JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- One of the most important elements of South Africa's post-apartheid arrangement is in serious trouble as thousands of soldiers from the former anti-apartheid forces are refusing to report for work in the country's new military.
The crisis, which has been building for weeks, came to a head when the soldiers, who were being integrated into the new army, did not return from a leave that ended on Oct. 5.
Some were reportedly trickling in to the three army bases yesterday.
But figures released the day before showed that more than 6,000 soldiers from the armies of the African National Congress and about 600 from the Pan Africanist Congress -- about 80 percent of the total undergoing integration -- were staying away.
Recognizing the status of these former rebel soldiers as legitimate members of the country's new army is seen as one of the most important symbolic and practical affirmations of the end of apartheid rule and the beginning of the new South Africa. Though they had few military successes over the former apartheid government, inclusion of the rebels is regarded as recognition of their movement's ultimate victory.
If a national institution as prominent as the new military does not integrate smoothly, it would cast a long shadow over the nation's entire transition process.
The soldiers have complained about everything from poor food to racism, and officers in charge of integrating the "nonstatutory" forces with the old South African Defense Force to form the new National Defense Force admit that the process has not gone smoothly.
"There have been a few rough edges in our integration plan and a few rough edges in the command and control of the nonstatutory forces," said Maj. Gen. Bertie Botha, deputy chief of the army.
"Unfortunately, there are members of the nonstatutory forces who seem not very willing to adhere to basic principles of military discipline," he said. "It has come to a point that we cannot accept this any longer."
The disgruntled soldiers have refused to obey orders from the general of the old South African army and from Defense Minister Joe Modise, former head of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Size, usually abbreviated as MK.
Mr. Modise and other top defense officials have pleaded with the soldiers to return to their bases. But the former freedom fighters have demanded that President Nelson Mandela intervene. There widespread speculation that he cut a day off his trip to the United States to return here to deal with the matter.
General Botha's comments came at a news conference called to announce changes in the integration procedures, modifications that were tacit admissions of flaws in the process which was designed in cooperation with MK officers.
The major problem facing the soldiers appears to be boredom, as many have sat around the bases since May, called seemingly at random for interviews and tests while the army decides their new ranks and assignments. Many of the changes involve attempts to improve communication and recreation.
Of the nearly 10,000 soldiers being integrated, less than 600 have moved to the next phase, 41 days of so-called bridge training, getting them ready for their new postings.
General Botha said that a variety of problems have caused delays -- from the lack of proper identity documents to the need for testing to determine educational levels to the lack of a list of ranks from the MK.
But he said the main problem was that the new soldiers were invariably late in coming back from leave.
"We have tried to approach this in a spirit of reconciliation," the general said. "We recognize that a number of these people have to travel large distances, and have tried to be flexible. But if they are not here, we can't go on with the process."
"What you really have here is a clash of two different ways of doing things in military terms," said Col. Bill Lash of the Royal Marines, part of a team of British officers observing the integration process.
He said that many of the MK soldiers come from an informal, guerrilla background where conventional army discipline is not expected.
"In an informal army, it might not matter if you are back in camp on time," he said. "And it can be quite effective that way."
White officers who worked their way up have resisted as young officers from the MK take up equivalent ranks in the new national army.
And though many white South Africans have viewed the MK stay-away as evidence that the soldiers are poorly disciplined and that they should not be entrusted with the country's defense, Colonel Lash said that many were well trained.
"Some of their training was quite impressive," he said. "They took courses in East Germany, the Soviet Union, many African countries. In general, the ones who spent more time out of this country are better trained in terms of conventional military discipline than the ones who worked underground here."
Among many blacks in South Africa, the MK troops' dissatisfaction is seen as proof that the old guard is refusing to relax its grip on the reins of power.
And General Botha has admitted that MK troops could get the impression that they were being forced to join the old South African army, rather than taking part in the creation of a new one, which is a significant source of dissatisfaction.
"They may well perceive that it is the old South African army that is still calling the tune," he said. "It is not intended to be that way.
"But one has to be realistic and realize that the South African army has the organization, the structure and the infrastructure necessary to facilitate the integration process."