The Wrong Side of History
Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town
On a bright February morning in the crumbling desert town of Pomfret, South Africa, a small group of Angolan septuagenarians with rheumy eyes sat listlessly in the shade of a guava tree, passing around a plastic jug of opaque traditional beer made from maize husks.
I’d only been in town a day or so, but it was already apparent that there wasn’t much else to do. Originally built as an asbestos-mining camp in the 1960s, then repurposed as a remote military outpost in the late ’80s, the government began a protracted bid to shut Pomfret down almost twenty years ago. The army was relocated to the town of Zeerust, about three hundred kilometers east. In its wake, public services including the police station, clinic, and post office were soon discontinued. Much of the town’s infrastructure had since been ravaged by looters or razed during intermittent, lackluster demolition efforts. The power was cut off in 2014; the taps ran dry shortly thereafter, forcing residents to make regular pilgrimages to fill buckets of water from rain tanks or the few public boreholes scattered across town.
One of the more sober men in the group, Celestino Fonseca, wore a black cap that seemed to capture the local mood: “No car, no house, no job, no money, no girlfriend or shit,” it read across his forehead in chaotic, multicolored scrawl. “I was in the army for twenty-one years, but I have nothing to show for it,” Fonseca said to me in Portuguese, the dominant language in Pomfret. “That’s why I bought this hat,” he added with a wry smile.
Late last year, the South African government announced its intention to finally tear down what was left of Pomfret. Authorities cited alleged asbestos contamination from the old mine as their motivation, and said they would disperse all remaining residents to bland state-subsidized housing in surrounding towns. No one in town had been given any clear indication of timing, but there were widespread rumors that it could happen as soon as the end of this year.
“Before, we were like trees with strong roots and bearing fruit,” said Freta Kenga, another army veteran with piercing eyes and elfish features who’d stopped by to greet his former comrades. “Now, we are like the wind—rootless. We don’t know where we will go.”
Through an Odyssean episode of Cold War history, Fonseca and Kenga were among about six thousand black Angolans—soldiers and their families—who’d ended up here on the parched fringes of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa’s rural North West Province in 1989. Today, less than half that number remained. The population included about a hundred veterans who, having fled civil war in their home country in the mid-Seventies, had served South Africa’s white-supremacist apartheid government, fighting black guerrilla insurgencies in Namibia and their homeland for more than a decade.
When the majority-black African National Congress (A.N.C.) came to power in South Africa in 1994, Pomfret’s veterans were relegated to the position of pariahs, widely perceived as traitors in the struggle for black liberation. Yet most of them had never returned to their native Angola, lacking either the will or the means to do so. Many more had succumbed to illnesses and injuries picked up during their long years soldiering. The handful of white South African military families who’d once resided in Pomfret alongside the Angolans (albeit in a leafier, more affluent part of town) had long since departed. “The rest of us are stranded here,” Fonseca told me.
Nevertheless, through adversity, the residents of Pomfret had forged a distinct diasporic community, their exclusion from the rest of South African society providing fertile ground for cultural homogenization and the creation of a strong shared identity—one founded on the belief that the veterans were South Africa’s forgotten war heroes, unfairly denied the recognition and remuneration they deserved (save for a paltry state pension), rather than apartheid’s antiblack enforcers.
The truth was that they were neither. Or perhaps both. Whichever it was, the outside world increasingly threatened to expose the cracks in the town’s fragile revisionist history and unravel its unique social fabric.
Isaid my goodbyes to Fonseca and his drinking companions, politely declining a parting swig of their home brew, and continued my slow drive through Pomfret. My tiny rental car was ill-equipped to manage the cavernous potholes of the main thoroughfare.
“I have so many good memories of this place, but it’s no place to live now,” said my interpreter, thirty-year-old Marcela Viemba, as the car jostled. It was easy to see that Pomfret had once had a certain charm. The streets were lined with tall oaks and pines and jacarandas that blossomed with vivid violet flowers in spring. Capacious whitewashed bungalows with green corrugated iron roofs were fronted by neat gardens. Three public pools dotted across town, now empty and bleached by the sun, had provided some respite from the unforgiving climate. There was an expansive sports club where, amongst the debris, it was still possible to make out the remnants of squash and tennis courts, a restaurant, and a grand concert hall. In a sunny, open-air shopping plaza, someone had graffitied “Pomfret is our home” on the wall of the derelict post office.
We drove past the town’s only functioning school and saw small boys in shabby uniforms using a tattered spring mattress to perform perfect somersaults into the soft sand that had reclaimed most of the town. “This is where I first became famous,” Viemba said, sweeping a long braid off her face and pouting in mock teenage fashion. In eighth grade, she and a group of classmates had formed a hip-hop dance troupe. “If I could go back in time, that’s where I would go,” she told me.
Viemba’s father, a veteran whom she described as an unfailingly kind man, had moved his family to Pomfret when Viemba was just three months old. He’d died of tuberculosis at the age of fifty-four; the disease claims nearly one hundred thousand lives in South Africa annually. In early 2008, when the town was on a steady downward trajectory, Viemba’s mother moved the family to Mahikeng, the capital of the North West Province. But Viemba still made the four-hour drive to Pomfret once a year or so to visit relatives, or to attend their funerals. Given the ever-deteriorating standard of living and the lack of health facilities, bereavement was part of the fabric of contemporary Pomfret. A niece, a close cousin and the father of Viemba’s first child were among those now buried alongside her father in the town’s increasingly overgrown and forlorn cemetery.
Despite her years away, Viemba still had bonds with almost everyone left in Pomfret. She regularly asked me to stop the car so she could exchange effusive, lengthy greetings with passersby, many of whom seemed to assume, much to Viemba’s howling amusement, that I was her wealthy white husband. But each time we resumed our meandering tour through town, her fleeting animation would quickly turn to melancholia. “Dehydrated” was the word she kept landing on to describe Pomfret’s feeling. It was a peculiar choice—perhaps, I thought, a quirk of direct Portuguese-to-English translation. But it aptly conveyed the sense of something withering, being drained of life.
By the time Viemba’s father and the other veterans had arrived in Pomfret, most of them had known little but war and displacement. The men had been recruited in the late 1960s—some as child soldiers—into an anti-imperial Angolan militant group called the National Liberation Front of Angola (F.N.L.A.). In 1975, on the cusp of independence from nearly five hundred years of Portuguese colonial rule, Angola descended into a twenty-seven-year civil war that would claim as many as five hundred thousand lives. The conflict was fueled by long-simmering ethnic tensions: Angola was an arbitrary colonial construction that encompassed divergent ethnic groups, which meant that the scramble for control of the country and its abundant natural resources involved international and internal powers.
By 1976, the F.N.L.A. had been significantly weakened by a failed attempt to overthrow the Cuban- and Soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (M.P.L.A.), which had declared itself the new ruling party of independent Angola. Meanwhile, the more right-wing National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) emerged as the most viable opposition to the M.P.L.A., incorporating elements of the F.N.L.A. In doing so, it claimed the lion’s share of support from the socialism-averse United States and South Africa.
The F.N.L.A.’s soldiers, largely made up of poor villagers from the minority Bakongo ethnic group, were gradually driven south with their families and alleged sympathizers from rural strongholds in the north of Angola. When the caravan reached the Angola–Namibia border, it came into contact with South African forces. With mouths to feed and scant alternatives, the destitute Angolan men were quickly incorporated into 32 Battalion, which would develop a reputation as the apartheid government’s most ruthless and feared counterinsurgency unit. The battle-hardened Angolans were pitted against another of the region’s burgeoning revolutionary groups, the anti-apartheid South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), which had ties to the U.S.S.R. and sought to wrest its country from South African colonial rule.
By the late 1980s, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War imminent, initial U.S. military support for the apartheid government’s wars had long since been curtailed, though it continued to intermittently back UNITA in its escalating conflict with the M.P.L.A. South Africa’s economy had also been crippled by sanctions, as international opposition to its violently racist policies mounted. Even in the country’s privileged white strongholds, many people had grown weary of a convoluted war that seemed ever harder to legitimize in a shifting geopolitical landscape; there was also a growing realization that something had to give if white South Africans were going to have a stake in the impending reimagining of their country. As the South African government began to pave the way for the country’s transition to black majority rule, the soldiers of 32 Battalion and their families were moved from their long-standing base in a sultry, soon-to-be-independent Namibian border town to arid Pomfret, more than a thousand kilometers due south.
Today, it was difficult to get a sense of how the veterans had felt about the move, or how conscious they’d been of the seismic changes South Africa was undergoing around them. Most of the people I interviewed seemed puzzled by my questions concerning the experience. They were just following orders, they said, that’s all there was to it. For their family members, too, the move to Pomfret was merely the latest in a series of forced migrations. “When I heard we were moving here, I knew I had no choice,” said Raina Khaku, whose husband, a veteran, died in his sleep in their Pomfret home in 2012. Now, Khaku said she often prayed to God to rescue her from this forsaken place.
Viemba had initially seemed reluctant to take me to her childhood home, but towards the end of our two-day tour of Pomfret, with the bulk of our work done, she acquiesced. It took us a couple of wrong turns before we eventually found the place: many of the landmarks that Viemba hoped would guide us were no longer recognizable, subsumed by the decay. Finally, we turned onto a narrow, sandy lane and Viemba told me to stop beside a small redbrick bungalow with a terra-cotta roof and cracked windowpanes. It was among just a handful of properties still standing on either side of the quiet, tree-lined street. Viemba got out of the car with a labored sigh, opened a crooked metal front gate and walked across a barren yard towards the façade of the building. Standing in the shade of the stoop, she recounted how she had plastered the walls of her bedroom, which was next to the toilet at the back of the house, with pictures of U.S. celebrities that she cut out of magazines. Brandy had been an enduring favorite.
Viemba turned to face two bare, spindly acacia trees that stood sentinel in front of the house. “Those are my older brothers,” she said. “My mother planted those when we first arrived here. She named one after her first-born son and one after the second-born.” Pointing towards a low stump in the far corner of the yard, she added: “That one that has been cut down, that was me.”
Both of Viemba’s brothers now worked in “security,” which in South Africa can mean anything from nightclub bouncing to Blackwater-esque private military deployment. It was a career path that nearly all of the young men who grew up here took. It was often their only exit route. Most of these young men had at some stage or other been controversially employed in conflict zones in Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, or Afghanistan.
A number of the Pomfret veterans had charted a similar course once their South African military service was up. (Most had taken the option of early retirement rather than being incorporated into South Africa’s post-apartheid forces, but quickly depleted their modest payouts). In March 2004, nine veterans were among a group of around sixty mercenaries arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, in connection with a coup plot that sought to overthrow Equatorial Guinea’s president, Teodoro Obiang, and replace him with Severo Moto, an exiled opposition leader. Mark Thatcher, the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was later charged with helping to fund the coup, and took a plea deal to avoid jail. The coup’s leader was an Eton-educated former British army officer called Simon Mann, who’d lured his financiers with the prospect of a slice of Equatorial Guinea’s substantial oil wealth. Mann and notorious South African arms dealer and co-conspirator Nick du Toit were sentenced to thirty-four years in prison, though both were eventually pardoned by Obiang in 2009.
Du Toit was a former colonel of 32 Battalion. In a 2010 profile, the Guardian newspaper wrote that, like many Afrikaners who had fought on the “wrong side” of apartheid, he had “struggled to find a place for himself” in the post-apartheid state. The same could have been said for the Pomfret veterans who had assisted in the coup. Some of them claimed they’d been conned by Mann and Du Toit, and believed that they’d signed up to guard mines in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The men spent fourteen months in Harare’s overcrowded Chikurubi maximum-security prison before returning to South Africa.
“It was an embarrassment to the South African government that some of those arrested were from Pomfret,” Adrian Vorster, a legal advocate who had represented the Pomfret veterans pro bono for more than five years, told me shortly before my visit to the town. “They were also worried that someone might use the military capability in Pomfret for a coup or similar on home soil.”
The state first announced its intention to relocate the residents of Pomfret and demolish the town the year after the failed Guinea coup. Vorster suggested this was not a coincidence. “It was initially about breaking up what was seen as a mercenary pool,” he said.
It was also the year that Pomfret’s police station was shuttered; the clinic, the post office, and other public services soon followed. Much of the town was torn down by police officers who were deployed to Pomfret during various phases of a relocation effort that spanned 2008 and saw scores of families, including Viemba’s, bused to peripheral townships of Mahikeng, before a court interdict orchestrated by Vorster put a temporary halt to the process.
The interdict had subsequently insured that Pomfret was mostly left to its own devices until last year, when the government began to talk about reinvigorating the relocation process. It routinely cited an October 2017 report by the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, which cautioned that asbestos contamination had rendered Pomfret uninhabitable. But Vorster remained skeptical. He told me that Pomfret residents’ relationship with the ruling A.N.C., which had initially promised to allow the veterans to stay in Pomfret, had deteriorated irrevocably as a result of the 2008 relocation efforts, prompting a shift in political affiliation to the opposition Democratic Alliance. By dispersing the town’s population to surrounding A.N.C. strongholds, the government could essentially dilute Pomfret’s voting power at the local municipal level. “It’s just a political ruse,” Vorster told me.
It was a cynical take, but not implausible given the long line of injustices that the residents of Pomfret had faced over the years at the whim of exploitative external forces. According to Johann Smith, an affable former 32 Battalion commanding officer who now worked as a security analyst and had fond memories of visiting Pomfret in the early Nineties, “The problem is that these guys are so susceptible to being abused because they’ve been fucked over by everyone for so long. Through circumstance, they were forced to bleed for this country under the old regime. Right from the beginning, they were just pawns. It’s tragic.”
Many black South Africans were less sympathetic to the plight of the veterans, particularly those who were in the marginalized townships of Johannesburg’s East Rand during the tumult of the early Nineties, when political violence between supporters of the A.N.C. and Inkatha Freedom Party (I.F.P.), a Zulu nationalist group, pushed South Africa to the brink of civil war. Having been deployed to the East Rand as a peacekeeping force, 32 Battalion committed a string of human-rights abuses, including rape and extrajudicial killings. The disgraced unit was disbanded in 1993 after a commission of inquiry exposed the extent of the atrocities.
For Angela McIntyre, a Canadian researcher who spent a number of years working with the Pomfret community in the mid-2000s, the feeling of residual resentment that persisted towards the veterans, as well as their descendants, showed the shortcomings of South Africa’s heralded Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (The commission, set up in the mid-Nineties, held public hearings but did not sentence perpetrators to prison.) “There’s still a need for there to be some kind of all-encompassing public discourse about who are the perpetrators and who are the victims of violence,” McIntyre told me. “Pomfret to me is symbolic of an incomplete process.”
But perhaps the root causes of Pomfret’s present state of unhappy limbo and dereliction were more prosaic. In a 2018 report, the World Bank had labeled South Africa the most unequal country in the world. The vast majority of black South Africans have experienced scant redress, both fiscal and emotional, for the crimes of apartheid. By the World Bank’s count, more than five million black South Africans were living in squalid and ever-expanding informal settlements, often without basic services, as the shortage of formal housing rose to nearly a million units in the neighboring province of Gauteng alone. Meanwhile, the A.N.C. had been ravaged by corruption and misrule during the ruinous nine-year tenure of former president Jacob Zuma. With the country now in a crucial election year, for any pallid intentions of small-town gerrymandering, it was easy to see how the well-being of the problematic Pomfret community might have ended up near the bottom of the ruling party’s priority list.
In the mid-afternoon, with the day’s temperature peaking at ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit, Viemba and I drove to visit a cousin of hers in the formerly white neighborhood of Salvador, close to the old sports club and soccer field. Thirty-three-year-old Gambo Alfeus, who worked as a supervisor at the local Department of Early Childhood Development (essentially an overcrowded crèche run out of a metal shipping container) welcomed us into the immaculate, spartan interior of her home.
Self-contained and soft-spoken, Alfeus was quite the opposite of Viemba. She had left Pomfret as a child in 1994, spending most of her formative years in Johannesburg. She returned at the behest of her parents in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. “It wasn’t easy to adapt. I still don’t have many friends here, because some of the people I used to mix with, they feel like I’m different because I grew up outside,” she told me as one of her two young children emerged bleary-eyed from the master bedroom and slid onto her lap.
Alfeus believed that most of Pomfret’s remaining residents would leave in a heartbeat if they had the means, despite lingering fears as to how they might be received elsewhere in South Africa. Since the end of apartheid, the country has been prone to violent bouts of xenophobia that primarily targeted African foreign nationals. But she said that a small handful of obstinate veterans had been allowed to take ownership of Pomfret’s narrative, which had then been propagated by occasional local media coverage, positing residents as unwitting victims of forced evictions. Even though they were suffering, they still wanted to dig in their heels and fight, she said, “because that’s all they know.” Maybe that had once been true, but during my short time in Pomfret, none of the veterans I spoke to expressed a strong desire to stay. To me, it seemed clear they were tired of fighting.
From Alfeus’s house, we made our way out of Pomfret and onto the long, rutted dirt road back towards the farming town of Vryburg. Viemba, too, looked fatigued as she stared out of the window at the dust and the unchanging desert landscape. “If I had the money, I would move out all of the people that are left behind and burn that place to the ground,” she said. Then she put in earbuds, closed her eyes, and began to sing softly under her breath. It took me a moment to recognize the lyrics to Brandy’s “He Is”:
They could take away the money
My fortune and fame
But as long as you stay
Here with me
I would be OK