Defence: Combat readiness

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Defence and Military Veterans

06 July 2009
Chairperson: Mr M Booi (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Chairperson advised Members that there had been communication and discussions with the Department of Defence, the Minister of Defence and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) on the request that the Committee be briefed on the combat readiness of the SANDF. The Department had responded that since the Minister and Deputy Minister had not yet been briefed on this, it was not yet possible to brief the Portfolio Committee. Furthermore, the Department would be seeking a closed meeting since sensitive information would be conveyed.

Members expressed varying views on this position. Democratic Alliance member Mr Maynier argued persistently that the Constitution required disclosure, unless good reasons could be shown for withholding this information. He suggested that unless it could be shown that the disclosure of such information would cause significant harm, then the meetings should not be closed. He pointed out that military personnel had, in their 2008 Annual Report and in press briefings, mentioned the size and readiness of combat forces. Other Members indicated that secrecy was part and parcel of the military’s operations in all countries, and that public disclosure could be harmful to State security, even if the State’s enemies were not immediately identifiable.
Mr Maynier proposed that the Committee should call upon experts to advise it, so that Members could develop criteria on what kind of information could be publicly disclosed, and what could not, as he believed that secrecy should be the exception, and not the rule. This position was also contested by other Members, who argued that the SANDF was bound by its own existing policies and experts, and Parliament could not dictate what matters had to be disclosed publicly. They also believed that the SANDF had its own legal advisers and that parliamentarians themselves were well equipped to decide upon the interests of the country. It was agreed that the Secretary of Defence would investigate the statements allegedly made to the media by defence force senior personnel, and this would be discussed again at a later meeting.

During a brief discussion on veterans, Members suggested that research be conducted on the way in which the military establishments in other countries dealt with military veterans, including the benefits provided. Two Parliamentary researchers confirmed that such research was indeed under way. It was further noted that Members would be fully briefed on issues before conducting oversight visits. Finally, the minutes of the previous meeting were adopted.

Meeting report


Combat readiness of South African National Defence Force (SANDF)
The Chairperson advised Members that a letter had been sent to the Department of Defence (DOD) and there had been discussions with the Minister of Defence and the SANDF during the previous week, in connection with the request that the Portfolio Committee be briefed on the combat readiness of the SANDF. The Minister and Deputy Minister had indicated that since they had not been briefed yet on this topic, it was also not yet possible to brief the Portfolio Committee. He tabled a letter from the Department communicating this decision. He noted that the Department also made it clear that it would be seeking a closed meeting on the readiness, since sensitive information would be conveyed.

Mr D Maynier (DA) referred to the matter of the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), stating that it was required by legislation to report regularly, and if this was delayed, then he suggested that the Committee request the report.

The Chairperson agreed that the necessary letter would be written calling for the report.

Mr Tsepe Motumi, Acting Secretary of Defence, said that the Minister had further addressed the matter.

Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) said that he was in full agreement with the Department of Defence’s statement that it would need a closed meeting to discuss the state of combat readiness of the SANDF. This information was sensitive, and could not be disclosed publicly.

Mr Maynier respectfully disagreed. He felt that secrecy should be the exception, and not the rule. If the Department invoked secrecy, it had to be properly justified. A broad and ambiguous declaration of “national security” was not, in his view, sufficient to justify the closure of the meeting. He believed that there must be agreed criteria before a meeting could be closed, and he suggested that the test of whether the disclosure would actually cause significant harm should be adopted.

Mr Maynier referred to a recent discussion within ANC, when one of its members had ventured that defence disclosure favoured the enemy, to which another had replied that the country had no enemies. He asked why then, in view of the latter statement, disclosure was likely to cause significant harm.

Mr Maynier did, however, concede that this was a complex matter that required constitutional guidance. He urged that the Committee reserve its judgment on the issue for the moment, and that defence experts brief the Committee on the topic. He also suggested that Parliamentary Legal Advisors should be asked to look into the matter.

Mr Mlangeni stated that the question of briefing on combat readiness had been handled by the previous Portfolio Committee, when the Department had stated that it was willing to disclose information, but would not do so publicly. He asked what Mr Maynier wanted to know. The question was whether enemies of the country needed to know South Africa’s strength.

Mr C Kekana (ANC) said that military establishments could not be expected to maintain all the normal principles applying to openness. Even in the Western democracies, it was accepted that militaries operated according to hierarchies of command, and there was a need for obedience. The need for secrecy went with this. It was unrealistic to claim that the country had no enemies. The release of sensitive information could make the country vulnerable.

Ms N Mabedla (ANC) moved that the Committee accept the DOD position.

Ms S Ndabeni (ANC) agreed that there were sensitive issues that it would be preferable not to disclose in public.

Mr N Letsau (ANC) said that the Parliamentary Committees constituted the political directive of the defence forces, and that it was therefore correct for the DOD to report only to the Committee. It was not possible to anticipate whether the country had enemies, and, if so, who they were. He also did not agree that there had to be public disclosure.

Mr Maynier said that he had not argued that the military should disclose all. It was rather a matter of developing criteria to decide what could be disclosed, and what should not be disclosed. The military itself had indicated its full strength of 74 000) in its 2008 Annual Report. If combat readiness was now claimed to be sensitive, then he questioned why had there been media briefings in November 2008 by the Air Force and the Navy on readiness.

The Chairperson asked that Mr Maynier focus on the letter before the Committee. He cautioned that Mr Maynier was going into the substance of the matter, and placing other members at a disadvantage.

Mr Maynier persisted with his query that if the state of military readiness could be disclosed to the media, why then could this not be done in an open Parliamentary meeting.

The Committee commented that the majority of Members had agreed with the position of the Department on the issue of closed meetings.

Mr Maynier asked that it be noted that he strongly opposed that position.

The Chairperson referred to the statement by Mr Kekana that secrecy was part and parcel of military operations.

Mr Mlangeni said that the statements referred to had been made by officials. These matters could be raised again when the Committee made its report.

The Chairperson suggested that any statements made during such briefings be verified, and that the Committee then return to the matter.

Mr Maynier protested that the Committee seemed to be moving backwards. It had started with a consideration of whether the military could discuss combat readiness openly, but now the question seemed to be whether it could be discussed at all, under any circumstances.

The Chairperson noted that Members held different opinions, but the view that the military should guide the Committee on sensitive issues seemed to be agreed upon by the majority. Confidential issues had to be identified. It must be conceded that militaries relied on secrecy. He did not wish to close the debate. The concept of significant harm could be discussed. The statements made by generals about readiness could be discussed during the next round of meetings.

Ms Ndabeni ventured that it was important to bear in mind that surely would be possible for the Department of Defence to provide at least some information.

Mr Kekana said that the Secretary of Defence should be given some time to check the accuracy of the media statements, and what had been said by the military personnel. The Department would then need to come up with a position.

The Chairperson commented that this seemed to be a reasonable suggestion, noting that it had been the defence personnel, not the Secretariat or the Ministry, who had made the statements about readiness.

Mr Maynier reiterated his statement that the Air Force and Navy personnel had released statements about readiness. Against that background, he asked what the Committee was now agreeing to.

The Chairperson replied that Mr Maynier was talking about statements made by military personnel, without the presence of the Secretary for Defence. He would not ask the Secretary of Defence to respond now. The commanding officers of the Navy and  Air Force, and the Chief of Defence, would appear before the Committee, and grant the Secretary an opportunity to verify what had been disclosed.

Mr Maynier doubted that the Secretary was not aware of what had been said by the military officers.

Mr Motumi noted that the briefings that Mr Maynier had referred to were primarily public relations exercises, concerned with showcasing. They could not be described as proper combat readiness briefings.

Mr Maynier proposed again that the Committee be briefed by experts.

The Chairperson asked for clarity whether Mr Maynier wanted such an engagement around the concept of significant harm.

Mr Maynier reiterated that expert guidance was needed to enable the Committee to develop criteria as to what could be publicly disclosed, and what should not be disclosed, and he asked the Committee to make a decision on this proposal.

The Chairperson said that other Members still had to be given a chance to express their views on this point.

Mr Mlangeni felt that there was no real need for experts to determine the criteria for disclosure.
The SANDF’s reply to the request that it brief the Committee on combat readiness had been made from the position of the authority vested in it. The existing Defence policy informed SANDF decisions. Parliament could put questions to the Department, but could not decide what the SANDF should or should not disclose in a public hearing.

The Chairperson ventured that the issue was indeed relevant. Mr Maynier had referred to the Constitution, which in fact granted him the right to demand information. Parliament had to act constitutionally, and so did the Department of Defence. Mr Maynier had every right to express his views. The President had called on Parliament to keep the Executive on its toes, and that was why the Chairperson was prepared to allow Mr Maynier’s views. By the same token, it must also be noted that two other Members had expressed that they did not believe a briefing by experts to be necessary.

Mr Maynier said that, in terms of the Constitution, the media and the public could not be excluded from a Committee meeting unless the circumstances made this reasonable and justifiable. The question was what were considered to be reasonable circumstances. There could not be a closed meeting just because the Minister had said so, but this must be fully justifiable. It was necessary to grapple with the issue.

Ms Ndabeni protested that Members had not adopted their positions because of what the Minister had said.

Mr Kekana urged that Parliament, rather than outside experts, had to decide. Experts might be academics, well read and informed, which was well and good but which might not necessary best address the current circumstances. He added that the military had its own experts. Parliamentarians had a better grasp than academics of the interests of the country.

The Chairperson noted that Mr Maynier’s views were not being rejected, just differed from.

The Chairperson asked that the Committee now address the issue of veterans.

Mr Maynier suggested that research be commissioned from the Parliamentary Researchers on the position of veterans in other militaries. He suggested that the systems in countries like America, the United Kingdom, Australia, Liberia and Zimbabwe could be examined, to see how their military structures conceptualised veterans, what was provided for them, what benefits such as pensions were offered, and what kind of costs were involved. This information could then be provided to Members.

Mr Peter Davids, Researcher, Parliamentary Research Unit, replied that such research was indeed being performed.

Ms Maggie Smit, Committee Researcher, added that she too was engaged in work of a similar nature.

Mr Mlangeni asked what members would be looking for when they performed oversight visits.

The Chairperson replied that meetings would be held before oversight visits, to enable Members to obtain prior knowledge of infrastructure and facilities.

The Chairperson, in his closing remarks, noted that there would have to be closer interaction with the Department of Defence. This was a difficult Department over which to exercise oversight. As much information as possible would be circulated to Members. He commented that it appeared that if the media did not report on defence matters, no one would know what was going on.

Adoption of Minutes
The Chairperson asked another Member to attend to ensure that there was a quorum.

He tabled the Minutes of the previous Committee meetings and these were adopted.

Mr Booi proceeded to the adoption of Committee minutes. An extra member was brought in to complete the quorum, and the minutes were adopted.

The meeting was adjourned.


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