Military vets not a 'political issue'

2011-08-17 21:41
Cape Town - Deputy Defence Minister Thabang Makwetla on Wednesday called for the issue of benefits for military veterans to be separated from the constituency's role in the ANC's last leadership battle in 2007.

"Whether Jacob Zuma became ANC leader at Polokwane or not, this problem was always going to come back to haunt us," Makwetla, himself an MK veteran, said.

Makwetla was responding to accusations by the political opposition that the military veterans bill passed by the National Assembly this week was politically motivated and potentially incendiary because it promised benefits the state could not afford to some 57 000 veterans.

A controversy around the costing of the bill has plagued it since its inception when, in an unprecedented step, it was submitted without Cabinet being briefed about the financial implications.

Makwetla said the department had permission from Cabinet to proceed while it tackled the time consuming task of validating an eight-year old database of veterans.

Unrealistic

Under pressure from lawmakers, defence officials subsequently released an Alex Forbes estimate of R65bn, which Makwetla described as unrealistic because it was arrived at through corporate methodology.

"No government department can work on such a logic. That is not a budget," he said, adding that the figure was aimed at providing full benefits to all veterans for the rest of their lives.

Ultimately, Cabinet approved R1.6bn over the three-year medium term expenditure period for implementing the first stages of the benefits system for needy veterans of the South African Defence Force, the armed liberation movements, and the defunct Bantustan armies.

He said the money would be used to start rolling out benefits that the state could logistically manage as soon as the bill became law.

"There are benefits which we are going to implement because they are easy to do, others are going to require that we get the machinery, in some case at provincial level, in place."

Health care would be among the first benefits the department would provide to veterans because the military had the facilities to do so, and this in fact began a few months ago, he said.

Burying veterans who die destitute was another service the state could proceed with as soon as the bill became law, but transport benefits would take far longer to implement.

The phase-in helped to reduce the cost estimate but the controversy has refused to go away and dominated the debate on the bill in the National Assembly.

It saw an angry exchange between Makwetla and David Maynier from the DA, the only party that voted against the measure.

Scary figure

The deputy minister said Maynier questioned both the costing of the bill and the question of who would benefit because the bill does not appeal to the DA's "mainly white middle class constituency".

"R65bn was a scary figure. But R1.6bn is not, so he has to say it is suspect."

He dismissed Maynier's warnings that the number of beneficiaries could be as high as 850 000, saying the collation of figures was "more or less completed" and remained close to 57 000.

Makwetla insisted that the bill was aimed at "black and white", statutory and non-statutory combatants who found themselves in distress, but not at white SADF conscripts who went on to pursue successful careers after two years of military service.

Their exclusion has contributed to the bill being seen as a reward for veterans of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe whose support was crucial in Zuma's accession to the party's presidency.

Makwetla said there were those of all races who did not become part of the post-apartheid armed forces and found themselves in need, but most would be black because payouts for former Apla and Umkhonto we Siswe fighters were smaller than severance packages for SADF soldiers.

"I got R23 000 for 14 years in MK," he said to illustrate the point, before hastily adding that he did not want "to personalise the issue".

He said the department's next task was to get all listed veterans to "come in and give us their details" so that it could collate an electronic database that spells out who needs what.

It will also determine who passes the means test to qualify for benefits. The threshold will be set out in ministerial regulations to be brought to Parliament after the bill is enacted.

- SAPA
Read more on:    thabang makwetla  |  david maynier  |  jacob zuma  |  legislation  |  military
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