Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

War Veterans and Democracy in South Africa: 'A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing'?

Academic journal article Strategic Review for Southern Africa

War Veterans and Democracy in South Africa: 'A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing'?

Article excerpt


The recent appearance of Umkhonto we Sizwe * military veterans in camouflage uniforms on the streets of Cape Town demanding an apology from the newly elected premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, following a letter to the president raises a number of fundamental questions, of which the most important relates to the potential influence of the military veterans on the democratic dispensation in South Africa. Is it desirable in a new and fragile democracy to have a paramilitary force operate within the niche normally reserved for civil society groups in order to challenge the state? The article analyses the place of these military veterans in a democracy and consider the desirability of their presence within civil society.


Alex Thomson writes in An Introduction to African Politics that the political instability in African states is predominantly the result of the inability of government and civil society to engage with each other productively. (1) The root cause of this phenomenon is complicated, but political instability of this nature can be attributed primarily to a too strong centralised state that fails to interact effectively with its civil society. This is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of civil societies in Africa are weak, underdeveloped or dysfunctional, and that there are very few formally organised structures operating between the individual and the state constituting a buffer against the abuse of authority. Civil society is therefore generally unable to counteract government or to exercise a positive influence on policies to enhance democracy.

The underdeveloped state of civil society interrelationship was a feature of pre-democratic South Africa. In the decade before democratisation, organised 'black' civil society (represented predominantly by the United Democratic Front--UDF) was brutally suppressed and never allowed to engage meaningfully with the former South African or apartheid government. In order to achieve a substantial level of democratisation it is of paramount importance that a viable and assertive civil society develops alongside state authority to provide balance and to create accountability within the political system. At present, one of the most vocal and assertive of the civil society organisations in South Africa is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which has demonstrated how an interest or pressure group can make headway against the stronger state apparatus.

Within South African civil society an interesting situation has arisen involving the trade union federation COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) which--whilst itself a member of the tri-member ruling party--regularly deploys its affiliated members to protest against government policies. At the time of writing the most recent example was COSATU's threat of industrial action in response to a proposal by Barbara Hogan, the Minister of Public Enterprises, to privatise non-profit state enterprises. (2) This is a curious example of a 'member' of civil society (namely COSATU) serving in the government, yet, when deeming it necessary, protesting against the policies of the latter.

However, another more peculiar, if not dangerous phenomenon is the recent emergence of Umkhonto we Sizwe military veterans (MK war veterans) as a pressure group. The presence of these MK war veterans, clad in brand new camouflage uniforms and marching in the streets of Cape Town to protest against a recent 'inflammatory' letter by the Premier of the Western Cape, Helen Zille, to President Jacob Zuma raised a number of concerns about the desirability and possible dangers of a militia within a consolidating democratic system. There are fears that the presence of this 'military' pressure group could erode the fragile South African democracy, a sentiment no doubt fuelled by the memory of the destructive role played by the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) war veterans in Zimbabwe in illegal farm invasions and destabilisation of the state. …

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