Ex Namibia defence chief backs Geingob on Koevoet saga ….as President says former apartheid SA soldiers cannot get veterans status
By Magreth Nunuhe and Lahja Nashuuta
Windhoek – Former chief of the Namibian Defence Force, retired Lieutenant-General Martin Shalli has thrown his weight behind President Hage Geingob’s stance on the former members of the Koevoet and South West Africa Territory Force (SWATF) who are demanding to be accorded veteran status and receive lump-sum pay-outs from the State.
Geingob made his stance during Heroes’ Day commemoration on 26 August 2017 at Oshakati in Oshana Region in northern Namibia when he dismissed the demands of the SWATF and Koevoet regiments who want to be given similar status like former freedom fighters of Swapo’s military wing, the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN).
The SWATF and Koevoet were a creation of the apartheid regime of South Africa and deployed more than 25 000 Namibians to back the South African Defence Force (SADF) in fighting the Swapo guerrillas during colonialism.
“We will never be convinced that entertaining the demands of former Koevoet soldiers to be recognised as war veterans is constructive. They were paid by those who hired them and will not receive compensation from government, unlike the former People’s Liberation Army of Namibia combatants who fought for independence on a voluntary basis,” Geingob said, while addressing the multitudes that turned for the heroes day commemorations.
Shalli, who is also a former high ranking commander of PLAN, the armed military wing that successfully fought for independence, noted that the SWATF and Koevoet were not liberation forces as they were part of the oppressive apartheid military.
“I completely support the President. Nobody prevented them from joining the liberation struggle. They were hired and paid. We know about people who were queuing up voluntarily. There was conscription, while others were ready to die for their country. Where were they on record?” asked Shalli.
A war veteran is defined in the Namibian Veterans’ Act of 2008 as a person who was a member of the liberation struggle and who consistently and persistently participated in the political, diplomatic or underground activities in support of the struggle.
The Veterans Fund (Veterans Act, Act No. 2 of 2008), provide and assist veterans and dependents of veterans with the establishment of projects for the benefit of and assistance to veterans and dependants of veterans; provision for the integration of pension benefits of veterans; provision for the constitution and functions of the Veterans Board and Veterans Appeal Board; and to provide for matters incidental to or connected with the foregoing.
“The Veteran’s Act was very clear that only members of PLAN qualified. There is no way SWATF would qualify. There is no comparison; they cannot demand veteran status. It does not mean that the policy of reconciliation did not work; there were many who collaborated with the enemy, but today they work for the NDF. They were forgiven,” Shalli said.
The former army chief stressed that the first Namibian President, Dr Sam Nujoma declared the policy of reconciliation and national forgiveness and as an example, former enemies were fully integrated into the Namibian Defence Force, with half of PLAN and half of SWATF.
“The Koevoet was never demobilised and became part of the Namibian police. For SWATF it was different, with Resolution 435, it was demobilised and taken up into the NDF. Reconciliation was a continual process until the late 1990s. There was no retribution,” Shalli said, adding that he did not agree with their demands as they could demand retirement pension, but could not demand to be war veterans.
But Jabulani Ndeunyema, chairperson of the Namibia War Veterans Trust (NamVet), the body which represents former SWATF and Koevoet members, vowed that they would continue fighting for status as war veterans.
“The relationship between us and State House is not so bad. We hope that they will listen,” he added, saying that some months ago they submitted proposals to State House, and were awaiting government to approve their proposals.
Ndeunyema said that he had no problem with the President making such a statement on Heroes Day.
“There is a difference between politicians making a statement in public or openly and behind a closed door,” said Ndeunyema, claiming that the 16 November 2017 closed door meeting with the President was “beautiful”.
Although he did not want to divulge information about what was discussed in the meeting, he said that they had tackled important issues, including the demands for veteran status and or discussions on how they could benefit without veteran status.
However, Ndeunyema maintained that Swapo interpreted wrongly or bulldozed the Veteran’s Act, as it was discriminatory and violates Article 10 of the Namibian Constitution, under Equality and Freedom from Discrimination, which says that “All persons shall be equal before the law. No persons may be discriminated against on the grounds of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion, creed or social or economic status”.
“The Act violates our equal rights. You cannot divide Namibians,” he lashed out.
He argued that a military veteran is any person who participated and was trained to work with weapons of war and that person should therefore be accorded veteran status irrespective on which side they fought.
“That is why in Angola Unita and MPLA members are recognised. The same goes for South African veterans, who are SADF and ANC’s Umkonto We Sizwe,” he reckoned.
Ndeunyema said that he did not want to open old wounds because of the policy of national reconciliation, but said that members joined the notorious forces because they were the only ones that could offer money and jobs at the time.
Some former members of Koevoet and SWATF who spoke on condition of anonymity said that South Africa’s influence was heavy because they had resources directed at indoctrinating minds.
“Some were coerced into joining through intimidating tactics, which were not overly successful. Joining Koevoet was entirely voluntary, which mainly attracted school drop outs,” he said.
But a white former SWATF member said that “you got jailed and if you absconded they chased you.”
“Military service was compulsory. Full stop. It was compulsory to do your time as a white, you had no chance of getting out of it by law. Only medical unfitness was the exemption,” said the former fighter.
Others blamed Bantu education, which they said played a major role in the propaganda against Swapo and PLAN.
“There was a concerted effort to get school kids to turn away from Swapo and an indication of this was the deployment of SADF/SWATF as teachers into schools to reinforce the anti-Swapo doctrine.
The executive director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, Graham Hopwood, also understands why those who fought for South Africa cannot be recognised as full veterans. “Unfortunately for them, they were on the wrong side of history,” he said.
On the other hand, Hopwood felt that they could still be assisted in other ways in the spirit of national reconciliation and added that it should be remembered that fighters from both sides prior to 1990 formed the NDF and as such this was one of the more effective expressions of national reconciliation and had greatly contributed to the peaceful atmosphere in Namibia since then.
“In the same vein it should be possible to have some understanding and sympathy for the situation these former fighters are in 27 years after independence.
Some were conscripted or forced to join these units. It would be better to talk to these disaffected groups, as the President has done previously, rather than condemn them on national days that should promote unity,” said Hopwood.
He said that they could be offered counselling, practical help to integrate fully into civilian life, and access to start-up finance for businesses, for example, without being given full veteran status.
“Unfortunately, social services in Namibia are weak – otherwise they could have been given assistance and advice long ago,” he added.
Political commentator Phanuel Kaapama said that Namibia was one country and therefore direct dialogue was needed.
He preferred to concentrate on the policy of reconciliation which was introduced at independence, which he said seemed to be too slow and “became a process of erosion in the way it was adopted”.
Kaapama said that, for instance, the national land conference of 1991 decided to shelve the issue of ancestral land because it could lead to disunity.
He added that the dungeons issue was also discouraged in the spirit of reconciliation, but has resurfaced.
The dungeons issue refers to the alleged detention into dungeons of renegade Swapo members who were suspected of spying on the liberation movement on behalf of apartheid South Africa.
“We need to redefine our policy of reconciliation. Why was it possible to draw a consensus at independence, but now all that has disappeared?” he asked.
“We have to take stock as to what reconciliation means after 27 years and what happened.”