Earlier this month, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the minister of defence and military veterans, wrote a letter in which she announced an investigation into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the armed forces. At the same time, she delivered a stinging reprimand to the leaders of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
“This approach is because I do not have the confidence that, as the military and especially yourselves, generals and flag officers, will provide me with satisfactory reports given that you have been aware of these and turned a blind eye.”
Documents leaked to the Mail & Guardian highlight how pervasive sexual abuse and exploitation is in the defence force. Over the past 18 months, there have been at least 41 such cases, ranging from rape and assault to harassment and crimen injuria. Of these, 26 have been finalised, resulting in 13 guilty verdicts. But Mapisa-Nqakula’s letter seems to suggest that the problem runs deeper.
“I have become aware of the rampant cases of [sexual assault and exploitation] incidents internally in deployment areas, as well as in the working environment. These are kept under wraps by the commanders.”
It is almost unprecedented for a defence minister to criticise senior officials so publicly. That Mapisa-Nqakula chose to do so indicates the severity of the problem. It would have taken considerable courage for the minister to speak out on this subject, and she is to be commended for doing so.
But this is far from the first time that the defence force has been implicated in sexual abuse.
South African soldiers have been repeatedly implicated in rape and sexual assault committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the SANDF maintains a contingent of peacekeepers — peacekeepers who rape. These allegations date back nearly a decade. Since 2015, the United Nations has recorded 92 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in the DRC. A third of all cases (34) involved personnel from South Africa.
High levels of gendered violence are a disgraceful, shameful feature of South Africa’s history and present. So, in some ways, it is no surprise that this violence should replicate itself in the ranks of the defence force — or that soldiers perpetrate this violence on the vulnerable people they are supposed to protect.
As protestors pointed out earlier this year in countrywide demonstrations, gender-based violence is an epidemic that needs to be addressed with great haste.
The defence minister’s investigation into sexual exploitation and abuse in the defence force is a good place to start. But this investigation cannot ignore abuses committed by South African soldiers against civilians in other countries. To do so would be to risk entrenching and endorsing this behaviour.