Speech by Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thabang Makwetla on the occasion of the 2012 Defence budget vote, 17 May 2012

17 May 2012

Chairperson,
Honourable Members of the Defence Portfolio-Committee and the House at large,
Dignitaries and distinguished stake-holders in the Public Gallery,

Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela says,
“There are many who did not understand that to heal we had to lance the boil. There are many who still do not understand that the obedient silence of the enslaved is not the reward of peace which is our due. There are some who cannot comprehend that the right to rebellion against tyranny is the very guarantee of the permanence of freedom.”

Over the past twelve months our Ministry has continued the push to establish a dedicated, efficient organisation to look after military veterans, namely the Department of Military Veterans. The endeavour by government to intervene in addressing the plight of military veterans is arguably among the Ministry’s foremost political priorities in the current government administration.

Returning to the same subject again later Nelson Mandela said,
“Reconciliation was not an afterthought or an add-on of our struggle and our eventual triumph. It was always embedded in our struggle. Reconciliation was a means of struggle as much as it was the end goal of our struggle.”

Honourable members, the ministry is pleased to report that parliament has subsequently passed the Military Veterans Bill and it was assented to by the President and promulgated into law in December 2011. I personally wish to thank Committees of both Houses for the work done in cleaning this legislation for approval by parliament. Its commencement date has since been proclaimed as the 1st April 2012.

Chairperson, the Department is committed to delivering the benefits as espoused in Section 5 of the Military Veterans Act, and will do so progressively to those eligible for such support. To this end, draft regulations to inform the implementation of this Act will be brought to parliament before the end of the second semester.

We wish to call on sister departments in the Social Development Cluster to help expedite the finalisation of suitable modalities for the roll-out of these benefits, which their respective departments are responsible for.

Honourable Members, last year we undertook to ensure that a fully functional department is in place. By the end of March 2012, 27 senior posts mainly, were staffed and further appointments have since been made. It is worth mentioning that we will require an amount of R56 million to be able to staff all the posts that are in the structure/organogram of the department, which in itself is already more than the entire budget of the Department of Military Veterans in this financial year.

The pace at which the department’s structure is being populated is still, not satisfactory, not withstanding the assistance solicited from the Human Resources Division of the Department of Defence (DOD) in this regard.

Chairperson, to use the language of the community which bore me, “re sila re hlatlegile” meaning in military language that we are firing the gun as we are reloading it, or we are using the gun and manufacturing its ammunition at the same time. Time is of the essence. The needs of the military veterans are a matter of extreme urgency. As we are busy raising the structure of the Department of the Military Veterans from the ground, every week another soul from within the community of military veterans passes on, again missing the opportunity as government, to rectify the injustice this represents.

Honourable Members, in rolling out the benefits intended for military veterans, the department has prioritised all military veterans of advanced age. In the previous financial year, we had already provided them access to all our military health facilities. This preferential rolling out of relief has now been extended to housing needs and support for dependants who are of schooling going age.

In this regard, the process to pay school fees for approximately one hundred and thirty (130) dependants of military veterans is underway.

Approximately two thousand five hundred (2, 500) military veterans have already been loaded on South African Military Health Services (SAMHS) system. Health care access cards have been issued to ‘ensure just in time’ health care services to all cohorts of military veterans. To monitor this service, military veterans’ help-desk will be introduced at all the Defence Force health facilities.

Honourable Members, as the ministry, we must take this opportunity again to call on all military veterans to take serious the need to assist the Department in verifying that they are still alive and what their needs are. I also wish to thank those military veterans who presented themselves at the military bases which were used as our centres during the first round of the data-capturing in December last year.

Another round of this exercise is planned for this month and the dates will be made public as soon as preparations have been finalised. In this regard, I wish, on behalf of the Department of Military Veterans to apologise for any inconvience that may have been caused by the glitches in our preliminary plans, and in the same breath, to commend those who participated, for their patience.

Honourable Members, the process of cleaning the data-base of our military veterans is crucial to the overall success of this government policy on military veterans. Should we fail to be diligent in doing it, we run the risk of either leaving out intended bona-fide recipients or allowing fraudulent abuse of this policy intervention by unscrupulous selfish individuals.

It is for this reason that the Department has adopted a rigid attitude that only those military veterans who have came forward to verify the information on our data-base will be considered as we roll-out these benefits, to protect the credibility of this department in particular, and of government in general.

Chairperson, one of the impediments to the efforts mentioned above is the continued absence of the communications function in the already established branches and units of the Department. This strategic gap in our organidsation is the cause of the Department’s woes, be it in relationship to marshalling initiatives like the consolidation of the database, or the empowering of the community of the military veterans with information on developments they must know about. We have revised the original level of the leadership post of this directorate and plan to move with speed to fill it. In the interim, we have agreed to source external professional services to address this crippling weakness.

On this occasion last year we reported that we were in the process of assisting the South African National Military Veterans Association (SANMVA) to launch its provincial structures, and that five provinces were established already. We have subsequently concluded this process. SANMVA is a key institution in empowering military veterans with information about government activities aimed at helping them. Conceptually, it is important to point out that SANMVA in its role has beautiful contrasting colours like a zebra. It is both an organ of civil-society and a statutory body at the same time or it is neither an organ of civil society nor is it an agent of the state. Which suggests that tension between the two roles where it manifests itself, should not be treated as a crisis but a necessary contradiction to be constructively managed in the good of government on the one-side, and military veterans on the other. The department will, in keeping with the legislation, ensure that we provide the necessary assistance for SANMVA to succeed in both these roles.

Two other critical institutions in the furtherance of the government policy on military veterans will be established in the cause of this financial year, namely the Military Veterans Appeal Board and the Military Veterans Advisory Council.

Chairperson, Honourable Members in their composition the military veterans community and our South African National Defence Force (SANDF) consist of a significant segment of people who are repositors of the legendary valour of courageous South Africans who despite being prohibited from acquiring military skills for all their lives, organised to challenge the might of the apartheid state militarily.

Some of these examplary patriots like Honourable Members, Andrew Mlangeni and Nelson Diale, who are also members of the Defence Portfolio Committee continue to occupy seats in this parliament as democratically elected popular representatives. December 16, last year marked half a century since the native populace of this country rose with arms in hand to assert their right to rebel against their oppressor with the formation of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the former military wing of the ANC. Shortly before, members of Poqo in the Eastern Cape, were arrested for the killings along the Bashee river. To mark the 50th Anniversary of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the SANDF will organise the Medal Parades where former members of this non-statutory force will receive medals to recognise their selfless service in the struggle for liberation and democracy in South Africa.

The first of this parades will be organised for on the 2nd of August 2012, the anniversary of the commencement of the Wankie Campaign in 1967 in the then Rhodesia by MK members of the Luthuli Detachment. Similar appropriate honours will be bestowed on other members of the non-statutory formations at appropriate occasions. Through the citations of these medals the Department of Military Veterans hopes to preserve this military heritage and memorialise its glorious actors.

Chairperson, the performance plan of the Department of Military Veterans in this financial year is indeed ambitious with respect to heritage, understandably so, because of the zeal to salvage the story of the soldiers who fought against apartheid before it suffers the injustice of being obliterated from our collective national memory.

To this end, the department will be collaborating with initiatives to establish tourism “Freedom routes” nationally and regionally under the South African Heritage Council (SAHC) and any other non-governmental organisation involved in such endeavours. Important under the preservation of heritage this year, will also be work to find and restore graves of South African soldiers who were in liberation armies at home and abroad to restore their dignity. A common head-stone will be designed for this purpose. This will include the erection of cenotaphs in the former frontlines states where many freedom fighters parished, starting with the Memorial dedicated to the matyrs of the Matola raid in Maputo, Mozamabique in conjunction with the Department of Arts and Culture.

Chairperson, Honourable Members, it is with an immerse sense of anticipation and bewilderment that the Ministry has stumbled over a real opportunity to retrieve the full story and gain access to the legendary maritime tragedy of the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi just five years before we mark the centenary of this occurance. Since the fateful morning of the 21st February 1917, shortly after 05h00 next to the Isle of Wight in the English Sea waters, when SS Mendi with 823 men and officers of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) bound for France sank, very little official attention was paid to this immense human tragedy both in South Africa and Britain. It drifted into historical obscurity. For much of the years since Mendi sank, it has been a story which, with few exceptions, has been largely forgotten in both countries.

As a Ministry we have made contacts with the English Heritage and the Wessex Archaeology which can give us a real possibility to:

Place the Mendi and those aboard her when she sank within the wider social and political context of both early 20th Century South Africa and the system of labour contigents that formed part of the war effort of the British Empire during World War 1 (WW1).
Consider the meaning of Mendi and its social and political context for United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa today, taking into account the different meanings of “place” that we are likely to attach to the wreck culturally.
Consider the importance of the wreck itself as a heritage site of significant international value as a war-grave under UNESCO.
Consider South Africa’s sole right over the wreckage and therefore investigate the implications of the vessel’s ownership.
Lastly, we can sponsor dialogue on what to do to the graves of the bodies which washed ashore in London that are in several cemetries there.

The MENDI Project will naturally be a flagship project which belongs to a broader programme of revising the policy of the Department of Defence (DOD) and the Department of Military Veterans (DMV) pertaining many military graves of South Africans which lie in countries across the globe arising from many varied conflicts of the past.

Chairperson, Honourable members, I wish to conclude my remarks by once again making visible the fact that the peculiarity of the South African government’s theory and practice on support for military veterans is bound to be underlined among others, by the heterogeneous background of its beneficiaries. It is our own concrete historical reality, its complexity must excite us rather than discourage us.

At the end, we must and will realise a dignified, unified, empowered and self sufficient military veterans community. Again, let us draw strength from ancient Chinese wisdom and remember that, “A journey of million miles starts with one small step.”

To return to the language that developed my thinking processes, “Tšhe ka moka ke mathomo mayo ke šaetša ke re yalo.”

Ke a Leboga!