The Office of the Military Ombud made its presentation in a virtual meeting to the Joint Standing Committee on its 2020 annual activity report, and provided an update on the investigations it had conducted during the period under review.
Members of the Committee raised their concern at the lack of powers of the Office to conduct investigations into serious matters, especially after discussing the situation of South African soldiers being fed rotten food in Mozambique. They were not happy that the soldiers had had to rely on the media to raise the issue. The Committee agreed that the Office should approach the Minister and get her approval to commence an investigation, because it was a serious matter that needed to be resolved. The Office said the legal process meant their hands were tied, but they would approach the Minister.
The Ombud's report stated that of the 297 new complaints that were lodged with the Office during the year, 212 had been by members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and concerned their conditions of service. The Office had experienced a sharp increase in the number of complaints that were lodged by members of the public relating to the conduct of the SANDF members, compared to previous years. This might have been due the deployment of SANDF members to assist in the enforcement of lockdown regulations in late March 2020.
Members commended the Office for the work that they were doing, but suggested that they needed to do more in their community outreach programmes to educate members of the public -- and even members of the defence force -- on how to lay complaints, so that they gained a better understanding of what the Office deals with.
Office of Military Ombud 2020 annual activity report
Lt Gen (Rtd) Vusumuzi Masondo, Military Ombudsman, said that during the 2020/21 financial year, the Office of the Military Ombud had a caseload of 445 complaints. This was made up of 297 new complaints that were received in the year and 148 complaints that were carried over from the previous financial year. A total of 357 complaints had been finalised, which represented an 80% resolution rate. This was a highlight, because it exceeded the target of 73%.
Another key performance milestone that was worth highlighting was the fact that the Office managed to reduce the number of carry-over complaints to 88. This was the first time in nine years that the Office had fewer than 100 carry-over complaints.
In terms of the Military Ombud Act, the objective of the office was to investigate and ensure that complaints were resolved in a fair, economical and expeditious manner. In furtherance of this key legislative imperative, an improvement in the speed in which complaints were dealt, with as well as an overall improvement in the complaints handling and investigation turn-around times, was a critical focus area during the year under review. The Office had thus made great strides in achieving an 82% reduction in carry over complaints, thereby decreasing the overall total number of complaints older than a year. The Office had carried 148 complaints over at the beginning of the financial year, and 121 of those had been finalised during the year under review.
A total of 297 new complaints were received, as compared to the 308 new complaints received in the 2019/20 financial year. This represented a slight decrease of 3.5% in the number of complaints that were lodged with the Office.
In terms of section 6 (2) of the Military Ombudsman Act, read with the Military Ombud Complaints Regulations, complainants must lodge complaints in writing on a prescribed complaints form, but the Office had opened various modes of contact as a way of promoting accessibility. In addition to the traditional methods of posting and faxing complaints, complainants could also walk in, or contact the Office via telephone, as well as via electronic media such as email. During the 2020/21 financial year, complainants had made a number of walk-in, telephonic and electronic enquiries.
Of the 297 new complaints that were lodged during the year under review, 212 were from members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) concerning their conditions of service. The Ombud had experienced a sharp increase in the complaints that were lodged by members of the public relating to the conduct of the SANDF members in comparison to the previous financial years. These may have occurred as a result of the deployment of members of the SANDF to assist in the enforcement of lockdown regulations in late March 2020.
The category of ‘other complaints’ were related to those that fell outside the mandate of the Office. At 71% of the total complaints lodged, SANDF service conditions complaints thus constituted the highest number of complaints.
The complaints recorded under "other" ranged from complaints about a lack of enforcement and non-compliance with lockdown regulations, complaints about military veterans’ benefits, other conditions of service, as well as some that fell outside the jurisdiction of the Office.
Complaints from current members of the SANDF constituted the highest number of the matters that were lodged with the Office. The 123 complaints amounted to 41% of the total new complaints received. Complaints from former members remained the second highest at 90, which constituted 30% of the new complaints lodged. The office also recorded a significant increase in the number of complaints lodged by members of the public. There were 84, which amounted to 28% of the 297 complaints lodged during the period under review.
The Office still recorded a high number of complaints from males, which accounted for 74% of the 297 complaints, while those from females amounted to 26%. This trend was consistent with the statistics of previous financial years, and appear to be in accordance with the gender demographics within the SANDF.
As part of celebrating Heritage Day, staff members were encouraged to come to work wearing traditional attire. Wednesdays and Fridays were declared braai days during lunchtime. To add camaraderie to the event during the national lockdown, a competition was run where a male and female member who represented their cultures through traditional attire received a prize. The winners were announced during the annual Military Ombud employee recognition awards.
Preparations were under way for a perception survey to be undertaken at identified military bases in the country to gauge understanding of the mandate of the Office by stakeholders in the SANDF, who form a large proportion of the Ombud's key stakeholders.
The Office was requested to appear several times before the parliamentary Committee on Defence. All presentations made had addressed the accountability documents and status of complaints.
The outreach programme annual plan for 2020/21 was not implemented as extensively as envisaged due to the Covid-19 restrictions imposed in the country. The first quarter was challenging, and as a result the outreach programme that was conducted was through an invitation by the SA War College in Pretoria. The key elements of the outreach plan were to implement a campaign focusing on creating awareness about the mandate of the Office to the members of the public. The strategy was to implement 72 outreach events through partnerships with the government and other institutions, including conducting activations in various public events and spaces. Only six events were achieved, of which two were internal events.
In the third quarter, when Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed, the office was able to conduct presentations in Limpopo and Mpumalanga, where the Ombud representatives also met with Musina and Nkomazi municipal managers to discuss areas of collaboration. The plan to implement a public awareness campaign at the ports of entry was also activated. The Office visited the Beit Bridge and Lebombo ports managers to discuss the approach to the campaign. The campaign activities were going to be conducted in January, but had been postponed due to the re-introduction of Covid-19 restrictions.
In view of the restrictions, the office had been implementing a media relations-led strategy to educate the South African public at large about the mandate of the Office.
The intention of the Ombud's international relations service was to build enhanced and fruitful relationships with international stakeholders. International relations collaborations had strengthened the profile of the Office in a positive way.
The Office represented a link for citizens in uniform and out of uniform, and the public at large, in order to resolve complaints lodged in writing concerning the official conditions of service, and as such it was essential for the office to work with like-minded bodies concerning the human rights of all citizens, who were the targeted market.
The Office continues to be a member of the African Ombudsman and Mediators Association (AOMA), as well as the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces (DCAF) organisation, and was admitted to the International Ombudsman Institute (IOI) as an international and as a regional member. The directive of these organisations continued to augment joint efforts to promote good governance, rule of law and human rights cooperatively in Africa and globally through knowledge-sharing interactions.
In the midst of global travel restrictions imposed by the impact of Covid-19, the office had meaningfully engaged in virtual meetings in order to carry out its operational business and meet its international awareness initiatives.
The SA Military Ombud had presented a paper on the topic, “Impact of Covid-19 on the armed forces.” The Military Ombud (MO), together with Deputy Military Ombud (DMO), the Chief Director Operations (CD Ops), directors and members from the Operations Directorate, had participated actively in various breakout groups during the virtual conference. Participation at this virtual conference ensured that the Office shared knowledge, learned from other ombudspersons, and drew upon lessons learned concerning Covid-19 from the 12 International Conference of Ombuds Institutions for the Armed Forces (ICOAF) worldwide participants.
The legal services directorate continued to provide effective and efficient legal services to the Office. The directorate had compiled its first draft of the Military Ombud Amendment Bill, and further consultations with relevant stakeholders within the DOD would determine finalisation of the draft for purposes of the legislative amendment consultative process.
Litigation managed in this financial year continued to range from applications instituted by complainants in the high court either seeking orders against the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans for the implementation of the Military Ombud’s findings and recommendations, or applications to review and set aside the Military Ombud’s findings and recommendations. These matters remained pending before the high court, and there were no judgments against the Military Ombud to report.
The office had been listed as a National Preventative Mechanism (NPM) in terms of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), which was ratified by South Africa in 2019. It was therefore a member of the NPM steering committee in an effort to ensure it complies with its obligations in terms of the OPCAT. The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), as the designated custodian of the implementation of SA’s obligations under the OPCAT, had consulted with all designated NPM’s on the draft NPM Bill as part of its phase 1 consultative process. The NPM Bill legislates the requirements of the NPM’s, as per the OPCAT.
The Office had faced many challenges in its endeavours to efficiently and effectively conduct its business within the constraints imposed on it as the country faced the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on movement, and interactions with clients were limited. New methods of conducting business had to be found to ensure that the service could still be delivered to the clients of the Office.
Funding had to be spent on items that were not planned for to ensure that regulations put in place by government were adhered to, and that all employees of the Office were kept safe. At the same time, the Office could not continue with several of its planned events, like the annual symposium and outreaches. Delays were experienced with the whole procurement process over the reporting period due to the restrictions that were in place.
The Office was allocated R55 million for the 2020/21 financial year. Of this, R43 million (79%) was for the compensation of employees (CoE), and R11 million (21%) for operating costs. Taking into account the constraints and challenges that were faced, it had spent R52 million of its allocation.
The Directorate had further contributed to the enhancement of complaints handling through the provision of legal opinions, legal reviews of investigation reports and the management of stakeholder relations, through memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and service level agreements (SLAs). While these MOUs and SLAs were being continuously reviewed for effectiveness and efficiency, new agreements were entered into or identified to ensure significant stakeholder relationships were formalised and sustained.
Personnel expenditure had increased by 3%, from R41 million in the 2019/20 financial year to R42 million in 2020/21. There were three vacancies during the financial year, of which two were staffed in the last quarter of the year. If all the posts had been staffed, then the personnel expenditure would have exceeded the allocation. This was a result of when the Office became a line item, the National Treasury's letter of allocation on the ceiling on CoE had not taken into account the 63 staffed posts, which had led to their under-funding.
The Acting Chairperson asked for a comment on the short courses that were being offered by the Military Ombud, and the criteria used to select candidates.
Mr S Marais (DA) asked why there were fewer cases this year as compared to last year, and if there were any cases that the Military Ombud was not able to investigate, or if it felt uncomfortable to investigate such cases.
Mr D Ryder (DA, Gauteng) asked for a comment on the cases that were still outstanding since lockdown. He was concerned about the communication skills of the Military Ombud's Office in order for it to become more accessible, and wanted to know what they had been doing to improve this. He also asked about the protection of whistleblowers when they reported a case.
Chairperson Xaba was of the view that the Ombud had accounted for most of the issues. He had received a call from a journalist during the week asking for a comment on soldiers deployed in Mozambique who had been served contaminated food. He wanted a comment from the Military Ombuds team and was concerned, because the matter was sensitive and should be dealt with urgently. He suggested a Military Ombud's team should fly to Mozambique and investigate the matter. He emphasised that the Committee had oversight powers and had to make sure that the soldiers were well taken care of, especially when they were deployed outside the country.
Ms A Beukes (ANC) asked about the service benefits, and for a comment from the team if there was a process to educate members of the defence force. She asked how much was spent on mediation when they were resolving cases, and if there were any plans to reach out to places that they could not reach because of the lockdown.
Military Ombud's response
Lt Gen (Rtd) Masondo said that the Office of the Ombuds determined the gaps in terms of performance, and members were invited to apply to the education, training and development (ETD) department so that they could undertake these courses. There was a budget allocated for the courses and most of them were aligned with the work that assisted members. The major problem had been that some of the short courses were expensive, and they had been encouraging members to apply for the longer ones. Courses were provided by accredited institutions. The Ombud would provide a more detailed written response on the courses to the Committee.
Responding to the question by Mr Marais, he said that it was premature to tell if the cases had decreased, because this could be determined only at the end of the financial year. The Office had attended to all the cases that had been reported to them, and this meant that there was no intimidation, and they could investigate all the cases without fear or favour. He added that the Office relied on people who were affected to open up a case, because they could not investigate if no complaint had been registered.
Ms Annnelize Welgemoed, Chief: Policy, Strategy and Planning, Military Ombud, added that the Act was clear when it came to cases that could be investigated, and there were no limitations. This meant that there were only few issues that the Office of the Ombud could not investigate, but in most cases it did its work without any influence, assessing all the matters on their merits and compiling a report which was submitted to the Minister.
Mr Johan Behr, Director: Intake and Analysis, Military Ombud, added that the Minister could task the Military Ombud in terms of the Act, and if she invoked these powers, then the Office would investigate such matters.
Lt Gen Masondo said that the Office had a huge backlog of cases and had been working hard to finalise them. The Committee would be provided with a document of the outstanding cases containing all the statistics.
The outreach programmes were there to inform members of the public how to have access to the Office of the Ombud, and there was still a gap that needed to be closed in terms of outreach programmes.
The Office tries its best to protect the whistleblowers, but at the moment it was a national concern, and the Office could protect whistleblowers only by not revealing their identities. Because of the limitations of the Act, the Office could not take the complaints, but if the Minister instructed them, then it may be different.
The investigators were not in a position to go to Mozambique because of safety concerns.
During the looting in July, members would contact the Office and because of the sensitivity of the matters, the commanders were reached and the matters resolved, instead of waiting for a full investigation.
Chairperson Xaba asked a follow up question. He was of the view that the Act allowed a member of the public to raise a complaint on behalf of the soldiers, and that the Committee could do that on behalf of the soldiers and act in the interests of the public. The treatment being given to soldiers was not tolerable, and the Committee was very concerned and needed to play its oversight role. He had received a press briefing that showed the SANDF had accepted that the food rations had been spoiled because of a faulty mobile pantry fridge, and his issue was that the Department had responded only because the soldiers had complained through the media. This was not acceptable, because the soldiers had had to rely on other sources instead of the Office of the Ombud. There was a need to regain the confidence of soldiers so that they could carry out their orders well. He said accountability had to be enforced so that soldiers were well taken care of.
The Chairperson added that the matter was serious, considering that the food was not fit for consumption. The Committee needed to find a way in which they could visit some of these missions, instead of reading about these issues via the media.
Lt Gen Masondo agreed on the issue of the rotten food being fed to the soldiers, but said that the Office was in a difficult position because of the law. He referred the Committee to the Khoza case that had happened during the lockdown, and said that a power of attorney must first be obtained before the Ombud could act, and they had to approach the office of the Minister. He suggested that the Committee approach the Minister on the matter and seek guidance so that his Office could commence an investigation. This was one of the reasons why they were looking at reviewing the Act -- because of the procedures that were involved in making a complaint. The matter was critical, and the Office was in a position to investigate it, but there must be a complaint for them to investigate. The Office would approach the Minister and try to seek her permission so that they could commence the investigation.
Mr Xaba thanked the Lt Gen Masondo for his response, and said that the powers of the Committee were much wider than those of a power of attorney. It was the responsibility of the Committee to make sure that the soldiers were taken care of, so he proposed that the Office approach the Minister to investigate.
Mr Marais seconded Mr Xaba's proposal.
The Chairperson thanked Members for the discussion, and asked the Office of the Ombud to deal with the matter urgently.
Lt Gen Masondo responded to Ms Beukes's question, and said that there had been issues with service benefits which were categorised as systemic issues. The Office meets with the Chief of Defence and raises the issues and seeks clarity because of the gap in the policies. There was a process to educate members on how to lay a complaint, and in most instances during the outreach programmes this was explained to them.
Adoption of minutes
The Committee's minutes of 2 September, 29 October and 11 November 2021 were adopted.
The Committee also adopted its agenda for the fourth term.
Mr Ryder commended the way in which the Committee had been able to conduct its work during the term.
The meeting was adjourned.
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