HAVE been invited to take part in the National Defence Force Service Commission, tasked with advising Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu on conditions of service and labour matters in the defence force.
We can't deny that the recent violent industrial action at the Union Buildings involving South African National Defence Force personnel has illustrated why it is vital that we urgently look at the conditions of service in the SANDF.
It is important to note right at the outset: in the past military unionisation was taboo throughout the world.
This situation is changing, and a number of countries (especially in the Scandinavian region) now allow for some form of unionisation.
We need to distinguish between what is appropriate elsewhere in society, and what is appropriate in the military. For example, it might be appropriate for a clothing worker to go on strike but not for a doctor; this does not mean that the doctor has been deprived of his/her rights, merely that some of those rights are circumscribed in the interests of the rights of others - which is the essence of our Bill of Rights.
The dilemma is thus that the military needs to operate in a manner that puts the individual rights of its members second to its duty towards society.
Captain Tom Stites - writing on this issue in the North American context - makes the following important distinction about the two alternatives for a democratic society exercising civilian control over the military:
"Objective civilian control achieves its dominance by professionalising the military. The intent of this process is to politically sterilise the military and maximise civilian control. This produces the lowest possible level of military political power with respect to all political groups.
"The call for objective control has routinely come from the military in an attempt to minimise the influence of outside interest/power groups. Objective control is not likely to support military unionisation.
"Subjective control achieves its end by civilianising the military. In the subjective sense, civilian control denies the existence of an independent military institution and presupposes a conflict between civilian control and the needs of military security.
"In general, liberal democratic societies pursue subjective control of their militaries. Due to the political nature of subjective control, military unionisation for political purposes is certainly within the realm of possible outcomes."
Based on such an analysis, one would say that the drafters of the South African Constitution had given some thought to this matter.
Currently the SANDF has a civilian accounting officer, whereas previously this duty resided with the military command.
On the other hand, the SANDF and the government continue to expect the military to operate in the old way, hence the Constitutional Court ruling that struck down the ban on unions in the military.
The commission would, among other things, need to interview all the stakeholders to determine to what extent the current system addresses their needs.
The ANC and the government have unequivocally expressed opposition to the idea of a military union, while Cosatu says the opposite.
There is a fear expressed by Sisulu that unions are political in nature and allowing them in the military would introduce politics into the military. So the question arises then whether the SANDF is under "subjective" or "objective" control.
We need to distinguish between narrow approaches to labour issues and broader principles. In other words, we need to consider whether there are ways in which labour issues and collective bargaining can be managed in the best interests of the soldiers and the country.
Military service is unique in that those who enter into it swear loyalty to the country. This is not to imply that soldiers should be treated like slaves. Parliament, unions, government and society will have to apply a balancing act if we are to be in line with our Constitution.
lHolomisa is an MP and the president of the United Democratic Movement