The Joint Standing Committee on Defence (the JSCD) convened virtually for a briefing by the Military Ombudsman on its 2022/23 Annual Activity Report and feedback on the backlog of Military Ombud cases lodged with the Minister of Defence.
The Military Ombud reported that as at 15 September 2023, the Office had submitted 178 reports to the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans. The Committee was concerned that at the time of compiling the presentation, the Military Ombud had been unaware if the Minister had accepted, rejected or endorsed any of the reports submitted to her. The Military Ombud had indicated that he had subsequently been informed that the Minister had dealt with 107 of the 178 reports. He undertook to do a reconciliation of the Minister’s feedback and to provide the Committee with an updated report. The Committee resolved to submit their concerns in writing to the Minister about her delayed response to the Ombud reports.
The Committee adopted the JSCD-PCDMV Study Tour Report after a few amendments were made based on input from Members.
The Committee noted with concern the two tragic accidents in the past week which had resulted in the death of seven military personnel. The support staff was tasked with issuing a statement of condolence on behalf of the Committee and in support of the surviving members and their families.
The Chairperson had challenges with his connection and had asked Mr Mmutle to chair the meeting on his behalf. He indicated that he received an apology from the Minister and welcomed the Deputy Minister as well as the Military Ombud and his management team.
Military Ombud presentation
Lt Genl (Retired) Vusi Masondo, Military Ombudsman, presented the 2022/23 Annual Activity Report of the Office of the Military Ombud. He reported that 82% of the complaints received had been resolved, thereby exceeding the annual performance target of 75%. Due to improvements in the investigation turnaround times, the carry-over complaints had reduced significantly. The majority of the complaints received during the current financial year, i.e. 307 out of 350, were lodged by members of the South African Defence Force (SANDF). The complaints mainly related to conditions of service. Complaints outside the mandate of the Office such as Military Veterans benefits and GEPF pension benefits, are referred to the relevant institutions in terms of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).
Of the 178 reports submitted to the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, 108 were upheld in terms of the Military Ombud Act, no 4 of 2012. The remaining reports related to matters resolved through Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and submitted to the Minister for endorsement. At the time of delivering the presentation, the Military Ombud was unaware if the Minister had accepted, rejected or endorsed any of the reports submitted to her and if the Minister had instructed the Chief of the SANDF to implement any of the recommendations contained in the report.
Mr T Mmutle (ANC) took over the proceedings in his capacity as acting Chairperson and called on Members to comment or raise questions.
Mr S Marais (DA) asked how many complaints were lodged as a result of mobility exit mechanism (MEM) applications. He sought clarity about the complaint dismissed in terms of section (7)(1)(b) and with the status ‘matter pending before court.’ He asked if this meant that the accused person was off the hook when a judge dismisses a case for a technical reason and the Military Ombud does not take a position nor make any recommendation to the Minister. He asked if accused persons are not held accountable in terms of internal regulations. He wanted to know if an expiry date applies to the submission of complaints. He sought clarity about the number of complaints referred to a better-suited institution. He wanted to know what it meant when a complaint is upheld based on the merit of the complaint. He sought clarity about the matters resolved by using ADR. He enquired about the reasons for the large number of reports that the Minister had dismissed. He questioned the value for money of the Office of the Ombud if there is no enforcement of justified findings and if the Minister is able to reject 60% of the reports. The lack of feedback by the Minister was posing a major problem for the future of the Office of the Ombud.
Mr D Ryder (DA, Gauteng) asked for an indication of the common thread of the complaints. He wanted to know if people were unhappy about the working hours, the state of workplaces or the state of housing. He said if the complaints were emanating from a specific barrack, then the Committee would want to do an oversight visit to assess the situation. He wanted to understand the issues that were causing the complaints in order for the Committee to help the Ombud and the soldiers to address issues that gave rise to a majority of the complaints.
Lt Genl Masondo explained that when the presentation was prepared, the Military Ombud was unaware whether the Minister had accepted, rejected or endorsed any of the reports submitted to her. Subsequently, the Office of the Military Ombud had received feedback from the Minister, indicating that 107 of the 178 reports had been dealt with. Some of the reports required of the Minister to instruct the Chief of the Defence Force to implement the recommendations and others were for his notification. He was in the process of reconciling the reports and would be providing updated and comprehensive feedback to the Committee. He explained that where a complaint is found to be valid, it is upheld and a recommendation is made to the Minister to take remedial action to resolve the matter. The Act prescribes that a complaint be lodged within 180 days of being made aware of the grievance. A condonement is considered for complaints lodged later than 180 days. The ADR is a mechanism for speedy resolution of complaints in cases where the respondent acknowledges fault and agrees to an acceptable resolution.
Mr Johann Behr, Director: Intake and Analysis, Military Ombud, confirmed that complaints related to MEM applications have been received by the Office of the Military Ombud. The complaints mainly relate to the initial quotation and final payment in terms of medical aid contributions of former or retired members who are often not aware or not financially able to make additional payments. He explained that complaints referred to better-suited institutions are done in terms of a MOU with, for example, the Pension Ombud or Health Ombud depending on the content of the complaint. He acknowledged that a fairly high number of complaints is related to service benefits and include matters dealing with the awarding of medals, pension benefits, and death benefits.
Adv Chrystal Pillay, Director: Legal Services, Military Ombud, said the Office of the Ombud is often not informed of matters pending before court or decided by the courts. In terms of section 7 of the Act, the Ombud may not investigate matters pending or decided by a court of law. The Act provides for complaints to be lodged within a reasonable period of time. The regulations provide specific criteria in terms of timeframes. The Ombud might decide not to take up matters if complainants fail to explain reasons for the delay in lodging complaints. The Office of the Ombud uses ADR as a mechanism to mediate between parties and to shorten the resolution process.
Lt Genl Masondo replied to Mr Ryder that an extract from the database would be made and analysed to assess if the complaints were mainly emanating from a certain unit. The information would be submitted to the Committee.
Ms P Phetlhe (ANC) noted from the comments that Members were concerned about the uncertainty of whether the Minister had responded to all the reports and recommendations. She asked if it was appropriate, for anyone, when given such a responsibility to respond to staff complaints, that the Minister had not responded. She wanted to understand if there are loopholes in the system on how the Office of the Minister is expected to deal with the recommendations.
Mr K Motsamai (EFF, Gauteng) drew attention to a number of cases of Military Veterans who lost their homes. He wanted to know how many complaints had been reported and when action could be expected to return Military Veterans to their rightful places. The complaints about the pensions of Military Veterans had also not been addressed.
Mr Mmutle noted Mr Motsamai’s question but was unsure whether it was within the jurisdiction of the Ombud.
Lt Genl Masondo replied that the matter was outside the jurisdiction of the Office of the Ombud. Complaints about Military Veterans issues are referred to the Department of Military Veterans for resolution in terms of a MOU. He replied to Ms Phetlhe on whether recommendations are limited to the complainant or if broader issues are considered. Multiple complaints on a specific issue or of policy implementation are referred to the Chief of the Defence Force as systemic issues for further investigation. This is done to avoid multiple complaints about the same issue from members of the SANDF.
Mr Mmutle was concerned about the number of reports submitted to the Minister without the Office of the Ombud receiving a response. He said it was unfortunate that the Minister was not present to clarify the matter.
Mr Thabang Makwetla, Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, said the Minister would be able to share her observations of the work of the Office of the Ombud in a future meeting when she is in attendance. He was unable to share useful information to help Members with a better understanding of the situation. He suggested that the Minister’s advisors might want to comment on the matter. He had observed that the number of cases in the first two quarters up to 15 September 2023 was double compared to the previous financial year.
Mr Mmutle said he would not be inviting the advisors to comment because he was unsure if they had been mandated to respond on behalf of the Minister. He suggested that they note and bring the concerns to the Minister’s attention. The Committee would forward the concerns in writing to the Minister for her response.
Study Tour Report
Dr Wilhelm Janse van Rensburg, Committee Content Researcher, indicated that the Draft Report on the Defence Study Tour to Germany over the period 25 June 2023 to 1 July 2023 had been circulated to Members. The report contains a summary of briefings and discussions held on the tour and a list of recommendations based on observations made. He highlighted key aspects of the study tour for the attention of Members.
The Chairperson thanked the support staff, Dr Van Rensburg and Ms Nandipha Maxhegwana, for a well-crafted report that covered the events as they unfolded on the trip to Germany.
Mr Marais agreed that the support staff had done outstanding work in presenting a comprehensive report. This had been the best-organised trip that he had experienced during his past 17 years in Parliament. He suggested that a special word of thanks should be added to the report to acknowledge the support staff for their overall assistance of the Committee. The trip was value for money and largely appreciated.
Mr Ryder noted that the report did not include any reference to the development of a national security strategy which was a discussion point in one of the sessions. Parliament had been discussing the matter for some time but had not yet developed a national security strategy. The war in Ukraine has brought new urgency to issues of national security. He echoed the gratitude of his colleagues for the excellent content of the trip. He suggested that a formal letter of thanks be sent to the Military Attache and her personal assistant for filling the study tour programme with meaningful engagements and helping the Committee to achieve its outcomes.
Ms M Mothapo (ANC) thanked the support staff for a well-drafted report. She suggested that communication in terms of logistical arrangements could be improved because some of the Members had experienced problems with connecting flights. She agreed with her colleagues that the report captured the tour well.
Dr Janse van Rensburg asked Mr Ryder if the issue of national security policy was part of the discussion in the German Parliament.
Mr Mmutle replied that the matter had formed part of the cyber security presentation in the engagement with the Embassy.
Dr Janse van Rensburg agreed to include the matter raised by Mr Ryder.
Mr Mmutle confirmed that the report would be adopted with the following amendments:
1) To include the matter of a national security strategy as an observation and recommendation; and
2) To include a word of appreciation for the support staff, with special gratitude to Dr Janse van Rensburg and Ms Maxhegwana, and other team members for a job well done and for their continuous support to this Committee.
The Committee adopted the minutes dated 7 September 2023 with an amendment to correct the spelling of Ms Phetlhe’s surname.
Dr Janse van Rensburg brought it to the attention of the Committee that on behalf of the Chairperson, letters of gratitude were written to all participants in Germany and to the Chief of the SANDF for the work of the Military Attache and her assistant.
Mr Mmutle said the Military Attache had raised concerns about remuneration. The matter would be discussed at a later stage and a recommendation for a review would be made to the DOD or the Chief of the SANDF.
Mr Mmutle said he had connectivity challenges at the start of the meeting and was unsure if the Chairperson had shared with the Committee the tragic incident that took place at Kommetjie. He felt it would be appropriate to have a moment of silence for the departed. The incident affected seven members who had recovered, three who had passed on, and one senior officer in critical condition. He requested the support staff to issue a statement of condolence on behalf of the Committee and support to the surviving members.
Mr Marais drew attention to another accident in which four more members had died. He stated that the previous day had been devastating for the Defence Force. He asked that both tragic events be included in the statement issued on behalf of the Committee.
Mr Mmutle agreed that the Committee should pay tribute to the families of the members who had passed on. He requested Dr Janse van Rensburg to draft a proper statement with accurate information. He would inform the Chairperson about the resolution taken on the two unfortunate accidents.
The meeting was adjourned.
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