South Africa’s defence forces are in a shambles, mismanaged, badly led and grossly underpaid. That is the view of the military unions which are threatening further protest action in coming weeks and months.
And it is claimed mismanagement and lack of leadership leading to the waste of human and material resources that will be the prime focus, rather than pay. However, wage rates, expecially for highly skilled and specialist staff, are far below those in the private sector.
A protest march on the Union Buildngs in Pretoria last week by a section of the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) grabbed headlines when the memoradum handed in by the protestors demanded the resignation of defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota. Also highighted was a demand for a 19 per cent across-the-board pay rise.
This demand for Lekota’s resignation and the reaction it, ensured considerable publicity, which was the apparentl intention, although not all Sandu members agreed with the tactic. Nor did officials of the generally more militant SA Security Forces Union (Sasfu) who also criticised the pay demand.
Says Sasfu president Bheki Mvovo: “At a meeting on November 2 last year, we were told that there would be a complete review of pay and that a package would be presented that would amount to more than 19 per cent.” But despite “numerous approaches” to the ministry, there was still no word about what this package might contain or when it would be available.
Mvovo, a naval lieutenant, points out that some of the lowest ranks in the miltary earn a basic rate of only R3 000 a month. As a naval lieutenant with a university degree in mechanical engineering, his basic pay is R106 000 a year.
The air force has already admitted that the low rates of pay and declining morale have seen a steady exodus from the servce of pilots and skilled maintenance personnel. “Same in the navy,” says Mvovo.
He adds: “We bought ships and submarines, but cannot adequately man them; the air force cannot keep all its planes in the air because of personnel shortages.” As he sees it, this results largely from the misalignment that exists between top leadership “hailing mainly from the liberation movements” and middle management from the old apartheid order.
“It affects all services because we have much of the top leadership without vision or experience and who, as a result, are remote controlled by white middle managers from the old order who still have difficulty coming to terms with the new dispensation,” he says.
Although it has been officially denied, several officers at the country’s major naval base in Simonstown maintained that there were now insufficient crew to enable the navy’s newly acquired submarines and frigates to sail simultaneously. “We only have one fully trained submarine crew available now,” one petty officer claimed.
Ashore the situation is also serious. According to Mvovo, the mechanical workshops are “40 per cent staffed” with the result that they cannot handle much of the work “which is then outsourced at great cost”.
Accusations of insensitivity and arrogance have also been levelled at senior officers. A particular target is army chief Lt General Solly Shoke following a series of recent statements by by him relating to court cases won by the unions. Shoke has categorised as “problems” the high court decisions which last month forbade discrimination against HIV-positive service personnel and the 1999 decision which allowed union organisation in the military.
Says Mvovo: “The unions are not the problem. The reason that it is necessary for us to exist is because of the lack of leadership.”