/ 2 September 2009

Govt turns to court to stop soldier protests

An interdict to stop soldiers from embarking on illegal marches and to prevent them from making ”irresponsible remarks” was issued by the high court in Pretoria late on Tuesday.

”It is clear both unions are condoning activities that seem to border on disrespect for authority and disobeying orders … and that is a dismissible offence,” said Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya.

The interdict was granted to the defence minister, the secretary of defence and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) against members of the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) and the South African Security Forces Union (Sasfu).

The Department of Defence earlier said the SANDF was issuing up to 2 000 letters of dismissal to soldiers believed to have taken part in last week’s protest at the Union Buildings, which ended in chaos.

It sought a legal remedy after the unions had reacted to possible dismissals by allegedly encouraging their members not to accept the dismissal letters.

”We have been watching the comments made by Sandu … telling their members not to accept the disciplinary letters … a soldier who does not accept it is in disobeyance of a lawful order,” Mabaya said.

”Most importantly, in the barracks we are receiving information that Sandu is mobilising soldiers to disobey orders from commanders … and we received information that they are mobilising soldiers to protest again. We needed to stop that.”

He added that it was a means of protecting soldiers themselves from losing their jobs.

”We thought its very important to do that, if we don’t, it puts a lot of soldiers at risk of losing their work … it is also in a sense protecting the soldiers from the irresponsible acts of Sandu.”

Mabaya said it was the largest number of soldiers the SANDF had intended firing at once. They had 10 days to respond to the letters of dismissal.

He rejected suggestions by defence unions that this process was unsound and that a military or magistrate’s court was more appropriate.

”We are determined that this is the process,” said Mabaya in response to Sandu’s and Sasfu’s contention that it did not start from the point of a presumption of innocence.

Mabaya said the ministry had already proved that they were guilty.

”They stay in barracks, so we know who was in and who was out. We have a list of people who were not at work.”

He said soldiers who may have come down with an illness on the day, or who had taken leave, would have been picked up through controls and in this way it was possible to work out who had participated.

Soldiers intended protesting over pay and working conditions last week, but an 11th-hour court application by the SANDF saw the Pretoria march banned and the permission granted by the metro police cancelled.

According to television footage, shortly after that a group of people thought to be protesting soldiers was seen scaling the fence at the Union Buildings, and the interior of a police car was set alight, with police firing rubber bullets to bring the group under control.

The protesters were reportedly trying to take their grievances to President Jacob Zuma, whose office is in the buildings, and who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Zuma said at the time: ”I don’t think it is acceptable that security forces, particularly the army, behave in the way they behaved.”

Concern over violence
The dismissal letter asks for details of where the recipient was on August 26 — the day of the incident — said Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of Sandu, which intends applying for a court interdict to have the letters withdrawn.

Sasfu said it was urgently trying to secure a meeting with Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu to have the letters withdrawn and would also turn to the courts if this failed.

Meanwhile, the South African Council of Churches arranged a meeting with Sisulu in Cape Town on Wednesday to help resolve the issue, following a meeting with Sandu earlier on Tuesday. Sasfu was invited but was unable to attend.

The Reverend Vuyani Vellem said the SACC understood both views — that discipline in the military is sacrosanct, and that soldiers have the right to express themselves.

It believed some of the issues had merit, but was concerned about the violence that it saw as a wider problem in society.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions has also offered to facilitate a resolution, and the Young Communist League (YCL) and the Pan Africanist Movement issued statements condemning the violence, but also supporting the soldiers for the issues they tried to raise.

”We believe that the concerns of the soldiers, especially related to wages and transformation of the military, are genuine and should be addressed,” said the YCL

The Pan Africanist Movement said the events at the Union Buildings represented a build-up of frustration. — Sapa