SOUTH AFRICA: Women on the front lines

Monday, February 17, 2014
Times Live
Southern Africa
Southern Africa
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 

The South African National Defence Force is the only military in Africa, and one of a few in the world that deploys female soldiers to fight at the sharp end.

Before you believe we've overcome the notion that boys are stronger than girls, the vast majority of women who serve still only expect support roles; they have limited combat duties and are under-represented in leadership positions.

This will change, believes SANDF's chief director of transformation and management and former Umkhonto we Sizwe sniper, Brigadier-General Thandi Mohale.

"Since democracy, the number of women in the military has been steadily rising. It is no longer the same as before, when the military was perceived as a male-dominated area," she said.

After the fall of apartheid, the SANDF began an integration process that sought to include all South Africans. Twenty years into our democracy that process seems to be bearing fruit, albeit slowly.

There are currently 16049 women who actually fight in our armed forces out of more than 65000 active personnel.

"A lot of women with rosy matric results who could do medicine or industrial psychology, even to honours level, instead choose to join the military," Mohale said.

Forty percent of the new recruits last year were women. The department of defence wants to increase this figure to 50%.

Mohale said women were increasingly attracted to the military because they saw themselves as equal to their male counterparts.

"They want to prove women can also do it. Many love the adventure and the opportunities available in the army."

Patriotism was also a key driver for people choosing to join the SANDF, Mohale said.

The US Pentagon last year announced its intentions to allow women to join the previously all-male unit, the Navy Seals.

This was met with resistance, with many arguing that women would lower the gruelling physical standards maintained by the elite unit.

Speaking to newspaper U-T San Diego, Brandon Webb, a former Seal sniper instructor, rubbished these claims. He said women were perfectly capable of making the cut physically. The problem, he said, was the macho culture of the units.

"The main issue the military must face is the brash, candid environment and close-quarters culture of a special-operations unit that would make most civilian HR managers blush," Webb said.

Mohale said the struggles female recruits had with training were around fitness, not gender.

"Our training is the same across the board and accommodates both genders equally," she said.

Although South Africa has one of the most gender-accommodating militaries in the world, it is not all sunshine and floral print fatigues. Women are still fighting for the opportunity to be given more command positions.

Only five of 52 current major-generals are women, and the numbers are similar in other high-ranking posts.

There are no female lieutenant-generals, only 37 of the 187 brigadier generals are women, and out of 940 colonels 158 are women.

"Transformation does not happen overnight. Erasing the past legacy is not an easy matter but the passage of time has shown men that women can do it too," Mohale said.