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JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON DEFENCE
11 May 2007
IMPROVEMENT OF SERVICE TO MILITARY VETERANS: PUBLIC HEARINGS
Chairperson: Mr S Montsitsi (ANC)
Documents handed out:
Mkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (Mpumalanga) submission
Political Prisoners Committee (Gauteng) submission
Audio Recording of the Meeting
Mpumalanga's Mkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association made representation to the Committee on matters concerning its members. The issue of the exhumation and repatriation of former liberation soldiers who were buried in neighbouring countries was given particular mention.
The Ex Political Prisoners Committee (Gauteng) submitted a number of requests on behalf of its members to the committee.
The Committee acknowledged the emotional and sensitive nature of the issues affecting the veterans and ex-political prisoners and noted the need to consider the families of deceased members in the recommendations made.
Mkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) Mpumalanga Province
Mr Richard Mabuza (Secretary – MKMVA Mpumalanga Province) submitted five proposals to the Committee for consideration:
- That a veteran’s directorate be established at a provincial level rather than at the national level under the Department of Defence (DOD).
- That the Special Pensions Act be amended to remove the qualifying criteria for age that were imposed.
- That membership of the Non-Statutory Forces Pension be revised to include members of the former liberation forces living outside the country and those who were not integrated in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in 1994.
- That the bodies of former liberation members buried in neighbouring countries be exhumed and returned to South Africa for burial.
- That membership of the South African National Military Veteran’s Association (SANMVA) would compromise the independence and existence of the former liberation veterans’ organizations and that their norms, values and priorities would not be accommodated.
Mr M Booi (ANC) pointed out that the DOD was constituted at a national level and that dealing with veterans on a provincial level would be problematic.
Mr Mabuza replied that there was a difference in the interaction with the DOD and members within and outside the defence forces. He said that although overall matters of defence are dealt with on a national level, the issue of veterans was better handled on a provincial level.
Ms M Matsemela (ANC) asked for clarification of the proposal to amend the Act on exhumations.
Mr Johannes Ngcobo (MKMVA Gauteng Province) explained that nobody was taking responsibility for the repatriation of the bodies of former liberation soldiers. The DOD and the SANDF have the capacity to assist the veteran’s organizations with this matter and if the responsibility for exhumations was included in the Act, it would be implemented. The DOD needed to liaise with the Committee on the matter of exhumations. It was very important for the families that the bodies of the former liberation soldiers were brought home for burial.
Mr Booi commented that the formation of SANMVA was intended to bring all the veterans’ organizations under one roof and that priority would be given to the other organizations as well as to Mkhonto We Sizwe (MK) and Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA).
Mr Mabuza replied that the importance of SANMVA was acknowledged but that the MKMVA was not yet ready to erode its structure and be formalized into SANMVA.
Mr Montsitsi commented that the Committee had heard submissions on the previous day from organizations proposing the formation of a single representative body responsible for all veterans that was non-racial, all-embracing, recognized by Parliament and the Government and funded under the budget of the DOD. There was awareness of the challenges involved but that the affairs of veterans should be handled under one roof. He expressed appreciation for the support voiced by the national MKMVA for the establishment of a single entity to protect the interests and welfare of all veterans in South Africa.
Mr O Monareng (ANC) commented that it was necessary to depart from the past and move forward, without forgetting the past.
Mr Booi requested clarification of what was meant by introducing appropriate legislation related to the exhuming of bodies.
Mr Alfred Motsi (MKMVA North West Province) replied that it was not clear whether new legislation was needed or if there was existing legislation dealing with the exhumation and repatriation of bodies. He added that some bodies were not exhumed and repatriated because of financial constraints and requested that mechanisms be put in place to facilitate this.
Brigadier-General N Fihla (ANC) commented that there was a unit within the Department of Justice [Missing Persons Task Team] dealing with the exhumation and repatriation of bodies and that the SANDF was involved in discussions with the Department on this matter.
Mr O Monareng (ANC) commented that there were many grave sites of soldiers from other countries in South Africa. Arrangements can be made through the embassies to visit graves in other countries. It was expected of other countries to protect the graves in their territory and to ensure that the history and the records were preserved. The Committee was not opposed to the repatriation of the soldiers but pointed out that dignified commemoration ceremonies were held in other countries and that the relatives were invited to attend.
Mr M Mabala (MKMVA Western Cape) replied that the sentiments of people needed to be considered. Should the families wish so, the graves could remain in other countries but the families should be consulted in the matter.
Major-General L Mollo (Chief Director – SANDF) commented that the SANDF sent representatives to the commemoration ceremonies held in other countries, for example the 90th anniversary of the battle of Dellville Wood in 2006. The site where the members of the Native Battalion were buried was also visited and a ceremony was planned for the 19 August 2007 to commemorate the 1917 sinking of the SS Mendi .
Maj-Gen Mollo reported that it was found that graves in Zambia and Uganda were in a bad condition and said that the Department of Public Works was very supportive in assisting with the repair of graves, particularly those in the former Unita areas of Angola. The SANDF did take care of the graves and was involved in other initiatives to honour the spirit of the people, within the financial constraints imposed. He cited the example of Freedom Park and the recent visit of Colonel Letsholo to neighbouring countries to identify the graves of soldiers who had died there.
Colonel M Letsholo (Senior Staff Officer – Department of Defence) showed photographs, which were recently taken in Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to the Committee. He said that in some areas, the graves were threatened by development and showed an example where land was being cultivated next to the graves.
Col Letsholo said that the identification of graves was becoming a problem, particularly in Tanzania where the metal nametags were removed from the graves and where the inscriptions on the headstones were eroded due to the poor quality of the materials used. He added that exhumation was difficult in cases where some forgotten graves were found and where South Africans were buried in the Zimbabwean mass graves in Tanzania.
Colonel Colin Doyle (Chairman – Council of Military Veterans Organizations of South Africa (CMVO) said that the CMVO respected and supported the recognition of those who died in the liberation of the country and pointed out that a great deal was already done in this regard. He cited the example where the Gunners’ memorial was re-dedicated to include the names of MK anti-aircraft gunners and the inclusion of those members of the forces who died in Burundi. He added that the CMVO shared the concern of members about the matters raised in the hearings.
Ms Matsemela asked if the DOD was involved in Freedom Park and if the veterans were consulted as well.
Mr Booi commented that the responsibility for exhumation and repatriation of bodies should be taken by a single, centralized body rather than a number of NGOs and individuals. Where collaboration with other departments was necessary, this needed to be done in a more organized way for government to provide more effective assistance.
Mr Monareng commented that a number of issues were involved that cannot be resolved in a piecemeal manner. There were serious cultural considerations around burials and it was necessary to hold high level discussions to determine matters of policy and responsibility at the national, provincial and local levels. Time was needed to develop implementation plans that will address the gaps and unresolved issues that resulted from the earlier concessions that were made. The subject was an emotional one and there was a danger that emotions could be a hindrance to resolving the matter.
Col Letsholo presented a slideshow of photographs of war graves that were taken near Kampala, Zambia.
Maj Gen Mollo mentioned that the Commonwealth had handed over the management of South African war graves in other African countries to the SANDF.
Lieutenant-General J Jansen van Rensburg (Chief of Corporate Staff – SANDF) reported on the visit in 2006 of a South African delegation to the commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and the discussions held with the British Commonwealth War Graves Commission (BCWGC) during the visit. He remarked on the high standard at which the cemeteries were maintained by the commission.
Lt-Gen Jansen van Rensburg said that the issue of exhumations was discussed with the BCWGC and that the commission’s policy was not to exhume the bodies but to commemorate the fallen at the place where they died. The difference between those who died during the two World Wars and the cultural differences in Africa was understood and a number of requests from the former liberation movements for exhumation and repatriation of their members was submitted to the advisory board.
Lt-Gen Jansen van Rensburg agreed that the issue needed to be discussed from all angles and that the financial aspects as well as the spiritual and emotional requirements of the families were considered. From a medical perspective, there were a number of difficulties when crossing international boundaries but these were not insurmountable. He proposed that the points raised were noted and considered in detail in future.
Mr Monareng commented that the financial issues needed to be addressed in order to correct the situation and heal the nation. It was necessary to develop an implementation plan, even if it took years to implement. The sacrifices made were incalculable and financial constraints should not be an issue.
Rear Admiral Lukas Bakkes (Secretary-General – CMVO) advised the Committee that the mandate of the BCWGC had expired at the end of World War II and that the South African Agency of the BCWGC was responsible for the British war graves in South Africa. The situation regarding the graves in other Commonwealth countries was different and he undertook to take up the matter with the BCWGC.
Rear Adm Bakkes added that commemoration ceremonies were held in the larger cities on Remembrance Day, 11th November, when all the nation’s dead were honoured. In 2007, ceremonies were to include the commemoration of the sinking of the SS Mendi and the Battle of Square Hill in Turkey, where the Cape Corps distinguished themselves in 1914 against the Turks.
Mr Montsitsi asked how the agency was funded.
Rear Adm Bakkes replied that all Commonwealth countries made an annual contribution to the BCWGC and that the agency received funding from the Commonwealth in return.
Maj Gen Mollo commented on the state of the South African graves in Zambia compared to those in Europe and said that the focus must not be lost.
Mr Nick Sendall (Chief Director – Department of Defence) added that most of the graves under discussion are in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries and there was a need to engage with SADC on this issue. He mentioned that there was a project underway to document the history of liberation in the SADC countries and that South Africa contributed most of the funding for this. He had found a number of South African graves that were not being maintained in Ethiopia and there was a major difference in the standard of maintenance of war graves in Europe and in Africa.
Mr Montsitsi concluded that the matter of the graves of the former liberation soldiers that were outside the country was a very emotive issue. The manner in which it was handled was of the utmost importance and the Committee needed to proceed with due caution to ensure that wounds are not opened and that the sensitivities of the families are protected and that they are treated with dignity.
Mr Montsitsi said that the issue of the graves was expected to remain topical for some time. Time was needed for all the stakeholders to sit down and discuss the matter in a rational manner. He warned that the risk of failure was higher once emotions were allowed to take over. The Committee was a vehicle that needed to be utilised to resolve the challenges.
Mr Montsitsi said that further research needed to be undertaken and that lessons could be learnt from other organizations. It was most important that the DOD ensure that the graves are properly preserved and remain identifiable so that in future, they could be moved to safer areas if necessary.
Mr Montsitsi noted that the Freedom Park and the establishment of heroes' acres were examples of things that can be done to acknowledge the sacrifices made. It was imperative that the families and relatives were consulted in the matter and that they support the submissions that were made to Parliament.
Mr Montsitsi said that SANMVA was intended to be a veteran’s organization that represented the interests of all the parties involved. Although some of the stakeholders would retain their independence for some time to come, it was now in a state of transition and transformation and needed the co-operation and contribution of all the parties to obtain government’s recognition of the overall structure.
Lt Gen Jansen van Rensburg added that it was stated in the National Heritage Act of 1999 that lists of the graves and burial grounds of those that died in the liberation of the country were to be submitted to the Minister so that they may be protected under the Act. The necessary provision was made in the legislation but that there was a shortcoming in the implementation thereof.
Ex Political Prisoners Committee (EPPC) submission
Mr Satch Chawe (Secretary – EPPC Gauteng Province) said that there were many similarities between the matters that concerned military veterans and those affecting ex-political prisoners (EPPs). The dependents of EPPs were included in the representations made because they had also suffered with the EPPs.
The EPPC requested that:
Health and social development:
- The facilities of defence force hospitals and clinics be extended to EPPs and their dependants.
- The Minister of Health was requested to provide access to provincial hospitals and clinics and free medical care to EPPs and their dependants.
- A burial fund was established to pay for the burials of impoverished EPPs and their dependants and to pay for tombstones to be erected.
Database and skills audit:
- The Department of Correctional Services’ database be updated and verified to include all those incarcerated in prisons other than Robben Island.
- The dependents of EPPs who have died be added to the database.
- A skills audit of EPPs and their dependents be completed.
Education and training:
- A Sector Education and Training Authority be established for the EPPs and their dependants.
- A special fund be established to pay for the education of EPPs and their dependants at institutions of higher learning.
- Government make the awarding of BEE tenders to companies conditional on their financial contribution to the EPPC.
- The EPPC be given equity in companies that were awarded BEE tenders.
- The EPPC be made a key stakeholder in the management of Robben Island and that the exclusion of the EPPC by the Department of Arts and Culture since 1999 in the management of Robben Island be investigated by Parliament.
Fundraising and Parliamentary support:
- A sustainable fundraising programme be developed, as previously discussed with President Mbeki and his office.
- Changes to the Special Pension Act of 1996 be made to revoke the discriminatory provisions applied to persons who were under 35 years of age at the time.
Mr Booi noted the issues raised by Mr Chawe and said that he was not sure if the matters related to fundraising were included in the Committee’s mandate.
Mr Monareng extended his sympathy to the plight of the EPPs and commented that it was difficult for Government to intervene in some of the matters raised by the EPPC.
Mr Montsitsi thanked Mr Chawe for his submission. A report of the Committee’s recommendations was to be copied to all the attendees.
The meeting was adjourned.
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