The Military Veterans bill aims to provide benefits to all former soldiers in the former South African Defence Force, liberation movement armies and ex-armies of Bantustan states who pass a means test. Photo: Masi Losi.

The National Assembly passed the Military Veterans Bill on Tuesday amid continued party political fighting over the cost and the beneficiaries of the legislation.

Deputy Defence and Military Veterans Minister Thabang Makwetla told MPs the new law was “vital to the future stability of this country”. The opposition benches agreed that needy former freedom fighters and soldiers should be entitled to state benefits.

The bill aims to provide benefits to all former soldiers in the former South African Defence Force, liberation movement armies and ex-armies of Bantustan states who pass a means test that still has to be set out in regulations.

Only the DA voted against it. The party's defence spokesman David Maynier warned the cost of implementing the legislation would skyrocket beyond the R1.6 billion approved by Cabinet for the medium term expenditure framework.

“The military veterans department based the costing on incorrect assumptions,” Maynier said. “They assumed that there are 56 000 military veterans eligible to apply for benefits, when the broad definition of military veterans in the bill means that there may be up to 850 000 military veterans eligible to apply for benefits.

“We therefore risk creating a gap in expectations between what the military veterans expect and what the military veterans department can deliver.”

A heated exchange ensued after Maynier lambasted Makwetla over statements earlier this year that created the impression that former SADF conscripts would not be eligible for benefits, suggesting he needed “a bandage over his mouth”.

That confusion was cleared up some weeks ago when the minister made clear the law applies to both statutory and non-statutory forces.

Makwetla retorted that the DA failed to show real support for the plight of impoverished veterans as they were not part of the party's constituency.

He described white males over 38 – the population group drafted into the SADF – as “among the most powerful people in this country”. Conscription by the apartheid regime effectively ended towards the end of 1990.

Makwetla added that the plight of former SADF conscripts who served for two years could not compare with those that dedicated their lives to the armed liberation struggle.

“It cannot be perceived as a problem we need to look after.”

In contrast, Makwetla said, homeless former freedom fighters were sleeping in Johannesburg's Park Station.

“Conscious of the importance of the change they fought for and the sacrifice involved, many military veterans from the liberation armies have with humility resigned to living wretched lives to give freedom a chance.”

The ANC has repeatedly responded to opposition concerns about the cost of providing benefits to veterans by warning the cost of not doing it could be political instability.

Makwetla cited the turmoil in Zimbabwe as a historical lesson in what happened when former freedom fighters were abandoned by the state.

The support of veterans of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe played a crucial role in President Jacob Zuma's accession to the presidency of the party.

The costing controversy has haunted the bill from its earliest days. It was sent back to the department because it had been tabled without costing and was then returned without the issue fully resolved.

Defence director general Tsepe Motumi said in June the figure of R1.6bn – compared to earlier estimates of at least R7bn – was “what Cabinet approved”. He conceded the amount “may go up as we move into full-scale implementation”.

Some of the savings apparently came from scrapping earlier proposals that all veterans should be entitled to free health care at military facilities.

It remained unclear how many of those who fought in the country's liberation war would be entitled to state assistance – partly because lists were being updated, and partly because the means test had not been defined.

According to Motumi there were 57 500 registered veterans, but the “figure is changing every day” as more came forward. – Sapa