Sisulu to act on Service Commission’s report

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Defence and Military Veterans minister Lindiwe Sisulu is to act on what is being called a shocking interim report on service and living conditions in the South African National Defence Force.

The report was compiled by an Interim National Defence Force Service Commission (INDFSC) she appointed in September to probe service conditions in the military following a mutinous riot by alleged members of the SA National Defence Union near the Union Buildings in August.

Her spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya says the minister and departmental officials were seeing what could be done immediately to address the plight of soldiers.

Northern Gauteng High Court judge Lebotsang Ronnie Bosielo, who heads the commission, yesterday briefed the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans that soldiers were so poorly paid that they were living in shacks.

“We wondered how soldiers survive with the salaries they are getting,” Bosielo said.

“Because of the salary bracket they are in, they do not qualify for RDP (reconstruction and development programme, i.e. state subsidised low cost) houses. At the same time, because of the meagre salaries they earn, they do not qualify to go to banks to secure bonds, so they are falling [through] the cracks. And what are the cracks? To go to the informal settlements and stay in the shacks in the townships.

“This is what prompted us to draft and prepare an interim report to the minister; to draw her attention and say we are sitting on a time bomb. If you don’t attend to it today – or yesterday – you’re going to regret it,” Bosielo said.

The Times newspaper reports Bosielo described the situation he and his fellow commissioners found as “a ticking time bomb” and added he had two weeks ago urged Sisulu “to act immediately.”

“[SANDF] members are demoralised. They are disgruntled, they don’t know where they stand. Something must be done about it. These are the harsh realities we are confronted with,” he told incredulous MPs attending a specially called meeting.

Salaries

Fellow commissioner Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana said they would recommend a salary adjustment for soldiers, but warned that Sisulu would need a budget increase because it could not be done from existing funds. “The minister is going to need money very fast to respond to these challenges,” he said.

The paper said a private or seaman with more than 10 years of service takes home just R3000 to R3200 a month after deductions, including medical aid and pension contributions. If he lives in military accommodation, he – or she – pays about R500 rent a month.

Entry-level pay for a Military Skills Development System soldier can be as low as R2300, compared with about R6400 for a police constable.

Bosielo and his commissioners told MPs that barracks were in decay, with ceilings collapsing, and toilets and showers not working. He said conditions were “sub-human”.

1 Military Hospital, in Pretoria, once the flagship of the SA Military Health Service, “was falling apart”.

Discipline has also collapsed, the commisioners said. “At Doornkop and Lenz (two major military bases in southern Johannesburg that the commissioners visited) there is a complete breakdown of discipline – complete,” Bosielo said.

Unions

The commissioners added that soldiers wanted to join trade unions because grievance procedures were not working. There was a backlog of more than 660 cases waiting to be heard – and some had been in the queue for several years.

Sisulu and President Jacob Zuma oppose military trade unions and blame them for the breakdown of discipline in the SANDF.

But Bosielo says two Constitutional Court judgments have confirmed the right of soldiers to unionise. “We cannot wish away the trade unions,” he said.

The Star newspaper reports Sisulu may disregard that advise.

Bosielo disclosed that just days after giving her the interim report, Sisulu had amended the INDFSC’s terms of reference to ensure it did not recognise unions in the military.
“This was after commissioners had already consulted unions with the blessing of Parliament, a move it says has helped it make swift progress with its original task of proposing an alternative mechanism to unions through which soldiers’ conditions of service could be regulated,” The Star noted.

The new terms of reference state: “It is not within the terms of the commission to investigate and consider forms of voluntary association of the military, including trade unions.
“The president, as the commander-in-chief, has, with the support of the cabinet, declared that de-unionisation of the SANDF must be accomplished as soon as possible.
“No other person has authority to countermand the president in that command. The commission must therefore not be seen to undermine this express command.
“To do so would undermine the command and control that are central to the defence force. It is advisable for the commission … to steer as far as possible from entertaining issues to do with unions.”

The Times says Bishop Mpumlwana defended the decision to speak to the unions. He said most of the soldiers the commission had interviewed believed that their plight would not be in the spotlight if they had not marched on Zuma’s office at the Union Buildings.

“There was not a single unit that we visited that did not have very strong views in favour of the unions.

“I believe that part of our success can be attributed to the fact that we were not shy to meet the unions. If that is an offence, I would like to say it is regrettable,” Mpumlwana said.

Boshielo did not give MPs or journalists attending the briefing copies of the report. Sisulu’s office declined to release the report, saying it would be better to await the final report.

Mabaya said the issues raised in the report and Parliament were not new. “We’re very much aware of the conditions of the barracks. It is not a problem of funds, but of the system,” he said, meaning that although the services had its own electricians, plumbers and other artisans, the notoriously dysfunctional Department of Public Works was responsible for maintaining SANDF barracks and facilities.

Sisulu wanted the military to maintain its own facilities, he added.

The same could be said about salaries. It was well known soldiers were poorly paid, but increasing their salaries would not not address the core problem, which was that military salary brackets and service conditions were tied to that of the broader public service. Privates were thus paid the same as manual labourers.

“You can’t treat soldiers like that,” he said, adding that Sisulu wanted the authority to set salaries and service conditions in a manner similar to what she enjoyed as intelligence services minister some years ago. The intelligence services, unlike the military, are not tied to the public service.

Bosielo said the commission would meet Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan soon and would make a final report before Christmas.



Pic: A dilapidated bathroom at Johannesburg’s Doornkop military base as pictured in The Times in September.