DANIEL: In a forgotten corner of South Africa, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, the country is harsh and unforgiving and it’s here quite literally at the end of the road that you’ll find the town of Pomfret. For 16 years it’s been home to a community of war veterans with a dark past. The town may stand on the site of an old asbestos mine but it’s the only home these old soldiers know and now it’s under threat.

KAPANGA DOMINGOS (LOCAL COUNCILLOR): We won’t move, that’s the slogan we used against apartheid, we won’t move. Now I’m also telling to the present government we won’t move.

DANIEL: These men and their families are here because they fought in South Africa’s apartheid wars – but for the losing side. They’re veterans of the notorious 32 Battalion – black Africans who served as the shock troops of white minority rule.

Pomfret’s soldiers were once South Africa’s war heroes. They fought and many died for their adopted country and in return they were given this town. But they fought under the white apartheid regime and now South Africa’s new government says they’re mercenaries. Pomfret is to be demolished and so is the culture of its people.

Most of the Pomfret veterans are Portuguese speaking Angolans, recruited by the South African army in the 1970s and 80s. Led by white officers, they fought black nationalist groups seeking independence in Namibia and Angola.

To their supporters, they were affectionately known as the Buffalo Soldiers but to their enemies, they were “The Terrible Ones”.

When apartheid ended, the 32 Battalion was disbanded and not surprisingly South Africa’s ruling African National Congress government has little affection for Pomfret and its people, although they were still granted a meagre veteran’s pension.

These days, they attempt to live down their past reputation as the most feared unit in Southern Africa. And while not denying their part in the Dirty War in which both sides broke the rules, the Pomfret veterans insist that’s all in the past.

JOSE KAPUSSU (FORMER SOLDIER, 32 BATALLION): We had been dirty during the time of saying we were killing our brothers as Africans, let me say that, then it’s where we say no we can’t carry on on that situation.

DANIEL: 32 Battalion was also used by the apartheid regime to crush dissent in the black townships. Though they were accused of atrocities and some of their violent activities were noted by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it seemed all was forgiven. But their former enemies, veterans of the African National Congress, haven’t forgotten.

DEACON MATHE (FORMER ANC COMMANDER): They were attacking townships, they were attacking people who were rising up against the apartheid system, they were attacking and destroying houses of activists.

DANIEL: Deacon Mathe is a former commander of the ANC’s military wing. He remembers all too well how “The Terrible Ones” attacked civilians here in Johannesburg.

And what were they doing exactly?

DEACON MATHE: They will jump into a train and at a time when the train starts moving, then they open fire against everybody, 11 coaches - killing everybody. Even now I mean, people don’t... people look at the 32 Battalion as an outcast, you know what I mean, precisely because their activities were very vicious and clearly they were not benefiting anybody except to kill people and destroy families.

DANIEL: Since apartheid ended, some of the Buffalo Soldiers have sought to feed their families by doing the only thing they know – during the 1990s many signed up as mercenaries. Led by their former white officers, they provided the muscle for many of Africa’s dirty little wars from the Congo to Sierra Leone.

South Africa officially outlawed mercenary activity in 1998 but in reality the government turned a blind eye to the practice. Then last year, something happened that the government couldn’t ignore.

VOICEOVER [NEWS FOOTAGE]: Onboard the cargo jet – combat boots, dozens of walkie talkies, compasses and bolt cutters.

DANIEL: Seventy mercenaries, many of them current or former residents of Pomfret, were arrested when their plane landed in Zimbabwe, allegedly en-route to mount a coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea. South African authorities acted swiftly.

OFFICIAL: We believe that South Africa must not be a springboard for coups in Africa and other parts of the world.

DANIEL: Cape Town based businessman, Mark Thatcher, son of the former British Prime Minister was charged with helping fund the coup attempt.

MARK THATCHER: . . . And the only thing I can say is that there is no price too high for me to pay to be reunited with my family and I’m sure all of you who are husbands and fathers would agree with that.

DANIEL: Not long after, it was announced that Pomfret’s three thousand residents would be evicted. The government said it was due to the health risks of living so close to an old asbestos mine.

Demolishing Pomfret will destroy the community but these formers soldiers and their families won’t go down without a fight.

JOSE KAPUSSU (FORMER SOLDIER, 32 BATALLION: They promised to say this is our place, this is our land, there is a new place for you, you don’t have where you have been born here but we can buy this place for you forever.

DANIEL: Jose Kapussu has been fighting this campaign since relocation was first proposed by the government eight years ago.

All this time Jose and his men have refused to leave and now the former sergeant is preparing to lead his troops into what looks like being their last battle. Jose and local government counsellor, Kapanga Domingos, plan to take the government to court to save what they regard as their unique culture.

KAPANGA DOMINGOS: The good part about Pomfret, when there’s a party we all dance, when one dies we all cry, when there’s a joke we all laugh. That’s what makes us stay here.

DANIEL: Pomfret’s residents argue that sheer isolation has given their community strength.

RESIDENT: In South Africa we’ve got many different cultures and in this community we also have different cultures but we tend to learn only one culture – a culture in which love rules, you know. We learn to live with each other, we help each other.

DANIEL: Their first language is Portuguese – spoken by few outside their community and they have a closeness that they fear will be lost if they’re separated and scattered around South Africa.

RESIDENT: To tell you the truth, if we are spread out, I believe that many of us are going to suffer and many are going to die, to perish just like animals, you know. But if we stay here, then it’s going to be a much better life for us.

DANIEL: But Pomfret is already in decline. The government has begun the process of dismantling the town, pulling out major services, replacing the hospital with a tiny clinic, closing the police station and the post office. Pomfret’s disabled war veterans fear they’ve been left to die.

JOAQUIM (FORMER SOLDIER, 32 BATALLION): It’s unjust because I was a young boy used in the South African defence force. After accident, being abandoned in a small room like this without being paid. I haven no future. How so? That’s why I’m feeling very, very sad.

DANIEL: They claim they’re being punished for fighting the apartheid government and were simply following orders. It’s an argument supported by their former enemies.

DEACON MATHE (FORMER ANC COMMANDER): So there was a gun against their heads as I gave them performance specific duties and making sure that they satisfy their masters. I mean if I was in their position, you know, I’d be more or less in the same predicament because they were caught up in the situation where they were helpless and I’m not condoning what they were doing, obviously they were merciless and vicious and extremely destructive in their nature, but I must express the fact that they had no other alternative.

DANIEL: But ANC veterans and the government believe it’s time for the residents of Pomfret to come in from the desert and join South African society.

DEACON MATHE: I think that a new South Africa has brought about a new culture from 1994. So this culture is not my culture, it’s not a culture of the guys from Pomfret, it’s a new culture for all South Africans. And I think my colleagues in Pomfret, let them come, you know. They are welcome, I think our hands are wide open.

DANIEL: They haven’t been told when but some time in the next few months, the people of Pomfret will be asked to leave and the town itself will return to the desert. It’s the price you pay for ending up on the wrong side of history.

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
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