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By Ido LekotaPolitical Notebook | Sep 03, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

IN A surprise move this week, members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association and Azanian People's Liberation Army Military Veteran Association said soldiers and the police must not be allowed to join unions.

IN A surprise move this week, members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association and Azanian People's Liberation Army Military Veteran Association said soldiers and the police must not be allowed to join unions.

The two associations have called on the government to review the unionisation of the security cluster, which includes the defence, the police, intelligence and the metro police forces.

The associations say they are opposed to the unionisation of the security cluster because "there is a thin line between mutiny and protest action by soldiers".

To their credit, the two military associations do acknowledge that there are serious problems of transformation within the national defence force.

They blame the situation on officers from the former South African Defence Force who have over the years failed to address the grievances raised by former members of the two liberation armies.

"It is a fact that today a lot of MKMVA and Aplamva members were unfairly ranked and they continue to hold the same ranks they have held since 1994, and some of these members still take home a salary of R600 after deductions. These are some of the issues that are destructing the morale of the defence force," the associations said.

The debate about the unionisation of military personnel is not new. In 1994 the leadership of the then South African Defence Force held a symposium to discuss the issue.

Mark Malan from the department of political science at the SADF Military Academy then argued that having unions within the military would undermine issues of cohesion, loyalty, submission, compliance and discipline - which were the basic tenets of an effective and patriotic army.

"Military unionism constitutes a fundamental denial of the legitimacy of military authority as exercised through chain of command ... acceptance of a unionised military [thus] amounts to an overt denial of the legitimacy of military hierarchical command, and destroys a major cornerstone of the kind of compliance behaviour demanded by military mission," he said.

Fortunately developments in the military did not go according to Malan's wishes. There are currently two unions in the army - the South African Security Force Union (Sasfu) and the South African National Defence Union (Sandu).

However, there are limitations in terms of their scope of operation. Firstly, they are not recognised in terms of the Labour Relations Act - but are governed by provisions in the National Defence Bill. In terms of these provisions the unions cannot affiliate to any of the existing union federations. Soldiers also do not have the right to strike.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven believes soldiers must be treated like all employees in this country. They should, in line with Section 23(2) of the Constitution, have the right to join a union and collectively bargain for the improvement of their working conditions.

Contrary to those who argue that unions would undermine cohesion and discipline in the army, Craven argues that structured engagement through legitimate structures such as unions would in fact go a long way in creatively dealing with incidents like last week's violent protest march by the soldiers.

Craven's argument is in fact in line with this country's culture of corporatism. This is the culture that saw the establishment of structures such as Nedlac - where sectors with different self-interests come together to iron out their differences for the sake of the broader objective of having a stable democracy.

As an important stakeholder in the achievement of this objective, the army must not be treated differently. It must be allowed to be a beneficiary of this culture of corporatism that South Africa has proudly promoted since the advent of democracy.

Issues like the right of soldiers to strike can always be dealt with within the broader context of being part of essential services - just as is currently the case with the police.

By allowing soldiers to join unions like any other employee, South Africa can pride itself on being in the same league as Sweden - a country that has proved to be a model of participatory democracy, rising far above other developed democracies such as the United States and United Kingdom.


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