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Nkandla: The SANDF war of deception fails badly

Pikkie Greeff joined SANDF in 1993 as law officer in prosecution and later Defence counsel. He was admitted as advocate to High Court in 1997. He started at SA National Defence Union (SANDU) in 1999 as chief legal advisor, and was appointed as SANDU National Secretary in 2008.

On Thursday, the Afrikaans daily newspaper Beeld trumpeted on its front page another major casualty in the seemingly endless battle over Nkandla. This time the SANDF has been directly sucked into the firing line through its purported actions against, and surrounding, its own Chief of Corporate Staff, three-star Lt Gen Vejay Ramlakan. Considering the flotilla of oddities, improbabilities, contradictions and concealed facts that came out in the story, the conclusion is inescapable. The last thing the SANDF needs is for the public and the press to know the full extent of the reckless participation in Nkandlagate by its entire military command structure.

‘’Attack your enemy where he is unprepared; appear where you are not expected”

– Sun Tzu

Admittedly, this is not the first time that the SANDF and its Nkandlagate involvement have been mentioned publicly. After all, the Public Protector’s report on Nkandla made very specific findings and recommendations on the SANDF involvement, and in particular in relation to the military’s construction of a sick bay, helipad and living quarters for SANDF personnel. The findings also implicated Ramlakan, saying that he had totally disregarded prescripts related to SANDF acquisition processes relevant to those features.

What makes the Beeld bombshell significant is that for the first time South Africans gain a peek into the apparent internal skirmish that ensued pursuant to the Public Protector’s findings on the military involvement in Nkandlagate. Note that I say we gain a peek at it, for subsequent events on Thursday, within hours of the Beeld headlines, suggest that the internal skirmish which is apparently raging between the SANDF and Ramlakan is enveloped in a smokescreen released by both parties and designed to conceal from full public scrutiny the true facts of the issue.

What is it that the SANDF and their embattled three-star general are trying to hide in their apparent clash? The answer to that probably lies in pointing out some rather odd facts, which on the face of it don’t seem much, but when closely interrogated, send warning signals flashing sky high. Should we as the public wish to understand this particular sideline battle within the context of the bigger issue, we’d do well to pay heed to the old military strategy of asking the right questions first before attempting to provide the answer.

The Beeld reported that Ramlakan has been asked to provide reasons why he should not be sent on early retirement. This development, according to the article, follows an attempt at an internal military probe into the Public Protector’s finding regarding Ramlakan. The story has it that Ramlakan refused to participate in or co-operate with the probe. Beeld goes further and quotes the SANDF spokesperson as confirming Ramlakan’s recalcitrance. The SANDF spokesperson then alleges that the inquiry cannot progress due to this factor. Personnel in Ramlakan’s office also informed the newspaper that the general is on stress leave and has not been available for quite some time.

Now let us pause for a moment and interrogate this intelligence gathered by Beeld.

The probe referred to in the article is in fact what is known in the Defence Act as a Board of Inquiry. The latter has very formal procedures prescribed by the Act and is used in the military to probe all military-related departures from rules, regulations and prescripts, as well as all incidents of damage to or loss of military assets, including military personnel. It also investigates the cause of such events and ways of preventing a recurrence of such events in future. That being the case, the legislator has given a Board of Inquiry wide-ranging powers, including the power of subpoena of any person in the Republic of South Africa to appear, testify and or present any evidence such a person might have in their possession. A serious affair indeed.

The Defence Act in fact regards the business of a BOI so serious that it criminalises the refusal of any person to comply with the prescript and processes regarding it and allows for imprisonment upon conviction of disregarding a BOI’s activities and powers. Now the relevant question is, of course, given these serious consequences for disregarding a BOI, why the SANDF spokesperson would have us believe that the consequence for Ramlakan is but to be elbowed into early retirement?

Furthermore, it serves to note that this particular BOI was convened by order of the Chief of the SANDF himself. It follows that, by military order and discipline, let alone operation of law, a BOI cannot just come to a grinding halt as a consequence of a subordinate’s refusal to participate. Even more so where the very Chief of the armed forces has ordered and awaits the result of that BOI. Would the SANDF now have us believe that on a matter as serious as Nkandla, implicating a top-ranking general, the Chief SANDF is simply going to let open defiance to military procedure and rules slide into early retirement while the incomplete BOI is abandoned like a shot-up tank?

While we ponder these remarkable questions, Thursday afternoon saw the skirmish take a turn when Ramlakan himself issued a media statement in reaction to the Beeld story. Again, let’s pause briefly at this aspect to note this: the Defence Act and SANDF policy prohibit members of the SANDF from issuing media statements regarding any military matter without the official authorisation from the Department of Defence. The reason for this restriction is self-evident. Yet Ramlakan lets it rip in his private release. Another question can be raised at this stage of the fight – why does Ramlakan feel the need to issue, personally, a media statement about a matter which is ostensibly within the formal military domain? One might also ask at the same time why he feels the need to discard the military prescripts in this regard. After all, he is still a serving member of the SANDF and a general at that.

Looking at Ramlakan’s statement, the questions just keep rolling into the battle scene. Ramlakan accuses Beeld of shoddy journalism, shrugs off the suggestions of retirement as “normal career discussions” and then, quite astoundingly, goes on to torpedo directly the formal SANDF statement about him being uncooperative with regards to the BOI. He in fact all but calls his military bosses liars, by saying that he at all times adhered “to the letter” to acquisition processes and procedure regarding Nkandla and that he had given an extensive statement to the BOI in this regard. He also takes a shot at the personnel in his own office, who told Beeld he was on stress leave, by saying he had never told anyone that this was the reason for his absence. Finally he claims that he has been and still is available for all further BOI aspects, thereby blowing to pieces the SANDF’s claim that the BOI has been rendered out of action.

From this the questions are simple. Why does Ramlakan contradict his own military commanders’ version of the BOI events? Who is lying here? The SANDF or Ramlakan? Why would his own personnel mislead Beeld as to the reason for the general’s absence? Ramlakan has seen fit to discard military protocol by going maverick on this matter (no pun intended, Mr Editor), so one might rightly ask why he does not just provide his alleged detailed statement to the BOI; also to the media, so South Africa can see for itself what his case is and whether we are being mislead by the SANDF command.

More poignantly – on the question of early retirement, why would Ramlakan, with more than 35 years of pensionable service, want to discuss early retirement at all? Early retirement, which is available between the ages of 55 and 59, sees the retiree lose one third of his/her pension, which in Ramlakan’s case translates into hundreds of thousands of rands. Ramlakan is 57, and it just makes no sense not to hang on for another three years to get full pension benefits. Why would a person, who by his own admission has committed no wrong and is apparently fearless in his own defence, be willing to consider such huge personal financial prejudice while he is blameless? Whether these retirement discussions are true or not, or whether they are under duress or not, the question remains as to the timing thereof – why now, suddenly, in the wake of the Nkandlagate findings on him?

Indeed, why the differing versions at all?

Then, of course, there is the most nagging question of all in this matter – what is the SANDF and Ramlakan not telling us? Ramlakan is the Chief of Corporate Services in the SANDF. This means he coordinates all the various arms of service and divisions within the SANDF and reports directly to the Chief SANDF General Solly Shoke. In practice this makes him the second-most powerful general within the SANDF and effectively the unofficial second-in-command. Within the Nkandlagate context that would mean, using the sickbay, helipad and living quarters as an example, that Ramlakan would have been in charge of coordinating and managing the various functions and roles played therein by the South African Medical Health Services, the SA Air Force and the Logistical Division. True to military practice, that scale of coordination, management and costs is subjected to continuous report backs, updates to and decision-making by the entire military command structure at periodical sittings known as the Daily Defence Staff Council and the Military Command Council, where the Chief SANDF is the Chairperson. There simply is no way that Ramlakan could have carried out his actions relating to Nkandla without the entire SANDF Joint Chiefs of Staff fraternity formally being in the know. Why is no one from the SANDF telling South Africans this?

Considering the flotilla of oddities, improbabilities, contradictions and concealed facts, the conclusion is inescapable. The SANDF needs a scapegoat as its contribution to the whitewash campaign being waged for the benefit of its own Commander-in-Chief, without necessarily ruining the scapegoat, who is, after all, a stalwart with exemplary struggle credentials – a comrade, albeit a UDF and original Cosatu founder.

The last thing the SANDF needs is for the public and the press to know the full extent of the reckless participation in Nkandlagate by its entire military command structure. For this would present irrefutable evidence of the SANDF being subjected to the governing party and its scandal-ridden leader’s shenanigans. However, our friends at Beeld were never meant to discover the early retirement malarkey. The SANDF, in its desperation to camouflage its subservience to political games of the ruling party, concocted the most crude and ineffective smokescreen, hoping we would not realise that non-participation in a BOI is actually a criminal offence – and hoping that we’d be gullible enough to swallow the rest of their makeshift story.

Clearly it also hasn’t quite tweaked nor agreed with Ramlakan on the terms of his inconvenience limiting Koloane’s exit strategy. Obviously he didn’t take kindly to the crude, albeit well-intentioned way in which the SANDF attempted to practice the art of deception. Now he rattles his sabre in public and reminds his bosses of some inconvenient facts, without necessarily revealing the full content thereof. It’s called a bargaining chip.

Finally, lest we forget, Ramlakan was removed from his post as Surgeon General almost as soon as the Zuma administration walked into Tuynhuys. If you need a scapegoat to go quietly, bad blood and burnt bridges is not advisable. DM


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