On a continent with military rule in some countries, South Africa has the only Military Ombudsman’s office. The current ombudsman is retired army general Themba Matanzima, who will soon be stepping down after a seven-year stint.
The role of the office is to investigate complaints and serve as a neutral third party on matters related to the department of defence and the South African National Defence Force.
Matanzima’s complaints case load was 525 in the period from April last year to March this year. Two hundred and forty-six cases have been finalised.
Addressing the recent seventh Military Ombudsman symposium attended by African Union (AU) representatives, Deputy Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Kebby Maphatsoe said the office operated independently and provided “effective oversight, especially in the areas of accountability, good governance and human rights.
“It is fitting that this symposium, an oversight over armed forces in the contemporary African context, happens at a time when there are serious challenges to civil and military relations in Africa.
“This is against the background of armed conflicts plaguing our continent. The military, as the guardian of the state, also needs to be guarded. Hence, the establishment of an oversight institutions such as the Military Ombudsman.”
Matanzima said his office would continue to lobby African governments to create Military Ombudsman offices throughout the continent to collaborate in cross-border cooperation and experience sharing.
He said: “Ombudsman institutions are critical to a peaceful Africa and should be independent and impartial institutions.
“These institutions must continuously aspire to leverage administrative oversight, accountability, democratic governance and alternative dispute resolution within the armed forces to enhance the credibility of the citizens in uniform.
“The military environment without a doubt has evolved over time from being authoritarian to recognising the fundamental rights of members in the armed forces. Africa has to define standards and countries must exchange experiences and models to attain a continental solution.”
In his address, AU major-general Trust Mugoba, who is chief-of-staff of the African standby force, applauded South Africa for being “the only country in Africa with a military ombudsman’s office”.
Democratic control and oversight over the armed forces was “paramount”, said Mugoba. “These oversight instruments may be country specific while seeking to promote and uphold principles of good governance, rule of law and respect for the legal framework.”