In 1991, I found myself right in the middle of a standoff between disgruntled former freedom fighters and the newly independent government of Namibia. I was returning to Mariabronn Roman Catholic Primary School after 6 extraordinary weeks hitch-hiking across southern Africa, and when I climbed out of the back of a pickup-truck that had delivered me to Grootfontein, I decided to replenish my meager supply of funds at the Standard Bank before walking the last miles to the school. I turned a corner to find the streets full of soldiers and the steps to the bank blocked by a murmuring crowd, some of whom were carrying knobkerries and pangas. Both sides looked uncomfortable, and well they should have, for some of the soldiers had been in the bush with these protesters as former combatants in the People's Liberation Army of Namibia, but they had found a place in the new army while many others had not.
Former combatants on both sides of "the struggle" were promised compensation as part of the United Nations-brokered transition to free and fair elections in Namibia that brought an end to South African rule in this country. Soldiers in the South African Defense Force who had served in Namibia and those who had fought in the South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) were paid directly by the South Africans, but those who had fought with PLAN were registered by the UN and funds were deposited for them at branch branches for disbursement after Independence. There were bureaucratic problems with these payments, as some PLAN fighters registered with a nom de guerre that was not reflected in their identity documents, or were expected to get their payments at the nearest branch to where they registered, not where they were now living. The amount of the payout was R1,500, at that time worth about $US 600 - a substantial amount in a country with 40-60%underemployment and many people living on less that $US 100 a year.
The situation in Grootfontein heated up when the Standard Bank branch there started rejecting claims for payments for these and other reasons. The disgruntled former combatants went back to Makalani township's "single quarters", the barracks for migrant workers where many of them stayed, and returned with many more of their comrades to announce that no one would enter or leave the bank until they had been satisfied.
Watching the milling crowds and the soldiers uncertain of what they should do, I thought of our own Independence Struggle and the revolt of Massachusetts veterans and struggling farmers lead in 1786-1787 by Daniel Shays, himself a former Captain in the patriot cause. Shay's Rebellion was aggressively suppressed and actually strengthened the hand of the Federalists, but the grievances of Shay's followers - that their rents were too high and their leaders had forgotten those who had fought for their freedom - seemed to have their counterpart in these former Namibian combatants.
The response by the government of Namibia was just as swift as that of the State of Massachusetts had been to Shays, but fortunately did not result in bloodshed. The ruling party SWAPO sent one of its Ministers (Hidipo Hamutenya, if memory serves, whose daughter Ndina was in my class of 5th graders) to confront the protesters the following day, and he harangued them as ungrateful and shamed them into departing. Recognizing that there were thousands of unemployed fighters with no skills but those of soldiers who needed to be reintegrated into society lest they constitute a security threat, the Namibian government created Development Brigades, similar to the CCC of the Depression Era in the United States, and housed at remote former army bases in the north of the country. Namibian Prime Minister Hage Geingob was quoted on this issue in 1999, saying:
"We realized that we trained them to fight -- that's the only skill they have. So immediately after independence, we set up the Development Brigade to try to retrain them, give them skills. But their minds are set that they must carry the gun, so even if we give them a project, they want to join the army. Now, obviously in peacetime, you don't have to have a big army. So our army is very small. But what we are doing therefore is to pass a pension bill for veterans so that those who are old, or those who are injured, etc., can be retired and at least get a monthly income. Those who are still able-bodied may be absorbed into the army or police; those who are handicapped may be given a pension.
The ex-combatants are saying it took too long to look into their plight, which is true. They are saying they have been very peaceful, they have been waiting, and that we only act when they agitate. So we are now saying they're right. Let's stop everything and have a comprehensive approach and end this problem once and for all."
Geingob has since fallen from favor, and the situation with the ex-combatants still festers 17 years after Namibian Independence. This week, a protest in the Namibian capitol, Windhoek by ex-combatants was met with pepper spray. The protest continues today in from of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs, where ex-combatants and others who were in exile are demanding compensation for their sacrifice. Some of the claimant's reference promises allegedly made by UN representatives during the transition to Independence, which I believe refers to the payments that caused the initial controversy back in Grootfontein in 1991. Demands now are far higher, and the Government paper New Era reported current Prime Minister Nahas Angula noted in Parliament:
"'...the situation that some of the demonstrators find themselves in is actually of their own making. Some of the ex-PLAN that are currently demonstrating are employed or were employed in the past. Some of them lost their jobs due to disciplinary reasons and are now demanding money.' The Premier said many of the ex-combatants have low qualifications and can only find low-paying jobs, hence they cannot afford to live the kind of life that they may have expected."
From the very outset, the expectation that everything would change with Independence has been disillusioning for many Namibians. The subsidized lifestyle of 80,000 white Namibians under apartheid is simply not transferable to nearly 2 million people; land and resources cannot sustain it. Liberty and license are also not synonymous, nor is everyone who suffered in the past entitled to full subsidy in the future. That doesn't stop people who have not realized the fruits of the struggle from desiring that attention and compensation be paid. Nor does it make the ruling party more amenable to critics from within its ranks.
One hopes that a Namibian Daniel Shays does not seek redress through armed confrontation. History shows that the party that wins Independence will not tolerate even the whiff of counter-revolution. The last battle in Shay's Rebellion happened just up the road from where I write in Sheffield, Massachusetts, where the local militia under Revolutionary War Veteran Colonel John Ashley routed Shay's followers and put down their revolt.