Service Commission to cost R2.3 million

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Defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu says the National Defence Force Service Commission approved by Cabinet last week could be created as early as this Monday.

She added she expects the 10-person body that has a R2.3 million budget to wrap up its work in December.

Sisulu yesterday told the National Assembly`s Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans that her intention is to change the Defence Act to create a permanent structure dealing with all matters relating to military service and working conditions.

Business Day reports she wants the commission to be similar to the non unionised structure she was instrumental in creating in the then intelligence (now State Security) department when minister there in the early years of the current decade.

“We envisage that within the defence force itself we will have professional bodies where the military will be able to come together to lobby for better conditions but certainly we would not like those to be trade unions. Trade unions are by their very nature political,” she said.

Asked by Democratic Alliance defence shadow minister if the commission would replace unions, she replied: “Once the commission has been made permanent I don`t see it being a replacement for the unions. This should be done through professional associations which are free of politics, because we do not want politics in the defence force.”

Sisulu told the committee she also wants an amendment that will give her the same power over military personnel as the Minister of Public Service and Administration has over civilian public servants.

The Public Service Act that governs civil servants excludes military, police and intelligence personnel. The Labour Relations Act also excludes defence and intelligence personnel, meaning that their employment conditions and labour rights are regulated by the Defence Act and the Intelligence Services Act respectively.    

The commission is a consequence of last month`s violent protest-cum-mutiny at the Union Buildings by personnel affiliated to the SA National Defence Union (SANDU).

Afterwards Sisulu ordered the provisional dismissal of 1420 soldiers, military health service and air force personnel she believed were at the protest. The letters of dismissal accused the recipients of mutiny and endangering national security. It gave personnel 10 days to motivate why their dismissal should not be made final. That period expired Friday.

On Wednesday last week SANDU took the matter to the North Gauteng High Court, alleging the dismissal process was unprocedural and unconstitutional. Counsel for the military and the union agreed to set that process aside and the court gave the two sides up to two months to prepare their arguments.   

Sisulu`s lawyers Friday approached Gauteng Judge President Bernard Ngoepe to appoint a full bench to hear the matter as expeditiously as possible. DoD Head of Communication Simphiwe Dlamini this afternoon said they were still awaiting a response and expected it later this week.

Commenting on the service commission, SANDU national secretary Advocate Johannes “Pikkie” Greeff said “no institution considering the service conditions and benefits of soldiers can ever be a success without the participation of the unions representing members.

“In any event freedom of association and fair labour practises are fundamental rights. If we start tampering with them, then we all should be very worried – whats next? Property rights? Other unions? How about detention without trial in the interests of “national security”? a la George Bush.”

University of Cape Town Constitutional Law professor Pierre de Vos meanwhile says the only way to do away with military trade unions would be a Constitutional amendment making it clear defence personnel had no labour rights whatsoever.

This would overturn a 1999 Constitutional Court ruling that confirmed military personnel had the same labour rights as every other South African. De Vos adds that the case and one heard in 2007 in the same court also made it clear labour rights were subject to limits.

De Vos says the 2007 case made it clear the leadership of the defence force didn`t want unions and was doing everything it could not to engage with the unions.

“I can`t see why on this issue they are so behind the times,” he said this morning.

“Politicians often want to use a quick fix to address more systemic problems. That is what I think is the case here. But there are underlying problems in the defence force that is causing discontent. You cannot ban discontent. It is absurd.”



Pic: Sailors on parade.