Scapegoats for the country's ills

While former guerrillas have been involved in some robberies, their role should not be exaggerated.

THE SPATE OF armed robberies, including the spectacular cash-in-transit heists by bandits, has witnessed the revival of the mindset that tries to find one omnipresent, overarching cause for situations of great complexity. Those who blamed the “third force” for all the violence that preceded the watershed April 1994 election typified that manner of thinking. More recently, President Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Thabo Mbeki have blamed unidentified reactionary malcontents and conspirators for crime, of which bank robberies are the most dramatic manifestation. Thus, in his valedictory address as ANC president to the organisation’s 50th national conference last December, Mandela accused “various elements of the former ruling group” of being behind a “campaign of de-stabilisation”. He identified one of the objectives of the “counter-revolutionary network” as “the use of crime to render the country ungovernable”. He linked crime to a conspiracy to subvert the economy and erode the confidence of South Africans and the international community in the ability of the ANC to govern and fulfil its election pledge of reconstruction and development.

There is, however, another example of such reductionism: those who blame all the woes of post-apartheid South Africa on the ANC and the ex-combatants of its now disbanded guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe or MK. These people are located mainly in the white community, a large proportion of which is afflicted by a transition-induced anxiety. They detect an MK-factor in robberies on the flimsiest of evidence, particularly the cash-in-transit heists, some of which have been carried out with “military precision”. In a new book, From Defence to Development (published by David Phillip), Jacklyn Cock, professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, offers an explanation for the readiness to blame MK. Referring to the transition anxiety which affects the minds of many South Africans, she writes of a predisposition to search for scapegoats on which all disturbing experiences can be blamed. Two favourite scapegoats are illegal immigrants (for the black community) and ex-guerrillas (for the white community). They are, in Cock’s phrase, “easy symbols of menace, social dislocation and threat”.

The proclivity to blame MK for everything is manifest — absurdly, many observers contend — in a controversial military intelligence report that links MK fighters to an alleged conspiracy to overthrow Mandela’s government. The inclination to focus on them is reinforced by another factor: their association with the AK-47 automatic rifle, which, because of its use by MK guerrillas during the armed struggle against apartheid, has acquired a powerful symbolism, negative for whites, positive for many blacks. The arrest of former MK combatant Robert McBride in Mozambique on suspicion of gun-running has already begun to reinforce the propensity to blame MK for South Africa’s ills. His arrest has been a powerful catalyst to speculation. Conjecture links McBride — whose role in a 1986 car-bomb attack in Durban earned him the epithet “Magoo’s Bomber” — to “MK robberies” either as a gun-runner or as a mastermind. While there is no evidence to support these allegations their impact on the collective white psyche is nevertheless profound. Whether justified or not, McBride fills the same ominous role in the demonology of white South Africans as mass killer Barend Strydom does in the memories of their black compatriots.

To make these points is not to deny that former MK combatants are involved in some of the robberies. It is to caution against exaggerating their role to the extent that it overshadows everything else in what is a complex phenomenon in a society buffeted by many forces. Gavin Cawthra, who heads the Defence Management Programme at the University of the Witswatersrand, thinks it is “perfectly plausible” that some former MK combatants have turned to crime. Reflecting on the failure to integrate a sizeable number of MK fighters into either the new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) or, beyond that, the wider community, he remarks: “If you put combatants onto the streets, they will put their skills to use in crime.” But, he cautions, the same forces propel ex-combatants from disbanded battalions of the old South African Defence Force towards crime. He specifically mentions members of the proud (and in the eyes of many black South Africans notorious) 32-Battalion. Demobilised but neglected ex-combatants who faced one another in battle during the old days gravitate towards one another in post-apartheid South Africa and join hands to rob the society that abandoned them, Cawthra says.

The failure to integrate MK fully into the new SANDF is implicit in the following figures: of the more than 28,000 ANC fighters on the certified personnel register drawn up to facilitate integration of the different armies in 1994, barely 20,000 were still in the defence force as at February 1998. Cawthra thinks the process of merging the former armies is better described as the absorption of the guerrilla forces of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress into the old SADF. Many of those who were disqualified or demobilised, or who left of their own accord, were members of the self-defence units, paramilitary formations that were hastily recruited in the last phases of the armed struggle and therefore less well trained and less disciplined than MK veterans who were trained abroad.

The process of integrating MK members into the defence force was marked by discontent in their ranks and protest demonstrations. In September 1994, 2,500 combatants walked out of Wallmansthal, a temporary staging post in the integration process: 265 did not return. That was followed by a violent protest in Durban at the beginning of 1995 by 200 MK fighters. At about the same time MK cadres marched on Parliament and the ANC offices in Cape Town to protest against their exclusion from the integration process. One of the marchers’ leaders proclaimed his anger for all to hear: “They used us for their political gains and then threw us in the dustbin.”

But recognition that neglect and dissatisfaction has metamorphosed some former MK combatants into dangerous bandits does not mean that they are responsible for all heists or even a majority of heists. Superintendent Martin Aylward, spokesman for Director Bushie Engelbrecht’s special investigations unit, put the question in statistical perspective: of the more than 80 people who have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in cash-in-transit heists, only two have been positively identified as former MK combatants. Against that, five policemen have been arrested, he says. Aylward acknowledges that it is far easier to identify policemen than MK combatants because the data base of serving policemen is complete while that for ex-MK fighters is not. But even allowing for his caveat, there is an obvious need for prudence when talking or writing about the MK factor in heists.

The recent announcement of the arrests of three men suspected of masterminding the spectacular heists in Bronkhorstspruit late last year and on the M1 near Sandton in January is instructive. None of the trio has been identified as a former MK man. One is a former officer in the Botswana army, another is a convicted murderer who had escaped from prison. The identity of the third has yet to be established. The imperative for caution is reinforced by another consideration: since the spate of cash-in-transit robberies started about 18 months ago, not a single suspect has been convicted in a court of law.

A high-ranking member of an intelligence agency makes several cogent points during an interview. The MK factor cannot be discounted in the heists but it needs to be seen as one of several elements of a complex situation. The heists are not homogeneous: some bear the hallmarks of military know-how but some appear to be the work of amateurs. The spate of heists may be due to a situation which has nothing to do with MK: as banks improved their security, bank robbery became increasingly hazardous for robbers and they turned their attention to robbing armed vehicles carrying money to or from banks. A similar shift in criminal strategy has been observed in car theft: where stationary cars were once favoured targets, car thieves turned their attention to hijacking moving cars as parked cars became increasingly well protected by a range of anti-theft devices.

Like less spectacular crimes, only a minority of robberies is carried out by bandits armed with AK-47s, the preferred weapons of MK combatants. As Cock notes, the Kalashnikov assault rifle is rarely used by criminals. Less than 3 per cent of murders (and, in all probability, a minority of robberies) are carried out by criminals armed with AK-47s.

In the same way that former MK combatants are blamed for the cash-in-transit heists, former fighters of the PAC underground army, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army or Apla, are often accused of responsibility for attacks on farmers. Many farmers suspect that the majority of the attacks are politically motivated, with Apla rather than MK as the prime suspect. The South African Agricultural Union (SAAU) was so concerned about the murderous attacks on its members — at least 145 farmers were murdered in 470 attacks last year, according to figures compiled by the union — that it asked for a judicial inquiry. Mandela declined the request but asked the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) to investigate. The report has since been handed to Mandela. He has chosen not to release it. But, offering a synopsis of its findings, Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom says it found that the majority of attacks were criminally motivated.

The findings have been greeted with scepticism by Freedom Front leader Constand Viljoen. Noting that the attacks are well-planned and executed with “military precision” — a phrase that seems to have entered the vocabulary of the white community — Viljoen says: “I have no choice but to differ with the finding of the intelligence community.” A similar scepticism emanates from the National Party. Its spokesman on safety and security, Piet Mathee, talks about the attacks being well-orchestrated. SAAU president Chris du Toit notes judiciously that it is too early to detect a definite trend, meaning, presumably, that he is not entirely convinced by Hanekom.

There are understandable reasons for the scepticism of the Freedom Front and the National Party, who between them represent the bulk of South Africa’s Afrikaner farmers. The PAC’s Free State leader Thomas Likotsi is on record as attributing the murders to disenchanted Apla — and to a lesser extent MK — members. Frustrated by their experience in the new defence force and having spent the R15,000 exit payment, they have turned their guerrilla skills to plunder, with farms as the priority target, he avers. Survival and driving white farmers from the land are their reported objectives.

The PAC and its armed combatants have, until very recently, propagated a view that presents whites as settlers and usurpers of land from indigenous blacks. Recovery of stolen land is thus a primary Apla objective. These ideological departure points reinforce the belief of farmers that Apla combatants are responsible for many of the attacks. Tom Lodge, professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, notes that in 1993, Apla’s “Year of the Great Storm”, Apla insurgents launched 142 attacks, “the great majority of them, 128, directed at farms”. Lodge records that of the 128 attacks, 28 were in the Eastern Transvaal, now renamed Mpumalanga. His last observation is consistent with a finding by NIA investigators: more of the post-1994 attacks have occurred in Mpumalanga than in the Free State, contrary to what is popularly thought.

“Apla operations,” Lodge states, “were distinctive for their rural emphasis, their careful targeting and their ferocity.” His observation pertains to the pre-1994 period but it is not inconsistent with attacks on farms since the ANC came to power. But, once again, there is a need to take account of contrary facts, including the moderating influence on the PAC of Stanley Mogoba, immediate past Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church who was elected as PAC president in December 1996. Some farm attacks are carried out by aggrieved ex-employees, not former insurgents. It is, of course, possible that ex-farm labourers have been radicalised by PAC and ANC ideology, by the belief that the tide of history has turned in their favour. But that is a different point.

If, as Free State Agricultural Union chairman Piet Gous has noted, some attacks are made without theft of valuable goods, many attacks are a prelude to robbery. Farmers, observes an intelligence officer, are sometimes attacked by criminals from outside the area, not because they are seen as usurpers of the land but because they are isolated and soft targets. Newspaper cuttings record only one case in the past year or so where ex-Apla men have been convicted for murder. It underlines the risk of pinning a disproportionately high share of the blame on the Apla factor and is another reminder that fixed vision on one cause may blind one to the multifarious nature of reality.