Interim National Defence Force Service Commission: progress report

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Defence and Military Veterans

17 November 2009
Chairperson: Mr M Booi (ANC) & Ms S Ndabeni ( ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Interim National Defence Force Service Commission (the Commission) gave an interim report on its findings to the Committee. It had also given an interim report to the Minister, prompted by the dreadful conditions that it found in the military services, and had advised the Minister that this was a situation akin to a ticking time bomb. The main problems related to the salaries, deployment issues, failure of command and control, infrastructure, since the conditions under which the soldiers were living and working in the barracks were poor and “sub-human”, the fact that many were living in informal settlements, with very low morale, because they fell into the cracks between earning too much to qualify for Reconstruction and Development Programme housing and earning too little to take out a housing loan. The state of hospitals and healthcare was poor, as many health personnel did not wish to work under these conditions. The relationship between the Department of Defence, which had a budget for repairs, and the Department of Public Works,which maintained that it did not have the personnel to effect any repairs, was poor.

The Commission told the Committee that when it met with the Committee on 13 October, it had mentioned that it wished to consult with a number of important stakeholders, including the unions. Although the President had stated that he was opposed to unionization of the military, provision for the unions had been made in the Defence Act after a Constitutional Court ruling on the issue. The Committee had not raised any objections to this consultation, and some very useful meetings were held in which several issues were raised. However, on 9 November 2009, after holding those discussions, specific terms of reference were forwarded to the Commission that expressly forbade it to speak with the unions and engage on union matters. Therefore, the questions around unions now fell to the Minister and Parliament to decide. The Commission described that it had also met with the Defence Staff Council, Military Command Council, SA Navy Fleet Command and the Secretariat Council. It had compiled a report for the Minister, but was reluctant to release that report to the Committee without Ministerial approval.

Members believed that the Commission had achieved a lot within a short space of time. Members enquired about the conditions of accommodation at the military bases. Members discussed the issues around the terms of reference, and pointed out that it was unfortunate that confusion had arisen, but that it was clearly not the fault of the Commission, although this may have caused its efforts to go askew. The Commission said that in fact this had not happened. Members asked for the Commission’s view of the top five issues affecting the Defence Force, asked about the spending, and what had been raised in the Report, what the reaction of trade unions had been, and asked for confirmation again as to why they had been consulted., The Chairperson asked if the President of the country had authority over the defence force, and what was implied by calling the President the “Commander in Chief”. He also asked how the Committee was to deal with the Constitutional Court ruling, and said it was difficult for the Committee to respond without having the full report. Members also asked whether any political parties had been consulted, what had been the view of civil society and what steps the Commission had taken to address any of the issues, including whether budgeting had been taken into consideration. The Commission confirmed that it would be consulting also with National Treasury on the recommendations.

Meeting report

Interim National Defence Force Service Commission (the Commission) Progress Report
Judge Ronnie Bosielo, Chairman of the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, which was looking into conditions of service in the military, told the Committee that the preliminary findings of the Commission were that the situation was dire. For this reason, he had submitted an urgent Interim Report to Hon Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, telling her that the crisis was "a ticking time bomb" and she had to act immediately.

Members of the Commission had also recommended a salary adjustment for soldiers. In this case, the Minister and her Department would need a budget increase, because this could not be done from existing funds. Judge Bosielo told MPs that barracks were in decay, with ceilings collapsing, and toilets and showers not working. He said conditions were "sub-human" in military barracks.

The Commission, which was originally formed to investigate the alleged negative influence of trade unions within the defence force, had been ordered to refrain from talks with the unions, or even from considering the role of the unions in the military. Members of the Commission, however, felt that there was a great need to hold talks with trade unions. It had in fact only received the terms of reference that told it to refrain from engaging with the unions after some engagements had already been held. The Commission, in doing so, was informed by the fact that when the Commission had met with the Committee on 13 October 2009, it had identified and informed the Committee about the stakeholders that it considered that it was important to consult. Amongst the stakeholders, mention was made of members of the Defence Force or their representatives, which included trade unions.

During the month of October 2009, the Commission had met with the Defence Staff Council, Military Command Council, South African Navy Fleet Command and the Secretariat Council. During the consultations the Commission discovered that a private with more than 10 years of service took home pay of between R3 000 and R3 200 a month after deductions, including medical aid and pension contributions. If he lived in military accommodation, he paid about R500 a month for this accommodation.  The entry-level pay for a soldier could be as low as R2 300, compared with about R6 400 for a police constable.

Judge Bosielo also said that the Commission had found that at Doornkop and Lens [two major military bases that the Commissioners visited] there was a complete breakdown of discipline. Many of the soldiers lived in shacks in the townships, and were thoroughly demoralised because they could not qualify for an RDP house because of their salary brackets, yet they did not earn enough to qualify for bonds through the bank, and thus they fell into the cracks in terms of access to housing.

Mr L Diale (ANC) said that the Commission had taken very drastic steps in a very short space of time. He said that he appreciated the efforts taken by the Commission.

Mr Diale asked what were the conditions of accommodation in military bases, when the Commission visited those barracks. The soldiers’ conditions had to be improved.

Mr D Maynier (DA) said that there was confusion about the Commission's terms of reference, and up to the point when the Committee last discussed matters, the Commission had not received terms of reference from the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans. He found that surprising to hear that the terms of reference were amended, in light of significant intervening events. He wanted to know what those significant intervening events were and why had the Commission had not received official terms of reference.

Judge Bosielo replied that he had not said that there were significant events that led to the amendment of the terms of reference. He had instead spoken of “significant reports” and this referred to what the Commission had noted, which made it feel that it was necessary to make an Interim Report to the Minister. The Commission only received its terms of reference on 9 November 2009, and unfortunately he was not present at that meeting. He had been led to believe that they were e-mailed to him, but he had not received them.

Mr Maynier asked what were the top five issues affecting the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), in order of significance.

Judge Bosielo replied that the key issues related to the grievance mechanisms, complaints about salaries, accommodation, which was in some instances sub-human and appalling, infrastructure that was old and falling apart, issues of deployment, failure of command and control, and the serious relational problems between the Defence Force and the Department of Public Works. The issue of salaries and remuneration was so acute that the Commission had wondered how the soldiers were surviving on the salaries that they were being paid.  He reiterated that many soldiers could not qualify for RDP houses and did not qualify for bank finance, so they fell into the cracks. These “cracks” meant that they had to go to an informal settlement. The soldiers lived in shacks and their morale was affected. He likened the situation to a ticking time bomb, and if this was not attended to immediately, the country would find itself in trouble.

At Doornkop, there was a complete breakdown of discipline, and the soldiers told the Commissioners that they were their last hope.

Mr Petrus Groenewald, Interim Commissioner, National Defence Force Service Commission, added that defence spending was decreasing in the country. In 1989, the country spent 4.5% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, but in 2000, it was down to 2%, and in 2009 it was 1.2 % of GDP. Studies done worldwide indicated that a country should spend not less than 2% of GDP on its defence force, otherwise there would be problems. Spending only 1.2 % of GDP would result in problems with the satisfaction and morale of the soldiers. If South Africa wanted a defence force, then it had to spend money on it.

Ms Anne Mokgokong, Interim Commissioner, National Defence Force Service Commission, added that the state of military hospitals, that were once the flagship of the country's health systems, was debilitating. There were military hospitals that did not even have a radiologist and many doctors refused to work at military hospitals because of their conditions.

Mr Maynier asked what was raised in the Interim report submitted to the Minister, and what were the Commission's findings and recommendations.

Mr L Diale (ANC) asked what was the reaction of trade unions during the Commission's interactions with trade unions, because he thought they were very radical and getting out of hand when voicing their grievances.

Judge Bosielo replied that the trade unions came to the Commission with very important inputs. They acknowledged and understood the rationale behind having a National Defence Force Service Commission. The trade unions were persuaded that if they were serious in creating and maintaining a defence force that was disciplined, well trained and structured, then the Commission should be in charge of negotiating the conditions of service. The reaction of trade unions was positive. In its programme of action, the Commission had indicated that it would seek legal opinion on the issue of trade unions. If the Commission came to the conclusion that there was no space for trade unions in defence, then that would be the end of the matter. The Commission had succeeded in creating a view that there was no space for trade unions in the military. Even the soldiers on the ground turned to trade unions only because there was no one else for the soldiers to voice their grievances. Members of the Defence Force were demoralised and did not know where they stood.

The Chairperson noted that there were still issues on which he needed clarity. If the Commander in Chief (Jacob Zuma) had a different view about the relationship between the army and unions, then he asked what had informed the Commission to engage the trade unions, despite the fact that the Commander in Chief did not recognise trade unions in the military.

Judge Bosielo replied that when the Commission engaged with the trade unions, it was informed by the fact that the Commission, in its meeting with this Committee on 13 October, had mentioned that trade unions were included in the list of important stakeholders with whom it would need to consult. The consultations would occur without prejudice and the views of Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) would be considered at a later stage. The Commission engaged with the unions, with the approval of the Committee.

The Commission engaged the trade unions because it understood that they formed part of the active citizens of the country. The issue of the trade unions was a Constitutional matter and there were two court judgments on the matter. The Defence Act provided for the trade unions, after the Constitutional Court made a ruling on the matter, and thus the Commission felt that it was important to consult with the trade unions, as it wanted to hear what role they envisaged playing in the military environment.

Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, Commissioner, Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, added that there were three things that needed to be taken into account. Firstly, the Commission approached the Committee with its plans, which also involved approaching trade unions, and within days after that meeting, the Commission met with trade unions. There were no statements expressed against the Commission’s intentions to meet with the unions, before the Commission held those meetings. The prohibition against meeting with the unions was received only on 9 November, after the meetings had already taken place. Secondly the Commission was working in an environment that was fairly volatile, and whether the Commissioners wanted to talk about or with unions, there was not single unit that did not favour the work of the unions. Everyone believed that were it not for the soldiers’ actions when they stormed the Union Buildings, their situation would still be unresolved. Thirdly, he saw the role of the Commission as a pastoral role, which enabled the soldiers affected to feel that someone was listening, where there were no ears to hear their complaints in the past. Had the Commission not agreed to see the unions, they may well have made very limited progress. Part of the Commission’s success was attributable to its engagements with the unions.

Mr Ismail Aboobaker, Commissioner, Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, added that the terms of reference given on 9 November to the Commission by the Minister  stated that engagement with the unions was not within the Commission’s mandate, and the Commission was barred from making any pronouncement on the matter of trade unions. What that implied was that the issue of trade unions was left to the Minister and Parliament, and thus had nothing to do with the Commission any longer.

The Chairperson asked if the President of the country had authority over the defence force, and what was implied by calling the President the “Commander in Chief”.

Mr Bantu Holomisa, Commissioner, Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, replied that it was the policy of the present government to say that it did not want unions in the military. The best approach to the matter was that the Portfolio Committee and the Department of Defence must then separately review the issue of whether or not the unions were needed. The Commission must steer clear of issues around trade unions. That was contrary to what had been presented to the Committee earlier.

Judge Bosielo added that the President was a Commander in Chief of the forces, and he had all the rights and powers over the force. However there was also a Constitutional Court pronouncement on this matter. It was noted that since everyone was equal before the law, the decision of the Constitutional Court applied to everyone.  Parliament also accepted the recommendations of the Court and had amended the Defence Act to provide for the existence of the trade unions in the military.

The Chairperson asked what was the outcome of the Constitutional Court ruling, and how the Committee was to deal with or respond to that outcome. The Committee wanted details, and not snippets of information. He asked the Commission to give the Committee some insight on what informed the Commission's position as the Committee did not have a report in front of it.

Judge Bosielo replied that the Commission's report could have appeared to be cryptic to the Committee, and that was because the Commission would have preferred to have a meeting with the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans before meeting with the Committee, because the Commission reported directly to the Minister. The Commission would have been happier to receive consent from the Minister to open up the Interim report to the Committee.

The Chairperson asked Judge Bosielo not to complicate matters, as the Minister and the Department were accountable to Parliament.

Judge Bosielo replied that, unlike other Commissions, the Commission was a special Ministerial Commission reporting directly to the Minister, and it was also answerable to the Minister. The Commission's first point of call was the Minister.

Mr D Motsetsi (ANC) said that he appreciated the work that had been done by the Commissioners. They constituted a buffer between the grievances of the forces and the State. The work that the Commission was presenting indicated that the troops did not necessarily need a trade union, but that at present the structures of the military did not attend to their grievances. The Commission could operate as the forum that would deal with the grievances of the troops.

Mr Maynier said that the Commission had gone somewhat askew because it did not have terms of reference that were clear until 9 November 2009. That confusion was not the Commission's fault. The major problem was the Minister. He asked again what were the terms of reference for the Commission.

Bishop Mpumlwana replied that the Commission had not gone askew, but was given terms of reference. The concerns came after the Commission had received the terms of reference, because the terms of reference now pronounced on the issue of engaging the trade unions, which had not been given before. He said that there was no “wobble” in the matter and the Commission was aware of its terms of reference.

The Chairperson said that he did not want to get into a debate about the Minister. South Africa was a Constitutional State and blame should not be put on any person. At a human level, it was difficult for the Commission not to engage the trade unions.

Mr L Tolo (ANC) asked what political parties did the Commission consult in Parliament, and how did the Commission consult those political parties.

Ms Hlengiwe Mgabadeli, Commissioner, Interim National Defence Force Service Commission, replied that they had not yet met with the various political parties and thus the question raised could not be answered.

Mr Tolo asked what was the view of civil society during the consultations that the Commission had with the civil society groups.

Co-Chairperson Ms S Ndabeni said that she appreciated the wonderful job done by the Commission. However the Chairperson of the Commission had said that the conditions that the soldiers were living in were unbearable. She asked what steps had the Commission taken to address the problems that they noted.

Ms Mgabadeli replied that it was important for the Committee to read the topics on the slides. The Commission could not take steps without the Committee and the Minister, and the plans that the Commissioners had made were short term.

Judge Bosielo said that the question was a good one, but would open up a can of worms if answered. The problems that existed in the Department were the result of budget constraints. The Commission had engaged the Secretary of Defence, who was the accounting officer for defence. The Secretary of Defence said that he was aware of the conditions in bases, and he agreed with the Commission that the conditions were appalling. However, he said that there was nothing he could do about them. He had R900 million that he could use to remedy the situation, but the problem was that the Department of Public Works did not have personnel to fix the problems.

The Co Chairperson asked if the Commission had taken into issue the matter of budgeting when making recommendations to deal with the matters facing the Department of Defence.

Ms Mgabadeli replied that the Commission would consult with National Treasury on the recommendations it had made.

The meeting was adjourned


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