South African National Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Solly Shoke and former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota agreed this week that allowing soldiers to join trade unions might have been a mistake. They were reacting to last week’s illegal march to the Union Buildings by soldiers protesting against pay and conditions, which culminated in a violent clash with police.
More than 1 200 soldiers have since been served notices of provisional dismissal. Shoke said that allowing soldiers to be unionised was ‘perhaps a mistakeâ€ on the government’s part, whereas Lekota defended the SANDF system although he insisted that the problems in the force were rooted in unionisation.
Allowing unions meant those involved in last week’s protest ‘thought they had political supportâ€ and would be protected because of their affiliation to Cosatu, Lekota said.
‘My sense was that people came with the attitude that they were comrades in the struggle and could do what they want. They behaved as if they were above the law. ‘They felt there are people in the government who support them, because they favour soldiers being part of Cosatu. The regulations say soldiers may not go on strike and may not be politically aligned.â€
Shoke conceded that last week’s revolt was the result of long standing systemic problems in the army, but said it posed no threat to the country’s security.
The march and threatened mutiny involved a small minority and would be a once-off event, he said. ‘The full might of the defence force will apply [if striking soldiers take up arms against the government],â€ he said.
Shoke estimated that there were now 100Â 000 soldiers in the SANDF, including those who had been sent abroad on peacekeeping missions. ‘They stand ready for any eventuality and we will deal with [the unruly soldiers] decisively.â€
Shoke said that some of the dissidents were ‘misledâ€ and that this could be a mitigating factor when the dismissal letters issued this week are discussed. ‘We are dealing with soldiers in a military way. Some have been misled into this thing, but some must go to prison. The person who shot a police officer must go to the cooler.â€
He added that there was no need for Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu to meet them, as they have demanded. ‘The CEO of a company doesn’t talk to the unions. It’s not her job,â€ he said.
Kebby Maphatsoe, the chairperson of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans’ Association, laid the blame for the upheavals at the door of Lekota and his deputy, Mluleki George, now Congress of the People (Cope) leaders.
‘The previous leadership under Thabo Mbeki neglected the defence force, that is why the wrong people were deployed. Terror himself said: ‘Why do you want to wake up these dead snakes on integration problems?â€
Military analyst Helmoed Romer- Heitman, currently a senior correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the incident had its origins in 1994 with the integration of former liberation soldiers into the national defence force.
‘The problem lies with the people who were said to be MK members, but were actually taken from townships to join the force. They have no education, no prospects of being promoted and no discipline,â€ he said.
Institute of Security Studies executive director Jakkie Cilliers said the defence department had failed to ‘design appropriate exit strategies for both statutory and non-statutory members of the SANDF. It has not kept itself young and lean enough; it’s top-heavy,â€ Cilliers said.
Cilliers blamed former defence ministers Joe Modise, Ronnie Kasrils and Lekota for ducking decisions on politically difficult issues. ‘The privates are old and overweight — they’re still on privates’ salary and can’t support their families. And you have young people who stay for a few years and then leave.â€
The failure to rid the force of old-timers had forced the ministry to establish a military veterans’ arm, Cilliers said. ‘There was a plan to train people for civilian life, but many were illiterate former MK members and they were kept on.â€
Shoke conceded that the lack of an exit strategy for older members was problematic: ‘It is one of the challenges. If we let some people go, where do we send them? We just create misery. But — there’s no proper exit mechanism. There must be room for young blood.â€
Another group of soldiers was arrested on Wednesday and Thursday this week in connection with events unrelated to last week’s protest march.
Defence spokesperson Sam Mkhwanazi said the soldiers were involved in ‘causing chaosâ€ in downtown Johannesburg last year when they staged protests and marched to Luthuli House. They are due to appear in the military court soon, but Mkhwanazi could not give details about the charges.