/ 27 August 2009

Soldiers’ violent protest condemned

Police are investigating the illegal protest by soldiers that turned violent at the Union Buildings in Pretoria on Wednesday.

Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa, in a statement, ”strongly condemned” the violence.

”The illegal march, which was supposedly to be peaceful, deteriorated into chaos as scores of SANDF [South African National Defence Force] members were seen causing havoc.

”While members of the SANDF had the right of freedom of assembly and to protest, there can be no justification for their behaviour, which negated their status as the defenders of the nation,” said Mthethwa.

Mthethwa said he had discussed the strike with Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu and that investigations were under way.

Those found guilty of breaking the law would be punished, he said.

Police used water cannon, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse about 1 000 soldiers who staged an illegal march on the Union Buildings, the Defence Ministry said on Wednesday.

Sisulu called the protest ”a serious and immediate threat to national security”, and said soldiers who joined the protest would be placed on leave without pay.

Soldiers tried to climb the fence surrounding the main government complex in Pretoria, after a court refused their application to stage a march to demand better salaries, ministry spokesperson Ndhivuwo Mabhaya said.

”The military police and other police informed them they have to leave, they refused and then they tried to climb the fence,” he said.

Several cars were damaged as police pushed the soldiers back from the Union Buildings, he said. Soldiers threw a petrol bomb into one vehicle, it was reported.

”Our position is that the march was illegal. The union needs to take responsibility for the actions of its members. We are now consulting with our lawyers whether the union can be held liable for damage to property,” Mabhaya added.

Mthethwa told reporters that two soldiers had been arrested and handed over to military police.

The South African National Defence Union, which is not recognised by the government as an official union, was demanding 30% salary increases, which Sisulu called ”deliberately provocative”.

”This potentially leaves our military bases unprotected and without sufficient numbers of soldiers available to assist the police as the need arises,” she said of the protest.

”Our courts have expressly recognised the military as constituting essential services, and that the prohibition on strikes in the military is not unconstitutional,” she told reporters in Cape Town.

Sisulu said she was concerned about low morale among ”certain lower ranks” of soldiers due to salary grievances.

”I would be very concerned about the conditions of employment of a force whose responsibility is to keep us safe,” she said.

In her first budget vote after becoming minister following general elections earlier this year, Sisulu expressed concern over soldiers’ salaries, which she said was one of her priorities. — Sapa, AFP