SOUTH AFRICA: South Africa's mercenaries pack their bags.

By Kurt Schork
08May1994

KWA-MASHU, South Africa, May 8 (Reuter) - Sniper rifle cradled on bulging forearm, face beaded in sweat, a huge man dressed in black stands on a barren hillside and squints through his telescopic sight at a mob of Zulus chanting political slogans.

"There's going to be some rock and roll tonight," he grunts with satisfaction. They call him "Skoloza" (the cheeky one), a white mercenary who came home to South Africa after years in Central America and Angola because he thought the country's first all-race elections would lead to civil war and steady employment.

Wrong. Elections are over. Nelson Mandela is about to be sworn in as the country's first black president and political violence is declining. Bitter, bored and broke, men like Skoloza are packing their bags heading for other hot spots around the world.

"I'm going to New Guinea to train rebels," explained the 29-year-old, who learned his military skills in South Africa's army and later did a stint in Australia's Special Air Services.

Skoloza is in his last week running a "protection unit" for a construction company laying water pipe in the black township of Kwa-Mashu, north of Durban -- the sort of job he hates.

"We are here to prevent abductions and theft, but I'm a warrior not a policeman," he explained. "We're dealing with criminal violence. They want to ransom a supervisor or steal our guns or the vehicles. There's nothing political about it."

South Africa's huge security industry provides temporary employment for men like Skoloza, but not the high-adrenalin fix they crave from heavy combat. "Bang-bang, rock and roll, nothing like it," he explained. "I went through a drug period in my life, but drugs are nothing compared to combat. Once the shooting starts it's the greatest rush and it's all natural."

Skoloza's men are blacks with army experience, recruited from the township. When a foreman goes out, they ride in the back of his pick-up through the mean streets of Kwa-Mashu toting sawn-off shotguns and wearing bullet-proof vests with cartridge belts slung from their waists.

The construction compound sits like a military base on the dividing line between turf controlled by rival African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha Freedom Party factions, complete with razor wire, sandbags and snappy salutes from gate guards.

"Nobody wanted to wear a flak jacket or put sandbags up until one of the men got shot," Skoloza chuckled. "Now they sleep in the damn things behind the sand bags. This is a free-fire zone some nights, with tracer rounds and flares like a real war zone. People aren't shooting at us so much as at each other. We just happen to be in the middle."

Skoloza started carrying his sniper rifle, wrapped in camouflage netting, after local toughs began taking pot-shots at construction crews with rifles from a distance.

"I may not spot them exactly but as soon as I send a round back in their general vicinity they bugger off," he said.

"They're bullies. They don't like getting shot at."

On this afternoon, Inkatha supporters in Kwa-Mashu had just heard official results confirming their party's victory in provincial elections.

Hundreds of Inkatha members danced through the streets, singing and firing occasional shots of joy into the air.

Skoloza sighted the crowd through his sniper scope to ensure they posed no threat to his crew. "Inkatha and ANC may go at it tonight, but I doubt there'll be any action for us," he said.

Skoloza prides himself on being a professional, on not allowing personal feelings or political beliefs to affect his performance. Like most of his colleagues, he works for the side that offers the most. Since peace pays no dividend to the mercenary, he is leaving South Africa.

"There's no money in the region any more," he complained. "South Africa's gone quiet, the war's over in Mozambique and Angola's gone bad. You can make a thousand dollars a week there, but you can't get out. If you get shot, they leave you. There's no medevac. I don't mind being unacknowledged, but who wants to die for a thousand a week?"

(c) Reuters Limited 1994
Source: REUTERS NEWS SERVICE