Unions have say on Ombud

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The announcement of a former SA National Defence Force (SANDF) joint operations division commander who was also acting force chief as military ombudsman looks set to be the final straw in the ongoing skirmishing between the Defence Ministry and trade unions setting the stage for more legal action.

Both Sandu (SA National Defence Union) and Sasfu (SA Security Forces Union), the two largest military unions in the country, have indicated their strong disapproval of the new organ to deal with soldiers’ complaints and grievances, Kim Helfrich wrote for today’s The New Age.

On the other side Defence and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said, via her spokesman, the coming into being of the military ombudsman was “the beginning of the end” for trade unions in the country’s armed forces. “As a starting point our legal team is already preparing papers questioning Lieutenant General (Themba) Matanzima’s ability to be military ombudsman. He does not have the legal training or background to be ombudsman. We are also looking into the question of a short list of suitable candidates being circulated to interested and affected parties. As far as we can ascertain this has not been done. From our side Sandu will, as has happened 17 times during Minister Sisulu’s tenure, take this to court.
“We do not agree with her spokesman (Ndivhuwo Mabaya) this is ‘the beginning of the end’ for military unions. She will be hearing a lot more from us and most of it via the legal system,” Sandu’s Pikkie Greeff said. This view was echoed by Bheki Mvovo of Sasfu which says it currently has over 7000 paid up SANDF members on its books. “In our opinion the military ombudsman post was created specifically for Matanzima because the Minister didn’t know what to do with him. Because he has been appointed by the Minister he cannot be independent of her and this puts him in the position where he cannot provide solutions to soldiers’ problems as many of them are caused by her.
“To us as Sasfu the ombudsman is an indication the Minister is not facing up to problems in the SANDF. It appears she is intent on attempting to find scapegoats rather than dealing with the issues.” He is also worried the appointment of Matanzima could be a sunset one to see him through until retirement. Greeff said he and other Sandu members had also heard rumours about this aspect of the appointment.

Mabaya made no bones about his Minister’s dislike of military trade unions. “She has not met with them once since her appointment and the feeling is the Ministry and the SANDF has achieved more by not talking to military unions.”

The simmering discontent between unions and SANDF command structures really hit the public stage in August 2009 when a group of about 1000 soldiers took to the streets to protest poor conditions of service, pay and facilities at some bases. The protest outside the Union Buildings turned violent with shots fired and police vehicles damaged.

All those positively identified as having taken part in the protest have been on suspension with full pay since then. Both unions see the ombudsman office, although flawed, as having this as one of its first investigations.

Mabaya is insistent the Ombudsman, along with the Defence Service Commission, whose first permanent members will be announced by Sisulu during her budget vote speech in Parliament tomorrow, provide “more than sufficient mechanisms” for soldiers’ grievances. “There really is no need for military trade unions with these two bodies in place.”

Sasfu is currently embroiled in a court case with the Department of Defence about non-deduction of members’ union contributions and Sandu also has a case on the North Gauteng High Court roll. Greeff said this was about short payment of union dues to a stated 15 000 registered member strong union over a period of time.