IN COURT: Members of the South African National Defence Force waiting for their trial — about a wages protest in 2009 — to begin at Heidelberg military base, earlier this month. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
IN COURT: Members of the South African National Defence Force waiting for their trial — about a wages protest in 2009 — to begin at Heidelberg military base last year. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

CHARGES are expected to be dropped on Thursday against at least 72 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers who were part of the group that ran amok at the Union Buildings in Pretoria during an illegal march over wages in August 2009.

The soldiers are part of 297 SANDF members appearing at the Heidelberg military court. The charges will be dropped due to insufficient evidence, Brig-Gen Xolani Mabanga said on Wednesday The SANDF had summarily fired about 1,100 soldiers in 2009. However, a public outcry including objections from the Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) and a series of court actions forced the SANDF to investigate each soldier’s case properly and follow disciplinary protocol.

The saga was described as the worst case of military indiscipline in South Africa in a long time.

It exposed the state of the grievance procedure in the military, which had been described as dysfunctional. It also led to unsuccessful efforts by the government to remove trade unions from the military.

A military ombudsman has since been appointed to deal with soldiers’ complaints.

Pre-trial procedures started on Wednesday, and Brig-Gen Mabanga said the military court will on Thursday hear cases of at least 225 soldiers, of which 20 would be excluded.

The latter have been excused due to work-related reasons. This did not mean they would not face charges, but they have been allowed to conclude their assignments, he said. The brigadier-general said the SANDF started procedures last year in Mtubatuba in October and Zeerust in November to properly identify culprits after protracted court cases brought by the South African National Defence Union.

He added that the accused in Heidelberg were those identified by the Mtubatuba process in October to December last year, when investigations were completed and charge sheets drawn up.

Brig-Gen Mabanga also said the current phase of the trial procedure excluded those members who ignored the chief of the defence force’s instruction for members who were at the march to report back to their bases to be charged and arraigned. The presiding officer, Col Leonard Els, informed the accused soldiers of their right to legal representation, saying those without funds to bring their own representatives would be entitled to state-sponsored legal representation from the military.

He also informed them that they should indicate whether they wanted interpreters in their respective languages should they not feel comfortable with English, the medium in which the trial would be conducted.

Lt-Col Dolphy Bopape, leader of the military prosecution team, urged the accused to ensure that they concluded the business of consulting with their legal representatives on Wednesday, and had signed forms indicating whether or not they would need interpreters.

The case is the first in the history of the SANDF to be held in public.

The previous defence minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, had placed the marchers on special leave.

The chief of the SANDF subsequently issued an instruction revoking the letter that placed some members on special leave following a high court ruling which instructed the SANDF to discipline marchers through the military justice system.