Welcome to Pomfret, home to the retired soldiers of apartheid South Africa’s once-feared 32 Battalion, an elite fighting unit of Angolan mercenaries and white South African soldiers who fought the apartheid regime’s Border War. The 32 Battalion fought in Angola, Zambia and Namibia and, after Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, many of them were incorporated into the new SA National Defence Force (SANDF). Former president FW de Klerk’s government acquired Pomfret, then an asbestos-mining town, and transformed it into a military base, settling the battalion’s members who did not make it into the SANDF. “We only get water on Fridays,” says Cufa. He is an electrician, but without electricity, his skill is of no value.
The Molopo local municipality cut off their electricity in 2014 – no one knows why – and the former soldiers have resorted to removing the roof trusses of empty houses to make fires to cook their meals. Cufa and those who can afford to use car batteries to light their homes and power their fridges.
Adolino Carlos (53), a former battalion member, is a grubby, hard-featured man with thick black hair and a deeply furrowed face. Tall and rangy, he sits on a grimy couch, waiting for Cufa to translate what is being said.
Everyone, including those born here, speaks Portuguese. Thanks to the school, the children and teenagers do speak English, but their command of the language is limited.
“The language and or food are the only connection we now have with our ancestral land,” Cufa says.
Carlos’ house contains an old kettle, a microwave and couches from the 1980s. Through a half-opened door one can see a jumble of dirty clothes and old foam mattresses piled on the bedroom floor.
He is grateful that he has a job as a security guard in Mpumalanga.
“Others are not that lucky; they survive on child and old age grants and hand-outs,” he says.
At the height of his career, Carlos operated heavy artillery guns for the battalion. A picture of him as an imposing soldier standing at the back of a tank hangs proudly on the wall.
His demeanour changes and he booms: “This place is not good for us. It is a violation of human rights. When we came here, we were told that we are being taken to Pomfret to have a lovely retirement.
“I did not benefit anything, like I did nothing for the country. I am not happy. I did a lot for this country. I feel betrayed; I protected this country.”
With a deep sense of a buyer’s remorse, the father of five, who joined the battalion in 1982 at the age of 18, said he rues the day he joined the unit.
“I was just fighting in a war whose purpose I didn’t know and understand,” he says.
Carlos says he and many of his fellow Angolans joined the 32 Battalion by sheer coincidence. At the end of the Angolan civil war in 1975, he and other National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) guerrilla fighters stumbled on the SA Defence Force (SADF) at the Buffalo Military Base as they fled into the then Zaire.
The SADF’s Colonel Jan Breytenbach conscripted the Angolans into the army and stationed them in southern Angola where they formed a buffer between the apartheid military and the socialist government forces.
Over the years, the government has tried several times to evict Carlos and his fellow veterans from Pomfret and integrate them into neighbourhoods in Zeerust and Mafikeng. Many reasons have been advanced for this – including possible asbestos poisoning – but Carlos says the authorities have always feared that Pomfret would become a recruiting ground for mercenaries.
Those fears were not misplaced.
In 2004, about 64 mercenaries, many of whom were former 32 Battalion members, were arrested in Harare after an ill-fated mission to oust Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Carlos leaps to the mercenaries’ defence, arguing that they were motivated by the need to support their families.
The first attempt to relocate the soldiers was in the early 2000s. According to a parliamentary question from the New National Party’s Dr BL Geldenhuys in 2004, a donation of $10 million (R170 million at the current exchange) was made for a housing project for the battalion’s former members.
Nova Vida, as the project was known, would have seen former battalion members moved to a new neighbourhood near Zeerust. Geldenhuys also asked about a further R700 000 meant for the education of the battalion members’ children and descendants, administered by the SA Army Foundation. Responding to Geldenhuys’ questions, then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota told Parliament: “Project Nova Vida never materialised and no houses were built. This was not an SANDF project and no comment can be given about the funds.”
Of the R700 000, he said, “The 32 Battalion trust fund still exists, with R870 497 in the fund. The SA Army Foundation’s bank account is only used for safekeeping the funds.”
In a statement last week, the SA Army Foundation’s general manager Angel Ramphele said neither he nor the foundation has knowledge about the donations.
“The allegations in your above communication will be subject to an investigation and upon finalisation of the investigation I should be in a position to respond in more detail,” he said.
All attempts to relocate the war veterans have failed. The most recent was in 2012 when police tried to demolish the town and the residents stopped them with an urgent court application.
Carlos has flirted with the idea of returning to Angola, but says his lot is in South Africa.
“I am an enemy in Angola. I could even be killed there. I fought for South Africa against Angola. If I go back there, I and my entire family could be killed.”
Carlos, however, is tied to Pomfret by something else entirely.
“Everyone in South Africa and around the world knows the 32 Battalion and Pomfret. If I leave this place, I will lose the history, respect and reverence. I can’t afford that.”
Outside the safety of Pomfret, Carlos fears his family might be exposed to xenophobia. Like a community of lepers, he says being quarantined in Pomfret is the lesser evil.
A stone’s throw from Carlos lives Vieira Monte (62), another Border Wars veteran who joined the FNLA in 1972, and the battalion three years later. With a display cabinet full of trinkets, small teddy bears, and a coffee table decorated with colourful doilies and ceramic animal figurines, his house is more of a home.
Monte, a gregarious man with a raucous sense of humour, becomes brooding and punctuates his responses with lengthy pauses.
His short, round wife, Rosa Maria, apologises for him, blaming a stroke he suffered a few years ago.
Monte chips in.
“It is a sad situation. As a man who worked for such a long time in the military, I should have a car and leave an inheritance for my kids,” he says.
With a malevolent smirk he blames the “white man” who was his commanding officer in the battalion, adding that if he ever met him again he would throttle him.
“They told us that they would look after us. They told us that we would live happily ever after. It was all a lie.”
“Pomfret was seen as a mercenary pool. It was an embarrassment to the ANC government that South African citizens were arrested and many were from Pomfret. The government was also worried that someone might use that military capability in Pomfret for a coup attempt on home turf,” Vorster told GroundUp.
He adds that there had always been a “residual resentment” towards the 32 Battalion veterans, particularly for their role in gross human rights abuses when they were deployed to various townships across Gauteng in the political tumult of the early ‘90s, which ultimately led to the disbandment of the unit in 1993.
Vorster believes that more recent statements from the Department of Public Works and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation pushing for the court interdict to be overturned and the relocation process resumed are a political ruse ahead of the 2019 elections.
“At some stage everyone in Pomfret voted for the ANC because promises were made by then Premier Popo Molefe that the community would be assisted. But when the relocation started the relationship deteriorated and there was a political shift and the DA started gaining traction,” Vorster says.
“If Pomfret sways to a particular party, then that party is going to enjoy the majority of support in the area because Pomfret is the biggest voting block. So the whole thing has become about the artificial dilution of voting blocks to make sure the ANC maintains control in the area.”
On the asbestos risk, Vorster adds: “I previously worked on a number of asbestos cases. Very close to Pomfret is a community called Heuningvlei that is so contaminated that it definitely shouldn’t be inhabited at all. Yet those people have not been earmarked for relocation; the area has just been earmarked for rehabilitation.”
An affidavit submitted by Vorster to the Pretoria High Court in 2008 on behalf of 300 Pomfret households stated: “There were no less than six tenders for asbestos mine rehabilitation projects in the Northern Province, Northwest Province and Northern Cape provinces in the Government Tender Bulletin of October, 2005; Pomfret was conspicuously absent from the list.”
As recently as September 2018, the Department of Environmental Affairs announced the appointment of a service provider for the “development of the designs, construction and supervision of a 10km asbestos free road in Heuningvlei.”
The Department of Public Works did not respond to a request for comment on the risk of asbestos contamination in Pomfret.
But according to Johann Smith, a security analyst and former 32 Battalion commander, Pomfret shouldn’t have been considered habitable in the first place. “These guys were just dumped in this abandoned asbestos town in the middle of nowhere. From a health point of view that should never have happened.”
Angela McIntyre, a researcher who worked in Pomfret for a number of years, says that for the older Angolan veterans, this was merely the latest in “a series of abandonments and misfortunes”.
She points out that many of the veterans had been thrust into the Angolan Civil War in the 1970s as child soldiers fighting for the increasingly outgunned National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). By the time they were forced into contact with the South African forces on the Angola-Namibia border, she says they were “essentially refugees” in their own country.
As a result, both McIntyre and Vorster believe that the Angolans had little choice but to side with the South African Defence Force: “They were completely dependent on them,” says Vorster. “They’ve always been left in a terrible situation where they’re exposed to exploitation by basically everyone. It’s a truly tragic story.”
62-year-old Mario Gomes is among the small handful of ageing veterans left in Pomfret. A former FNLA child soldier, he joined 32 Battalion at just 20-years-old in 1976 and moved to Pomfret with his family in 1989.
Gomes says he often wakes suddenly in the night thinking about all the things he witnessed during more than two decades as a soldier. “After everything I’ve been through, it’s like I worked for nothing,” he says. “We still ended up poor and forgotten. It doesn’t feel good.”
Antonio claims that all the Pomfret veterans were promised substantial payouts towards the education of their children, but that this never materialised.
Responding to a parliamentary question from the New National Party’s Dr BL Geldenhuys in 2004, then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota said that a “32 Battalion trust fund still exists, with R870,497 in the fund” and that the SA Army Foundation was responsible for the safekeeping of the funds.
In a statement to City Press journalist Sipho Masondo in 2017, SA Army Foundation general manager Angel Ramphele said he had no knowledge about the funds and would launch an investigation. Ramphele failed to respond to requests from GroundUp for an update on this.
Meanwhile, Pomfret’s residents continue to live in limbo. Vorster said that in 2008 most were opposed to relocation and supported the court interdict. A spokesperson for the North West Department of Public Works said that although “the relocation process is ongoing”, some residents were still refusing to be moved. But during GroundUp’s visit in October, everyone interviewed said they wanted to leave, though many still expressed fears about how they’d be received elsewhere.
“The veterans are tired. Many of them will die here waiting for a better life that will never come,” said a 30-year-old woman whose father was in 32 Battalion and died of a heart attack in 2007; she asked to remain anonymous for fear of being associated with her father’s past. “You feel like you’re going crazy waiting for the day when this place will finally be closed,” she added. “Things are just getting worse.”
In an overgrown cemetery on the edge of town, Marcela Viemba looks for her father’s grave among the numerous veterans who lie there. Many are buried in pauper’s graves marked only with a small metal cross and covered in uneven mounds of sharp rocks.
While Viemba says that life in Mahikeng is an improvement on Pomfret in its current state, she concedes that “there’s not the same sense of community or social life”.
“Sometimes I sit and stare out of the window and drift off and my mother asks what I’m thinking about, and I tell her I’m thinking of Pomfret,” she adds.
She finally locates her father’s grave, which has a faded black and white picture of his handsome but stern face mounted on a marble tombstone. “If you have an open mind like me, you will see that these men were heroes,” she says. “When everyone else is gone, what will happen to their remains?”