As we mark the sixtieth anniversary of the gallant women’s march on the Union Buildings, and this being Women’s Month, we need to take a moment to reflect on what have been the achievements of women in general, and those in the armed forces in particular.
It must be admitted that the democratic dispensation has made more strides over the last two decades and two years. Areas that were once the preserve of men and which exhibited the “masculinity of men”, such as the armed forces, have seen significant strides in transformation.
In our liberation movement the African National Congress (ANC) and its armed wing uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the armed forces have never been the exclusive preserve of men.
From the onset and since the launch of uMkhonto we Sizwe on December the 16th 1961, men and women served side by side.
This has however not been easy, given the patriarchal nature of our society. At the time, women not only served in the underground but also went steps further to be part and parcel of the menfolk who had taken up arms.
It should come as no surprise that women such as Cde. Major General (retired) Jackie Sedibe, Ruth Mompati, to mention but a few, were in the early formations of MK and also served and experienced the hardships of starting or being part of newly established military camps of uMkhonto we Sizwe in Tanzania in the early 1960s.
They cut their teeth under these extremely difficult conditions at Kongwa and still emerged to pursue the struggle in the many different theatres the leadership deployed them in – be it within the structures of MK and pursuing the armed struggle; in the underground within and outside of our country; pursuing mass mobilization and finally as part of international isolation of the regime.
In all of these four pillars of struggle, they acquitted themselves exceptionally well, and were also elected to positions of responsibility. This was escalated as the struggle intensified from the late 1970’s and through the roaring 80’s, with women once again acquitting themselves well and taking up various command positions.
At the time that the regime had its back against the wall and was forced to unban the liberation movement and release political prisoners, thus paving the way for negotiations and the democratic transition.
Women in our structures were integral to the negotiations which started, all the way through to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, CODESA, and also the multiparty talks which followed CODESA after it broke down. It was ultimately with the first democratic elections that the policy positions that were steeped in the Freedom Charter, the Women’s Charter and a number of progressive policies, became reflected in the interim constitution.
Key amongst these principles was equality before the law, meaning that men and women were now equal before the law, as there was also equality amongst the races enshrined and removal of the myriad of laws that were vestiges of apartheid.
The newly democratizing state had to ensure that all institutions of the state reflected the intent and spirit of the new dispensation. It was thus no exception that these principles were enshrined in the establishment of the new integrating armed forces, made up of MK, and later APLA as the liberation movement armies on the one side, and the so called statutory forces of the apartheid regime and the Bantustan created armies of the TBVC states.
This meant seven disparate entities were integrated into the newly formed South African National Defense Force, SANDF, each with its own identity, doctrine and posture.
The political leadership ensured that the SANDF became a single Defense force…cohesive and united in one mission- to defend the national sovereignty of the country and protect its territorial integrity.
Women have an equal responsibility and unlike the previous dispensation, women can and do serve in any and all positions they wish, including combat.
These principles were further entrenched in the first White Paper on Defense in 1996, and later in the Defense Review in 1998. Even the Defense Act (a 1957 relic of the past which had entrenched white domination and male domination) was overhauled to reflect the new democratic ethos. All these seminal Defense policy documents were adopted by parliament after extensive consultations throughout the length and breath of the country. The Defense Review 2015 went further to emphasize these.
Looking back to the women who marched in the Union Buildings sixty years ago and the successive generations who took their baton, much has been achieved. Twenty two years later, women hold their own and have risen through the ranks of the Defense establishment, occupying different roles and responsibilities, right from core functions of Defense such as aircraft pilots, artillery, combat navy, navigators, medical professionals (including specialists, medical practitioners, pharmacists, ancillary health), engineers, anti-aircraft, divers, mechanics, various technical musterings, commanders of various units, to mention but a few.
Women are also deployed in peace support operations across the continent where the SANDF is deployed; representing the Defense establishment as Defense attaches in various countries, and lastly, as senior officers, with no less than six women at the rank of Major Generals servicing side by side with their male counterparts.
They also serve in many other areas of responsibility in senior, middle management and the coalface proudly. The SANDF is therefore a home for all patriotic men and women, with every profession one can think of.
Some have over the years gone into retirement and are military veterans, not only of MK but also, having integrated in the SANDF, retire. For these we are creating opportunities for them in the context of the military veterans legislation, to ensure that they and their Dependents have access to a range of benefits spelt out in legislation, such as education access for the military veterans and dependents; health for the military veteran; facilitation of business opportunities; skills development; burial support as well as ensuring their honor and recognition as military veterans for the sacrifices they have made for the attainment of our freedom.
Some of these benefits we deliver directly from our military veterans’ department, but also in partnership and agreements with other organs of state.
More can and is being done, to ensure the continued affirmation of women, in particular those from the ranks of the liberation movement who cut their teeth in the trenches of the struggle, especially the armed struggle in the hardships of our military camps and in the underground structures. This applies to those who are in service of our country’s armed forces, but also those who’ve since demobilized or gone into retirement.
As we deepen our democracy, the women in the armed forces can be trusted to take the challenges of Defense in a democracy, and ensuring that there shall not be a reversal of the gains of our hard earned freedom!
I therefore call upon all our people to see the defense establishment as a hive of opportunity, especially for young people seeking career opportunities, the scope is wide.
CDE. NOSIVIWE MAPISA-NQAKULA IS A MEMBER OF THE ANC NEC AND THE MINISTER OF DEFENCE AND MILITARY VETERANS