President Mandela banged his fist on the table when he declared that he had no intention of responding to demands for free transport back to base for those who had gone absent without leave from a military outpost at Wallmannstal, north of Pretoria, where 7,500 former members of the ANC's Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) are supposed to be undergoing an evaluation process before integration into the defence force.
At the beginning of this month most of the Umkhonto members failed to return from leave in protest at low pay, poor living conditions, alleged racism among white officers, and the time it was taking to incorporate them into the army. Some had been returning to base in the last week but Mr Mandela said yesterday that 3,000 out of the 7,500 remained absent without leave.
Mr Mandela, who held a meeting with the Umkhonto malcontents at Wallmannstal yesterday said he he listened to the grievances and asked General Georg Meiring, the chief of the defence force, to look into them.
The former guerrillas said that their pay, 711 Rand ( pounds 127) a month, was unsatisfactory but Mr Mandela said there was nothing he could do about low pay until the next time parliament met to review the defence budget.
What was absolutely non-negotiable, he insisted, was the concept of military discipline.
He said: 'I told them that discipline was important for everyone, especially for the army. Going away without permission and then coming back on pay-day and going away again: I say that must stop.
'I have given a deadline. I've given them a seven-day ultimatum to get back to base. Those who don't come back will discharge themselves. I have given instructions to General Meiring that they must not be allowed inside the gates.'
General Meiring, who sat alongside the President, nodded in approval and swelled with pride as Mr Mandela said the general was a man of the highest integrity. The President's praise for a former apartheid foe was carefully considered.
As a senior ANC official recently acknowledged, the stability of South Africa will rest, for the foreseeable future, on the loyalty of the military establishment that propped up apartheid.
What the generals have made plain to the ANC hierarchy is that they will not tolerate a decline in military standards. Thus it was that Mr Mandela said: 'From the point of view of the military we must instil discipline, even if we have to cut off 3,000 people.'
Asked what the response had been of the Umkhonto members to his tough message, Mr Mandela replied: 'At the end of my address I went around shaking hands. They gave me ovations and there were so many hands reaching out that I could not shake all of them. I don't think we're going to have people leaving base without permission again . . . The matter has been addressed.'Reuse content