Meeting with Defence Force Unions & Department; Amendment of Defence Legislation: Department briefing

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Defence and Military Veterans

17 August 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


17 August 2005

Professor K Asmal (ANC)

Documents handed out:
SA Security Forces Union Report: Deteriorating Labour Relations between SASFU and the Department
Department Annual Report
Report on amending Department legislation including Geneva Conventions
Defence Update 2005


The South African Security Forces Union (SASFU) and the South African National Defence Union (SANDU) presented concerns about their members’ labour relations with the Department of Defence. SASFU contended that the Department’s use of fixed-term, six-month contracts had led to many retrenchments. It also claimed that the Department’s middle management in the Western Cape was resisting transformation. SANDU was having difficulties with the Military Arbitration Board and had made 24 High Court applications to prevent the Department from implementing policies (such as elements of the Department’s 2010 human resources strategy) that were before the Board. Despite SASFU’s failure to meet the legal requirements for entering into negotiations with the Department, the Department agreed to meet with SASFU and to explain the 2010 human resources strategy to its employees. Members then asked questions about the Department’s ‘exit mechanism’ for employees and the Military Skills Development Programme.

The Department then reported that a Conventional Arms Control Bill, that would ratify two amendments to the international convention on the restriction of conventional weapons in domestic law, would be sent to Cabinet for approval on 1 September 2005. The Department also clarified the status of the Military Ombud Bill and the Military Discipline Bill. The Chairperson suggested that the Department hold public hearings with the Department of Health on the Geneva Convention Bill.


SA Security Forces Union and the SA National Defence Union briefing
Ms L Mkwayi-Nkoko, SASFU Vice-President, introduced the delegation from the Western Cape. He commented that although SASFU’s national representatives did not attend the recent SASFU provincial conference in Cape Town, they had concurred with the concerns of the provincial union.

Mr M Mabala, SASFU Provincial Chairperson: Western Cape, stated that the provincial conference instructed SASFU Western Cape to inform the press of the conference proceedings, and this led to a meeting between SASFU Western Cape and the Deputy Minister on contractual issues facing South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members. SASFU Western Cape sent a record of the deliberations at this meeting to the Department; but, when no response was forthcoming, it met with other trade unions to discuss members’ problems.

The Department was ‘retrenching’ many SANDF members through a system of temporary, six-month contracts that were not renewed at the end of the six-month period. Temporary contracts affected black members adversely, and therefore the SANDF was unable to meet the figure of 64% black employees that it required in order to be representative of the population. The Department was not ‘fast-tracking’ black employees: on the contrary, white rather than black members were given the opportunity to do senior officer courses. The SANDF was failing to meet employment equity requirements in some of its divisions where the middle- and upper-management positions were held by white employees.

The Chairperson clarified that Chapter 20 of the Defence Act prohibited SASFU from taking part in a formal negotiating process with the Department, as it required the union to have 15 000 members to participate in the military Bargaining Council, but SASFU had only 5 000 members. Mr Mabala suggested that the threshold for participation in the Bargaining Council should be dropped to 5 000, since SASFU would struggle to achieve 15 000 members from the different groupings of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the Azanian Peoples’ Liberation Army (APLA) members integrated into the SANDF. The affiliation of SASFU to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) should be resolved.

Ms Mkwayi-Nkoko noted that the Military Skills Development (MSD) programme was not being serviced properly, and many students who completed the programme were not employed thereafter. Mr Mabala claimed that SANDF training wings were composed of white instructors who inculcated ‘specific ideologies’ in trainees. The Chairperson enquired what ideologies the trainers imparted to trainees, apart from the ideologies set down in the Constitution and the Defence Act. Mr Mabala replied that trainees were trained to be subordinate and not to question the implications of commands that they received. The Department should interrogate the philosophy of military discipline.

The Chairperson asked whether SASFU would join the COSATU strike on 29 August. Ms Mkwayi-Nkoko answered that SASFU had not yet held discussions about the COSATU strike at a national level.

Mr P Greef, SA National Defence Union (SANDU), National Co-ordinator, said that the Military Bargaining Council was ineffective as the Department continually postponed discussion of the trade unions’ concerns. Some current agenda items had been before the Council since 2000. SANDU had referred 16 agenda items to the Military Arbitration Board. One of SANDU’s outstanding demands was that the wage gap of 8% in the lower ranks (between, for example, an ordinary private and a policeman) be closed.

The Chairperson pointed out that, for the purposes of bargaining with the Department, the regulations stipulated that unions were allowed to combine their membership in order to meet the threshold of 15 000 members. Had SANDU made any attempt to combine membership with SASFU? Mr Greef replied that for the past three years, the two unions had not come together. The Chairperson responded that the Committee would consider making a recommendation on this matter.

Mr Greef proceeded to list SANDU’s difficulties with the Military Arbitration Board. The Department had taken a long time to appoint members to the Military Arbitration Board, and new appointments were not consistent with SANDU’s agreement with the Department concerning the composition of the five-member Board. They would be comprised of two members nominated by the Department, two members from the trade unions, and a neutral chairperson.

In the past two years, SANDU had made 24 High Court applications to prevent the Department from implementing policies before the Military Arbitration Board. Most of these applications related to components of the Department’s 2010 human resources strategy that had been formulated by the Department without consulting the trade unions. SANDU acknowledged that the SANDF should be restructured; yet it claimed that the 2010 contract system for SANDF members ‘excluded certain people’. At present, many soldiers who were sent on deployment returned to find that their contracts could not be renewed.

Mr Greef added that SANDU would like the Department’s promotion system to be reformed so that salary levels and rank were not coupled. At the prompting of the Chairperson, he conceded that SANDU did not oppose ‘grading’ in the Department hierarchy, but the SANDF should find a way of giving its members equal opportunities for promotion. SANDU was not in favour of strike action, although some members were calling for public protest marches.

The Chairperson observed that the Constitutional Court had set down that SANDF members were citizens with the right to bargain with their employers. However, the state could qualify that right, as SANDF members were not ordinary workers, but were subject to SANDF statutes.

Mr J Masilela, Secretary for Defence, commented that the Minister had agreed to meet with SASFU despite the fact that it had not reached the threshold of 15 000 members necessary to enter negotiations. The Minister would discuss with SASFU the contested elements of the Department’s 2010 human resources strategy, as well as the other difficulties SASFU members had. The 2010 strategy did not include a policy of retrenchment; and, of the Department’s senior management team, only two were white persons, while the rest were former Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) members.

The Chairperson asked whether the two trade unions and the Department accepted that the concept of ‘military preparedness’ or ‘combat readiness’ was relevant to the SANDF. The SANDF required a programme of ‘rejuvenation’ as it was ‘top heavy’ with generals, while many of the privates were relatively old. Both the unions and the Department accepted the concept. Mr Masilela said that the aim of the 2010 strategy was ‘to correct age representation in the SANDF’.

Mr Masilela continued that SANDU had not complied with the procedures for negotiations with the Department, as it had submitted neither its financial documents nor the names of its elected officials to the Department. SANDU had attacked the Minister through a number of ‘inflammatory pamphlets’ and aggressively contravened negotiation procedure in meetings with the Secretary.

Mr M Booi (ANC) asked what the status of the ‘exit mechanism’ for Department employees was. Mr Masilela responded that the Minister of Finance had approved the exit mechanism as a component of the Department’s 2010 human resources strategy. The Department would present this document to the Committee on 13 September. The exit mechanism was voluntary for SANDF members, but also protected the Department from losing vital skills, as the employer could refuse to let members go. The Department would be able to approach those members unable to progress in the employment system and offer them the exit mechanism, which included ‘substantial compensation’.

Mr Mabala asked the Department to explain the six-month contract system that was causing dissatisfaction among SASFU members. Mr Masilela was unable to clarify the six-month contract system, but stated that the transitional contract system, introduced in the SANDF after 1994, was gradually being phased out. Mr V Ndlovu (IFP) commented that the Department had not explained to its employees the distinction between fixed-term contracts (such as the six-month contracts) and core service system contracts, causing many members to suffer the loss of employment.

Mr S Ntuli (ANC) reiterated that one of the SANDF members’ grievances was that when they returned from deployments, they found that their posts had been changed. Ms X Makasi (ANC) suggested that this problem must be specific to the Western Cape, since the SASFU delegation was a provincial delegation. Mr Masilela replied that SANDF members had not been removed from their positions; however, during the restructuring process, the Department had accumulated many members ‘additional to the establishment’, who would be provided for by the exit mechanism.

Mr Booi expressed concern at the malfunction of the Military Arbitration Board and its inability to address disputes about the need for transformation in the Department’s middle management. Mr Masilela responded that, contrary to SANDU’s allegations, the Minister had the authority to appoint Board members. As the Department’s middle management in the Western Cape required transformation, this unit of the Department was being restructured.

Mr M Sayedali-Shah (DA) commented that the objectives of the Department’s 2010 human resources strategy had not been communicated to its members and so misconceptions had arisen among employees. How would the Department service the Military Skills Development (MSD) programme, which was crucial to the process of rejuvenation in the SANDF? Mr Masilela answered that the Department would commission reports on the Military Skills Development programme.

The Chairperson stressed that the Committee was not a negotiating forum between SASFU, SANDU, and the Department. Nevertheless, the Committee would further investigate the impasse between trade union members and the Department arising form different understandings of labour relations. As Article Four of the Defence Act stipulated that SANDF members could not refuse to obey lawful commands and could not participate in strike action, the trade unions should ‘de-politicise’ their attitude to labour relations and not threaten strike action. On the other hand, the Department should be more ‘receptive’ in negotiations with the trade unions. The Department should investigate the cause of the 24 High Court interdicts brought against it by SANDU as well as its failure to explain the 2010 human resources strategy to Western Cape employees.

Department Report on amending Defence legislation
A Conventional Arms Control Bill had been drafted in response to an international convention on the restriction of conventional weapons, as there was a need to write this convention into domestic law. The Bill would be sent to Cabinet for approval on 1 September. Two amendments to the convention on the restriction of conventional weapons required ratification in domestic law: the amendment of the convention’s scope, to cover both international and domestic conflicts; and the addition to the convention of protocol five on unexploded weapons of war, which was linked to the Geneva Convention.

The Chairperson interjected that he had seen a draft of the Geneva Convention Bill that was, in his view, "unsatisfactory".

The Department official continued that the Military Ombud Bill, which was an initiative of the Committee, had been referred to the Minister and circulated in the Department. The submission of the Bill to the Department coincided with the Department’s review of its grievance procedure (according to Section 61 of the Defence Act). The Chairperson suggested that the review should be completed by February 2006.

The Department official noted that the Military Discipline Bill was drafted two years ago. However, the Minister had since appointed a task team to investigate the military justice system, and the Bill was delayed in anticipation of amendments resulting from the investigation. The draft of the Geneva Convention Bill seen by the Chairperson was the proposal of the Royal Society of the Red Cross (RSRC) to the Department. The Chairperson suggested that the Department and the Department of Health should hold joint public hearings on the Geneva Convention Bill.

The Chairperson felt that the Department Annual Report had been received too late for meaningful discussion. Members agreed.

The meeting was adjourned.


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