Hon Chairperson, members of the executive present in the House this afternoon, hon members of the defence committees of Parliament, the House at large, our distinguished guests and stakeholders in the public gallery this afternoon, compatriots, ladies and gentlemen, armed with a fresh mandate after the 2009 elections, the President proceeded consciously to assign to the former Ministry of Defence the responsibility to look after military veterans. Our budget debate this afternoon signals the commencement of the hardest push to deliver on this mandate as we enter the home strait towards the finishing line of a tough but fulfilling race which commenced four years ago.
Before I proceed with my remarks, it behoves me to pause and join speakers before me in paying my respects, once again, to the memory of several of our soldiers who fell in the line of duty during the year under review, not forgetting their families. Their pain and sacrifice is a reminder to us to treat our duties with respect and soldier on in the service of our country, our people and progressive humanity. [Applause.]
As a ministry, we enter the last year of programmatic work in government, buoyed up by the confidence that we now stand on solid ground to realise the important goal of restoring dignity to a segment of South Africans who served their country with honour, at great cost to their individual lives as soldiers, for the good of us all.
As hon member Motimele said, our Constitution enjoins all of us:
To recognise the injustices of the past; honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; and respect those who have worked to build and develop our country.
The 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme further stated that:
No political democracy can survive and flourish if the masses of our people remain in poverty, without tangible prospects of a better life. Attacking poverty and deprivation must therefore be the first priority of the democratic government.
In spite of the drag of cynics and obstructionists of different persuasions who, among others, sought to trivialise a significant policy intervention of this magnitude by suggesting that it was financially ill conceived and only aimed at serving the narrow interests of some within the ruling party, it is good that today we have all arrived at the mountaintop together.
As Nelson Mandela said, we all now understand "that to heal, we had to lance the boil". Then we should all agree that those whose lives were disrupted and were worse off after the lancing of the national boil must become our collective responsibility.
Furthermore, the second objective of our military veterans' policy, which is looking after tomorrow's military veterans as they exit the Defence Force today and in the future, is a logical consequence of the post-1994 policy, which ended national conscription and established the SA National Defence Force as a professional military organisation. Today, as we commence work of our final year in this administration, we have legislation for military veterans in place which was crafted as a synthesis of the best policies and practices you can find across the widest spectrum of governments globally, from both the developed and the developing world. We have a stand-alone Department of Military Veterans, which is steadily growing into a mature department with protocols that structure its interface with other government delivery agencies. We have a budget for benefits, which will progressively grow with our delivery uptake. We have an impeccable verified database of bona fide recipient military veterans already upwards of 10 000. We have been incrementally providing interim support to military veterans and their dependants even before the budget for benefits was made available from 1 April this year.
Allow me to return to the seminal milestones to underline the work done since last year this time, to highlight to this House our achievements, challenges and future plans.
One of the vital pieces of homework the Department of Military Veterans had to deliver on in the past financial year, in order to expedite the delivery of benefits, is the tabling of regulations to provide for modalities and procedures necessary for the implementation of the Military Veterans Act, No 18 of 2011.
It was initially envisaged that these regulations would be in Parliament by the end of March last year. We must admit that our work has been sloppy regarding this assignment. However, I am relieved to report that these regulations are now tabled in Parliament, and I wish to thank all those who contributed to making this possible. We respectfully trust that the members of the Portfolio Committee on Defence and Military Veterans will expeditiously improve these regulations and assist us to regain lost time. Application forms for benefits and guidelines have also been developed.
Hon members, the department is steadily growing. It has started the process of establishing provincial offices and structuring its relationship with the other tiers of government involved in caring for military veterans, namely the provincial governments and local government. Memorandums of understanding have been signed with some of the Social Development cluster component departments nationally. However, the process of staffing the department is still moving very slowly, hence its continued reliance on seconded Department of Defence personnel and members of the Reserve Force.
The Department of Military Veterans was able to increase the critical interim support to military veterans, as promised in the last financial year ... [Interjections.] ... thanks to an additional R50 million top-up allocation which the department received at the end of the third quarter of the 2012-13 financial year. The department was able to double the number of military veterans who are accessing free health services. Over 4 000 military veterans are already receiving free health care. Nearly 1 000 of them have been issued with health care identity cards. [Applause.] This was subsequently put on hold due to the shortage of resources, and will be resumed shortly.
The department has also commenced with providing burial support to military veterans who die destitute. The target of assisting 100 dependants of military veterans with bursaries was achieved.
Furthermore, a memorandum of understanding has been signed with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, NSFAS, in which the Department of Military Veterans will also serve as a conduit for deserving students. A memorandum of understanding is also being negotiated with the Department of Basic Education.
We have also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Human Settlements to build 519 houses for military veterans in this financial year, based on the budget that the Department of Military Veterans has at its disposal, to top up the RDP grants that military veterans will get.
Working with the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs, the Department of Military Veterans is in the process of placing 700 military veterans in jobs offered by that department in its labour-intensive projects. Our department has also concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Land Affairs, which will offer business opportunities to military veterans in Rural Enterprise and Infrastructure Development programmes.
Alongside the above interventions to improve the quality of life of military veterans, in the past financial year the Department of Military Veterans has, on a significant scale, commenced the programme of bestowing honour on military veterans, the living and those who are no more today, to reclaim their space in our communities and our lives that they rightfully deserve. Three medal parades were staged in the course of last year to honour the generation of participants in the armed struggle against apartheid as part of the observance of the 50th anniversary of uMkhonto weSizwe.
In keeping with heraldry's stringent guidelines and practice, aimed at protecting the prestige of our military honours, about 400 recipients were decorated with a variety of medals that ranged from recognition of service to bravery and merit. Among these distinguished individuals are the first President of the democratic South Africa, President Nelson Mandela; former President Thabo Mbeki; and Comrade President Jacob Zuma.
On behalf of the Ministry, I wish to thank all members of the Medals Task Team, some of whom are in the gallery this afternoon, for their dedication and inspirational work. Indulge me to single out some of these members for mention, because they are Members of Parliament and the Portfolio Committee on Defence. They include hon member Andrew Mlangeni, hon Eric Mtshali, some former Members of Parliament such as Ruth Mompati, Ike Maphotho, James Ngculu, and Thenjiwe Mthintso, and the former Secretary to Parliament and convener of the task team, Ambassador Sindiso Mfenyana, among others. [Applause.]
It is our hope that in the fullness of time this programme will not only bring a sense of self-worth to the individuals involved but, most importantly, it shall serve as a valuable opportunity for mass public education about the struggle for democracy in South Africa and the repository of its unadulterated ethos for our young generations to value the spirit that must define our nationhood.
As we said last year, this year we stand only a few months away from the centenary of the commencement of World War I in 1914. In these very Chambers in September 1914, at a special session of both Houses of Parliament, with 92 votes to 12 in the National Assembly, and 24 votes in the Senate, a decision of Cabinet was confirmed to take South Africa to war as a British dominion. As they say, the rest is history.
This is the context in which we will be revisiting the tragic story of the sinking of the SAS Mendi in February 1917 through our research project that will be conducted over the next four years, taking us to the centenary of the SAS Mendi.
However, as hon members will appreciate, the challenge in the context of the entire World War I is even bigger than the SAS Mendi tragedy, not only because the Union Defence Force - in which South Africans of all colours fought - was a colonial army, but also because of the account postulated in the majority of history literature in our country and the inadequate expos of the real cause of the war; because of the hopes and fears of South Africa's disparate racial communities of the time; because of the way Africans were recruited and the realities of native war-time service in the Union Defence Force; because of the socio-political ramifications of military service; and because of the implications of war-related social change among sections of the African population. It is for all the above reasons that the experience of World War I is of immense value in our heritage.
Time permitting, we must also point out that one of the important tasks the ministry is seized with, as the Minister has already said, is the finalisation of the SA National Defence Force Review report - SA Defence Strategy 2030. In this regard we must once again commend the Defence Review Commission, as the Minister said, which has been ably led by honourable Roelf Meyer, for the diligent way in which they executed their assignment and the high quality of the product they generated. The country and the world we live in today pose very difficult questions, with far-reaching consequences for the resources at our disposal as a country. That notwithstanding, we must not, out of trepidation for the possible social ramifications of the choices we must make, commit a monumental mistake which may in the end cost us everything we have.
For three decades of South Africa's military force under the first apartheid Republic, it was honed and organised as a counterinsurgency military organisation. South Africans must ask themselves hard questions about their contemporary military needs in order to take out the right insurance, the one that is tailored to suit their own needs.
Failure to do so, we shall have compromised the interests of those who will live in this country 20 years from now. Military capabilities and spending are not goals which are addressed overnight. I thank you. [Applause.]