SA Women in the Military – At the Barrel of a Gun

by Nov 12, 2010All Articles

women in militaryBy Grischelda Hartman

South Africa has sophisticated gender machinery present in public life, and it has come to represent the social and political transformation. Clause 9 in the Bill of Rights guarantees equal rights for all, and ensure that no-one is discriminated against on the basis of sex and gender.

Women’s entry into previously male work spaces, such as the military, mining and construction is seen as part of the ‘gender agenda’. However, the ‘gender agenda’ is taking some strain, and recent reports of sexual harassment, gender violence, and even murder must force us to relook at how gender integration is taking place in non-traditional work spaces for women.

In mid-July, Akhona Geveza, a young South African woman who was participating as a cadet in the Transnet National Ports Authority’s Maritime Studies Programme, was found dead, floating overboard. Only a few hours before she died, a report was made to the shipmaster that Geveza had been raped by a senior official.

The article in the Sunday Times, 18 July 2010, makes mention of several cases of sexual abuse against young cadets who claim, ‘systematic abuse of power by senior officers’. Among the allegations made by South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper are that:

• Two male cadets were raped by senior officials while at sea;
• A female cadet terminated two pregnancies that followed her rape at sea;
• Three female trainees were pregnant at the end of their 12-month training stint;
• A male cadet was sent home a month before finishing his programme because he refused to have sex with a senior official; and
• A female cadet has a child with a married South African Maritime Safety Agency executive after he forced himself on her and threatened to cancel her contract if she told anyone.

The question that must be asked is how have things changed for women who enter workplaces that are predominately male dominated such as the army, police services, construction, or navy as in the case of Akhona Geveza.

Have things changed for women? What ‘rites of passage’ do women have to endure in order to fit in, or is the challenge for women to adapt to a male environment? Major newspapers reporting on the young cadet’s death say that ‘if these tales are true – and not simply a reaction to the necessarily strict discipline and hard work associated with life at sea – let the accusers, who are all adults, immediately make affidavits that include times, dates and people’ (Cape Times, 21 July 2010).

It is evident that the reported denials from the naval authorities indicate that these incidences are happening. Safmarine, a merchant navy company, also issued a statement from a woman captain and former cadet with the company for 12 years, who said she had been “shocked” to hear of the sexual abuse allegations. “Our bush telegraph on board is finely tuned for sources of information (a.k.a. gossip) and at no time have we heard any allegations of sexual misconduct aboard any Safmarine ships,” she said.

While there may not be a ministerial investigation into the death of a young woman in the navy, one can not only rely on the newspaper articles. I decided to pose these questions to a former soldier in the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), with the intent of attempting to understand how difficult it must be for women to work in former male reserved areas of work. The picture seems bleak, legislation is in place to ensure that women are protected against sexual harassment, employment equity is implemented, but yet we have the sad death of a young woman cadet at sea. The former army employee said that women are employed in the army to rectify the Employment Equity numbers. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (SATAWU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) have declared full support for an investigation into the death of Akhona Geveza, and hopes that the investigation will act as a warning to all those who refuse to respect women and their rights in the workplace.

The stories of abuse and harassment in the army are very similar to those reported about in the navy. A worker in the navy reveals, “Women are not as safe as they should be. When we refer to ’Military Culture’ alcohol plays a major role in the day to day lives of a soldier. Women are often pressurized into these ’social norms’ where they are forced into sexual acts. So it would seem that women have to act in a particular way to fit in to military culture.

In her article “Women face the rock face” (Labour Bulletin, December 2009/ January 2010) Asanda Benya on women’s experiences in the mining sector, writes that women have to have several coping mechanisms to adapt to life underground such as learning the fanakalo, a street language used by miners to communicate with each other. Not knowing this language can mean the death of a miner. Or such as the exchanging sexual favours for help. The stories for all of these women who seek employment in the mines or in the navy is a bread and butter issue, many are the breadwinners in their families like in Geveza’s case. One woman interviewed is quoted: “Most of these women come to the military to support their families at home, where all too often they are the only source of income, whilst the men are quite highly ranked who can make their only income disappear (if they whistle blow on sexual harassment)”.

In a research paper by Noel Stott: From the SADF to the SANDF: Safeguarding South Africa for a better life for all? Violence and Transition Series, Vol. 7, 2002, he reflects on the nature of violence in particular in the SANDF. He says that the new legislation that was introduced to deal with gender related issues highlights the broader constitutional concerns regarding equality but also the role that the military played in creating a “macho and militarised masculine identity. That in the militarised society gender issues relate as much to masculinity as to femininity”. The links between male identity and violence have been explored through other institutions, such as gangs and prisons. He further recommends that a similar study in relation to the SANDF is recommended.

In the same report the author refers to the fact that the conflict and violence of our past still plagues us but has taken on a different form, i.e. gender based violence: sexual harassment including assaults; domestic and racial incidents; suicides; and violent property crimes, such as thefts and armed robberies. The transition and integration of the SADF and the former military wings of liberation movements was not necessarily smooth and both come from a history of violence.

Stott’s report further identifies that “gender-based violence within the SANDF and the families of military employees continues to manifest itself. Many women remain dependent, vulnerable or both. The extent and content of the problem, however, is unclear”.

A research report by Professor Lindi Heinecken found that among women in 2001, 60% of women believed that men are threatened by female counterparts performing similar duties. A follow up study in 2004 focusing specifically on the deployment of women in peace support operations found that this view persisted (DOD 2004:5). Men still consider women more suited to support positions because they are physically weaker, and not positions that would require physical strength or endurance, or positions that would take them away for long periods of time.

As of November 2006, 80 SANDF personnel previously deployed in multilateral peace support operations faced criminal charges on allegations ranging from murder to sexual exploitation of women and girls. The government had a “zero tolerance policy” for human rights abuses committed by SANDF members.

Grischelda Hartman is the Ditsela Program Co-ordinator (Western Cape). Ditsela is a Workers Education Institute based at the University of the Western Cape, and Johannesburg.

The original article appears in the latest issue of Amandla!

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