Militaries should ensure they find “new, sustainable and respected roles” if the objectives of stable, democratic governance and administrative justice are to be attained, the South African military ombud told a symposium this week.
Vusi Masondo, retired SA National Defence Force (SANDF) chief of staff is the second holder of the position established by then Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu in 2012.
He told the symposium, with the theme “the role of military Ombud institutions in enhancing democratic oversight in civil-military relations”, the way complaints were handled should provide a solid foundation for the two components to not only view, but also relate to each other.
“This puts into perspective issues of impartiality, expeditiousness and fairness in the manner we treat our complainants,” the former three-star general said adding: “Any minor unresolved, ignored and neglected issues have the predisposition to escalate into messy complaints”.
“It must be our resolve to expeditiously resolve complaints to restore trust and confidence in those we serve.
“Any delay on our side is justice delayed to complainants. This becomes costly as it displaces trust and erodes democratic governance and redress. Administrative redress and fundamental rights remain a constant in the face of maladministration.
“To realise democratic governance of the armed forces and ensure protection of the human rights of soldiers and the public, the exercise of oversight by the Ombud institutions should be impartial and independent.”
Masondo also told his audience the nature of civil-military relations is evolving and to experience this transformation, Ombuds also have to evolve and “help fulfil democratic norms and administrative reforms”.
“Ombud institutions must impartially pursue proper democratic control and governance over the military and ensure the military finds a new, sustainable and respected role in new democracies.
“As such, administrative support through oversight becomes a key focus and supporting tool since history shows a military that is fully part of a true democracy is less likely to be radicalised, less likely to be detached from the people and less likely to be used for aggressive purposes.
“The concept of ‘citizens in uniform’ should be relentlessly pursued in military units and filtered through to the public to bring the role of the armed forces home,” he said.
In the South African context soldiers and other military personnel were and are increasingly in contact with civilians. Examples are implementation of government state of disaster regulations for the COVID-19 pandemic, restoration of law and order, border management as regards displaced people and refugees and rebuilding civilian infrastructure and other “civil engagement missions”.
During the 2020/21 financial year, 56 complaints were lodged with the Ombud’s Centurion office and 70% were brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The cases were lodged during the national state of disaster declared to combat the spread of coronavirus and are the single highest annual number of complaints received by Masondo and his staff in nine years of the Ombud’s existence to date.
Complaints included allegations of assault, damage to property, use of excessive force and general heavy-handedness by soldiers enforcing lockdown regulations.
In the South African context, the Ombud oversees and holds government and the military accountable. This will ensure both work together harmoniously and respect each other’s fundamental rights.
“The ultimate ideal is to ensure civilian confidence in the military is restored, citizens understand the military is under democratic control and the national defence force is accountable to government with government accountable to the people,” Masondo told the symposium.