The SA National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) plans to finally get trial proceedings underway against more than 200 soldiers, allegedly part of a roughly 1 000 strong group that went on the rampage at the Union Buildings in 2009, has been put on hold and it could face another legal challenge from the country’s largest military trade union.
The trial of 223 soldiers formally charged after a lengthy process involving pre-trial proceedings, arraignment, preliminary investigations and drawing up of charge sheets started yesterday at the SA Army Gymnasium in Heidelberg. Charges have been brought against them in terms of the SANDF Military Disciplinary Code.
Via its Director: Corporate Communication, Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga, the SANDF said the Heidelberg trial would continue until “a successful completion” was reached. This was derailed by the SA National Defence Union (Sandu), representing 145 of the 223 soldiers in the dock, soon after court proceedings started at the south Gauteng military base. Its lawyers objected when military prosecutors apparently refused to provide further particulars.
“The refusal is a breach of the Constitutional rights of the accused as far as equality before the courts and a fair trial is concerned.
“Without these particulars no accused is able to prepare adequately for his or her defence,” Sandu national secretary Pikkie Greeff said after yesterday’s brief military court proceedings.
“The conduct of military prosecutors in this matter has now effectively exposed the entire system of military prosecution to Constitutional challenge. SANDU will not hesitate to consider a court order halting all military prosecutions pending a Constitutional challenge.”
The Sandu legal team’s objection led to the case postponed to October 7.
The union has had numerous legal clashes with the SANDF over the years and Greeff is adamant the Union Buildings protest issue could well see another encounter in court.
“Sandu will not let this matter stand. If the State insists on carrying on with the trial despite refusing further particulars Sandu will mount a legal challenge.”
He maintains what happened yesterday is “again ample proof the entire costly military trial is a ruse designed to maintain political face by Government for its failure, prior to 2009, to take seriously the complaints of South African soldiers”.
Greeff added the refusal of military prosecutors to provide the information requested by the Sandu legal team was because “the State is unable to provide further particulars on the charges set out simply because it has no evidence to back up what can only be described as trumped up charges”.
The aborted Heidelberg court proceedings follow then Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s decision to put the up to 1 000 soldiers who protested outside the administrative seat of government in 2009 on special leave. This was later revoked by SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke who issued an instruction for the soldiers involved in the march to be disciplined by the military justice system.
Calls were made, via newspaper and radio, for soldiers to report to their home units. According to the SANDF, 664 soldiers did not heed the call while 297 did.
In May the SANDF indicated the 297 would appear before a military court. Mabanga’s statement regarding the commencement of trial this week gave no indication as to what has happened to the 74 who appeared in May but are not part of the now postponed Heidelberg proceedings.