the peace initiatives.

Some of the people have now market[ed] themselves. Some of the people are now being paid. Some of the people have now been recognised, you see ... And then what about the people who were involved? Where are the people who were involved [in] starting to initiate [the peace]? I mean you [had] several peace talks with ... the SDUs and the SPUs ... But at the end of the day, when coming to these kinds of things, we were left out. [Thokoza SDU]

Concerning the monument itself, a number of respondents also express dismay at its impersonal nature. Set against their initial idea they regard it as ill conceived. In their opinion, the venue chosen for the monument, directly outside the noisy sports stadium, is not conducive to remembering the dead.

The monument is something that we wished for in the community of Thokoza so that it could remind us of our friends ... Most [of] my friends ... did not go [to the unveiling] because we were never informed from the start. The monument was done at [a] place we never liked ... You wouldn't make a remembrance of someone who passed away near a stadium, that doesn't make sense. It's the noise this side and that side ... That is the main thing that didn't make us happy. [Thokoza SDU]

Moreover, some complain that inscriptions are 'packed' together, making it hard to identify their friends' names.

This thing of the monument didn't make us happy, honestly ... Even now we could go there [and] I wouldn't know if my friend is this one or that one ... because it is packed there, even [with] people we don't know ... The monument, they made for themselves, not for my friends. [Thokoza SDU]

Others say that many of the names of SDUs who died do not appear on the monument.

Even the SANDF members were there [on the monument] and the SAPS members. It was just joint names of the people. And most of the people, our Jimmies [SDUs], are not written on that wall. That was the negative part of it, that we are not even there. [Thokoza SDU]

The ex-SDUs initially conceived of the monument as a memorial to their friends and the members of their community who died in the conflict. The words of some respondents suggest that, at this stage, they are uncomfortable with the fact that the names of members of the apartheid security forces and Inkatha appear next to those of their friends. Reconciliation was not the ex-SDUs' foremost aim in relation to this specific initiative. Rather, it was to be a dedication to their deceased former colleagues.


"Forgotten is an understatement ..."

Ex-combatants are expected to reintegrate into civilian society and to leave their militarized pasts and accompanying identities behind. Not surprisingly this does not easily happen, especially in contexts where there are few opportunities through which alternative identities can be built. In South Africa, ex-combatants are often ill-equipped to make this transition and the communities into which they are expected to integrate are equally unprepared for negotiating the soldiers' return or the ending of their combatant status'. At the level of broader society, mechanisms to assist with the reintegration of ex-combatants are apparently either absent, inadequate or failing. Rather than the development of support mechanisms to facilitate the stressful process, exclusionary, and sometimes conflictual, relations are produced or reproduced.

'We have been wished away' states one ex-combatant describing the sense of collective amnesia on the part of society, which is felt across respondent categories. Indeed, society appears reluctant to engage with either the combatant histories or contemporary situations of the key protagonists of its recent conflict. While for many South Africans, the expectations with which the ending of conflict was contemplated have not been met, and there is a sense that little has actually changed, ex-combatants' relationships to society have often changed fundamentally. Former superiors and respective communities now tend to either ignore, or distance themselves from the people who not so long ago, they urged into armed action.

This 'loss' of memory can be attributed, at least in part, to the secrecy under which these armed actions took place. As a result, much of what the soldiers experienced did not enter public knowledge and thus public memory. South Africa's largest exercise in uncovering the violent past, the TRC, because of its focus and the limitations of its mandate, also leaves 'ordinary' soldier experiences largely invisible. And few today seem interested in uncovering these while some may even have interests in keeping them hidden. But without at least some acknowledgement from society of these histories, and a commitment to understanding how they continue to impact on these individuals, ex-combatants' efforts to reconcile their militarised identities with present realities will be severely undermined.

By focusing attention on ex-combatants only when they are perceived as a security threat, will contribute to their further stigmatization and marginalisation. Thus far, contemporary public attention in relation to ex-combatants has tended to be restricted to the involvement, or potential involvement, of some in crime. This while their broader transitioning experiences and challenges are not engaged with. Not engaging with their experiences and focusing on ex-combatants primarily in relation to crime may have serious consequences for their reintegration specifically, and reconciliation more generally. As such, important insights into and opportunities for reducing violence in South African society are likely to be missed.

The framing of this study in relation to questions of violence presents the potential danger of contributing to the further stigmatization and criminalising stereotyping of 'ex-combatants'. However, this study does not measure the involvement of ex-combatants in violence but rather explores how violence impacts on their lives.

By exploring respondents' various relationships to violence in South Africa, the commonalities shared across categories of ex-combatants, and between ex-combatants and society more broadly, emerge. Conventionally, ex-combatants are perceived as 'tending-to-violence', the implicit assumption being that their receiving communities are relatively harmonious. However, respondents' articulations of their own violence or violence-potential underscore the extent to which these are thoroughly embedded in the violence pervasive in society generally. As with other people in the country, the fear and effects of victimisation are central. Similarly, frustrations at their lived realities in post-conflict South Africa, which, for many, continue to be characterised by socio-economic hardship and exclusion, are far from unique.

As some of the actors closest to the violence of our past, ex-combatants provide an entry point into understanding the dynamics of past violence and the continuing impact of this violence: at the personal level, the community level, and for contemporary society. As such their experiences shed light on the challenges of reconciliation and the complex nature of attempting to heal the effects of violence in a society emerging from a history of conflict. In addition, their stories point to the multi-faceted and dynamic nature of contemporary conflict and violence. Indeed, while all South Africans are, to differing degrees, having to adapt to life in the 'new' South Africa, the situation of ex-combatants can be considered to represent the problems and possibilities inherent in the process of transition that society as a whole is experiencing.


54 Although most of these respondents speak Zulu themselves, they distinguish between themselves as Zulu speakers and the 'Green Zulus', who were in the ranks of the IFP enemy. Green Zulus speak 'deep' Zulu and have their origins in the rural areas of KwaZulu Natal. As one respondent explained, 'I'm not a green Zulu. A green Zulu is one that cannot understand. Most of them didn't go to school. At the time they [should have gone to school] they had to chase the cows'.

55 For discussion on this soccer team, see section, Violence and Crime, 'Ex-combatants and criminal involvement'.

56 Obviously a range of other socialising experiences also feed such attitudes. The military is only one factor, and that which is under consideration here. Respondents however frequently link their attitudes on race to their military experiences.

57 Primary research was conducted and the bulk of this report was written while the Truth Commission was still operational. Much of the analysis as well as comments from interviewees therefore relate to the Commission in a contemporary context.

58 These are generally people who they had met in the military, but who had moved into other specialised units such as the CCB.

59 Similarly, (on a very much smaller scale) men captured as SADF soldiers remain in Zimbabwe prisons. A former recce had this to say on the matter, 'There's not even an effort being made to get them out now. You know if the ANC government uses its common sense, it would [score] a lot of points for going and getting them out.'

60 The question remains as to what to do about events that occurred later than the period that the TRC was mandated to address.

61 Programme, Thokoza Monument unveiling ceremony.


Deep-felt thanks to all participants for giving your time and sharing your stories.

Thank you also to the following people:

Piers Pigou for ongoing guidance, encouragement, and editing assistance.

Bronwyn Harris for support of a remarkable, 'way-beyond-the-call-of-friendship-or-colleagueship', kind, throughout the process. Tony Roshan Samara for your astonishing assistance and care in the strenuous final throws. Craig Higson-Smith, Barbara English and Helen Hajiyiannis for editing help and feedback.

Sally Sealy, Dumisane Simelane, Jenny Irish, Steve Manjaro Corry, Michelle Kay, Lukas Bakkes, Paul Thulare, Quinton B. Painter, Steve Terblans, Henri Bosshof, Thabo Rangake, Hezekiel Mothupi; John Dovey, Barry Fowler and 'ArmyTalk' subscribers; as well as those of you at various veterans' associations and elsewhere, who helped to make the research happen.

Kindiza 'saturday-work' Ngubeni, Joy Dladla, Jeffrey Ndumo, Benjamin Dlolo and Traggy Maepa for your facilitation and translation support. Phineas Riba, Mona Saungweme, Pearl Munonde and Nicky Harris for transcriptions and translations. David Macfarlane and Amanda Dissel for putting up with it all.

Colleagues at the CSVR particularly David Bruce, Nokothula Skhosana, Tebogo Mafokoane, Lazarus Kgalema, Hugo van der Merwe, Polly Dewhirst, Sibusiso Ntuli, Lauren Segal, Jonny Steinberg, Yvette Geyer, Frances Spencer and Mary Roberson for encouragement, advice and debriefing.

To Tsepe Motumi, Jabu Dada, Kees Kingma, Martinho Chachiua, Jacklyn Cock, Mafole Mokalobe, Pops Mashike, Guy Lamb, Michelle Parlevliet, Ntombi Mosikare, Thandi Shezi, Trudy de Ridder, Janet Cherry and Mikki van Zyl for generously sharing your knowledge in the area.

Brandon Hamber and Wardie Leppan for your support of the project. Thanks also to Aurora International, particularly Jim Statman; and to Rachel Prinsloo and Clint van der Walt of Technikon South Africa for support and assistance in getting the research into a public arena.

We gratefully acknowledge the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) for the funding that made the study possible. The United States Department of Labor has generously funded the publication of this report. Many thanks.

Violence and Transition Series

The Violence and Transition Series introduces an extensive research project conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) into the nature of violence during South Africa's transition from apartheid rule to democracy. This series comprises a set of self-contained, but interrelated, reports that explore violence across the period 1980-2000 within key social loci and areas, including:

Ø     Revenge Violence and Vigilantism

Ø     Foreigners (immigrants and refugees)

Ø     Hostels and Hostel Residents

Ø     Ex-combatants

Ø     State Security Forces (police and military)

Ø     Taxi Violence

While each report grapples with the dynamics of violence and transition in relation to its particular constituency, all are underpinned by the broad objectives of the series, namely:

Ø     To analyse the causes, extent and forms of violence in South Africa across a timeframe that starts before the political transition and moves through the period characterised by political transformation and reconciliation to the present.

Ø     To assess the legacy of a violent past, and the impact of formal democratisation and transition, on the contemporary nature of violence by researching continuities and changes in its form and targets.

Ø     To investigate the role of perpetrators and victims of violence across this timeframe.

Ø     To evaluate reconciliation strategies and institutions, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), established to ameliorate future violence in South Africa.

Ø     To develop a macro-theory for understanding violence in countries moving from authoritarian to democratic rule, that is, "countries in transition".

Ø     To contribute to local and international debates about reconciliation and justice for perpetrators and victims of gross violations of human rights.

Through these objectives, the Violence and Transition Series aims to inform and benefit:

Ø     Policy analysts,

Ø     Government officials and departments,

Ø     NGOs and civic organisations, and

Ø     Researchers,

working in the fields of:

Ø     Violence prevention,

Ø     Transitional criminal justice,

Ø     Victim empowerment,

Ø     Truth commissions,

Ø     Reconciliation,

Ø     Human rights, and

Ø     Crime prevention.

As a country emerging from a past characterised by violence, repression and struggle, South Africa faces new challenges with the slow maturation of democracy. Violence today is complex, dynamic and creative in form, shaped by both apartheid and the mechanisms of transition itself. In order to understand - and prevent - violence during transition an ongoing action-research agenda is required. Through this series, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, offers an initial and exploratory contribution to this process.

The Violence and Transition Series is funded primarily by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The Project was also supported by the Embassy of Ireland and the Charles Stewart-Mott Foundation.

The United States Department of Labor has funded the publication of this particular report [Volume 8]

Series editors

Piers Pigou

Bronwyn Harris

Brandon Hamber

This research report follows a survey of related literature, Now that the war is over: Ex-combatants, Transition and the Question of Violence. A Literature Review. The latter provides background to many of the issues raised in the current report, and is framed by the following themes:

Ø     South Africa's conflict - who are the combatants?

Ø     Demobilisation and reintegration

Ø     Militarised youth - integration and (lack) of demobilisation initiatives

Ø     Demobilisation, conflict and violence

Ø     War-generated identities as a potential source of future conflict and violence

Ø     War trauma as a potential source of future violence

It is part of the Violence & Transition Series and is available on the CSVR's website.

© Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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.