Sisulu fires on all cylinders

2010-06-19 13:11

Of all the correspondence that passed over her

desk in the last year, it was a mother’s letter that touched the defence

minister most.

It spoke of a son who was a ­rudderless couch potato, ­slouching

about the house without purpose or direction.

And it spoke of a neat and focused young man,

ready to make his contribution to society and ready to be a success.

The slouching son and the ­focused young man in the letter are the

same person. But he changed and the difference, claims the ­letter, was made by

his participation in the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s)

military skills development system (MSDS).

Sisulu says the letter meant a great deal to her because it

encapsulates her dream for a defence force which can bring hope and ­direction

to two very different groups within our society: the ­disaffected youth roaming

our streets and the soldiers and ­military ­veterans whose financial welfare she

aims to improve.

Politicos know the minister to be complex.

Take the day of her

­budget vote, for instance.

In the morning, she held a press briefing flanked by

her generals, whom, it sometimes seemed, were almost beguiled by the fashionista

in her dashing red dress – a massive change from the dour procession of Magnus

Malan, Joe Modise, ­Mosiuoa Lekota and Charles Nqakula which preceded her.

Barely three hours later in the cut and thrust of parliamentary

debate – and in a completely new outfit – she removed the velvet glove to reveal

an iron fist.

She delivered a fascinating case study of a woman holding her own

in the tough man’s world that is the ­defence force.

But when she speaks of her ideas for a national service, she

becomes at once passionate and motherly: “Every day we see the evidence of our

country’s disaffected youth who have no hope and no opportunity, and who we see

channel their energy into all kinds of mischief.

“If we do nothing to give these young people purpose, South ­Africa

sits on a time bomb.”

She therefore proposes a ­voluntary national service where young

people can apply to be trained in life skills by the army.

It is an idea endorsed by a variety of youth formations and was

first mooted in the SANDF in 2003 to no avail.

Currently, there is the MSDS programme which trains a number of

young people yearly. When she speaks about it, Sisulu is ­completely animated,

as if ­possessed by an almost ­missionary zeal.

She says: “Our military training officers are among the best in the

world. I visited the training facility in Saldanha and spoke to a young recruit

whose life had been going nowhere. He was working as a waiter in a Pretoria


“Through the MSDS it was ­discovered he has an aptitude for

engineering and he will now be trained in that direction to serve the SANDF and

his country.”

Sisulu is aware of concerns about the militarisation of the youth

and fears of conscription ­being reintroduced through the back door.

She assures

critics that it would be voluntary and ­underwritten by values enshrined in the


She believes that a non-racial ­intake will go a long way to

fostering unity of purpose and positive ­patriotism among those who choose to


She wants the country to debate the need, form and financial model

for the national service so that ­legislation can be passed in two years’ time

if people like the idea.

Addressing service conditions and the state of equipment in the

SANDF in the midst of severe budgetary constraints reveals ­Sisulu as a minister

on a tightrope.

Her strongest critic, the DA’s ­David Maynier, has accused her

of ­presiding over “a barracks-bound army, a harbour-bound navy and a

­hangar-bound air force”.

In her budget speech, she ­announced three sets of financial

improvements for current and ­ex-personnel.

Firstly, all SANDF members ­received salary increases in ­December.

These will be ­backdated to July last year, costing the taxpayer an extra

R16 million.

Secondly, an additional R1.9 billion has been budgeted for SANDF

members with specialised skills such as pilots, engineers and ­doctors.


skilled staff are very ­expensive to train yet they get poached mercilessly both

locally and internationally because they are trained so well and paid so


Sisulu’s features soften when she talks about the third set of

­financial improvements because the extra R1.7 billion budgeted ­concerns former

members of the liberation armies – mostly MK and Apla.

She says: “During the liberation struggle they offered their

­services voluntarily. They did not have access to the benefits of the old SADF,

which was a statutory force.

“Now, having given their lives and their health to fight for

­freedom, many are old and ­destitute. This is an effort to ­improve their


This is all very well but where must the money come from for this

and the equipment and ­logistics expected of a mobile, ­active ­defence


The minister turns crisp and business-like, putting forward an

argument she clearly believes in even if it might be a hard sell to the tough

men and women at the ­National Treasury: “The SANDF saved R47 billion by

deciding to cancel the air force’s Airbus ­contract.

We need that money to use

for more pressing purposes.”

One of these is border control, which was recently reverted to the

SANDF, through which she ­believes ­serious problems like ­violent crime, car

theft, hijacking and stock-theft can be addressed.

This means more border patrols, ­improved fencing, fixing the

­service roads running next to our borders and repairing the bases that went to

rack and ruin when the SANDF withdrew from the ­borders.

Clearly, the R47 billion will plug a lot of holes and for a moment

­Sisulu seems tired and vulnerable. But she quickly steels herself as other

troubling issues remain.

She rises and our ­interview is over. South Africa’s defence

­minister lines up to her next set of visitors: a uniformed, American


She is ready for duty and ready to ­represent her



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