They fled their homes as teenagers to join the righteous resistance. Decades later, South Africa’s anti-apartheid warriors are still wondering why their beloved country has never had their back.
What Xola Tyamzashe remembers most about his sixteenth birthday is the sound of gunshots slicing through the hot afternoon air. It was 1988 and he was at a guerilla training camp on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – hundreds of miles from Tyamzashe’s native South Africa. It was the farthest he’d ever been from home.
Rows of fighters marched in time to the staccato cries of a drill instructor. Salty sweat dripped from every brow, and yellow dirt crunched under every boot. Most were young men – the youngest just eleven. They’d arrived from all over South Africa, but were united by their shared purpose: destroying the apartheid system that treated black South Africans as less than human.
Tyamzashe gripped the semi-automatic rifle he’d been issued and fixed his gaze on the inky silhouette of a paper target. Unlike many of his comrades, he was naturally gifted with the build of a soldier – tall and broad-shouldered with long muscular arms. Only the smoothness of his face betrayed his tender age. As he squeezed off rounds, Tyamzashe imagined that each target was the sneering face of an apartheid regime officer.
Tyamzashe and thousands of others had fled South Africa and joined the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA). Over the next four years, Tyamzashe set foot on his native soil only during military strikes orchestrated by the APLA. He had no contact with family or friends. He didn’t even know if they were alive.
“It was either kill or be killed,” Tyamzashe says. “We were fighting an unjust system.”
But more than two decades after the fall of apartheid, Tyamzashe and others still feel they are fighting an unjust system, one that refuses to compensate them for their sacrifices. Tyamzashe says veterans like him who took part in the anti-apartheid struggle are suffering because the government – fronted by the African National Congress (ANC), a social democratic party that’s been in power since 1994 – has failed to deliver on promises of financial assistance and social services like housing. There are 71,000 people currently registered in the Department of Military Veterans database. Many of the fighters Tyamzashe trained with in Tanzania are now unemployed, homeless, incarcerated or dead.
“You ask yourself, ‘Was it really worth it? Did I have to go through all that?’” says Nontsikelelo Nqikashe, an APLA veteran turned military human resource assistant director. She joined the APLA as a teenager because she believed armed resistance was the only answer to apartheid – and, she laughingly admits, because she liked the recruiters’ shirts.
Tyamzashe, now 44, lives alone in Bronkhorstspruit, South Africa, a sleepy town with a population just over three thousand. Although his face has lost its youthful smoothness over the years, he still carries his muscular frame with a militant confidence. His home is a thatch-roofed rondavel – a round hut made of local materials including straw and palm fronds – set on another man’s farmland. He has no running water or electricity. The small amount of money he earns comes from odd handyman jobs, just enough to buy meager meals. And yet, Tyamzashe considers himself one of the lucky ones.
“We were young and idealistic,” he says, speaking slowly and expressively, although his eyes have a strange intensity that is, at times, unsettling. “I thought ending apartheid would end our suffering. It just changed it.
In Afrikaans, the word apartheid means “the state of being apart.” Apartheid legislation was enforced by the ruling National Party (NP) from 1948 to 1991, classifying citizens by four main racial groups: black, white, colored and Indian. Residential areas, medical facilities, beaches, restaurants, schools and other public places were racially segregated and anyone violating segregation laws could be arrested on the spot. Interracial relationships were also illegal. Trevor Noah, popular South African comedian and host of “The Daily Show,” was born to a black mother of the Xhosa tribe – South Africa’s second-largest ethnic group – and a white Swiss-German father. He often jokes that when walking down the street with his mother in South Africa, she would drop his hand as they passed by police, making him feel “like a bag of weed.” Noah’s mother was jailed and fined multiple times by the apartheid government for her relationship with a white man.
Between 1960 and 1983, 3.5 million non-white South Africans were forcibly moved from their homes and into segregated neighborhoods. Black and ethnic South Africans increasingly lost basic rights and privileges, becoming less than second-class citizens in their own country and required to carry passbooks. Tyamzashe once saw an elderly black woman harassed and beaten by regime officers who claimed she had the wrong passbook for that area. Although he’d witnessed countless incidents like this, something about the way the old woman passively accepted the abuse profoundly affected him.
“I knew I had to fight no matter what the cost,” he says.
A total of around 21,000 people died as a result of political violence in South Africa during apartheid, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission. These attacks fueled the resistance. The two main military factions that rallied to fight the apartheid regime were the (APLA), affiliated with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) political party, and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), affiliated with the African National Congress.
These groups focused their energy on orchestrating acts of sabotage on key government buildings. In December 1961, MK announced its existence by detonating five bombs in Port Elizabeth, the largest city in the Eastern Cape province and the site of many power plants and government structures. MK became increasingly bold with its choice of targets over the years, launching an attack on the Koeberg Nuclear Station in Cape Town and the South African Air Force Headquarters in the 1980s.
APLA coordinated armed strikes, as well as bank robberies, to put pressure on the apartheid regime. The group drew criticism from the international community for also engaging in so-called “soft target attacks” where white civilians were targeted. The most infamous of these attacks was the 1993 St. James Church Massacre where four APLA fighters opened fire in a Cape Town church, killing eleven congregants and injuring 58.
Although MK and APLA were guided by different political ideologies, they were united in the struggle against apartheid – a struggle they eventually won.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela, himself a member of the ANC, was elected president of South Africa in the country’s first universal suffrage election. Mandela’s newly established democratic government immediately began laying the groundwork for a system of “integration” for ex-combatants into a new South African National Defense Force (SANDF). This proved logistically difficult. The sheer number of soldiers involved was arguably too large for the new government to handle, and then there was the matter of conflicting philosophies and lingering resentment. Many veterans weren’t integrated into the SANDF either by choice or exclusion.
The Truth and Reconciliation Committee – a court-like restorative justice body – assembled in 1996 to essentially repair relations between blacks and whites in South Africa. Combatants on both sides of the struggle were granted amnesty as long as their actions had been politically motivated. Not everyone agreed with the TRC’s rulings.
“There are former apartheid regime officers walking free in the streets,” Tyamzashe says. “How is that justice?”
Tyamzashe and others claim they knew early on that the newly established ANC government was not the ideal they’d fought for.
“The entire situation was not acceptable to us,” says Nontsikelelo Nqikashe, the fellow APLA vet. “We could see at some point in time we were going to be faced with challenges.”
Freedom fighters living in exile in nearby countries like Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique were flown back into the country for government-organized integration.
In 1994, Tyamzashe, then 22, boarded a plane along with dozens of his comrades bound for their homeland. The newly established government paid for the trip. He watched out the window as Tanzania’s sun-scorched savannah melted into South Africa’s dusty grasslands. After six years of struggle, he was home.
As they stepped off the plane, four white generals of the South African Defense Force greeted them, some of the same generals Tyamzashe and his comrades had fought against. Tyamzashe doesn’t recall their names, but their words are seared into his memory. “They told us, ‘gentlemen, let’s forget about the past,’” says Tyamzashe, spitting the words bitterly. “I knew then that it was inevitable many of us would end up in prison or worse.”
Like many returning freedom fighters, Tyamzashe had no friends, no family and no support system to speak of in this new South Africa. Most of the fighters had joined the struggle at a young age, trading pencils and school uniforms for pistols and military fatigues. Many felt that by telling returned freedom fighters to forget about the past, the government was essentially washing its hands of anything that might remind people of the ugliness of apartheid, including the veterans who fought the system.
* * *
Not all of South Africa’s freedom fighters were coming from exile in neighboring countries. Some were released from prisons across the country, including the infamous Robben Island facility, off the coast of Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela was held for eighteen of his 27 years of confinement.
One of those prisoners was Isaac Mthiunye, 73, who joined the APLA in 1957 when he was eighteen. After being captured by the regime during a guerilla warfare operation, he was sent to Robben Island. He lived behind its cold concrete walls for more than two decades.
When apartheid fell, prison officers wordlessly loaded Mthiunye and other prisoners onto a truck and drove them from the complex. The officers dumped him and the others on the side of an unfamiliar street in a nearby township. They were given no money, no supplies and no explanation.
Mthiunye was 21 the last time he had walked the streets as a free man. When he was dropped on the side of the road that day he was nearly forty. “I had never seen so many people for the past 25 years or so,” he says. “To see so many people just at that moment was so frightening.” Mthiunye was so shaken he says he almost felt compelled to return to the familiar tidings of prison.
“We never received any form of counseling after our release,” says Mthiunye, upset at the government’s lack of concern for him and the other prisoners, and adding, “I don’t think any form of counseling would help today. It is too late. The damage is done.”
Modiegi Merafe, community facilitator at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg and an APLA veteran, says many freedom fighters suffered lasting psychological effects of their trauma, which made picking up the pieces of their shattered lives challenging, if not impossible. He says many veterans approach his organization complaining of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, inability to hold down a job, financial woes – shattered lives and shattered psyches.
Tyamzashe, too, is still haunted by images of the past. He vividly recalls a time when he contracted malaria in Tanzania. The soldier in the bed next to his suffered from the same condition, but the malaria parasite had travelled to the man’s brain, choking blood vessels and causing life-threatening swelling. “He sat up in bed and stared straight ahead, then opened his mouth wide and started screaming. He didn’t stop,” says Tyamzashe. No amount of painkillers administered by the hospital staff would silence him. He died soon after.
Later that same night, Tyamzashe’s camp received orders to move its base. Still too weak from malarial infection to walk, he was loaded onto the bed of a pickup truck. The body of the soldier who had died was stretched out right alongside him. As the truck jostled over miles of dust and dirt, Tyamzashe could feel the dead man’s skin growing cold against his own feverish flesh.
Although veterans protested the lack of government support for years, the Department of Military Veterans wasn’t created until 2009. Another two years passed before the Military Veterans Act of 2011 was established, promising, monthly military pensions, subsidized housing, comprehensive health services, public transport, educational support, job placement, burial support, entrepreneurial support and counseling. But the rollout of those benefits has been agonizingly slow.
APLA veterans, who are politically tied to the minority party, PAC, have made accusations of political favoritism in rollouts. “I’m from the wrong party,” says Tyamzashe.
The 2013/2014 annual report from the South African Department of Military Veterans itself lends credence to those claims. The report shows MK veterans were nearly twice as likely to be verified for veteran status when compared with APLA veterans.
Mbulelo Musi, director of communications at the Department of Military Veterans, vehemently denies accusations of political favoritism. “Our mandate is to service to the best of our ability everyone equally,” says Musi. “I come from MK; my death is not less than a death of an APLA cadre.”
The Department of Military Veterans has recently released statements regarding their intention to accelerate the rollout of benefits. That’s little consolation for people like Tyamzashe who feel they have received nothing from the government but neglect.
* * *
Several times a week, Tyamzashe makes the 47-mile trek west to Pretoria to seek employment and financial assistance at the Department of Military Veterans.
On a warm day in July, Tyamzashe walks through the sliding automatic doors, exchanging friendly banter with the guards. They ask him in Zulu what he’s doing there, but they already know. Once inside, Tyamzashe walks from office to office, zigzagging across stark white hallways to talk to people with a wide range of titles. None seem surprised to see him.
Tyamzashe doesn’t ask for anything directly, but reminds them with a smile and a firm handshake that he is still there, still unemployed, still a veteran in need.
Tyamzashe walks away empty-handed, as he’s done dozens of times before. His practiced smile disappears the instant he rounds the corner. “The new person they hired, he’s not even a veteran,” he says.
The job hunt unsuccessful, Tyamzashe next visits fellow veteran Thabo Bodibe who lives in Atteridgeville, a squatter camp just outside Pretoria. Bodibe, 56, greets Tyamzashe wearing a frayed and lightly stained yellow sweater. He is only around five-foot-three, but moves with such energy and sureness that he seems to occupy more than his share of space. His clothes, like the dilapidated metal shack he calls home, smell of cigarettes, beer and damp soil. Bodibe has lived in the squatter camp for nearly a decade after repeatedly trying – and failing – to hold down a steady job. The shack has no electricity and the only water source is a communal pump in the yard. He makes a few rand selling the avocados and sugar cane that grow in his yard.
Bodibe’s wife left him several years ago, taking their two children with her. “The only complaint she brought to me was that I could not provide,” he says. “If what I stood for took care of me, I think I would have been quoted as a very good father.”
Tyamzashe and Bodibe stand for a long time under the trees near Bodibe’s shack, speaking quietly in Xhosa. It isn’t until the sun begins to set, bathing the trees and grass around them in warm, golden light that Bodibe realizes he hasn’t fed his guests. “Do you like avocados?” he asks, disappearing around the corner of the shack before Tyamzashe can respond. Bodibe reemerges a few minutes later holding half a dozen large avocados, their skin a glossy dark green. He juggles the fruit playfully, laughing and flashing a smile that is warm despite the cigarette-yellowed teeth.
Bodibe hands over the avocados then dashes off again, this time uprooting a nearby sugar cane. He breaks the massive root with his bare hands and gnaws on the sweet, fleshy inside. He then uses his teeth to break off a large section for his friend. “Thabo is a good man,” says Tyamzashe, biting into the sugar cane.
Bodibe wasn’t always homeless and unemployed. He discovered he had a knack for chemistry when he was a high school student. Much to his teachers’ alarm, he was particularly adept at “incendiaries.” Because of his skills, he was recruited by APLA when he was eighteen. He worked his way up the ranks quickly, becoming an expert bomb-maker for the resistance, making dozens of Molotov cocktails and other explosives used to fight the apartheid regime. Bodibe spent nearly two decades living in exile in Tanzania training APLA recruits.
During that time, apartheid officers continually harassed Thabo’s mother, Johanna Bodibe, who remained in South Africa. Johanna once received a note from Thabo by mail. The letter didn’t contain any vital information and there was no return address. But it was enough for regime officers to burst into Johanna’s home, hold her at gunpoint, and demand that she divulge the location of Thabo’s training camp.
“They were pointing their guns at me and saying ‘praat praat praat’ – talk talk talk,” says Johanna. But there was nothing for her to reveal. When she saw the officers coming she’d chewed and swallowed the letter whole.
Although APLA veterans assert there were no formal ranks within their military group, Bodibe was highly respected as a leader.
Sitting in the sun’s fading glow, Bodibe glances behind him at the rusted metal walls of his shack. “This is how I’m living after fighting for this liberation,” he says.
“Mandela said ‘free at last,’” adds Tyamzashe. “So who’s free?”
* * *
Not far from Thabo’s shack in Atteridgeville, Tyamzashe and a handful of other veterans sit and drink beer in a friend’s front yard. Some of the men sit on plastic chairs, others on overturned buckets and crates while the rest recline on the grass. It’s not a weekly occurrence, or even monthly. It happens organically, whenever a few of them happen to be in the same neighborhood and someone has a few rand to spare for beer. They jokingly call this informal gathering “Camp 32.”
When there’s a lull in the conversation, Solomon Seabi, an APLA veteran and former spy for the SANDF, pulls a small book out of his bag. The hard cover is worn and faded from years of handling, its pages beyond yellowed, a sickly brown. Seabi tells the group that it’s a grade-school history book printed in 1986, during apartheid.
It was the last textbook he received before dropping out of school to join APLA. The first few chapters in the book describe how European colonists arrived in South Africa to find “primitive” African tribal cultures living in “a wild and desolate country.” There is a large crimson stamp from the Department of Education and Training.
“You see that word?” asks Seabi, pointing to the seal. “‘Training’ – why did they use that word? You can only train an animal.”
The cover of the history book indicates it is intended for Standard 5 – the equivalent of middle school in the U.S. Most of the men assembled dropped out of school around that point in their education to join the fight against apartheid. While their classmates back in South Africa were reading about the colonization of the country by white settlers, Tyamzashe, Bodibe, Seabi and others were learning to shoot rifles and make petrol bombs. Despite its clear bias, or perhaps because of it, Seabi has kept his last school textbook all these years.
Tyamzashe picks up the textbook, shaking his head. “Until the lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter,” says Tyamzashe, quoting an African proverb.
In an instant, and with no obvious impetus, the atmosphere at “Camp 32” turns hostile. Seabi stands to collect his book, but instead winds up nose-to-nose with another veteran, yelling in Xhosa. The man, empty beer bottle clenched in one hand, uses the other hand to grab Seabi by the shirt collar. More veterans stand in response. Bottle caps glint like spent bullet casings in the grass around them. Meanwhile, Seabi’s book lies on the ground, forgotten.
The argument ends as quickly as it began. The instigator is escorted to the steps in front of a nearby house and told to cool his heels. Seabi and the other veterans are back to lounging in a semi-circle, joking and smoking. Someone offers to go get more beer.
The conversation turns to current events and growing discontent with the ANC-led government. They laugh darkly about the media fiasco that ensued after it was revealed that South Africa’s President Zuma had spent more than 3.9 million rand – more than $307,000 US – on an indoor pool at his sprawling private residence. Zuma defended the splurge by saying the structure is a “fire pool” required for safety reasons. Meanwhile, around 54 percent of South Africa’s population lives below the poverty line, these men among them.
“I still don’t have a house, I don’t earn a salary,” says Tyamzashe. “I survive. I just survive.”
As the light fades, the men stand to say their goodbyes. It’s winter in South Africa and the sun sets surprisingly quickly. Soon, it’s difficult to make out the men’s faces, only the dusky outlines of their heads and shoulders – like paper targets.