Apartheid in South Africa may have ended in 1994, but many former soldiers from the antiapartheid armies feel disenfranchised from the democracy that their underground activities helped establish. That's the consensus of psychologists and mental health professionals who work with this population and were part of a South African delegation that visited APA's headquarters and several U.S. veterans' programs in July.

During the visit--funded by the international group Atlantic Philanthropies--delegation members met U.S. psychologists with extensive experience in veterans' issues at, for example, the Veterans Benefits Clearing House in Boston and a veterans' homeless shelter in Baltimore. Psychologists in both countries plan to keep in touch, says American psychologist James M. Statman, PhD, vice president of Aurora Associates International, a development-consulting organization that coordinated the tour with the U.S. Department of Labor through its Office of Foreign Relations. For instance, clinical psychologist Sonja Batten, PhD, coordinator of Trauma Recovery Programs for the Veterans Affairs Maryland Healthcare System, will be visiting South Africa this year to consult with South African psychologists. She met the group at APA headquarters, where the delegation gave a presentation on veterans' issues in South Africa.

Psychologists in the delegation--which also included researchers in other fields, adult educators, policy-makers such as Deputy Defense Minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, and representatives of the South African military--are also analyzing ways to incorporate some of the psychological methods observed on the tour into the Tswelopele Pilot Project for South African Veterans, says Statman. The pilot project, launched in 2002, seeks to give ex-combatants from the African National Congress's UmKhonto we Sizwe and the Pan-African Congress's Azanian People's Liberation Army the psychosocial support and job skills they need to adjust to civilian society.

"The visit allowed [the South Africans] to see first-hand the kinds of programs available in the United States and to critically assess their own program in light of these examples," explains Statman.

'We will go forward together'

Shortly after apartheid ended, the South African National Defense Force--formed in 1994 with the integration of formerly opposed armies--attempted to address the needs of demobilized ex-combatants by creating what it called the Service Corps. But the effort was doomed from the start, says Sasha Gear, a researcher for the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), a South African nongovernmental organization. Gear has done extensive research on her country's ex-combatants, whom she defines as "fighters of South Africa's past violent conflicts who are not currently situated within state agencies of safety and security." Her research, published by CSVR, includes the experiences of former liberation fighters who were in the Service Corps, where they often encountered staff who'd fought to protect apartheid.

"They complained that they were given little choice in the type of training they received, that they were treated as good-for-nothings and in a racist manner," Gear says. One black ex-combatant said, "They called us 'monkeys' [and] said that monkeys are not suitable for motor mechanic [courses], but are suitable for bricklay[ing] and carpentry courses," Gear reports.

Gear and other delegation members also point to another major problem: The Service Corps lacked the psychosocial support that ex-combatants needed. Tswelopele--which means "We will go forward together"--aims to fill that gap. The pilot project is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor through Statman's Aurora Associates, which manages the project stateside. Technikon Southern Africa, a vocational-training institution, and CSVR, an experienced provider of psychosocial-support services to ex-combatants, implement the project--developed by Statman and research psychologist Rachel Prinsloo of Technikon.

Tswelopele's main objectives include improving ex-combatants' knowledge of employment skills, employment-related attitudes, and communication, social and behavioral skills--enabling them to sustain income-generating activities.

"The program grapples with the difficulty of [ex-combatants] reconstructing identities as productive citizens in an emerging democracy still fraught with inequities and challenges," says Prinsloo, the project's leader.

Instead of following a traditional vocational-training approach, the program is multidisciplinary and holistic. "The findings of the first and [upcoming] second pilots will translate into a project that will be expanded nationally," says counseling psychologist Clint van der Walt.

Van der Walt, the project's main researcher, says that the Tswelopele model, which will be fine-tuned after the second pilot intervention, could become an effective intervention for ex-combatants throughout South Africa because it:

  • Includes an ethos of social justice and the recognition that ex-combatants contributed to the establishment of a South African democracy.

  • Views the ex-combatant as a whole person, recognizing his or her psychological, social, political, economic, historical, spiritual and contextual realities and incorporates them into the reintegration and job-training process.

  • Is driven by research, advocacy and development and uses rigorously tested and socially useful models.

Dealing with trauma

About 40 male ex-combatants from UmKhonto we Sizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army participated in the first intervention, implemented last fall. (Women, who were in both armies, weren't in the first pilot.) Many participants initially resisted the program's psychosocial component. They were shocked to realize that it was not a course but a "space for them to talk about trauma," says social worker Boitumelo Kekana, a CSVR therapist. "Some protested saying, 'I'm not crazy' or 'What's the point of talking; we need jobs.' Others said they didn't want to talk in front of a group."

But during the eight-week intervention, many participants told Kekana that they valued the counseling. In fact, about 10 participants asked to continue therapy after the program ended; others referred their families and friends to CSVR for counseling.

Letting go of the stigma attached to counseling is an important step for ex-combatants--whose 66 percent unemployment rate is reported to be nearly twice the national average--according to CSVR researcher Gear. Her study found that providing psychosocial support to demobilized ex-combatants is equally as important as training them to compete in the labor market.

They have many issues to work through, says Kekana. Most are angry and bitter. Many of these men and women--whose average age is 39--joined the liberation struggle in their teens and are questioning whether they wasted their lives.

"In many ways, these ex-combatants were the best of their generation," adds Statman. They sacrificed their youth to help create a new and democratic South Africa. Now disillusioned, they feel betrayed by their leaders and society, he says.

With lessons from the first phase of the project, along with consultations with U.S. psychologists, project organizers hope to refine Tswelopele so that it can be expanded nationally. "The aim [of the second pilot] is to increase the number of participants, extend the training period and ensure that ex-combatants are included in the planning process of the project," Kekana says.

Concludes Technikon's Prinsloo: "The statement 'Democracy was built on our black backs' from one of the program participants probably sums it all up. Our ex-combatants personify the ills still prevalent in our society," which is why the Tswelopele project is so important.