PRETORIA // The South African army was once one of the most feared on the continent. Under the apartheid regime it stamped out domestic unrest and participated in civil wars across the region, from Angola to Mozambique, against the African National Congress and its allies. Some of its more hardline members used to boast of "30 days to Cairo" - the idea that, if necessary, it could fight its way the entire length of Africa, to the shores of the Mediterranean, in a month.
But times have changed, and not only because, since the advent of democracy, South Africa no longer faces a significant military threat from outside its borders. Its defence establishment has suffered from large numbers of servicemen leaving to pursue careers in the private security sector, notably in the Middle East, its domestic standing has been hit by years of fallout from corruption allegations surrounding a multi-billion-dollar arms deal in the late 1990s, and budgets have come under continuous pressure for years.
The situation reached a nadir a few weeks ago when soldiers demanding better pay and conditions, including housing and pensions, mounted a protest outside the Union Buildings, the presidency's office in Pretoria, which the authorities said was illegal. The event turned violent, with cars being burnt, and police had to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to prevent the demonstrators entering the compound.
For a force that once had such a reputation it was an extraordinary and humiliating spectacle. Lindiwe Sisulu, the defence minister, ordered the sacking of 1,300 soldiers who took part, and Jacob Zuma, the president and commander-in-chief, last week condemned the protest as "despicable in the extreme". "Marching to the Union Buildings, a seat of government that they are meant to protect, cannot be an action that one would expect from a disciplined force," he said.
But according to specialists it was the culmination of years of pressure. Under South Africa's democratic constitution, all workers have the right to belong to a trade union, and the constitutional court ruled in 1999 that that applied to soldiers. But legal battles between the South African National Defence Union, SANDU, and the government have continued. In the latest, the union obtained a court order blocking the sacking of the soldiers.
Lindy Heinecken, professor of sociology at University of Stellenbosch and a specialist in military studies, said the authorities' opposition to union representation had led to friction between troops and the defence department. The existence of trade unions in the military is only allowed in some countries, she pointed out, but pressure has been growing in many countries over recent years as soldiering is increasingly viewed as a job rather than a calling.
"People don't join the military because they think it's an honour but because they think it is just another job," Ms Heinecken said. "They see themselves as employees. We can hold up altruistic ideals but that is not what is happening on the ground." Coupled with that, she said, some countries have a particularly strong culture of trade unionism, "especially if unions have played a very important role in winning democratic rights for citizens as a whole", as was the case in South Africa.
"In our history the lesson is unless you start acting militantly no one will listen to you. "The bottom lime here is the military leadership has consistently ignored the union and sidelined them. The union has constantly had to go to the courts to resolve their grievances. Things have become more and more radicalised, building up to these militant protests against the state. "What happened? Guess what, they protested violently and now everybody's listening."
Len Le Roux, a retired major-general and consultant to the Institute of Strategic Studies in Pretoria, said unions were potentially a positive thing for the military, as they enabled ordinary soldiers' interests to be articulated, thereby improving morale and efficiency. Concerns about the possible impact on loyalty to the chain of command were misplaced, he said, as long as the union role was confined to employment issues, such as pay and conditions.
"The soldiers' employer is the department of defence," Mr Le Roux said. "A dispute should not be a dispute with the military command structure, it's a dispute with the secretary of defence, with the ministry of defence. "Soldiers should be absolutely loyal to their military command. It saddens everybody to see what happened. "But you can't simply point the finger at the soldiers, one has to ask the question what drove the soldiers to this point. It's not an overnight event, it's been coming a long way."