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It’s time to ditch trade unionism in the SANDF

The South African National Defence Force has accused the military union of promoting a coup d’état. It has announced that it is investigating a charge of provocation to mutiny against the SA National Defence Union’s national secretary.

This follows the union’s call for President Jacob Zuma to be removed as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Their call came in the aftermath of last week’s scathing Constitutional Court ruling on the president’s flouting of his oath of office and was part of deluge of popular outrage over Zuma refusing to resign.

The SANDF threat is steeped in irony and hypocrisy, given the extraordinary impunity enjoyed by African National Congress-aligned unions from officialdom, no matter how destructive their behaviour. These are unions that both participate in government and march against it, enjoying the best of all worlds.

Many of them are unions that resort readily to violence and public disorder. These are unions that often have a culture of unaccountability, willing to flout the law, tolerant of dishonesty, manipulation and even assassinations, as highlighted by the recent inquiry into the shenanigans of the teachers’ union.

In broad principle, however, the SANDF is absolutely right. Almost anywhere in the world, for soldiers to call for the removal of their commander-in-chief would be seen as unconscionable and treasonous.

In South Africa, however, because of our extraordinarily enlightened Constitution, that is not the case. To start with, all military personnel are allowed to belong to unions and to negotiate their conditions of service.

Also, in a 2007 dispute between SANDF and the SA National Defence Union (Sandu), the Constitutional Court ruled that “to the extent that good order and discipline of the military is not jeopardised, the SANDF cannot forbid soldiers, not in uniform, from assembling to petition or picket as private citizens.”

So Sandu national secretary Pikkie Greeff, who also happens to be an advocate, is presumably not too fazed at the threats. His call, after all, was carefully phrased:

“Sandu, in the circumstances, calls on the Commander in Chief to be removed from his post and the parliamentary members to resign. [It] supports any call for mass action and any other lawful means to remove President Zuma from office. This is not a political stance, but a moral and constitutional stance in support of our constitutional democratic values of the rule of law.”

However, all is not as legally or morally clear cut as Sandu and Greeff put about. The same 2007 judgment ruled that the SANDF can “justifiably limit union activities in instances when such activities may interfere with the military’s ability to carry out its constitutional obligation to protect our country”.

It is patently obvious that to mobilise your soldier members to “remove” the supreme military commander, albeit supposedly non-violently and while in mufti, can damage military capacity. Even more so if your actions potentially may cause other soldiers who disagree with your stance, including liberation-era military veteran groups, to counter-mobilise.

The results would be calamitous. Discord in the ranks, the choosing of sides and, not inconceivably, pitched battles between units. A civil war, in short.

This is not farfetched. There are dozens of examples from our recent history of rival unions, representing ordinary workers, in violent conflict with one another. How much more likely is that not, when these rivals have access to arms and ammunition, armoured cars and tanks?

That same Constitutional Court judgment also declared that “the SANDF has a legitimate interest in preserving the appearance of political neutrality of the military by prohibiting association with other trade unions”.

It seems inarguable to me that in its rallying call to soldiers, Sandu is undermining the political neutrality of the SANDF. Further, it is aligning itself with a broad front of civil-society organisations, including other unions such as Solidarity and non-ANC trade unions, who want Zuma out.

Most of the people who at present cheer military unionisation do so because it happens to be that Sandu is consistently at loggerheads with an ANC government that they dislike. One imagines that they would rapidly recant if Sandu was displaced by a hardline left-wing union, agitating for nationalisation and land seizures.

Even if Greeff’s call does not result in a successful prosecution of Sandu, the incident should place on the SA political menu the desirability of constitutional changes to address the issue of military unionisation.

A politicised military could prove to be disastrous in a society that is as divided along lines of race, ethnicity, language, religion, and culture as is ours. And in any organisation that depends on cohesion and compliance for operational effectiveness, factional trade unionism will be damaging.

Our own history provides the lesson. The Boer forces battling British imperialism at the turn of the 19th century were über trade unions – their leaders were elected and had to defend their strategies against vigorous interrogation by the men whom they commanded.

There were two consequences. When there was unanimity between leader and led, the Boer commandos fought like lions and were virtually unassailable. But when there was discord and unexpected reverses, the Boer fighters simply melted away, saddled up, and headed home.

It didn’t work more than a century ago. Why are we repeating the experiment?

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.

3 Comments

  1. Rory Short Rory Short 9 April 2016

    The very existence of the military in a democratic state is a contradiction in terms. The military is in its essence undemocratic in its functioning. Its members are subject to the autocratic rules built into its structure and enforced by the people occupying positions in the the military hierarchy. So having sanctioned the existence of an undemocratic organisation the democratic state is then faced with undemocratically controlling it. Unions in their best form are in essence democratic it therefore does not make sense to have military unions because they fly in the face of the organisation’s essentil nature. The best option is to close the military down all together and replace it with structures reliant on citizens trained in non-violent self defense against aggressors from whatever quarter.

  2. Barry Saayman Barry Saayman 10 April 2016

    “That same Constitutional Court judgment also declared that ‘the SANDF has a legitimate interest in preserving the appearance of political neutrality of the military by prohibiting association with other trade unions’. It seems inarguable to me that in its rallying call to soldiers, Sandu is undermining the political neutrality of the SANDF.” – Mr William Saunderson-Meyer

    Inarguable?

    Mr William Saunderson-Meyer makes in my opinion a fundamental mistake by equating Sandu with the SANDF.

    The way I understand it a legal and moral obligation rests on the management of the SANDF to preserve “the appearance of political neutrality of the military” which is in any event impossible because both the current President and the Minister of Defense are active Cosatu aligned politicians.

    Section 199(7)(a) of the Constitution, 1996 states-

    “Neither the security services, nor any of their members, may, in the performance of their functions-

    (a) prejudice a political party interest that is legitimate in terms of the Constitution; or

    (b) further, in a partisan manner, any interest of a political party.”

    The phrase “in the performance of their functions” is important.

    In their private capacity members of our security services are in the eyes of the Constitution, 1996 clearly ordinary citizens. In other words they have individually and collectively, unalienable, the right to equal protection and benefit of the law than any other juristic person.

    The SANDF is not a law unto themselves and is an integral part of public administration in South Africa.

    Moreover, any prohibition on labour unions to align themselves with other trade unions is unconstitutional.

    In terms of subsection 23(4) of the Constitution, 1996 every trade union has the right-

    (a) to determine its own administration, programmes and activities;

    (b) to organise; and

    (c) to form and join a federation.

    “Further, it is aligning itself with a broad front of civil-society organisations, including other unions such as Solidarity and non-ANC trade unions…..”

    If that is illegal I will eat my hat.

    I wonder what is according to Saunderson-Meyer wrong with Solidarity and other non-ANC trade unions.

    “Most of the people who at present cheer military unionisation do so because it happens to be that Sandu is consistently at loggerheads with an ANC government that they dislike. One imagines that they would rapidly recant if Sandu was displaced by a hardline left-wing union, agitating for nationalisation and land seizures.”

    What is the status of SASFU? The way I understand it SASFU is in the COSATU stable.

    “But when there was discord and unexpected reverses, the Boer fighters simply melted away, saddled up, and headed home. It didn’t work more than a century ago.”

    To the contrary, democracy worked pretty well for the hapless Boer Republics.

    That sad history is an example of democracy in motion even during time of war. Democracy doesn’t stop when war begins. The contrary is truer. The burgers were free agents and not employees of or conscripts in a regular force. One must understand the differences if you want to understand their behavior.

    And the perceived indiscipline is not the reason why the Boer Republics lost the war.

    The Boer leaders could not allow the suffering caused by the inhumane British scorched earth strategy and the more than 50,000 concentration camp deaths of black and white non-combatants in British [email protected] camps to continue unabated. If they did they would have been, in my opinion, co-responsible for atrocious British war crimes and crimes against humanity.

    This Boer forces are clearly an anomaly of the past and not an example of how a public funded military force in a modern liberal democracy, during peacetime excluding states of national defence, should be organised-

    1. I note that according to section 2 of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 does not apply to among others the National Defence Force.

    2. In terms of section 71(10) of the LRA only the Parliamentary Service and the South African Police Service are deemed to have been designated an essential service in terms of this section.

    3. Additionally a number of services provided by certain civilian personnel in the Department of Defence that support the SANDF were declared essential services by the essential services committee established in terms of section 70 of the LRA.

    4. In terms of subsection 50(6) of the Defence Act, 2002-

    “To the extent necessary for national security and for maintaining the Defence Force as a structured and disciplined military force, the rights of members of the Regular Force, serving members of the Reserve Force and members of any auxiliary force to join and participate in the activities of trade unions and other organisations may be subjected to such restrictions as may be prescribed.”

    5. In terms of Section 82(1) of the Defence Act the Minister may, by notice in the Gazette, make regulations regarding-

    “(n) labour relations between members of the Defence Force or any auxiliary service and the State as their employer, including the resolution of disputes and the establishment of mechanisms necessary for the regulation of the said labour relations and the administration and management of such matters;”

    I don’t know what regulations were made by the Minster in this regard and it think it is preposterous that an important matter such as this is left in the hands of a Minister. National legislation should in my opinion regulate this matter of national security.

    What is clear to me is that trade unions are not prohibited by the Defence Act, 2002 and I wonder whether such a prohibition will pass constitutional muster.

    “A politicised military could prove to be disastrous in a society that is as divided along lines of race, ethnicity, language, religion, and culture as is ours. And in any organisation that depends on cohesion and compliance for operational effectiveness, factional trade unionism will be damaging.”

    I principally disagree.

    I can see no valid reason to exclude soldiers from enjoying the same benefits of the liberal South African labour dispensation during peacetime than their civilian counterparts. Period.

    And it never seizes to amaze me when “liberals” that purportedly fought/struggled for human rights and democracy opportunistically oppose their own ideas to close the space of those that they dislike, in Saunderson-Meyer’s case apparently Sandu and Solidarity.

  3. Barry Saayman Barry Saayman 12 April 2016

    “The very existence of the military in a democratic state is a contradiction in terms…………..The best option is to close the military down all together and replace it with structures reliant on citizens trained in non-violent self defense against aggressors from whatever quarter.” – Mr Rory Short

    A defense force can only be undemocratic in a constitutional democracy if that is what the majority of the voting public want.

    Start a political party that will altogether disband the military and see how far you will get with this idea. Pacifists that reject theories of just war will most probably support you. I don’t know what traditional pacifists say about the responsibility of the organised international community to protect. (R2P or RtoP)

    I agree that a citizen force (reserve force) is the affordable option for South Africa.

    But who must train the citizen force if not an experienced skeleton permanent force? And who must equip the citizen force and maintain a technologically advanced armoury including surface war ships, submarines, aircraft, artillery and auxiliary services etc. if not a professional permanent force? And who must command the citizen force if not professional command structures?

    The military-industrial complex is globally widely accepted as an integral part of a technologically advanced economy.

    Si vis pacem, para bellum.

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