28 May 2008

South Africa: Commandos Were 'Hostile to New SA'

Cape Town — Members of the defunct military commando system were unwilling to serve a black government and were hostile to democracy in South Africa, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota has told Parliament.

During the Defence Department budget debate on Teusday, he told MPs that former commando members were politically indoctrinated and supplied with weapons and training to spy on blacks in their areas, making this military structure wholly unsuited to the new South Africa.

Lekota was responding to criticism - notably from the FF Plus - over the apparent lack of rural and border security and the government's decision close down the commandos and hand their functions over to the police.

"Largely, the commando system (consisted of) white South Africans who were not necessarily soldiers, but who were armed. And because they were white people - who had a higher stake in the (political) system - they were encouraged to collect information on what activities the other sections of the population were doing so that the armed forces could intervene," he said.

Lekota also accused former commando members of holding on to their government-issued weapons, saying official records of these weapons had been destroyed or removed, leaving the democratic government with no means of tracing them.

The minister defended the government's decision to do away with the commandos, saying there was no way such a system could be used in a democracy.

He emphasised that the commandos were associated with a "very sad and very dark history" and that the new government was magnanimous enough not to have closed them down immediately after coming to power in 1994 - "so as not to make anyone panic".

He maintains that the reserves were not only given weapons, but also held "political attitudes which had been taught in those commandos".

Lekota explained that many of these members had been invited, along with all the other statutory and non-statutory soldiers, to become integrated into the SA National defence Force.

But, he claims, some told him to his face that they were not willing to become "a k****r's soldier".

On other defence matters, Lekota pushed for a greater slice of the national budget by highlighting what he believed could be the military's role in job creation. He laid out a vision of soldiers trained not only to "shoot and be shot at" but who were also able to build roads and bridges, steer riverboats and clear drainpipes.

He said the SANDF's increased role in peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction on the continent had shown that civilian skills training would be of critical importance to future deployments of this kind and would contribute to job creation at home.

"You need people with the capacity to build roads, to build bridges. You need people who have been trained to do this so that peacekeeping forces in those communities become resources for those communities - not just to stand there with a gun - but to educate and train them in certain economic activities that divert their energies from just fighting."

President Thabo Mbeki announced in February that the defence force would receive R700-million for training.

More than 4 000 soldiers are undergoing training, but Lekota wants this figure to rise to 10 000 a year.

Opposition MPs supported the call for the military to receive a larger slice of the spending pie, warning that current spending levels were eroding some of the organisation's core capabilities and stretching the military to the limit.

The defence budget has declined from a peak of 50 percent of government spending in 1989 to just over 4 percent of public spending this year.

As a share of gross domestic product, defence spending declines from 8 percent in 1994 to just over 4 percent by 2010.

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