Iron will


“Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult. The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.

“Countless minor incident – the kind one an never really foresee – combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always fall short of the intended goal. Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverises every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”

So wrote the great Prussian military thinker, Major General Carl von Clausewitz.

One is reminded of these words as South Africa’s defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu starts acting on the findings of the Bosielo commission.

Northern Gauteng High Court judge Lebotsang Ronnie Bosielo heads the Interim National Defence Force Service Commission (INDFSC) that two weeks ago handed Sisulu an urgent interim report and this week briefed Parliament about its content.

The report painted a damning picture of conditions in the military, with underpaid soldiers living in shacks or in filthy barracks not fit for pigs. In Bosielo’s words: in sub-human conditions.

The obvious solution is to increase military pay and fix the barracks.

But that will not be easy.

The Department of Public Works (DPW) has a monopoly on maintaining government property and buildings. Current minister Geoff Doidge is said to be keen to rebuild his notoriously dysfuntional department and will not lightly let the military fix its own barracks. It will set a precedent the rest of government may be too keen to follow.

The irony is that the military has always had the capacity to maintain its buildings. The SA Army has the capability in 1 Construction Regiment at Dunottar near Nigel on Gauteng’s East Rand. But even there a military electrician may not change a broken lightbulb in his own office without incurring the wrath of the DPW. The joke is that the “cement regiment” is regularly used by the United Nations to do that type of work abroad. But here their hands are tied. The “brick battalion” is not the only SANDF component that an do the job, the SA Air Force and SA Navy also do lack for institutional capability.

A fed-up Chief of the Army, Lt Gen Solly Shoke has since about 2005 also been championing a “Works Regiment” to act as his service’s public works element. The latest DoD annual report shows this will next April merge with the Service Corps and become a formation in the SANDF separate from the Army.

The report, covering the year to March 31, said a headquarters infrastructure had been “established in terms of facilities and personnel from both the Regular and Reserve members of the DOD.” This would be followed by the establishment of regional structures, “which is well under way”, notwithstanding resource constraints. The Regiment was then “sustaining 305 learners

countrywide on practical training.” The means and will is clearly there. Now let’s see about busting that monopoly.

Then there is the question of pay and benefits. Sisulu has since assuming office been arguing for a dispensation separate for the military, similar to that enjoyed by the intelligence establishment.

The military is currently tied to the salary brackets and pay levels applicable to the broader public service, including the police. This is set by the Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) and the National Treasury. The DPSA, like the DPW, will not easily yield a monopoly. It is true that one cannot – and must not – treat soldiers like government clerks. But it is a slippery slope. The intelligence services may have escaped the dead hand of the DPSA by making a plausible claim that they are both small and sui generis (unique). The SANDF is by contrast an organisation of some 70 000.

To be sure, as is the case with the intelligence establishment, they fall outside the ambit of the Labour Relations Act (the rest of the public service does not), but many of the arguments that can be made for soldiers can also be made for teachers, doctors and nurses.

Sisulu has a tough task ahead of her. I sincerely hope she succeeds.