Everyone speaks Portuguese. In this remote corner of North West, nobody speaks Setswana and pap and meat is foreign.
Those who live here follow Angolan public holidays and traditional ceremonies, and serve up dishes of caldeirada de peixe, a fish stew served with rice and beans.
Welcome to Pomfret, home to the retired soldiers of apartheid South Africa’s once-feared 32 Battalion, an elite fighting unit of Angolan mercenaries and white South African soldiers who fought the apartheid regime’s Border War.
Those who live here long for home, but cannot return.
The 32 Battalion fought in Angola, Zambia and Namibia and, after Namibia gained independence from South Africa in 1990, many of them were incorporated into the new SA National Defence Force (SANDF). Former president FW de Klerk’s government acquired Pomfret, then an asbestos-mining town, and transformed it into a military base, settling the battalion’s members who did not make it into the SANDF.
Pomfret was once beautiful, with its 1 200 homes, three public swimming pools, seven churches, tennis court and state-of-the-art sports club, which hosted concerts and movies.
But in 2000, after the military decided to relocate the army to Zeerust, 315km away, the town was plundered and everything of value stripped. The fewer than 500 families who remain have no water, electricity, clinic or police station.
“There is a mobile clinic,” says Jose Cufa (42) in his thick Angolan accent. The former ward councillor was born in the battalion’s Namibia headquarters and brought to South Africa as a baby. His father died in 2008.
“It comes once a week. But the service is not reliable. Sometimes it doesn’t come and we have to travel 24km to and from the local clinic.”
The Molopo local municipality cut off their electricity in 2014 – no one knows why – and the former soldiers have resorted to removing the roof trusses of empty houses to make fires to cook their meals. Cufa and those who can afford to use car batteries to light their homes and power their fridges
“We only get water on Fridays,” says Cufa. He is an electrician, but without electricity, his skill is of no value.
Adolino Carlos (53), a former battalion member, is a grubby, hard-featured man with thick black hair and a deeply furrowed face. Tall and rangy, he sits on a grimy couch, waiting for Cufa to translate what is being said.
Everyone, including those born here, speaks Portuguese. Thanks to the school, the children and teenagers do speak English, but their command of the language is limited.
“The language and or food are the only connection we now have with our ancestral land,” Cufa says.
Carlos’ house contains an old kettle, a microwave and couches from the 1980s. Through a half-opened door one can see a jumble of dirty clothes and old foam mattresses piled on the bedroom floor.
He is grateful that he has a job as a security guard in Mpumalanga.
“Others are not that lucky; they survive on child and old age grants and hand-outs,” he says.
At the height of his career, Carlos operated heavy artillery guns for the battalion. A picture of him as an imposing soldier standing at the back of a tank hangs proudly on the wall.
His demeanour changes and he booms: “This place is not good for us. It is a violation of human rights. When we came here, we were told that we are being taken to Pomfret to have a lovely retirement.
“I did not benefit anything, like I did nothing for the country. I am not happy. I did a lot for this country. I feel betrayed; I protected this country.”
With a deep sense of a buyer’s remorse, the father of five, who joined the battalion in 1982 at the age of 18, said he rues the day he joined the unit.
“I was just fighting in a war whose purpose I didn’t know and understand,” he says.
Carlos says he and many of his fellow Angolans joined the 32 Battalion by sheer coincidence. At the end of the Angolan civil war in 1975, he and other National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) guerrilla fighters stumbled on the SA Defence Force (SADF) at the Buffalo Military Base as they fled into the then Zaire.
The SADF’s Colonel Jan Breytenbach conscripted the Angolans into the army and stationed them in southern Angola where they formed a buffer between the apartheid military and the socialist government forces.
Over the years, the government has tried several times to evict Carlos and his fellow veterans from Pomfret and integrate them into neighbourhoods in Zeerust and Mafikeng. Many reasons have been advanced for this – including possible asbestos poisoning – but Carlos says the authorities have always feared that Pomfret would become a recruiting ground for mercenaries.
Those fears were not misplaced.
In 2004, about 64 mercenaries, many of whom were former 32 Battalion members, were arrested in Harare after an ill-fated mission to oust Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo. Carlos leaps to the mercenaries’ defence, arguing that they were motivated by the need to support their families.
The first attempt to relocate the soldiers was in the early 2000s. According to a parliamentary question from the New National Party’s Dr BL Geldenhuys in 2004, a donation of $10 million (R170 million at the current exchange) was made for a housing project for the battalion’s former members.
Nova Vida, as the project was known, would have seen former battalion members moved to a new neighbourhood near Zeerust. Geldenhuys also asked about a further R700 000 meant for the education of the battalion members’ children and descendants, administered by the SA Army Foundation. Responding to Geldenhuys’ questions, then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota told Parliament: “Project Nova Vida never materialised and no houses were built. This was not an SANDF project and no comment can be given about the funds.”
Of the R700 000, he said, “The 32 Battalion trust fund still exists, with R870 497 in the fund. The SA Army Foundation’s bank account is only used for safekeeping the funds.”
In a statement last week, the SA Army Foundation’s general manager Angel Ramphele said neither he nor the foundation has knowledge about the donations.
“The allegations in your above communication will be subject to an investigation and upon finalisation of the investigation I should be in a position to respond in more detail,” he said.
All attempts to relocate the war veterans have failed. The most recent was in 2012 when police tried to demolish the town and the residents stopped them with an urgent court application.
Carlos has flirted with the idea of returning to Angola, but says his lot is in South Africa.
“I am an enemy in Angola. I could even be killed there. I fought for South Africa against Angola. If I go back there, I and my entire family could be killed.”
Carlos, however, is tied to Pomfret by something else entirely.
“Everyone in South Africa and around the world knows the 32 Battalion and Pomfret. If I leave this place, I will lose the history, respect and reverence. I can’t afford that.”
Outside the safety of Pomfret, Carlos fears his family might be exposed to xenophobia. Like a community of lepers, he says being quarantined in Pomfret is the lesser evil.
A stone’s throw from Carlos lives Vieira Monte (62), another Border Wars veteran who joined the FNLA in 1972, and the battalion three years later. With a display cabinet full of trinkets, small teddy bears, and a coffee table decorated with colourful doilies and ceramic animal figurines, his house is more of a home.
Monte, a gregarious man with a raucous sense of humour, becomes brooding and punctuates his responses with lengthy pauses.
His short, round wife, Rosa Maria, apologises for him, blaming a stroke he suffered a few years ago.
Monte chips in.
“It is a sad situation. As a man who worked for such a long time in the military, I should have a car and leave an inheritance for my kids,” he says.
With a malevolent smirk he blames the “white man” who was his commanding officer in the battalion, adding that if he ever met him again he would throttle him.
“They told us that they would look after us. They told us that we would live happily ever after. It was all a lie.”
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