Address by Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu on the illegal march by SANDU members to the Union Buildings

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I called this press conference to help you understand the latest developments relating to the illegal march took place today by members of SANDU. The union's deplorable and irresponsible action today was preceded by a number of unlawful actions which would only harm the union members SANDU whose interests SANDU purports to be championing.

As the Constitutional court recognized in 1999, the relationship soldiers have with the Defence Force is unusual and not identical to an ordinary employment relationship.

The court acknowledged that members of the SANDF are indeed bearers of labour rights but that the said rights must be exercised in a manner that would not undermine national security or the requirement of strict discipline in the SANDF. In this regard, the court emphasized that any legitimate requirements of discipline could be accommodated by legislation which limited the labour rights of SANDF members, and which met the conditions specified in Section 36 of the Constitution. Section 36 recognises that appropriate restrictions could be place on the exercise of constitutional rights as long as these are reasonable and justifiable.

We have complied with the court's ruling and established a bargaining chamber which provides the unions with a machinery through which they may represent the legitimate interest of their members. Unfortunately the SANDU has chosen to walk away from the process and embarked on irresponsible so-called protest marches that degenerated into widespread violence and vandalism.

SANDU incited its members to engage in these lawlessness at the time when the parties were busy hammering out a resolution in the bargaining chamber and just when the legitimate grievances of the servicemen and women were being given appropriate attention.

Instead of participating in the resolution process agreed upon, SANDU walked away from the bargaining chamber, exploited the grievances of the soldiers.

In this regard, SANDU acted in defiance of a court order expressly prohibiting the march. Being a law unto itself it also disregarded Tshwane municipality which had also expressly denied a permit for the march. This Ministry cannot tolerate acts of lawlessness and anarchy by our uniformed soldiers. The rolling national protest marches by SANDU constitutes a serious and immediate threat to national security and will severely compromise the ability of the President of the Republic as commander in chief to have soldiers available and ready for deployment in the event they are needed.

Today's violent incidents are ample testimony to the fact that we cannot allow SANDU thuggish behavior by our armed forces.

I want the public to understand that we are dealing not just with the rights of ordinary citizens to exercise their constitutional right to participate in peaceful protest march. Rather, we are confronted with a very complex scenario involving SANDU publicly announcing that it plans a nationwide protest accompanied by a march to the union buildings.

This potentially leaves our military bases unprotected and without sufficient number of soldiers available to assist the police as the need arises. While the same soldiers are engaging in their so-called protest marches they are effectively beyond the command of the SANDF or the President as the commander in chief. In the same vein, they are unavailable to assist the police in dealing with violent protest actions that we witnessed today.

It is illegal for SANDF members to mobilize, to leave bases en masse in order to participate in national protest marches which render them unavailable to assist the police should the need arise. It is also unacceptable for the soldiers to ignore court orders, to defy rulings of municipal authorities and to participate in illegal protest marches. Our courts have expressly recognized the military as constituting essential services, and that the prohibition on strikes in the military is not unconstitutional. The permanent force is in this respect like an essential service and its labour relations are structured as though it were.

We are deeply concerned that SANDU seeks to enforce a non-existent right to engage in strike activity in violation of the laws and regulations governing its members' conditions of service. In order to circumvent the restrictions on strike activities, the SANDU incited its members to leave their bases en masse to take part in protest marched.

Of course this has the same effect as the members absenting themselves from work en masse during a strike. The nation's security is placed at risk by the SANDU publicly announcing the potential work abandonment or absence of such a large number of soldiers. The bases from which these soldiers are being mobilized would be without adequate protection thus exposing them to potential raids by criminals and other elements that may seize the opportunity to steal weapons and other SANDF property.

Obviously, I cannot turn blind eye to the potentially serious ramifications of SANDU's protest marches. The experience of other mature democracies teaches us that similar national protest marched by soldiers would not be countenanced in any democratic country. Soldiers are not employees as ordinarily understood but enrolled in the SANDF. They are subject to the Military Discipline Code and any misconduct on their part is governed by the Military Discipline Code and constitutes a criminal offence.

Accordingly, I have issued appropriate instructions to our military commanders to ensure that swift and effective disciplinary measures are taken against all soldiers who engaged in acts of lawlessness. I need to send a clear and unequivocal message that the Military Discipline Code shall be strictly enforced and that errant undisciplined elements shall be uprooted from the ranks of our defence force. We are also planning drastic measures to hold the SANDU and its leadership accountable for the damages to property and vandalism. I have also asked the Minister of Police to deal decisively with those decisively with those found guilty of these criminal acts.

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