Tuesday, September 8, 2009

South Africa: "Our people let us down"

Defence Force interviewed by the Mail & Guardian this week earns R3 958 a month, of which R693 disappears in deductions.

Inquiries also revealed that soldiers pay R500 a month to share a bungalow at a facility near Lenasia that accommodates 60 people, and another R53 a month for transport from Lenasia to Doornkop, near Soweto, where they are based. Others make their own transport arrangements.

In addition, soldiers’ food, transport and course allowances were scrapped after Parliament cut the defence force budget.

Private Sipho Swelinkomo (35), based at Doornkop, has served in the defence force since 1994, when he was integrated into the SANDF from the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla), the PAC’s former military wing.

Swelinkomo, who is the Gauteng provincial chairperson of the South African National Defence Union, said he had not attended a single promotional course since being appointed and remains in the lowest rank -- a rifleman at the 21 SA Infantry Battalion.

To qualify for a promotional course, a soldier must be nominated by his platoon commander and satisfy the military’s health requirements, code-named “G1K1”.

HIV-positive soldiers and those suffering from chronic illness are excluded from attending courses.

A married father of four children of school-going age, Swelinkomo earns R3 958. Deductions reflected on his salary slip include R105 for medical aid, R376 for pension and R212 for an army foundation formed to secure benefits such as financial loans and a group life scheme for soldiers.

“I can't afford to buy my own house; I live in a relative’s house in Khutsong [Carletonville]. Sometimes I can’t pay water and electricity, which cost between R300 and R400 per month,” said Swelinkomo. He earns slightly too much to qualify for an RDP house and too little to raise a home loan from a commercial bank.

“Some of my colleagues live in shacks,” he said. Acting defence secretary Tsepe Motumi agreed that Swelinkomo earned “more or less an entry-level salary”, but said there was “a definite commitment” to improve pay.

Motumi said negotiations were under way to “delink” soldiers" salaries from others in the public service as a way of enabling the military to determine soldiers’ salaries. “Our hands are tied for now,” said Motumi. “If the [public service] bargaining council agrees on a 5% increase, we’re bound by that.”

Promotions were not easy to come by, Motumi added. “Posts have to be available for people to be promoted and a soldier should have attended a particular course to qualify.”

Despite the embarrassment to President Jacob Zuma’s government caused by last week’s “riot” by disgruntled soldiers at the Union Buildings, the Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association supports the soldiers’ grievances, saying the problems date back to the integration of former liberation soldiers into the SANDF.

Veterans’ chairperson Kebby Maphatsoe said integration talks had neglected issues such as salaries, pensions and rankings. “The army has been neglected. The intelligence and the police services are given priority. Those in the defence force feel like they’ve been dumped.”

Maphatsoe said it was time the government took soldiers’ grievances seriously. “They came here crying and that shows they’re disciplined. But the people’s patience is not endless,” he said. “Our own people that we deployed in the military, the generals, have let us down.”

By Mmanaledi Mataboge

Source: Mail & Guardian Online (08/09/2009)

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