The shameful poverty of some anti-apartheid activists


All for nothing?

Nicole van Driel writes on the shameful poverty of some anti-apartheid activists

The late Isaiah Stein (1931-2011), a prominent ‘Coloured’ anti-apartheid activist, is claimed to have said that if he were to write an autobiography, it would be titled, All for Nothing. The would-be title summarises how Stein allegedly felt about his long struggle against apartheid which included detention, torture and decades of exile in the United Kingdom; juxtaposed with the reality of the post-apartheid South Africa. It is said that Stein struggled to receive the Special Pension he was entitled to as an anti-apartheid veteran. Stein is now deceased and it is not known whether the Stein family eventually received the Special Pension.

I mention Stein as the essence of his would-be autobiography immediately springs to mind in the context of not only the country but also with respect to the two comrades this article is about. In the past decade or so, I have tried to assist Comrade Number 1 and Comrade Number 2 to receive their Special Pensions but after numerous attempts everything has come to naught.

It has been decades since the Special Pensions Act, 1996 [No. 69 of 1996] was passed and still these two comrades have not received their Special Pensions. They are suffering immensely: financially, no housing, no medical care and no income whatsoever in one instance. In addition, both these men qualify to be registered as military veterans but all attempts to secure such registration have also come to naught. The one comrade belonged to the African National Congress (ANC) and the other comrade belonged to the Pan African Congress (PAC).Comrade Number One was detained with me as part of my student group called the Committee of 81. We were detained twice in 1980 and 1981 respectively. Comrade Number One was badly tortured and beaten during the second detention. The notorious Spyker Van Wyk led the interrogation against all of us. He, Van Wyk, was rumoured to have been instrumental in the torture and subsequent death of Imam Haron in 1969. He was feared among many political activists because of his ruthless reputation.

In 1981, the Security Branch mistakenly thought that Comrade Number One was the weak link in our group and that by torturing him, he would testify against the rest of us. This plan did not work for the Security Branch. Although Comrade Number One is soft-spoken, he is no coward; and he refused to give up his comrades or to testify against any of us. Comrade Number One suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of his torture and was forced to flee into exile after numerous Security Branch arrests. His PTSD has only been exacerbated by the years he spent in exile; moving from one country to another, displaced and out of sorts. He does not have a home, neither does he have an income and neither does he have access to the necessary medical care he needs now more than ever.

I provided an affidavit in support of Comrade Number One’s application for a Special Pension stating inter alia that we were in detention for two spells, etc. Nothing came of this Special Pension application.

I, later personally accompanied Comrade Number One to the Special Pensions office in Pretoria in the hope that we could get his pension matter sorted out. This once again came to naught as the Special Pensions staff refused to come down to the foyer to meet with us. What a shame that these administrative staff could not give an anti-apartheid activist the courtesy of five minutes.

I have known Comrade Number Two since I was 12 years old. We met in 1975 when he taught my sister and visited my family’s home. Comrade Number Two undertook the dangerous task of recruiting people from inside the country for the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). Being a MK recruiter inside the country was particularly dangerous work; as you could not escape once caught, and torture and possible death, or a long sentence on Robben Island surely awaited you.

I, too provided an affidavit in support of Comrade Number Two’s application for a Special Pension as he had tried to recruit me to MK when I was 17 years old. I gave the affidavit twice as we were told some of his documents were lost at the Special Pensions Office and had to be resubmitted. Comrade Number Two has still not received his Special Pension.

It is now 2017, 23 years after the 1994 elections and the heralding of freedom. We have no clue as to what happened with the Special Pensions in respect of the progress that has been made or not made and who is receiving a Special Pension. This information is not public knowledge as far as I know, and I do keep abreast of government communication.

There has been a rumour that lots of money was ‘mismanaged’ at the Special Pensions office during the time Trevor Manuel was Minister of Finance. We do not know if this is true. There has been such secrecy around the process of how Special Pensions have been awarded; what rank people received and therefore what money they receive each month. It could be that the Special Pensions has been looted by the ANC elite or as some said by the PAC elite when they were in charge.

We need better communication around the Special Pensions so that information is widely known in the public domain. What we do need inter alia is for annual reports to be issued by the Special Pensions office and for the said office to report to Parliament. The names of the Special Pensions Board and its committee members should also be in the public domain; as should be their qualifications and expertise. The numbers and names of Special Pension recipients should be made public, etc. Transparency around this pension fund is of utmost importance.  We should have an Oversight Committee in Parliament to keep track of what is happening with these funds.

I do not know how many other anti-apartheid activists are in the same boat as my two comrades find themselves in; a boat of poverty after having sacrificed so much for freedom in South Africa.  What I do know is that it is heart-breaking for me to witness how these two and possibly others such as them have been forgotten about. As Isaiah Stein allegedly rightly said: It was all for nothing.

P.S. Last week on the 19 October 2017 my daughter, Susan April, got permission to film Comrade Number One and myself in the police cells at Caledon Square. Comrade Number One spoke at length about the torture he experienced during his 100-day detention at Caledon Square Police Station. I asked him about the shabby treatment he and others have received in respect of no Special Pension and no military veteran status. He challenged the cynic I have become by saying to Susan, “We fought for the freedom of our people; not wanting or expecting anything in return.” Notwithstanding his precarious life circumstances according to Comrade Number One, it was NOT all for nothing!