SA army chief: Protest bordered on mutiny

A recent clash between about 1,000 soldiers and police in the heart of South Africa’s capital does not signify wider unrest in the military’s ranks, the commander of the army said today, vowing that he won’t tolerate a lack of discipline.

In a rare news conference, Lt Gen Solly Shoke said the August 26 protest about pay and conditions that escalated into running battles with police in Pretoria bordered “on mutiny.”

The soldiers, calling for better pay, had converged on the lawns of the Union Buildings, the seat of government, despite a court order denying them permission to march. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas, a policeman and several soldiers were injured and a police vehicle was set ablaze.

“That type of behaviour you should not tolerate at all, because it is very dangerous. In other countries (if) you behave like that, you face a firing squad,” Lt Gen Shoke said.

The protesting South African soldiers have been told they will be fired.

Lt Gen Shoke said there is no reason to fear wider unrest in an army that has been a key contributor to peacekeeping operations across Africa and that supports South African police in their battle against one of the world’s highest crime rates. But he acknowledged that conditions for soldiers need to be improved and said the matter is being addressed by Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu.

Reports emerged after the August 26 clash that the army is investigating an alleged plot by disgruntled soldiers to kidnap Mr Sisulu and top military officials. Lt Gen Shoke refused to comment and Siphiwe Dlamini, spokesman for the Department of Defence, also refused to speak about what he called “operational matters.”

Henri Boshoff, a military specialist with South Africa’s independent Institute for Security Studies, said soldiers’ concerns about pay and living conditions have been growing for years and need to be addressed.

South African soldiers, many of whom integrated into the ranks after belonging to anti-apartheid guerrilla groups, are older, more likely to have families and have fewer opportunities for career advancement than soldiers in other armies, Mr Boshoff said, adding that the army needs to find an “exit strategy” for its older forces while bringing in younger recruits who would serve for shorter periods.

Mr Boshoff said there is no reason to fear a mutiny in South Africa’s armed forces.

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