Remarks by L N Sisulu, Minister of Defence and Military Veterans at the swearing-in ceremony of the Military Ombud, Thaba Tshwane, Pretoria

14 May 2012

Programme Director,
Justice Frans Legodi,
Lt General TT Matanzima
Members of the PDSC
Ladies and Gentlemen:

Today marks a remarkable moment in the history of our Defence Force. In our efforts to improve the conditions of service of our soldiers and streamline processes within the South African National Defence Force, we have come to conclude that the Office of a Military Ombud would meet our objectives.

Through the Office of the Military Ombud, we hope to harmonise the confluence between military discipline and recourse avenues for complaints and grievances appeals in a manner that is consistent with our democratic enlightenment.

The Military Ombud is a soldiers’ appeal office to internal military grievance management procedures. It is therefore an essential ingredient in the pursuit of a systematic approach to a democratic rights-based military culture.

I wish to emphasise that it is a carefully considered extension of well-established conventional frontiers of military culture consistent with contemporary demands for due process.

I am particularly glad that the Public Protector is here as we both conclude the work we set out to do. The history of the Military Ombud is a very interesting one. The Defence Review of 1998 conceptualised the Military Ombudsman as an independent body appointed to deal with the possibility that the Military might once again stray into abuse of civilians.

This it was hoped, would be a complaints mechanism from the general population and also serve as a complaints resolution mechanism for aggrieved soldiers. That was never effected by the Department of Defence, for reasons I am not sure of. The concept has since evolved from these and seems to have been the subject of much wrangling.

But finally in 2005 the Portfolio Committee on Defence revived the idea. This institution, as we have it now, was the much preferred option until the second phase of wrangling ensued.

Does the Military Ombud reside in Defence or under a Chapter 9 institution of the Public Protector? There the matter lay until the current Public Protector came in, looked around in her own kraal, found what she considered stray cows, called me up and said; please come fetch your cattle out of my kraal, they don’t belong here. I think that is the one letter we responded to within two minutes of receiving it!!!

Thank you Advocate Madonsela for that much needed nudge on this path. We thank the Portfolio Committee too for taking this up as an urgent task and ensuring that today we can mark a significant edifice in the Defence infrastructure.

My particular gratitude goes in that regard to the Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans, the Honourable Motimele. He went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the Military Ombud Bill was processed without further delay. It had been in the Parliamentary system for almost ten years, any further delay would have made a mockery of our institution of democracy.

As part of our objective to supplement existing Individual Grievance Regulations which was passed in 2011, the Office of a Military Ombud will investigate and ensure that complaints are resolved in a fair, economical and expeditious manner.

We envisage the office to contribute materially as a last recourse for complaints and grievances management within the military. It will serve as a mechanism independent of the Military Command structure. It will exercise oversight of the defence sector and help to ensure that the military observes principles and practices of good governance thereby reducing vulnerability and victimisation.

The Military Ombud will independently investigate complaints lodged fairly and expeditiously without fear, favour or prejudice to ensure the Department complies with the determination of alternative resolutions. Success requires unity of Military Command with the Ombud and the coordinated action of all parties toward a common objective. To organise for national security, we must adopt a military system most suited to our culture, values and peace as basic goals.

The Military Ombud Office is essentially an institutional form adopted to enhance the effectiveness of the grievance procedures by improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the military by making it accountable and responsive.

I wish to remind all of us who serve in our military, render a unique service that cannot be measured because of the immense sacrifices involved. The patriotic duty to answer the call to defend one’s country, to defend our democratic values requires courage. It is our moral responsibility as a nation to treat with dignity all those who give their lives to the noble cause of defending our democracy.

It is a cause whose consequences are often incomprehensible to families who sometimes have to contend with our greatest fear as humanity a loved one who pays the ultimate price. This is the essence of those who are soldiers in any society.

The rigorous discipline involved in training and engagement in armed combat, including the possibilities of dying for gains that are not for individual benefit, compel us to feel indebted for service rendered honourably to the people. This characteristic underscores the penchant for absolutes the sharp distinction between soldiers or the military and civilians. The Military Ombud Office serves as our recognition of very distinctive military features.

Our democracy and its institutions are maturing. Today, it is arguable that our soldiers have a greater sense of their right to recourse for grievance procedures than they did 17 years ago.

Our Defence Force has also changed substantially. For instance, women now have combat-related roles and we are also engaged in humanitarian and peacekeeping responsibilities.

The Office of the Military Ombud underscores our commitment to values of fairness through natural justice:

having reasonable and timely decision-making;
providing good information and advice;
having good complaint-handling process in place;
learning from complaints.
We have benchmarked against the best existing Military Ombud establishments in the world – and I am confident that this step provides the necessary statutory framework for the Office of the Military Ombud to discharge its responsibilities. In a manner that is in conformity with our democratic values, the Office of the Military Ombud will:

Ensure respect for the rule of law in the armed forces by increasing openness and transparency;
Promote transparency and accountability in defence structures;
Focus attention on problems in military practice requiring corrective action;
Strengthen confidence in the military on the part of both the public and defence sector personnel;
Improve overall quality of life of members of the South African National Defence Force, their families and other constituents.
The Office will be furnished with resources commensurate with its envisaged responsibilities. This is a critical requirement – one that would determine the relative efficiencies of the Office. We hope to achieve these at an appropriate cost.

The creation of the Office of the Military Ombud is part of a comprehensive reform of the South African National Defence Force from unpleasant experiences of the past. The independence of the Military Ombud Office from Military Command reflects our adherence to principles basic in our military system – that the military is an instrument of civilian authority as embodied in our Constitution.

For some time, the office of the Public Protector has been offering valuable assistance through a post designated as Senior Legal Administration Officer responsible for military matters.

It has not been easy for the Public Protector do deal with dispute resolutions of strictly military matters and associated culture and practices through lenses designed for civilian protection.

Pressing labour relations complaints pertaining to suspensions, dismissals, racism and promotion residual matters of integration of non-statutory forces members and demobilisation gratuities are strictly military matters that require dedicated focus.

We recognise the special nature of the relationship that exists between members of the South African National Defence Force and the State. Servicemen and women differ from most other South Africans in that their relationship with their employers can extend into almost every aspect of their lives and members of their families.

Bearing in mind all of these unique military qualities, the Military Ombud Office calls for an incumbent whose integrity is beyond reproach – one who will not only earn the respect of the Military Command and through that respect can command them – but must have the ability to call on their audience and cooperation whenever circumstances so demand.

It is equally important to emphasise that the Office of the Military Ombud will not attend to matters that are strictly under the purview of the Military Command – these are matters of principle such as leadership in the military.

The high esteem attached to the incumbent combined with the very high responsibilities attached to the post therefore deems it necessary to consider a post designation of equivalent eminence. It requires a leader with broad professional military knowledge and highly developed qualities of leadership.

We believe this would contribute to substantial and long-lasting improvements in the conditions of service of our armed forces. It is important that we put in place mechanisms that will reinforce traditional strict codes of military discipline – which is sacred.

The Office of the Military Ombud will complement, rather than compete with existing internal redress procedures within the South African National Defence Force. For effective management, officers will first hear and have first opportunity to remedy complaints and grievances of those under their command.

I wish to thank all those that have been involved in this process and believe that through this office our soldiers have all mechanisms to deal with their problems forthwith.

I thank you.