UPHILL BATTLE:  Members of liberation movement armies are going through a verification process before state benefits are granted. Picture: SOWETAN
Picture: SOWETAN

DEFENCE and Military Veterans Deputy Minister Thabang Makwetla says the Department of Military Veterans is in a race against time to fill vacancies and start providing services to an estimated 56,000 beneficiaries, now that the Treasury has allocated it a budget of R300m — much below the R500m asked for.

"The levels of expectations — particularly from former liberation soldiers who have not been recognised — is enormous, so the department has to hit the ground running and is beginning to provide essential services, such as access to health, as a matter of urgency," Mr Makwetla says.

The budget is for all former soldiers, as defined by the Military Veterans Act of 2011. These soldiers would have fought either as former freedom fighters against apartheid or in defence of that regime. This includes soldiers of former homeland TBVC states (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei), former South African Defence Force (SADF) soldiers of all units, and members of former liberation movement armies such as Umkhonto weSizwe of the African National Congress, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and Azanian National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Azanian People’s Organisation.

Bennet Joko, PAC deputy secretary-general, says the establishment of the department has been long overdue as too many former liberation movement soldiers remain "out in the cold" as verification processes drag on. "Too much attention has been given to former SADF and soldiers of TBVC states, while freedom fighters have to jump too many hurdles before they are accepted as authentic beneficiaries."

Kebby Maphatsoe, president of South African National Military Veterans Association, doubts that the department will manage to fill all outstanding posts and roll out meaningful services. "We are still verifying members, their appeal board is yet to be established to hear cases of rejected applications, and the advisory board for the minister is also not established."

Under President Jacob Zuma, the ministry of defence was tasked with establishing an additional department to focus on the plight of military veterans, following intense lobbying for a full ministry responsible for veterans affairs.

"There was a feeling that the government was not doing enough to acknowledge the contributions of former soldiers who made sacrifices to bring freedom for every South African and that they needed to be dealt with as a special group, just as the government does with disabled persons, women and children," says Mr Makwetla.

The Military Veterans Act of 2011 came into effect in December 2011, and the department was established with a budget of about R50m. It has a staff of about 40 people out of 181 approved posts.

Mr Makwetla says he is not worried by the scarcity of resources as the department has had to build capacity to spend the budget effectively and efficiently, which would encourage the Treasury to "progressively increase the budget" based on track record.

"We will know we have achieved high levels of consciousness and recognition of our former soldiers irrespective of the side on which they fought, when civil servants and our communities prioritise military veterans in the same way they show respect for elders or women in public and private institutions around the country, such as health, education and transport facilities.

"The department’s job is to make their lives much better after they have ended their careers as ‘soldiers’ rather than force them to choose a life of being dogs of war, and missionaries who are enticed to destabilise other countries .…

"After all, the government legislated against and criminalised any attempt by former soldiers to offer their skills elsewhere by turning into guns for hire. This means the state has to provide an alternative means of livelihood, including new skills to help people survive … post-military life," says Mr Makwetla.