Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Thabang Makwetla says the state has to find the apparently vast sums of money needed to pay for benefits for military veterans because dissatisfied former soldiers could be a risk to the stability of the country.
Business Day reports an initial costing of the implementation of the Military Veterans Bill by benefits consultants Alexander Forbes puts the cost of pensions, healthcare, transport, housing and other benefits at between R19 billion and R65 billion “over a five-year period”.
Speaking to Parliament’s Portfolio committee on Defence and Military Veterans, Makwetla and Director General of Military Veterans Tshepe Motumi insisted the figures were “indicative” and that a final costing could not yet be provided because a final tally of veterans had not yet been made. The Alexander Forbes report, forwarded to defenceWeb, postulated some 56 000 beneficiaries.
Freedom Front Plus MP Pieter Groenewald, also a member of the Interim National Defence Force Service Committee said he had no problem looking after military veterans, but asked “can we afford it?” Makwetla replied: “Ignore military veterans at your peril,” adding much of the instability in Zimbabwe was a result of a failure to take care of military veterans after the first democratic elections. He said veterans had to be assisted and the money would have to be found.
“As any country, we’ll always have many problems,” Makwetla added. It is a matter which we decide as to which one of these problems we believe is important and therefore we must prioritise the meagre resources we have.”
Groenewald responded that the government should be careful about raising expectations — “if you make promises that you cannot fulfil then there will be even more instability”.
“In Zimbabwe, after independence in the 1980s, they did nothing,” Makwetla added. “Their failure to integrate (former liberation fighters) is part of the cause for this country’s instability today. If we ignore the welfare of former soldiers we may live to regret it,” he warned.
The Independent Group of newspapers reported that ANC MPs on the committee argued passionately in favour of the bill. ANC MP Jerome Joseph Maake said: “This is a moral issue. It is not a money issue. If we are going to start talking about money here then we are losing the plot.”
He was supported by ANC MP Alpheus Mokabhe Maziya, who said: “I don’t believe any amount of money – or price tag – can derail this process.” Maziya did express concerns that the proposed system was open to abuse and urged the department to tighten controls.
ANC MP Pamela Daniels asked: “Can we really put an amount of money on the suffering they (liberation soldiers) endured during the war?” She said it was the responsibility of the government to take care of people who fought for liberation and that it was “interesting” that objections were raised when such efforts were aimed at former non-statutory forces,such as the ANC’s MK.
Daniels warned that their military training could pose a problem for the country if they were not taken care of.
Groenewald said he refused to give the department a blank cheque – or allow military veterans “from any quarter to hold a gun against the country’s head”. “The bill says the minister (Lindiwe Sisulu) can make regulations regarding means testing. We cannot give the minister this power. I will never support a bill that gives the minister a blank cheque.” Groenewald also warned that the “real threat comes from ANC members today making promises (to veterans) that may turn out to be unaffordable”.
Makwetla also explained how the Bill had reached Parliament without the financial implications being included, in contravention of Parliamentary rules and the Public Finance Management Act. He avered because the final number of veterans was not known, the department asked for a waiver from providing a costing and the Cabinet had agreed.
Motumi expressed confidence that the final costing would be less than R19.6 billion.
The bill will now go through a public participation process before being returned to Parliament for further deliberation and possible adoption.