Accessibility links

Breaking News

In S. Africa, Military Service is Past and Future for Men of Pomfret - 2004-10-08


The small South African village of Pomfret was home to a notorious military unit during the apartheid era. Its ex-members living in the town are frequently recruited for dangerous jobs in the security sector. The town's reputation appears to be living on as the next generation comes of age. Most sons of the ex-fighters see security and military jobs as their only hope for employment.

It is pension payout day in Pomfret, and the whole village seems to be here for it. In this town of 3,000, many families are partly or entirely dependent on government grants. Hundreds of people file through the line to receive their money, and scores of merchants are waiting nearby to offer them ways to spend it.

Maria Dala has come to collect her young son's monthly government grant. But $26 does not go far, and she is struggling to get by since her brother Avelino, the family breadwinner, landed in Harare's maximum-security Chikurubi prison.

She says her brother was looking for a job, and found out that someone was looking for people to work outside South Africa, so he decided to join them.

A Zimbabwean court convicted Avelino Dala and 67 other men of immigration violations. But they are also accused of being mercenaries. They were on a plane that landed in Harare in March, allegedly on the way to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. The men and their families say they thought they were going to the Democratic Republic of Congo, to be security guards at a diamond mine.

At least 20 of the men in that group are from Pomfret. Most of them were born in Angola, and fought in the apartheid-era South African Defense Force's notorious 32 Battalion, which was based here. The feared battalion was disbanded in the 1990s at the insistence of the African National Congress, which accused it of committing atrocities.

But Avelino Dala never served in the 32 Battalion. He is only 27 years old, far too young to be a veteran of the Angolan or Namibian wars.

Maria Dala says Avelino started taking security jobs because he needed the money. It is a familiar story.

Twenty five-year-old Tony Bernardo has already worked security jobs in three different South African cities. He is back home in Pomfret until he can find another one.

"There is no work now," said Tony Bernardo. "Here, it just depends [on] when a white guy come to look for people, and then you go. When your friend phones you that here there is work, then you go. It's like this."

Disillusionment and despair cloud the air in Pomfret almost as visibly as the thick gray dust from the nearby asbestos mine. The town used to be a thriving military community, but the army pulled out years ago, saying asbestos made the place unsafe to live. Many of the ex-soldiers and their families stayed, but all of the jobs seem to have left with the army.

The town of Pomfret itself is one of the largest employers. At least seven men have jobs opening and closing the security gate on the only road leading into town. The gate is an outdated artifact of Pomfret's military past, but it means jobs, so it stays.

In a neighborhood ironically named Esperanca, which is Portuguese for "hope," nearly half the houses lie abandoned, their windows broken and roofs partly caved in.

In the still-occupied houses, the husbands and fathers are absent. Most of them are ex-soldiers who are either dead, or working security jobs somewhere far away.

And increasingly, the sons and brothers are doing the same thing. The security companies keep recruiting them, even though they lack the combat experience and military training of their fathers. The reputation of the 32 Battalion seems to be hereditary.

A few residents of Pomfret oppose the continued recruiting for security jobs. Jose Kapusu was a sergeant in the 32 Battalion and is now the local ANC representative. He says the battalion's white ex-officers are largely the ones recruiting Pomfret's residents into the security industry, and acting like they're doing them a favor.

"From those ones, they will always say our whites, our officers, previous whites, they're still looking after us, putting us in security," said Jose Kapusu. "But in my point of view, they are killing these people. Exchanging life and money. Let me say that."

But when it comes to earning a living and feeding their families, most of the men in Pomfret do not appear to share Mr. Kapusu's view. Jobs are jobs, and they need them.

Some, however, are aiming for a different version of the family legacy.

"I want to be a soldier," said Dala Samba. "I want to join the army, South African army."

Dala Samba's father was a 32 Battalion soldier and is now a security guard in Nelspruit, nearly 1,000 kilometers away. The family is a case study in Pomfret's past.

Dala's older brother and an uncle are in jail in Zimbabwe, accused of being mercenaries. Another uncle and a cousin are working security somewhere in Iraq.

Dala Samba watches the news, and worries about their safety.

"We worry about them, very much," he said. "Actually we used to watch TV, the news, they're showing Baghdad or which places. They're fighting too much, they're killing each other. Those people are very worried."

Dala Samba has no desire to follow his uncle and cousin to Baghdad. He has no desire to follow his brother to prison. But he does hope to follow in his father's footsteps and join the army when he finishes high school next year.

"That's my only choice that I have, because right now if you want to go for further study you have to have money,"said Dala Samba. "Because we don't have money here. No money to go for further study."

In interview after interview, young men in Pomfret say the same thing. The only jobs they see in their future are elsewhere, and they involve guns. The lucky ones might make it into the South African National Defense Force. But most seem destined for intermittent, unpredictable and often short-term work as security guards.

And so for the young men of Pomfret, their best hope for the future lies in the legacy of the past, controversial as it may be.