William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

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?

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