War of words over war veterans

A war of words is heating up between those who served in the pre-independence South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF as it was known) and Namibia's ruling party, SWAPO.

Author

July 31st, 2013

A war of words is heating up between those who served in the pre-independence South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF as it was known) and Namibia's ruling party, SWAPO.

Reacting to an announcement that the group of former fighters, known as the Namibian War Veterans Trust, were planning to sue the government over the N$36 million that was paid over to SWAPO at independence in 1990 by the South African government, SWAPO Secretary General, Nangolo Mbumba, came out fighting – claiming that they should “pay the price for siding with the former colonial masters and killing their own people.”

Linus Tobias, the group's coordinator in the northern Oshana region, hit back saying that Mbumba was trying to stir up antagonism between former members of SWATF, Koevoet (apartheid South Africa’s notorious counter-insurgency unit) and the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).

"His statement goes against national reconciliation and it further instils fear in the hearts of people who are already afraid of us because we fought for the South African government," said Tobias, adding that the SWAPO government was "using a worse system of colonialism than the South African government did during apartheid."

At the root of the group’s unhappiness is the fact that the Veterans Act excludes those who 'fought on the other side'. In terms of this Act, war veterans are entitled to pay-outs, monthly pensions, assistance with school fees and various other benefits – but only for veterans who fought for the right side.

For some time, the SWATF group has been threatening legal action to force the government to amend the Act to include them. They, too, want to be recognised as veterans so that they can benefit from social grants. But their demands have been ignored by the government, which insists that the definition of war veteran does not apply to them.

However, the definition of 'war veteran' is very wide-reaching. In 2006, the government created a Veterans Ministry to deal with the registration of an estimated 40,000 war veterans. But it is not only former fighters who qualify. The Act talks about 'former freedom fighters who were in exile and those who remained inside the country'. This has caused considerable controversy as has the fact that veterans have to register to get their benefits – a time-consuming and costly process.

On the other hand, the Namibia War Veterans Trust says it has registered about 20,000 former members of SWATF, with an estimated 5,000 still to come. And when these are registered, the Trust also plans to pressurise the South African Government for compensation and benefits – since the Namibian authorities seem bent on continuing to exclude them.

Last year Ndeunyama Jabulani, Executive Director of the Trust, said that the law in Namibia was discriminatory and a "far cry from what is happening in other countries such as Angola and South Africa" where ex-fighters from opposing sides were treated equally.

But it is not just former SWATF members who are growing increasingly irate. Recently, the Veterans Ministry decided to accord veteran status to a man, who was 13 years old when he was roasted over a fire by South African troops during the conflict. Described as a 'PLAN messenger' it was decided that he fit the criteria to get the cash and benefits.

However, when another man came forward soon afterwards claiming that he had been injured in a bombing in northern Namibia in the war years and should also be recompensed, the Ministry said he was not entitled, as he had been simply 'caught in the crossfire' and would need to prove he had been in the service of the liberation movement to get veteran status.

This decision is fuelling a great deal of unhappiness as there are many other people who suffered in one way or another for their pro-SWAPO affiliations prior to independence and who believe that they, too, should be recognised for their sacrifice – and given benefits.

It is an unhappy – and increasingly tense – situation. With unemployment cutting deep, an estimated 25,000 former fighters for the South African regime out in the cold and growing dissension in the ranks of those who were pro-SWAPO and who feel they deserve benefits, the war of words is bound to intensify in the coming months.

The SWAPO government will have its work cut out to defend what appears to be its indefensible bias towards its definition of ‘war veterans’.

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