Wednesday, 2 September 2009

On insurrection in South Africa and the need to organise the military

Last week saw an extremely important development for the international labour movement, as the "summer of rage" continued apace. In South Africa, recently hit by riots and rebellions from the poor in protest at woeful conditions and lacking services, soldiers of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) took to the streets in protest at appaling pay and conditions.

According to West Cape News, the strike action "comes after 12 Sasfu [South African Security Forces Union] representatives unsuccessfully attempted to hand a memorandum of grievances to the Defence Ministry outside Parliament on Tuesday [25th August]." The soldiers' grievances were utterly ignored, and "they eventually left after not being given a hearing by anyone in government." However, the soldiers did not take this snub lying down. Cape Argus reports that, the day after, "police opened fire on soldiers who marched on the Union Buildings yesterday to demand a 30 percent pay increase while the SA Security Forces Union, the SA National Defence Union and the government were negotiating."

Apologism for police violence against the protesting soldiers began almost instantly, with military analyst Helmoed Romer-Heitman insisting that although "trouble started when the police water cannon operator began spraying the crowd for no clear reason" this is excusable because "it is clear that there were soldiers who planned to be rowdy." He stated that although "soldiers were badly paid," the real problem was that "military discipline had been allowed to slip in the past decade," and the government should "enforce the principle that soldiers may not have unions or go on strike" as it presents a "security threat."

It appears that his advice was well-heeded. The South African Herald reports that "an interdict to stop SANDF soldiers undertaking illegal marches and prevent them from making “irresponsible remarks” was issued by the Pretoria High Court late last night." And "the [defence] department earlier said the SANDF was issuing up to 2000 letters of dismissal – the most ever – to soldiers believed to have taken part in last week’s pay protest at the Union Buildings which ended in chaos."

These measures, of course, are merely a way of preventing further protest and of silencing discontent rather than addressing it. As
Defence and Military Veterans Ministry spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya said, quite candidly;

We have been watching the comments made by Sandu ... telling their members not to accept the disciplinary letters. A soldier who does not accept it is in disobeyance of a lawful order.

Most importantly, in the barracks we received information that Sandu is mobilising soldiers to disobey orders from commanders ... and we received information that they are mobilising soldiers to protest again. We needed to stop that.

It was a means of protecting soldiers themselves from losing their jobs. We thought it important to do that. If we don’t do that, it puts a lot of soldiers at risk of losing their work.

We are protecting the soldiers from irresponsible unions.

Whatever the actions and pretences of the military top brass, however, this action remains incredibly important. It sets two important precedents that must be acted upon.

The first is that it shows that anger and discontent with the ANC over their abandonment of the worst off whilst in power is not limited to the slums and to people who can be ignored and marginalised by wider society. The soldiers' protest shows that even those serving within the government are not happy with its actions, and continues the pressure on the government after the so-called "service protests" of last month.

The second is that it brings to the fore an issue long unaddressed in the annals of labour struggles - the rights and working conditions of military personnel. South Africa is far from the only country in the world where soldiers are expected to do one of, if not the, most demanding jobs around in return for, frankly, appalling treatment. In fact, the standard is near universal. High military spending is usually exercised on weaponry, battleships, and vehicles, whilst protective equipment and the physical and mental health of soldiers is neglected and those who leave the armed forces face high levels of homelessness, joblessness, and depression.

Soldiers are a part of the working class. They have to rent their labour out to another in order to survive, and for many of the poorest people of a society, military service is the only way they can hold steady employment or have any hope of gaining academic qualifications. Massive disenfranchisement, as well as inequality in education and available opportunities is - alongside militaristic and nationalistic propaganda - what keeps the military going. The people drawn into this lifestyle, then, deserve humane treatment as much as any other worker.

Moreover, organising soldiers would be not just a massive boon to the labour movement, but would be an important first step in combatting the aggression and violence of the state. If a military labour union was to assume the same ultimate goal as the wider workers' struggle, democratic self-management, this would greatly threaten the state's ability to wage illegal wars in its own interests. A key element of the initial February Revolution in Russia was the mutiny against the military hierarchy and the organisation of soldier's committees. This destroyed the ability of the state to crush the people with violent force and was instrumental in the establishment of the soviets and the democratic self-management of the people. Of course, the spirit of the revolution was crushed by Lenin's recentralisation of the army and the vicious counter-coup that followed, but it at least demonstrates the potential of organising the working
classes within the military in favour of their own interests rather than those of the top-brass and the state.

Such organisation will be far from easy, as South Africa is one of but a few countries that allow military personnel to form unions (Title 10,976 of the US Code specifically forbids such organisations), but clearly it is something that needs to be done. Not only does not doing so leave those serving in the armed forces vulnerable to complete abandonment at the hands of their government, but it ensures that a rigid military hierarchy can - at will, as winessed in the deployment of American National Guardsmen against Vietnam War protestors - turn the fire of ordinary soldiers against their fellow workers.