By Sowetan Editor, THABO LESHILO
A few years ago I saw a woman standing forlornly outside a military base near Pretoria, bumming a ride. It was cold and getting dark. Dejection was etched on her face when I stopped to give her a lift.
After exchanging a few pleasantries, I asked where she was headed. Tears welled up in her eyes, then followed sobs that became a flood.
She was going to the Vaal, but would have to stay over with a friend in Braamfontein because it was late and she did not have a cent on her. After regaining her composure she related one of the most heart-wrenching stories of the new South Africa.
Nomzamo was a former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) guerrilla and had been on many fruitless trips to the military base for news about being integrated into the South African National Defence Force. While waiting she was forced to live on handouts.
Our country is awash with thousands of Nomzamos, people who mortgaged their future for the liberation of this country, but have nothing to show for it while many of those who fought for apartheid retired with fat state pensions.
I had the opportunity to ask Jacob Zuma, the president of the ANC, what he thinks of this and found the issue exercises his mind no end.
How can South Africa hope to live in peace when thousands of its able-bodied people, with no other skill than shooting to kill, roam the streets as their stomachs growl with hunger?
Zuma agrees that our nation has done a particularly bad job of looking after its liberation heroes, be they from the MK, the Azanian People's Liberation Army and the Azanian National Liberation Army.
"It's a very painful situation," he says. "I am one of those who think we could have done things differently.
"Those who served in the [apartheid] police force and in the old army have their pensions. But it was made very difficult for those who fought for freedom. They have been pushed from pillar to post."
He said many former guerillas had spent decades in the camps and had returned much older, with families and young children. Now they are destitute. Zuma should know, he is in the same boat.
"I think we should have done things differently. Many of those people spent a lot of time in the struggle in exile ... and did not accumulate pensions.
"We are free because ... of the major contribution they have made. What do you do with that?" he asked.
I pointed out that the ANC had been in power for 14 years and it was up to the party to sort out the mess. He had been deputy president of the country for years.
He wouldn't be drawn on how differently he would do things
What clearly does occupy the ANC president's mind is the media.
"The media are misbehaving. You take media freedom too far," he declares.
I find his assertion unsettling, and in particular how he appears keen to align himself with anybody who has unflattering views of the media: David Bullard, for instance.
The racist columnist, fired by the Sunday Times for insulting black people, beat a path to Zuma's door after being on the receiving end of the media spotlight for his views. Instead of sending him packing the ANC president welcomed him with open arms and even dropped a lawsuit against him.
It would be a sad day if his claims were proved true. But he does have a point about the obsession with blood and gore displayed by too many of our media.
He points to the 9-11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York to emphasise reportage can be just as effective without displaying dead bodies. Zuma also has huge problems with the gratuitous display of sex and violence on television to which even children are exposed.
"We are destroying our society," he says.