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Feature: Trade unions and the defence force

Trade unions and the SANDFThe acronyms Sandu and Sasfu are ones which neither the Defence Ministry nor the senior command of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) much relish hearing.

Most mentions of Sandu (SA National Defence Union) have invariably meant legal action and in recent times the legal services arm of the South African military machine has lost more cases than it has won.

These have, by and large, revolved around the ill-fated protest of September 2009 that saw more than a thousand soldiers march on the administrative seat of government in support of demands for better working conditions and salaries.

That the march, primarily by Sandu members but also with participation from SA Security Forces Union (Sasfu) went pear-shaped is well-known but not always so the actions taken by former Defence Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, her successor, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and SANDF senior command. On the labour front it accelerated the establishment of the Military Ombud office, now up and running under the leadership of retired general Temba Matanzima, and created specifically to provide a channel for labour issues in the SANDF.

Close to 800 soldiers have been cleared of any wrongdoing in a series of Military Court hearings and questions are now being asked about trade unions for military personnel.

Retired officers defenceWeb spoke to on condition of anonymity were adamant labour representation for the military should not be allowed or be allowed in such a way that it cannot impact on national security.

Others feel the two leading military trade unions spend “far too much time” in court on labour matters while there are other military issues they should address.

A University of Pretoria Law Faculty professor, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said a “fairly easy way out” would be for all SANDF members to be classified as workers under the Labour Relations Act.

“This means, in essence, the work they do can be classified as ‘essential’ taking work stoppages such strikes, go slows and work to rules out of the equation,” he told defenceWeb.

Military analyst Helmoed Heitman believes there is “no place for a classic ‘trade union’ in a military organisation”.

“It purports to usurp the chain of command in its disciplinary role and no military can afford to have a situation where someone is licensed to second guess the chain of command,” he said.

He is not entirely against some form of labour representation for those in uniform and suggests some form of association to watch over the rights of all ranks of soldiers.

“One could even look at associations for different rank groups.

“The key difference is that such a body or bodies would have no right to strike or picket but would have the right to represent a soldier, within channels or vis a vis the Ombud, or to make legally-based representations, take a matter to court or even take a matter to Parliament, albeit after normal channels and the Ombud process have been exhausted,” he said.

Heitman sees these associations taking a wider role, if established, by lobbying for civil society recognition of the role soldiers fill and push the private sector in supporting military personnel with special deals as happens in the United States.

“They could also become involved in improving training as the Swiss Army’s NCO association does,” he pointed out as an example of what can be done.


Associations of the type Heitman mentions are found in countries where members of the armed forces are not allowed the labour freedom their South African counterparts have.

“Legislation in certain countries, also constitutional democracies, specifically excludes members of the armed forces from joining trade unions. These limitations are accepted,” the Tuks professor noted.

The “other” military issues raised by retired officers include promotion and dereliction of duty, resulting in injury or death of soldiers.

Heitman said promotion issues will not appear on any military trade union’s agenda.

“Taking this on flies in the face of the ruling party’s cadre deployment approach, even in the military. It is an issue that should be taken up but would be a no-win fight not a lot of military trade union members would support.

“Unions are there to make money and make their leaders feel important on one hand and on the other sometimes to serve political purposes; the interests of members are often secondary at best.

“The track record of both unions in the SANDF is open to question on those counts. Taking up the case of the Guptagate victims is correct; taking the SANDF to court for failing to reinstate people after a fixed-term contract has expired is stupid and unfair to all concerned,” Heitman said.

While he has never publicly said so current SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke probably put it best when addressing a parade as SA Army Chief in Thaba Tshwane a few years ago. He told soldiers theirs was “a calling and not a job” inferring no need for trade unions in the military.

But a Constitutional Court ruling in May 1999 guarantees the right of soldiers to belong to a trade union so at the end of the day it’s going to need a change to the Constitution before Defence Ministers to come and SANDF senior command of the future don’t have to be concerned when hearing Sandu or Sasfu.


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