After more than a year in a Zimbabwean jail 62 black South African mercenaries are due to be released this week, but freedom will be a bittersweet experience.
Not for the first time in their lives the mercenaries — seized at Harare airport as they allegedly prepared to mount a coup in Equatorial Guinea — are set to pay for their actions with their homes. Embarrassed by the “cesspool of mercenaries” within its midst, the South African authorities have decreed that the dust-blown former asbestos mining town of Pomfret on the edge of the Kalahari desert must be razed and the inhabitants scattered across the country.
Sam Mkhwanzi, a spokesman for the South African Defence Ministry, said: “I can confirm that Pomfret is to be destroyed. This is property belonging to the South African defence forces and on that basis you live there.”
Most of the mercenaries and their families have lived in Pomfret, in the remote north-western corner of the country, for the past 15 years. They were among 3,000 fighters — mainly Angolans but also other Portuguese-speaking Africans — who fought with South Africa’s apartheid army against fellow blacks seeking liberation in neighbouring Angola, Mozambique and Namibia.
During negotiations in 1990 to end minority rule in South Africa the fighters — who had formed the Battalion 32 known as the Buffalo Squadron and the “Terrible Ones” — were given citizenship and resettled in Pomfret, then empty due to fears of asbestos poisoning, as part of the last apartheid Government’s obligations to its former military allies. But the men and their families were shunned as traitors.
Apart from the Portuguese music echoing down its dusty lanes, Pomfret was, on the surface, just like many other South African shanty towns. But whereas life and amenities slowly improved elsewhere, Pomfret — with its 700 lean-to shacks, run-down school and handful of shops — was left to fester as a standing monument to being on the wrong side of history.
In 1993, Battalion 32 was finally wound up. A handful moved on, but most of the former soldiers were left jobless and embittered. They become a reservoir of talent for mercenary outfits. Until recently, it was rumoured that a few phone calls to Pomfret were all that was needed to put together an effective mercenary force — talk which infuriated South Africa and led directly to the Government adopting some of the world’s toughest anti-mercenary legislation in 1998.
It was into this ready-made pool of discontented military veterans that Simon Mann, an old Etonian and former SAS officer, dipped while allegedly planning a coup to overthrow the Government of oil-rich Equatorial Guinea last year — a plot in which Sir Mark Thatcher, the son of Baroness Thatcher, was also implicated.
The plot fell apart when the 64 former Buffalo Squadron fighters — two have since died in detention — were arrested along with Mr Mann and two white South Africans at Harare airport where they had apparently met to pick up weapons. A further 15 alleged coup plotters were arrested at the same time in Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea.
The involvement of the former South African soldiers has infuriated President Thabo Mbeki’s Government. Pretoria was already considering taking action over the large number of white former members of the South African Defence Force who had volunteered to work for private military outfits in Iraq. This convinced the military it was time to do away with Pomfret and its legacy.
The official reason for the town’s demolition is asbestos poisoning, but insiders say the timing is a lot more than coincidental. “They made the mistake of fighting on the wrong side yet again,” said one government insider. Residents will have to apply for government housing elsewhere, and will be scattered across the country.
The Buffalo Squadron are seen by most South Africans as a brutal force which did the dirty work of a repressive apartheid regime. But they were also taking on Marxist guerilla movements in Angola and Mozambique backed by Havana and Moscow.
“This is a sad end for Buffalo Squadron. Whatever the politics and geo-politics of that time, they were a superb fighting force. They spearheaded operations deep into Angola,” said one South Africa-based expert on Angola. “There were no saints in those wars.”
Battalion 32’s most famous military encounter was in 1988 at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola where they fought a combined force of Marxist Angolan guerrillas, Cubans and East Germans, to a draw and prevented that country falling into the orbit of the Soviet Union.
The Buffalo Squadron was formed in 1975 from troops who fled Angola after losing the civil war
Colonel Jan Breytenbach led the unit of mainly black Angolan soldiers and mainly white South African officers
In the 1970s and 1980s it was used in civil wars in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia and against insurgents within South Africa
The unit was disbanded in 1993
In 1998 South Africa passed a law forbidding private citizens from fighting in foreign wars
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