On 3 March 2015 the last of some 225 SANDF soldiers, tried in Military Courts for their alleged role in the infamous Union Building march of 2009, walked out of court after charges against them were dropped. This marked the end of an SANDF prosecution process which started in October 2012 and resulted in four separate – and apparently entirely futile - military trials.
Soldiers can be lead to their death (in battle) only if the leader first earned their trust. – Sun Tzu
Over the better part of three years, three groups of soldiers, totalling 149, were for the sake of practical logistical arrangements trialled in three separate hearings on charges of AWOL (Absence Without Leave). It was alleged that they had abandoned their bases on the day in question, ostensibly to participate in the protest action. These false claims were one of the main propaganda tricks perpetrated to the media and public by the Department of Defence at the time.
Oddly enough, these AWOL accused were branded, in the SANDF’s initial attempt to dismiss them, as mutineers, perpetrators of public violence, and criminals. The SANDF was never able to back up these statements with any evidence, however. All 149 soldiers were either acquitted by the military hearings or saw the charges against them being permanently withdrawn.
Irrefutable evidence was presented by the soldiers’ union-appointed legal representatives as to how these soldiers had taken and or were granted lawful leave of absence by their commanders. This evidence was available to the prosecution authorities at all times, who seemingly chose to ignore its existence and proceed with the three-year prosecution anyway.
The fourth batch of 76 soldiers was accused of Public Violence. These charges fell flat earlier this year when the military court granted the soldiers’ defence team application to declare the charge sheet null and void because it did not in any way identify the accused soldiers with perpetrating any of the alleged acts of public violence.
The SANDF prosecution authorities ignored earlier evidence both in internal military investigations as well as in SAPS dockets, showing a narrative of the actual events of the day in question. Apart from these third party accounts of events, I continue to stand astounded at commentators in the general public as well as the media and in government, who, despite not even having been at Union Buildings nor having had insight into the subsequent investigations, continue to preach the deceit which was spread by the SANDF leadership with former Defence Minister Sisulu at the forefront.
Here’s what appeared, judging from witness statements during internal military investigations, where witnesses were cross-examined by SANDU legal representatives. Details were also obtained from SAPS dockets on the events:
Given these material facts it comes as little surprise that the prosecution became an embarrassment to the military. That agents provocateurs were planted in the crowd is a very real possibility. A bigger embarrassment is that most of the soldiers suspended in the aftermath of that fateful day remain on suspension despite the evidence being as shaky as it is, and the military courts having, by law, lost any jurisdiction to hear this matter further. The SANDF remains at a loss to explain the continued suspension of some 556 soldiers (at R7m a month) also accused of the same wrongdoing as the ones who were cleared. This will shortly become the subject of another round of litigation to have the members return to active duty. One has to wonder why the SANDF steadfastly chose to attempt to dismiss these soldiers without trial (and failed at it twice in the Supreme Court of Appeals) if not for the fact that its own role in the chaos was rather dubious.
What is clear from these events is that the SANDF, in hand with other authorities thought nothing of using the might and machinery of the State both during the gathering and afterwards, to brutalise the very legitimate concerns and complaints the soldiers were raising after trying for more than a decade to have their voices heard. In doing so the State not only acted unlawfully, it also misled the media and the public afterwards. The fact is that this was done to shield the newly elected Zuma government from the embarrassment of the political fallout of having ignored, just like its predecessors, the plight of ordinary soldiers. I, for one, clearly remember Zuma listening with a smile during a May Day rally at Koster in 2008, as he started to campaign against Mbeki, speakers pointing to the presence of ‘hungry’ soldiers in the crowd as evidence of Mbeki’s inept presidency. SANDU warned in the aftermath of the Union Buildings that the SAPS under Zuma would become an instrument of brutal infringements on the rights of ordinary citizens (which was fulfilled in the cases of Andries Tatane and Marikana) and that accountability would be killed (which was fulfilled in the cases of Guptagate and Nkandlagate).
After five years the SANDF cannot show a single conviction, refuses to cooperate with SAPS detectives and has spent well over R2m on a trial which was never going anywhere. The members who were cleared are currently suing the SANDF for malicious prosecution and career progression damages. This will amount to a total claim of hundreds of millions of rands. In addition, the SANDF has been paying R480m to those soldiers still on suspension despite having no case against them at all. These soldiers will in due course also sue the SANDF for career progression damages.
It is time to consider the facts instead of simply lazily clinging to the propaganda spread by the Zuma regime to save itself political embarrassment on this score. It is also time for some journalists and commentators to accept that their sensational claims of ‘soldiers storming the seat of government’, was and is dishonest. Anyone who has ever been to Pretoria will know that the lawn where the firing upon soldiers occurred is a mere kilometre from the actual Union Buildings, which in any event is surrounded by impressive security measures and barricades.
It remains disconcerting that the SANDF has proven that it will not only without hesitation infringe on its own soldiers’ civil rights, but will also go to great lengths to provide political cover for the ineptness of government. It is willing to brutalise soldiers’ deprivation by unlawful use of force and then lie in an attempt to deceive its way out of accountability. That is anything but good and trustworthy military leadership. DM
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.
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