SANDF personnel strike: Minister of Defence and Military Veterans & South African Council of Churches (SACC) media briefing
01 Sep 2009
Present: Defence Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu; Former Military Intelligence Chief Lieutenant-General, Mojo Motau; Acting Secretary of Defence, Mr Tsepe Motumi; Legal Advisors: Mr Paul Ngobeni and Justice Judge Willem Heath.
The Minister of Defence and Military Veterans briefed the media on the 3 September meeting between the Department of Defence and the South African Council of Churches at which they had discussed the recent strike action on 26 August 2009 by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). This was followed by questions from the media. Thereafter the South African Council of Churches delegation provided their statement and then responded to media questions.
The Minister, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, said that the SACC request had been for them to discuss the decisions that had been taken by the Minister as well as Cabinet, the National Working Committee and the President. They had welcomed the concern by the SACC. Ms Sisulu explained that the decision to dismiss the soldiers who had taken part in the strike action had been well considered right up to the highest level of executive authority. It would not be rescinded although the letters informing the soldiers of their dismissal afforded them an opportunity to make representations why their dismissal should not be made final within a period of ten days. She also explained to the media that her office had agreed to meet with the SACC to discuss her decision which she had explained was based on the need to instill discipline in the military and to ensure the dignity and integrity of the Defence Force.
Ms Sisulu said that her Department had been in the process of resolving the issue of general conditions of service for military personnel. They were considering a new dispensation for the military, similar to the one for intelligence personnel. This would see the removal of the military from the public service and authority given to the Minister to determine remuneration for the armed forces.
Their SACC delegation’s intention had been to come and listen and understand the circumstances around this unfortunate situation and to see if in any way they could be of use to anybody. They had been given time to interview the Minister who had later excused herself to attend to other commitments. However she believed that the delegation had a productive time with her advisors who had led them through the process to where they were at the moment. The SACC had questions to ask to the Ministry and they too had questions to ask the SACC. Thereafter they had decided that they would each brief the media individually. After the Defence Ministry's briefing they would excuse themselves and allow the SACC to brief the media so that the media would understand that the Ministry was not putting pressure on anyone.
The Minister described the meeting with the SACC as “very fruitful” and stated that they would continue to have meetings with the SACC and were open to any member of society who wanted to approach them on any matter and they would discuss honestly with anybody because they were transparent in anything that they did.
The Minister informed the media that she had her advisors present to answer any questions that the media might have. She emphasised that every step that they had taken had been deliberate, well considered. Nothing they had done had been a “knee jerk reaction”. A lot of time had been spent on the matter and they had dealt with every fact that they had put on the table. The matter that had culminated in last week's march was a matter that they had been seized with for a very long time. It was a matter that they had almost arrived at a solution. It was a matter that resided within the mandate committee that was led by the Minister of Public Service and Administration. The Minister had indicated on a number of occasions to the public and to the soldiers themselves that the Ministry wanted their own dispensation where within their own area of responsibility and expertise which was the military they were able to deal with issues that had come out in the way that they had done.
However at the end of the day what they were talking about was the issue of discipline. The Minister commented that what they had discovered with their discussions with the clergy was that they were not a “unionised” group of people. They were glad to have interacted with the clergy because they were so much enlightened about all their lives.
Q: A journalist asked the Minister whether she was at this stage considering rescinding any of the dismissals. What sort of threat was being posed since there had been reports that this could be a very serious security threat? How seriously did the Minister view this, given that there had been reports of possible jeopardy to her own life?
A: The Minister asked for a response from General Motau, former head of Military Intelligence and her right hand person - advising her on all matters to do with the military. The Minister added that there was no possibility that they might rescind the decision.
A: General Motau noted that there were two sides to the question. On the one hand, he did not think that there was any threat against the State or to anyone else at the moment. That was one side and it was easy to answer that. However on the other hand, the question was whether that type of conduct by soldiers posed a threat. Of course it posed a threat, firstly to the integrity and the reputation of the Defence Force itself. This was a very serious threat for them to consider because a Defence Force without respect for the population they served, was not worthy of being called a Defence Force. The type of reputation that these soldiers had tried to bring to the image of the Defence Force was totally unacceptable. The second issue was that the Defence Force would not like to have people who had access to and were in control of the military’s most dangerous weapons, to be the type of people that the public had seen at the Union Buildings. What they wanted was a disciplined and dignified Defence Force and if it was not disciplined then it was a threat to the State. The General assured the media that at present there was no threat against the State. It was a question of trying to foster discipline and the action that was taken was to ensure that South Africans were assured that the Defence Force would remain disciplined and would be a Defence Force that they could rely on.
Q: A journalist asked that since the Minister had said that their meeting with the SACC had been a “fruitful meeting” if she could indicate what had been the “fruit”.
A: The Minister responded that the “fruit” was that they needed to understand the background and the environment in which the Ministry operated in terms of the laws and the discipline that they were talking about. What had been fruitful for the Department was to indicate to society that they were open to discussion on any issue with all South Africans. The SACC was group of people that had taken time to come and see them and they had been very happy to meet with them. The SACC had prayed for them and this was indeed one of the most fruitful meetings that they had conducted in a very long time. The engagement itself had been extremely fruitful. The media would have the opportunity to engage with the SACC when they arrived.
The Ministry had emphasised to them, however, that Defence Force was governed first and foremost by the Constitution which indicated categorically that this would be a disciplined force. The Constitution did not say that of any other institution in government. It was also governed by the Defence legislation which took precedence over any labour laws. Ultimately, as the General had indicated, they wanted to have a Defence Force where everyone would feel safe. In the same way that each one of them belonged to a particular religion or had a calling with a passion to serve the people, they too wanted a Defence Force that had the same passion and was called to serve as a lifetime responsibility. The Defence Ministry had also explained to the SACC that out of 70 000 soldiers there had been only 1 500 who had gone on strike. The Ministry was extremely grateful to those soldiers who had remained in their barracks understanding that the Ministry was dealing with the matter. These soldiers had shown outstanding responsibility and the Ministry was extremely proud of their service to the nation.
Q: A journalist asked for clarity on the application of labour law to the issue of the dismissal of soldiers who had taken part in the strike action. Ordinarily, one could not summarily dismiss an employee for taking part in strike action since there had to be some kind of hearing. If this was not the case with the army, then what kind of process applied to troops and were such processes taken into account when the Minister dismissed these soldiers.
A: The Minister emphasised that the decision which she had taken had been canvassed with Cabinet and agreed to by the highest level in the executive and they were therefore able to draw on various other skills that they had in government and the Minister of Justice had kindly loaned them his legal advisor. The Minister also had her own legal advisor to whom she would refer these questions. She asked Dr Ngobeni and Judge Heath to respond to these questions.
A: Dr Ngobeni assured the media that the decision that had been taken was fully consistent with due process. Notices had been given to the soldiers concerned. As an employer, the SANDF had a common law right to summarily dismiss an employee who engaged in activities that were inconsistent with his/her position or duties. The notices that had been given to them gave them an opportunity to make representations as to why the decision should not be final. Clearly where there was an emergency situation affecting national security, one could not prevaricate or dilly dally on such a matter. One had to act immediately to protect national security and there were always recognised exceptions. Whilst in an abstract sense or in the ordinary way, dismissal had to be preceded by a notice and the right to be heard, however, when one had to act in the interest of national security and maintain discipline then one had to act in the manner that the Defence Ministry had done. They were very confident that the courts would agree with them should the determination of that issue become necessary in a court of law. They had accorded the soldiers all the processes required by law.
A: Judge Heath responded that the position was that the letters that had been sent to the soldiers actually indicated that this was a provisional dismissal, inviting them to make representations to be fully heard by the authorities, and then after that, their dismissal would become final. This was in line with the principle that everyone should be heard in the context of the law. As far as labour laws were concerned, the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court of Appeals had repeatedly stated that they did not apply to the Defence Force because of the nature of its activities, in the same way as it applied to the police and to the nursing community.
Q: A journalist asked the Minister to explain exactly what she meant by saying that the matter of the soldiers’ grievances was a matter that they had almost got the solution for and considerable progress had been made. Could she give a comment on what the soldiers were saying about how unfair it was that the generals had been awarded 10.5% increases and benefits whilst they continued to struggle on low pay.
A: General Motau responded that it was up to the Department of Public Services and Administration to make a determination on the salaries for public servants every year. That increase was an overall public service increment which was not restricted to generals only. He was not sure where they had obtained the information that this increment was for generals only. The General said that he would not have left the Defence Force if there had been any such big increase. The Defence Force got the same increase that the public service got every year. The issue which the Defence Ministry had taken to Cabinet had been that of improving the conditions of service for the armed forces which was not for a particular percentage increment but a more general improvement which did include the matter of salaries. The two issues which had been taken to Cabinet had been about moving out of the public service system by creating a service commission for the military and enabling the Minister of Defence to make a determination on salaries - and not the public service. The second issue was of the general conditions of service which included salaries and housing and so on.
Q: The journalist added that she had not been undermining but had wanted to know what progress had been made on that to date.
A: The Minister responded that they had noted that they had a precedent with the Department of Intelligence where a different dispensation had been created for Intelligence Officers precisely because of the ‘security’ nature of the work that they did. The Minister hoped that during her term of office they would establish the same dispensation as the one in the United Kingdom where her Ministry would be outside the public service and the Department of Public Services and Administration. There had been success with the Intelligence Services and she did not foresee that this would be any different. In her discussions with the Minister of Public Service and Administration who had been applying his mind to this matter, he had been more swayed by a different dispensation such as existed for what he called Senior Management Service (SMS) which was a band of management and that was what he had put on the table. But these were ongoing discussions and they were almost at finality and they would put something to Cabinet before long. In terms of how far they were with the actual bargaining chamber, the Minister thought the Secretary of Defence would be able to explain that.
A: Acting Secretary of Defence, Mr Tsepe Motumi responded that in terms of the bargaining chamber in addition to the steps mentioned by the Minister, they were also in the process of concluding a recognition agreement, since the end of June 2009, with the Unions that were operating within the Defence establishment
Q: A journalist commented that this protest seemed to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the problems in the Defence Force. There were broader problems of ill-discipline, questions about combat readiness, racism and ongoing questions around skills shortages and the transformation process. In light of all of that, what was the Minister’s own views about what she planned to do in the short term?
A: The Minister responded that the strike had only emphasised a problem of discipline amongst a tiny fraction of the people in the Defence Force. The other matters were matters that they had been dealing with on an ongoing basis and there was nothing new in them. These were matters that they had consistently applied their minds to and at every given opportunity they had indicated that this was what they were dealing with.
Q: Had all the letters of provisional dismissal been sent out and did the Ministry anticipate a backlash with respect to these measures?
A: The Minister responded that she would not wish to delve into conjecture on whether or not there would be a backlash. All the letters had been sent out and she expected that each recipient would study the contents, apply their minds soberly and respond within the time frames that they had been given. Beyond that, they were in a state of readiness legally and in every other way to ensure that they did not have a recurrence of what had happened on 26 August.
Q: The Minister was asked to comment on claims by some of the unions that some members were served with letters but they had been at their posts, whilst some of them were off sick. Had there been any verification process, either before the letters were sent out or afterwards to see if the right people had received the letters.
A: The Minister responded that there was a ten-day period that had been given so that people could indicate whether they had any objections.
A: Acting Secretary of Defence, Mr Tsepe Motumi, added that there was period given for each of the members to give evidence of their whereabouts at the time at which the strike action had occurred.
A: The Minister added that they would have known about the members who were off sick and for those members who were away from their posts for more than four hours - it was away without permission.
Q: A journalist asked the Minister how many letters had been sent out in total and whether the soldiers who received those letters were still entitled to their salaries.
A: Dr Ngobeni responded that they would still receive their salaries because the process was still in progress and there was no finality to it as yet. He also warned, in light of reports that some of the unions had been advising their members not to sign the letters, that this would jeopardise any procedural rights that they would have in terms of the notice. They would simply be jeopardising their own position in terms of employment and also legally.
A: The Minister responded that they had sent out 1 300 letters of dismissal.
Briefing by the South African Council of Churches (SACC)
Present: Father Robert Butterworth; Dr Coenie Burger; Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, SACC President: Prof Tinyiko Maluleke; SACC Deputy Secretary: Mr Vuyani Velemu and SACC First Vice-President, Rev Joy Kronenberg.
SACC President, Mr Tinyiko Maluleke, invited Archbishop Thabo Makgoba to say a few words on the nature and spirit of their meeting with the Minister of Defence and her team.
Archbishop Makgoba stated that they had requested the meeting with the Ministry because they had been very concerned about the well-being of the South African people after the behavior which they had witnessed on television. The SACC had been cordial but frank. They had gone in the spirit of wanting to know about the worries which they had about how the Ministry was dealing with the issue. They had been thoroughly briefed and although they had gone into the meeting extremely concerned, they had been re-assured that the Ministry was on top of the situation and they felt re-assured by that.
Mr Maluleke read out the statement that would be issued to the media. As the Archbishop had said, they had gone to the Ministry because they were concerned about the well-being of God’s people. They were concerned about the dignity of the Minister of Defence, the dignity of the army on which the nation depended for its security and ultimately the dignity of the country as a whole. The SACC had discussed with the Ministry a whole range of issues including the events at the Union Buildings. The two parties had also taken note of the decision of the military council to provisionally dismiss soldiers who had allegedly taken part in the march. They had also taken note of the process which was being administered by the Ministry, as explained to them by the Minister and her team. The SACC continued to condemn the violence that had taken place during the march. They had noted what the military bargaining council, under the Minister’s direct monitoring, was doing to finalise a new salary dispensation for soldiers which would take into consideration their conditions of service and their overall environment. The SACC, however, had the intention to submit to the Minister a separate submission in which they would appeal to the Minister and her team to consider mitigating factors before finalising the provisional dismissal. The SACC wanted to call upon all parties involved, that is trade union leaders and the leadership in the Defence Ministry, to act and speak responsibly during this time.
Q: A journalist asked the SACC to tell the media what they meant by “mitigating factors” and if they could tell them what these mitigating factors were.
A: Mr Maluleke responded that if the media had seen the SACC’s earlier statement one of the fundamental concerns that they had as Council was the fact that it looked as if a culture was growing in South Africa, wherein employers and employees no longer knew any other language through which to communicate with one another except the language of protest - which often lead to violence. This was a very serious concern of theirs because if one looked at this protest in the context of the others that had taken place in the South Africa, a pattern emerged. The SACC suspected that there were systemic problems in the nature of the relationship between employers and employees that needed to be addressed.
Q: A journalist commented that she had thought that the SACC had come to lobby on behalf of the soldiers. This was in view of SACC statements that they were concerned about so many people losing work and the impact that this would have on their families. She had thus thought they would be lobbying that these soldiers be reinstated. She wanted to know what had happened about that.
A: Mr Maluleke responded that he was not sure from where that sentiment came. The SACC had not come there to represent the trade unions that were capable of doing that very well for them. They also had not come with any partisan lobbying intentions. They had come to this meeting in the same way that they had a meeting with the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) on the previous day. That is, to listen to both sides to see how they could take the matter further. It was not their intention to come and tell the Minister what to do. They were concerned about the nation’s safety and security and the dignity of the State and the Ministry. They were also concerned about the difficulties that individual soldiers, especially those who might not be culpable, not be unfairly dismissed.
Q: A journalist asked why the SACC had taken a particular interest in this dispute when there had been many other labour disputes occurring around the same time. For instance, the SACC had not intervened when the security guards went on strike or workers from the car industry.
A: Archbishop Makgoba responded that the SACC had tried to explain that in their statement. This had to do with people who were sons and daughters of the nation and who were the last defense of the country’s constitutional democracy and security. It was also their attempt to look at a trend of a language that seemed to be the only one that was used between employer and employee.
A: Mr Maluleke added that it was also true that the SACC had been approached informally by people from both sides, that is the Ministry and the trade unions, so there had been also that consideration.
Q: A journalist asked the SACC if from the mentality that they had walking into the meeting and with what they had now after the meeting, did they feel that the meeting had been a fruitful one.
A: Archbishop Makgoba responded that it had been extremely fruitful in that they had been under the impression that there was a decision to dismiss but they now understood that this decision was provisional. So there was a particular spirit that they understood as explained by the Department with regards to that decision. The impression that there were no provisions for people to mitigate their dismissal had been clarified a little. They also understood the different perspective, from a legal and military discipline point of view, and this had been thoroughly explained to them.
A: Dr Coenie Burger added that he had also been helped by the meeting. The Ministry had voiced their appreciation of the involvement of the clergy. The last point mentioned in the statement issued by the SACC emphasised that there were open lines of communication with the Defence Ministry and this would be important.
Q: A journalist asked the SACC whether the SACC thought that these soldiers should be dismissed.
A: Mr Maluleke responded that he did not think that it was the place of the Council of Churches to think whether soldiers should or should not be dismissed. Secondly, the SACC did not see dismissal as the first option in this matter and they also did not think that it should be touted as the only option. They wanted to see a situation where a process was entered into - which was transparent and fair, in line with the Constitution. At the end of which process there could be three or four possible outcomes and not necessarily just one outcome, being the outcome of dismissal.
Q: What other outcomes were envisaged by the SACC, other than dismissal?
A: Mr Maluleke said they thought the military must have a lot of possible provisions for censure of people who had stepped out of line. These could be military tribunals and other forms of censure that were less severe than dismissal. The SACC were calling for an exploration of these other possibilities, and not for dismissal to be seen as the only possible remedy.
Q: The SACC was asked for comment on the Minister’s assertion that she would not rescind the decision to dismiss the soldier when asked about this by the media.
A: Mr Maluleke replied that they too had asked her the same question and their interpretation of her answer was that by the very fact that the dismissal was provisional, the implication was that it could be reversed if mitigating circumstances could be provided to her. Otherwise the letter would simply have said “dismissed” because there was no point in saying that the dismissal was provisional if it was not really provisional. However it was not the SACC’s competency, nor was it their place, to explain the Minister’s letter. The letter had been written by the Minister and not the SACC and they could tell the media only how they interpreted it and how they intended to take things further as the SACC. They could not sit there and try to explain the Defence Ministry’s intention to the media as this was not their job
The briefing was adjourned.
SACC media statement
The Strike by the SANDF personnel
The SACC expresses its desire to initiate dialogue with the Ministry of Defence, and the Unions involved in the recent and widely reported strike and protest action. Our desire to initiate a dialogue between ourselves and the parties involved stems out of the following:
▪ We are concerned about the negative impact of the now very public spat between the minister and the affected unions which threatens to hurt the dignity of the office of the minister.
▪ We are concerned not only about the impact of the recent events on the image of our army but on the image of the country as well.
▪ We are concerned about the seemingly longstanding and, on face value, legitimate concerns raised by the unions, especially relating to the question of wages.
Recognizing the possible legitimacy of the grievances and the constitutional provisions that are available for the aggrieved party to bargain for their interest and to be unionized, it is however, worrying to see protesting and striking developing into the only mutually-intelligible ‘language’ between employers and employees in our country today. Against this mindset, and in pursuit of long and short term strategic tactics to find new forms of ‘language’ and a renewed mindset, we deem it necessary to meet all the parties with an open mind.
▪ We are concerned with the use of violence both in the execution and control of protest events. It is most worrying to see scenes of violence between members of our army and the police force.
We appreciate the fact that the office of the Minster has hitherto welcomed us in our desire to meet with both the military and political heads of SANDF in the same way as the union leaders have expressed a warm welcome to our invitation. We look forward to honest and fruitful engagements which will lead us out of the present crisis. We pray, as we seek to enter into the fray with empathy and care for all the parties involved, that our nation will exercise calm and uphold us in prayer as we seek God’s wisdom in dealing with these matters.
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