Racial tension plagues post-apartheid South African military
October 5, 1999
From Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault
UMTATA, South Africa (CNN) -- On a barren hillside in the black township of Umtata, former guerrilla fighters carried the body of 28-year-old Lt. Sibusiso Madubela to his grave.
As politicians lauded the fallen officer as a "good soldier" and a "martyr," some mourners -- disappointed the government refused to grant a military funeral -- attempted to give a 21-gun salute. But their effort was brought to a quick and chaotic end by police.
Madubela was killed September 16 after going on a shooting rampage at Tempe military base, one of South Africa's largest, killing six white soldiers and a white civilian.
The shooting has prompted nationwide soul-searching as the country continues the rapid and difficult process of racial integration in the wake of apartheid.
"The death of Lt. Madubela reveals that this nation is living a lie. It is fed with propaganda that all is well," said Motsoko Pheko, deputy president of the Pan Africanist Congress.
Killings raise alarm in defense forces
By contrast, at the funeral of one of Madubela's victims, Sgt. Willie Nells, black and white soldiers stood side-by-side in crisp military precision, revealing no signs of the racial tension that many conclude led Madubela to launch his rampage.
The killings, however, have raised alarm in the South African Defense Forces.
"Tempe was a major shock for all of us," said South African Defense Minster Mosiuoa Lekota. "I think we had moved into the lull of the process of reconciliation over the last few years."
Five years ago, at the end of apartheid, a still-spirited group of liberation fighters emerged from the bush, their songs calling for moving forward with their war of liberation. However, instead of fighting for freedom, they and other armies from the former black homelands -- more than 22,000 in all -- began training to merge their predominantly black and black-led forces with those of their long-time enemy: the white-led conventional army of apartheid. Among them was Sibusiso Madubela, formerly of the Azanian People's Liberation Army (APLA).
Despite some rough patches, officials of the black-led government proclaim that the integration process is "relatively stable," lauded as one of the "outstanding achievements of South Africa's transition to democracy."
Case illustrates clash of military cultures
However, several incidents have caused concern. Three years ago, a white officer locked three former guerrillas in a room and gassed them with tear gas. Last year, a white soldier robbed and killed two black soldiers who were transporting military weapons. It was later reported that a right-wing movement had been behind the theft, allegedly preparing for a coup.
Cases like these and Madubela's shooting rampage illustrate a clash of military cultures, said Jan Pretorious, a retired colonel in the South African Defense Forces.
"You give orders, it's not executed. They would not accept disciplinary action at all. If you wanted to discipline the person for not doing his work or for not being in the military law or military line of training, then they would see it as a racial type of issue every time," Pretorious said.
Military officials have documented disparities in disciplining blacks and whites. But some experts argue that both black and white soldiers emerging from years of apartheid warfare are suffering from "post traumatic stress."
"We have a huge amount of traumatization in this country," said psychologist Lance Bloch. "We have communities that are extremely traumatized. I think a lot of crime that is happening in this country at the moment is the result of poverty on the one hand, but a result of trauma on the other."
Intervention needed 'from the highest levels'
In the wake of the Tempe base killings, the minister of defense reported that crime -- including murder -- was rife in the Bloemfontein command, which includes Tempe.
But there are other stress factors that have surfaced in the military transformation process. Transformation has tilted the ratio from majority white to majority black, and blacks have taken over top positions in the military, including the elevation of a former African National Congress guerrilla to chief of the defense force. However, most of the blacks are still in the lowest rungs of the military and whites hold most of the middle management positions.
Soldiers were ordered not to speak on the record about the racial tensions. But away from the camera's eye, many acknowledge they are worried about what is going to happen next. They and experts say that what is needed is real intervention from the highest levels -- and that those at the highest levels must start listening to those at the lowest.
They claim this listening process is the only way to stop the polarization that these killings seem to have caused, and the only way to keep South Africa's peaceful transformation on course.
South African soldier kills 7 at military base
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