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South Africa: Who is behind the pro-Zuma ANC military ‘veterans’?

By Anna Maree, in Johannesburg
Posted on Thursday, 25 March 2021 19:15

Members of the Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), chant slogans in support of former South African president Jacob Zuma, as they attend a public inquiry into state graft, in Johannesburg
Members of the Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA), chant slogans in support of former South African president Jacob Zuma, as they attend a public inquiry into state graft, in Johannesburg, South Africa July 15, 2019. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Concerns have been mounting over attempts by an increasingly militant faction in South Africa’s governing African National Congress to mobilise support for former president Jacob Zuma in his efforts to defy the law. How far might they go?

A few dozen party members dressed in camouflage and claiming to be veterans of the ANC’s anti-apartheid liberation struggle in its former military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (known as MK), have been stationing themselves outside the entrance of Zuma’s Nkandla homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Zuma was threatened with arrest after he defied a court order compelling him to testify in front of the state capture inquiry that was set up more than three years ago to investigate large-scale state corruption that happened under his watch.

A self-proclaimed commander of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) Mduduzi Mkhize, referred to Zuma by his clan name when he told local television station Newzroom Afrika: “We are here peacefully to ensure that Msholozi’s rights are not violated.”

The group is also opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership of the ANC and of the country.

One of the most prominent Zuma supporters and MKMVA spokesperson, struggle stalwart Carl Niehaus, was once Nelson Mandela’s spokesperson but years later got sacked by the ANC for lying about his mother’s death to escape repaying a loan. He has been very vocal about the group’s aims, his statements very militant, threatening that any attempt to arrest Zuma “will lead to massive instability, that will not be in the interest of our country.”

He described the attempts to get Zuma to testify about the large-scale corruption that happened under his rule as an “insidious factional political project” against Zuma, who was part of the liberation army when in exile himself, and claimed the men were “trained members of Umkhonto we Sizwe and are members now of Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association”, but denied that they had any policing functions.

Struggling veteran Frank Chikane says this constituted nothing more than a militia group attempting to operate outside the law: “We are not talking about military veterans. There are no military veterans that will violate the law of any country,” he says.

Some members of the group last month tried to prevent police minister Bheki Cele from entering Zuma’s residence for a meeting. It was speculated that Cele attempted to persuade Zuma to comply with the court ruling.

There have, however, been no reported large-scale arrests of any of the MKMVA members thus far.

Push back

Chikane is one of those who has pushed for this to change.

Last week, he was part of an initiative by a grouping of more than 300 civil society organisations and prominent individuals who got together to push back against those who are defending Zuma under the banner of Defend Our Democracy.

A number of leaders from the ANC as well as its alliance partners, labour federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), are also part of the group. One of them is former Zuma ally, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande, who on Sunday 21 March called for action against the “militias”.

“No democracy can leave unattended the threats for a coup or civil war made from within such quarters,” he said.

But it is a complicated matter.

A retired general in the faction supporting Zuma last year went as far as lobbying for support amongst members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) when he called a “cadres assembly”, to discuss the “mismanagement” of the ANC.

About turn

This was a direct attack on Ramaphosa’s presidency, and the SANDF reacted vehemently, saying it “remains an organisation which is above politics, serving the sovereign security interests of the republic as mandated by the Constitution.”

Ramaphosa himself has taken this seriously, and has delegated his deputy, David Mabuza, to lead high-level efforts to deal with the grievances of military veterans who fought for the ANC and other former liberation movements.

These veterans are supposed to be favoured for state employment that suits their skills, as well as farming projects on expropriated land, but this hasn’t always been consistently applied or lawfully done.

They are also supposed to receive small government grants, but some slip through the cracks and live in poverty.

Skill set for hire

There is a general belief that the group does not have the necessary support within the military to stage a full-blown coup, but they do have the capacity to cause severe disruption.

Some have, for example, turned to crime to make a living and are applying their military skills as part of syndicates responsible for violent robberies involving cash-in-transit vehicles.

Last year there were 31 cash-in-transit heists, the police reported.

There have also been reports of MKMVA members fuelling xenophobic violence by attacking foreign traders in the Durban city centre in KwaZulu-Natal.

Former ANC military veteran Omry Mokgoale, who does not support the Zuma grouping, says many of those recently recruited to be members of MKMVA were not in the liberation struggle but are promised material benefits if they sign up.

Many are simply too young.

“By 1994, if you weren’t 15 years old, then you can’t be an MK veteran, because we did not have 10-year-olds in MK,” he says. “Anybody less than 15 would not have qualified to have been MK because you would have been a child. Child soldiers, we didn’t have that.”

Militia recruitment

MKMVA leaders like its president, Kebby Maphatsoe and Carl Niehaus, the structure’s spokesperson, are responsible for the recruiting process, Mokgoale says.

They are also given camouflage uniforms – a questionable move since it appears to pit them against South Africa’s official army.

“Once they are classified as MK veterans, they will organise benefits for them: social benefits, money, grants,” says Mokgoale. The “real veterans” often slip through the cracks and end up starving or having to fend for themselves.

“We, at our age, we are supposed to get these military veteran suits that are green, but not combat. You can’t have a paramilitary army that has a government, police, and army,” he adds.

Mokgoale says the government’s law enforcement structures have thus far failed to act against members abusing the structure because they are supported by the man who was elected into the full-time position to oversee the governing party’s day-to-day running: ANC secretary general Ace Magashule.

Magashule, who himself faces corruption charges and is out on R200 000 (€11,360) bail, also leads the faction in the ANC that is sympathetic to Zuma.

“Those [who] have captured the ANC are using Kebby and Carl to run the factions, so that they appear to be more militant and more revolutionary against what they call ‘white monopoly capital’,” Mokgoale says, with reference to the term the Zuma-Magashule camp has been using for established and big business outside of their business networks.

“This is all part of the fake propaganda,” he adds, to try and portray Ramaphosa as someone who is pandering to those business interests at the expense of serving the impoverished majority.

The Vets and the RETs

Niehaus, who is employed in Magashule’s office, has also for the past couple of years been heading a structure called Radical Economic Transformation, which uses ANC colours and platforms to organise and meet.

The structure has thus far been used to oppose Ramaphosa’s leadership and to lobby for causes supportive of Magashule and Zuma.

Even though the recently-launched Defend Our Democracy’s Chikane says the structure wasn’t aimed at intervening in ANC politics, it does hope that it will be able to push back against this militant defence of leaders like Zuma and Magashule.

“If we could allow people because they have power, or have influence to say ‘I’m not complying [with the law] but the poor must’, it can’t be a democracy,” he says. “If you allow this to happen then an ordinary criminal will do the same. They will organise people so they can stop police from arresting a drug kingpin. What would you do if that happens?”

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