Pretoria - More than 27 years after soldiers who belonged to the specialised unit known as Koevoet lost their jobs when the new democratic government came into power, they have approached the courts in a bid to institute a class action against the Police Ministry for compensation.
They are asking the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, for an order declaring that all persons in the unit who were employed by the SAPS on or after 1993 be permitted to constitute a class action.
The court was told that during 1978/1979, the Koevoet members were part of a so-called anti-terrorist unit established in Namibia by the then South African government. They were initially part of the defence force.
There were about 900 Koevoet members who returned to South Africa in 1994, before the first democratic elections.
During 1992 and 1993 the Koevoet members became part of the South African police. They stated that during 1994, before the election, they were informed to take three months leave.
When they returned their offices were closed. They claimed they had therefore been unfairly dismissed.
Counsel for the minister, on the other hand, argued that the commissioner for administration issued a directive at the time on how to deal with all Koevoet members.
There is a dispute between the parties about whether they were unlawfully dismissed, or whether they left the police service after certain benefits were paid out to them.
Some of the certificates which were handed to court indicated “dismissal”, others “termination of service” and some “dishonourable/dismissal”.
While it is not yet clear exactly how much they are claiming, the group alleged that there was a breach of contract due to the “unlawful termination” of their employment.
According to them, they suffered damages as a result.
The minister said in his affidavit that in terms of a directive, it was determined that severance package benefits be paid to all Koevoet members.
In this regard, in April 1994, all Koevoet members were, according to the minister, personally given vouchers as their severance packages, which included leave credits, pro-rata service bonuses, three months’ advance salary, pensions and tax benefits.
The minister said that despite the fact that the computer systems had not yet been developed at that time, the SAPS had kept a list of all 900 Koevoet members, who were paid their benefits in full.
The former soldiers, however, denied they received their benefits in full.
Judge Ronel Tolmay said it was not for this court to determine the facts, as she was only asked to give the go-ahead for a class action to be instituted.
She questioned why they now turned to court after all these years.
“They offer no explanation whatsoever as to why it took them so long to institute action or bring this application. On their own version, they became aware of their alleged dismissal during 1994,” the judge said.
She said the Koevoet members, in her view, failed to make out a cause of action, due to the long delay in bringing the application.
The judge said their access to the court has not been limited, but it is not in the interest of justice that a class action be certified so long after the fact, in the absence of a reasonable explanation.