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MILITARY : Ex-ANC Troops Stage Mutiny to Protest New S. Africa Army

October 15, 1994|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — President Nelson Mandela, commander in chief of the new army of South Africa, clearly was angry. "Discipline in the armed forces cannot break down," he warned.

The object of his ire? The men and women who fought in his name in the ragtag guerrilla forces that helped bring down apartheid.

Almost 7,000 members of the now-disbanded army of the African National Congress went absent without leave Oct. 5 from military assembly areas where they are being assimilated into the new National Defense Force. Only about half have returned so far.

The discontent is not new. In recent weeks, angry former guerrillas have marched on Mandela's office and provincial legislatures, booed officers and stoned their cars. They have been tear-gassed in a mess hall riot.

But the latest development--which appears something between a labor action and open mutiny--has undermined the newfound legitimacy of the strongest army in sub-Saharan Africa as it adjusts to the end of white rule.

The reasons for the revolt are simple. Disgruntled former guerrillas complain that they are not given equal housing, pay, ranking or respect with the mostly white soldiers and officers who helped prop up apartheid and who fought a brutal campaign of "total onslaught" against black liberation forces.

The anti-apartheid forces never won any military battles. Indeed, poorly trained and based in exile, their tactics never went beyond isolated terrorist attacks and sabotage. Their significance was largely symbolic in the bitter struggle against a far stronger foe.

But apartheid fell, and those creating the new government last year promised all combatants an equal role in a new armed forces under central command.

Plans were announced to integrate 21,000 members of the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and 6,000 members of the Pan Africanist Congress' army with the 90,000-member old South African Defense Force over the next two years.

How to merge deeply disparate, suspicious military forces and cultures is the problem.

"This is not a normal recruiting process," said Bill Sass, a retired brigadier now with the independent Institute for Defense Policy. "One problem is the guerrilla army doesn't have ranks the way a normal army does. They had team leaders, commanders and political commissars. How do you translate that to lance corporals and sergeants?"

The former cadres complain that the merging process is too slow, their military training abroad is scorned and they are given lower ranks and salaries because of insufficient education. They charge they are simply being "absorbed" by the old South African army, rather than joining to form a new defense force. Some complain that their assignments are too far from home.

Some are also angry about a reported pledge by ANC leaders last year to pay them about $3,000 each for their service outside the country. The ANC now says it does not have the money, and the military has declined to pick up the tab.

"Those who claim that we are impatient and ill-disciplined do not appreciate the psychological trauma of this integration process and the inhuman welfare that we are subjected to," the rebel group said in a letter to ANC leaders in seven provinces last week.

The dissatisfied soldiers have refused to obey orders from Defense Minister Joe Modise, former chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or other military leaders. They insist on personal intervention by Mandela.

The president first promised to respond after several hundred former cadres marched for six hours to his Pretoria office Sept. 9 to demand a meeting. His statements this week, after urgent meetings with top military brass, marked a harsher approach.

Col. Connie van Rensburg, a spokesman at the Wahlmansthal base where most of the new troops had been assembling, said the situation has created morale problems for soldiers in the old South African army. "We just call this plain mutiny," he said.

But government officials and others remain wary of cracking down too hard.

"Our society cannot afford the lawlessness that may arise from disgruntled soldiers roaming our streets," warned an editorial in the Sowetan, the country's largest black paper. "Mandela must fix the problem once and for all."

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