Face-off looms over defence bill

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A showdown is reportedly looming between Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu and the defence portfolio committee over a proposed ”dictatorial” bill which the committee feels could give the minister too much control over the military.

The Defence Amendment Bill – tabled this month – could also pit the department against military unions, with one union describing it as Sisulu’s attempt to exert ”dictatorial control” over the defence force, the Sunday Times reported.

The bill seeks to establish a permanent Defence Force Service Commission which will set service conditions for soldiers and determine among other things, their salary increases, promotions, transfers and dismissals. The commission will take soldiers out of the public service bargaining structure.

Last year, Sisulu set up an interim commission headed by Judge Ronnie Boshielo, following a major fallout after angry soldiers marched on the Union Buildings to voice their grievances over low pay and working conditions, the paper reported.

The proposed amendment gives the minister the power to appoint the commissioners, accept or reject any of the commission’s recommendations, to dissolve the commission and appoint an administrator to take over its functions if she is not happy with its performance. But the portfolio committee – which will scrutinise the bill before it is sent to the National Assembly and to the president for final ratification – is unhappy that parliament is being sidestepped in the process of appointing commissioners.

Members are also not comfortable with the power the minister could get over the functioning of the commission. Portfolio committee chairman Mnyamezeli “Nyami” Booi said the bill in its present format gave too much power to the executive. The Sunday Times adds he said a commission appointed by a minister and which can be dissolved at any time by that minister would effectively be serving at the behest of that person. “There’s a lot of issues that are not clear here. If you have this enormous power and you say you can remove people, then it means, by law, those people will never challenge you,” he said.
“Our fear is that this is enormous power that the minister is looking for. You can look at this in different ways, but the conclusion is that the executive is trying to take too much control of the department,” he said.

DA defence spokesman David Maynier said it was extremely ”problematic” that the appointment and removal of commissioners could be vested solely with the minister, he Sunday broadsheet continued. He said the portfolio committee would have to make substantial changes to the bill to curb some of the powers that it gave to the minister. “The intention of the bill is to create an independent defence force service commission and the provision allowing for (Sisulu) to intervene could well compromise the independence of the commission. We are going to look at those provisions in the bill carefully and circumscribe them to a significant degree.”

Pikkie Greef, general secretary of the SA National Defence Union described the bill as an attempt to give unbridled power to the minister over the commission and said unions would oppose it in its present format. “It is clear her aim is to exert dictatorial power over the commission, but we think she is missing the boat completely. Her power will not influence how unions think, what they do and how they operate.”



Incoming defence secretary Mpumi Mpofu told the portfolio committee last week that the bill envisaged the commission presenting regular reports to parliament through the minister. “We have not included a role for parliament in the selection process (of commissioners) and that is a matter that partly reflects proposals that were on the table in relation to the responsibilities of parliament. That is what is envisaged in the bill.”