/ 10 September 2009

Court reprieve for protesting soldiers

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will, for at least the next two months, not fire any soldiers who took part in an alleged illegal protest march at the Union Buildings in Pretoria last month.

The South African National Defence Union (Sandu) on Wednesday took Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and the chief of the SANDF to court to stop its members from being dismissed and to declare the procedure adopted in dismissal notices served on them unconstitutional.

After several hours of negotiations, the minister late on Wednesday afternoon undertook not to dismiss any of Sandu’s members as a result of the August 26 march, pending the finalisation of the union’s urgent application.

In terms of the settlement, the SANDF may also not remove any of the soldiers’ benefits, but may ”redeploy” them, provided they remain geographically in the same area.

This could include placing them on special leave on full pay, with the retention of their benefits.

The minister and chief of the defence force were given two months to file further papers in the application, whereafter Sandu will also be able to supplement its papers.

Sandu is seeking a court order declaring the August 30 dismissal notices — which gave its members just 10 days to supply reasons why they should not be dismissed summarily — unlawful and unconstitutional.

The union also wants the court to restrain the SANDF from dismissing the soldiers pending the finalisation of a dispute they intend referring to the Military Bargaining Council, or should it not be resolved, to the Military Arbitration Board.

In the alternative, the union wants the court to declare the procedure adopted in the notices unlawful and unconstitutional.

According to the notice, soldiers who participated in the August 26 march engaged in criminal activities, threatened the security of the country and were guilty of mutiny.

‘Unfortunate behaviour’
Sandu secretary Johannes Greeff said in court papers its members had applied for leave so that they could take part in the August 26 march, but were denied leave in contravention of two court orders in the union’s favour.

He claimed no one ever told its members the SANDF had been put on high security and stand-by arrangement until an urgent application to stop the march was being argued in court about half an hour before the march was scheduled to start.

He said about 3 000 SANDF members had already started gathering at the city hall in Pretoria when the interdict was granted to declare the march illegal.

According to Greeff, the soldiers were moved to the Union Buildings under police escort so that the interdict could be explained to them and they therefore never took part in an illegal march.

He insisted the procedure adopted by the defence force was ”patently unfair and unlawful” because those affected were not afforded an opportunity of a full hearing and the method adopted to identify those to be dismissed was ”irrational”.

He said the charges were also so vague that it made the prejudice members would suffer by attempting to answer it even more acute.

He added that many of Sandu’s members who had been accused of being a threat to national security had resumed their work and there was no basis for not affording them procedural fairness.

Greeff stressed that the union did not condone the ”unfortunate behaviour” of those who participated in unruly behaviour at the Union Buildings.

Sandu was in the process of launching its own investigation and would act against any members found to have been involved in criminal conduct.

The high court earlier this month granted an urgent interdict to stop union members from participating in illegal protest action and from making inflammatory statements intended to incite mutiny, revolt and illegal behaviour by SANDF members.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions called the decision to ”redeploy” the soldiers a victory for human rights.

”This is a victory for human rights and the South African Constitution whose clause 23[2] clearly spells out that ‘Every worker has the right to form and join a trade union’,” said spokesperson Patrick Craven in a statement.

He said employees within the defence force had the right to join unions, like all public servants.

”They are workers in uniform whose jobs include defending our democracy. They cannot therefore be denied the democratic rights they are there to defend.

”The minister of defence and military veterans must learn the lessons of South African history. Apartheid governments repeatedly tried to thwart efforts to unionise the whole of the public sector, but were forced to retreat.” — Sapa