JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation in Zulu) was the armed wing of the African National Congress and played a key part in the struggle against apartheid.
Nelson Mandela was a founder in 1961 of the Umkhonto We Sizwe, popularly known as MK. The group offered an armed alternative to the peaceful, political protesting that it thought had not done enough to end apartheid. From its beginning, MK operated underground to protect members, as much as possible, from arrests by apartheid agents.
For most of its history, MK used violence against strategic installations of apartheid such as police stations and army offices and avoided as much as possible human casualties, especially the lives of civilians. But it slowly evolved into a sophisticated, multi-faceted insurgency by the 1980s.
It was a complex organization complete with a special-forces unit that infiltrated the government, student militias that mobilized at the universities and self-defense troops that protected the townships. As censorship laws and arrests increasingly silenced the leaders of the ANC, it was the subversive actions of the MK that were most visible and rallied the masses behind the fight for freedom.
On my first trip to South Africa to document the former anti-apartheid fighters, I focused exclusively on those whose dreams had not been fulfilled. I tracked down soldiers who once believed that the promise of a democratic South Africa would bring them more comfortable lives and a brighter future, but whose reality had turned dark and bleak.
I met former MK soldiers who had once worked in intelligence and fought in combat, those who trained and lived in exile and also those who fought underground in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Many of the men I met were homeless, living with relatives or in small shacks erected in the yard of a friend’s home or business.
They often suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and struggle with alcohol abuse. They live in extreme poverty, like many South Africans, struggling to eat every day, to send their children to school and to pay for health care.
Take the case of Daniel Zakhele Maseko. At the age of 14, Maseko began to skip school, burn cars and help destroy white-owned business in Daveyton, the township where he grew up and still lives.
"By that time every youth was involved in something," he explains. But Maseko wasn't in a gang. He was part of the MK. It was a dangerous existence and in time Maseko found himself homeless.
"Police were always coming to my home and I had no place to stay," he said. "My parents no longer felt OK about me being involved in politics." They sent him away, and he lived with fellow militias. For five years he fought, and for five years he avoided detention by the authorities.
Then, in 1989, as the pressure by authorities mounted, he went into exile and received formal training in Angola and Mozambique, neighboring countries that had overthrown the Portuguese colonial system and had pledged to help battle apartheid.
Maseko returned to South Africa in 1994, in time to witness history with the inauguration of Nelson Mandela. Maseko's side had triumphed, but he found himself ill prepared to build a life in the new South Africa. He joined, but soon left the South African National Defense Force. With no formal education and training, he has had trouble holding a job. He's turned to alcohol to heal his psychological scars and has spent time in prison. Sitting in his small home he says: "Headwise, I'm no more OK."
These days, with time between him and his youthful exuberance for the struggle to overturn apartheid growing, Maseko wonders what was gained from his time in the MK. The fight, he says, was bigger than one person, yet his sacrifice has never given him anything but hardship and sadness.
"Why was I politically active? If I wasn't my life wouldn't be like this," he said. His pain became worse when he developed an eye infection that caused his eyelid to be sewn shut. Soon after his wife took their children and left him. As she walked out the door, she called him a worthless man with one eye who could not hold a job. He currently lives alone, ostracized by his family.
"Things have not gone the way I thought they would ... I have no hope. I have no happiness. I am just waiting for the day that they bury me."
The experiences of Maseko and other MK who are currently struggling do not tell the entire story of what has become of the former fighters over the past 15 years. To be sure, there are ex-guerrillas who have thrived in business and politics and those who have taken advantage of government-sponsored training and job programs. But their experiences do offer a glimpse of the reality of present day South Africa and the feeling of many that the promise they once felt is slipping through their fingers, leaving them with the reality of a hardscrabble life in the townships.
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