Thin end of the wedge?

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Government seems keen to proscribe military trade unions after the August 26 mutiny. But is this not tossing the baby with the bathwater?
While the conduct of the mob at the Union Buildings can not be condoned and indeed was a disgrace, it has concentrated minds at the defence ministry and Presidency, as we have seen with the appointment of the interim National Defence Force Service Commission yesterday.
But can a commission appointed by the minister and serving at her pleasure – and lacking any labour experts – gainfully address the concerns and grievances that led to the August riot?
Would they want to? University of Cape Town constitutional law professor Pierre de Vos says court papers as recent as 2007 showed the defence force`s leadership was simply not interested in engaging labour. They have spent the last decade filibustering, delaying, blocking and frustrating the unions that have been making much hay about the alleged fact that police constables are paid 30% more than military privates although they are both entry-level positions and do similar jobs. As explained here previously, that is not the case.
Misperceptions of this type gain enormous force and cause great resentment, as I recall from my time as SA Union of Journalists shopsteward at the SA Press Association. SAPA then and now had a midnight shift (0001-0800) that was followed by a week off. But the week off began at 0800 on Monday and ended 1700 the next Monday. There was a very strong feeling on the floor – among senior subeditors – that this was unfair and that the first workday should be the Tuesday. The matter had become a huge grievance over many years. A look at the law, however, showed that workers doing such a shift were in fact entitled to just four days off. SAPA was being generous! I worked the relevant parties through this and the grievance fell away.   
Will this commission do the same? Will obstructive parties let them?
More fundamentally, is “banning military unions” really an option and would it stop mutiny? De Vos says banning unions would require a constitutional change making it clear soldiers had no labour rights whatsoever. In effect that would be slavery. Slave revolts were quite common in ancient times.
Be that as it may. The next question then is why military unions are to be banned after one violent protest but the same has never been suggested as a solution to taxi violence or in the wake of recent – violent – municipal, public sector or security guard strikes. Is this why the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) is opposed to the move?  
Policing, teaching and a number of other essential services may well improve if union power there was curbed – but that is another debate for another time. Reports on the decline of education standards – blamed by some on the death grip unions have on the education department – are such that one may well soon not find anyone with appropriate mathematics and science skills to enrol as pilots or submariners. We might then have to employ Zimbabweans for that task. Now there`s a real national security challenge!  
Banning military unions may be a red herring anyway. They are already subject to a quite restricted labour dispensation imposed by the Defence Act rather than the liberal Labour Relations Act and Basic Conditions of Employment Act regime that governs everyone else but the intelligence services.
They have never had the right to strike or otherwise “down tools”. Banning unions that can`t strike so that they can`t strike is illogical.   
    
Yet President Jacob Zuma again spoke in favour of such a step at a COSATU gathering yesterday. Speaking to friendly laughter he said: “There could be a war coming and soldiers say the conditions are very bad, they are not defending the country…” But they may say that anyway.
Zuma last week told journalists he opposed soldiers belonging to trade unions, saying – according to The Star – this “could present a threat to national security”.

Briefing the media Zuma said allowing soldiers to protest was akin to asking unions to guarantee the security of the country. “You will be saying our security must at the end rest with unions. That would be a very funny arrangement … can the security of the country be put in the hands of unions? Can we give unions the right to defend us?” he asked.
 

“Can you imagine if South Africa was being attacked and soldiers had grievances and went on strike. What would happen? That cannot apply to any type of worker, but it applies to soldiers. They are not the same as ordinary workers in factories. Soldiers are different.”
Zuma is correct. But soldiers, as we have seen, are already being treated differently, which brings us to defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu`s comments yesterday that soldiers must belong to a labour dispensation separate from the Public Service Commission (PSC). She has made the point repeatedly in recent weeks. But that is a given. Civilian public servants are appointed under the Public Service Act. Soldiers are appointed under the Defence Act and are excluded from the ambit of the PSC – and have always been. So what is the issue? 
At another level, and more worryingly, Zuma`s comments may betray a distrust of his soldiery. Soldiers have often been given the backhanded insult that if demobilised without employment they would, as practitioners of organised violence immediately turn into armed robbers. Despite claims of “military style” attacks on cash-in-transit vehicles, no link to former soldiers have ever been reported, at least not according to Gauteng police commissioner Perumal Naidoo who told this editor so.
Is Zuma suggesting our soldiers would put cash before cause (sak voor saak) in the face of a threat to the nation? I hope he`s not and I`m sure his soldiers will defend SA and her people, whether or not service conditions are ideal.
But even so, soldiers could still refuse to fight, even if not unionised. This was the case with the French Army in 1917 when soldiers mutinied against appalling conditions in the trenches and the spendthrift waste of life in futile offensives.       
In the final analysis, will the commission and moves to restrict labour rights advance or harm “national security“, however defined. Time will tell.