The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Drive: Zero Tolerance for Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Exploitation

  /  News   /  The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Drive: Zero Tolerance for Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Exploitation

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) Drive: Zero Tolerance for Gender-Based Violence and Sexual Exploitation

By Tinyeko Captain Ndhlovu, Curator: Insignia, Memorial Plaques, Postal History, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History

September 2021


Our beautiful country, South Africa, recently marked the 65th anniversary of the Imbokodo generation, strong and courageous women who walked tall and marched against the Apartheid and pass laws in the streets of Pretoria in 1956. However, gender-based violence (GBV), violence against women and girls (VAGW), and femicide have continued to be a global tendency that have infiltrated into societies, schools, churches, public spaces and even workplaces. Unfortunately, South Africa as a country and members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are not spared from this torture, because GBV, VAWG, Sexual Exploitation Abuse (SEA), and other sexual transgressions are rated high, and even against their own fellow military women.. This paper focuses on the challenges military women face and the recent SANDF drive towards zero tolerance ethos for GBV and SEA.

Figure 1: Women in the SANDF at a women’s parade, Cape Town, August 2019 (Image: courtesy of Ministerial Task Team (MTT) Report 2020).

 “Not yet Uhuru”

  1.  Imbokodo Generation Available at Accessed 17 September 2021. 
  2.  Approximately 25 to 40% of women have experienced physical GBV, Sexual violence and VAGW in their lifetime: Accessed 15 September 2021.
  3. SANDF sexual abuse and exploitation exposed: Accessed in 01 September 2021.
  4. Not yet Uhuru’ tittle song by Dr. Letta Mbulu (South African Music Icon)

This year we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the Imbokodo generation under the theme “The Legacy of Charlotte Mannya-Maxeke.” Imbokodo is a Zulu phrase referring to “a rock”, usually used in the African saying “Wathint’ abafanzi, wathint’ imbokodo”/ “You strike a woman, you strike a rock.”  This saying is often used in several ways in describing the resilience of the women’s struggle against all sorts of ills. It is from this legacy of the Imbokodo generation, class, actions, and their wisdom, where we gather strength to keep fighting against any form of oppression and abuse against women (our siblings, sisters, and mothers) in any given time and in any environment. We should also not shy away from the questions and debates related to women’s total liberation from all sorts of GBV, domestic violence (DV), sexual violence (SV), VAWG, sexual harassment and assaults. Are we as a nation yet free? Are our women in our communities and the SANDF yet liberated? If not, how can they be liberated?

Pre-1994 South African military environment 

During the pre-colonial African era and globally, military environments were predominated by patriarchal societies. Examples are the Zulu Kingdom Warriors under the leadership of King Shaka Zulu kaSenzangakhona (1787-1828), and the French Military Army under Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). During the colonial era (since 1912), the South African military environment consisted predominantly of white males as the combat force, while black males were restricted to non-combat roles. Consequently, the army was also viewed patriarchal with no safe place for girls or women. For instance, pre-1994 the South African Defence Force (SADF) regarded and used their militarised space as a rite of passage, where “white boys were converted into men”. However, white women did serve during World War I and II under the Union Defence Force (UDF) with supportive and caring roles as from the1940s.  From the 1970s, the roles of white SADF females were non-combative or they were employed as auxiliaries. The SADF’s women were trained separately and their barracks were also apart from males. A special Army Women’s College was opened in George in 1971. However, females were encouraged to stick to their femininity, to allow the “soldier fitted custom” and male bonding to proceed.  

Black females also have a strong military background of being part of the liberation struggle which emerged during the 1960s. Post the 1976 Soweto Uprising, many young females escaped from South Africa to join the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) of the Pan African Congress, which they predominantly operated while in exile/outside South Africa in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia. MK and APLA comprised of males and females with combative roles. They trained together as colleagues with one mandate to fight and demobilise the Apartheid government. 

The South African military environment: post-1994

Post 1994, both patriarchal black and white men had to accommodate, transform, and share their militarised environment with women as their equals. At the dawn of democracy in 1994 the South African military environment had a mandate to be transformed and be of service to a democratic society. The SADF, statutory forces Bantustan TBVC and non-statutory forces, MK of ANC, APLA of PAC, the Kwa-Zulu Self-Protection Units of Inkantha Freedom Party (IFP) were integrated into the new South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

5. Shaka Zulu history Available at: Accessed 19 September 2021.

6. Napoleon Bonaparte History Available at: Accessed 19 September 2020.

The transition and transformation were, however, supposed to be more than an integration of forces and a renaming of the institution to the South African National Defence Force. The whole ethos of the defence force shifted, following the service to a democratic society, from that of an Apartheid state/SADF military culture and ethos to a new SANDF and the principles of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa. Unfortunately, the radical transformation from a patriarchal order to a democratic value system, that paved the way gender equality (males and females) is still overdue. In 1998 South Africa and the SANDF adopted a White Paper on South African Participation in Peace Missions. It covered the role of the African Union and South Africa’s continued participation within peace missions. It allowed South Africa/SANDF to assist in a time of crisis, to partake internationally and give authoritative input in the discussions on the future of international conflict management and the reform of intergovernmental organisations, such as the United Nations (UN), Organization of African Union (OAU) and Southern African Developing Communities (SADC). Both SANDF males and females were deployed to African countries such the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for peacekeeping operations under the auspice of the UN.

Furthermore, South Africa has partnered with the contact group for the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations with the mandate of endorsing the role of women in peacekeeping operations as well as the UN Secretary General’s Circle of Leadership on the prevention of, and responses to, sexual exploitation and abuse in UN operations.

7. New SANDF Available at: Accessed 01 September 2021.

8. Heinecken, L. 2021 March 22. Military needs transformation to address GBV, Stellenbosch University. Available at: Accessed 19 September 2021. 

9. A White Paper on Participation in Peace Missions was adopted in 1998: Accessed 19 September 2021.

10. Elsie Initiative Fund For Uniformed Women in Peace Operations named after Elizabeth ‘Elsie’ Muriel Gregory MacGill Available at Accessed 19 September 2021.


Figure 2: Women in UN Peacekeeping Operation. (Photograph: courtesy of Professor Lindy Heinecken, Stellenbosch University). 

 “I have received many engineering awards, but I hope I will also be remembered as an advocate for the rights of women and children” – Elizabeth Muriel Gregory “Elsie” MacGill (1905-1980).

The worst part is that for more than ten years allegations of sexual violations, sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), rape, transactional sex, and exploitative relationships, fraternization with local populace, and assaults levelled against some SANDF members who ought to protect and safeguard South Africa and doing peacekeeping outside our borders have been made. Individuals are sexually assaulted inside the army and while deployed on peacekeeping operations. Fortunately enough the Department of Defence (DOD) and the SANDF managed to deal with these issues. Some SANDF members facing such sexual violence were known, while two were unknown. At least 15 cases were concluded and nine members were dismissed from the SANDF. The UN confirmed that since 2015 there have been around 92 allegations related to sexual violations in the DRC; of these 34 cases involved SANDF members.  These sexual violation allegations levelled against the SANDF negatively impacted on and tarnished South Africa’s peacekeeping reputation.

The Commander in Chief of the SANDF and President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, said the following: “Sexual exploitation and abuse go against the grain of our military ethos and characterise and violate the very principles on which our democracy is founded.”

11. Saba, A and Jika, T. 2019. SANDF sexual abuse and exploitation exposed, Mail and Gaudian November available at: Accessed in 01 September 2021.

12. United Nations Peacekeeping: MONUSCO | United Nations Peacekeeping Accessed 19 September 2021.

13. The Ministerial Task Team, December 2020. Report on Sexual Harassment, Sexual Abuse, prepared by MTT for the (then) Minister of Defence & Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

14. Commander in Chief of SANDF and President of Republic of South Africa Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa strongly warns the SANDF troops on the sexual misconducts during Armed Forces Day, 21 February 2020 Cited in Ministerial Task Team Report 2020.

15. The DOD’s military ethos captured in the Codes of Conduct for Uniformed Members and Public Service Employees (Civilians): is rooted on the seven pillars, duty, loyalty, respect, selfless service, personal courage, honour, and integrity, as articulated in the Defence Act of 2002.

The then Minister of the DOD and VM, Mrs Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said the following: ”We must leave a legacy for the future generation that is serious about its stature in society and its embraced values of equality and committed to adopting a zero tolerance ethos for sexual misconduct”.

Based on a gruesome allegation levelled against the SANDF and need for intervention, Minister Mapisa-Nqakula initiated the SANDF drive towards zero tolerance ethos to GBV, SEA, and other sexual misconducts. She also tasked the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) as early as 2019 to do the investigations and consultative surveys and report on the matters related to sexual misconducts within the entire DOD and VM. The MTT did their task without fear and favour, and held consultative meetings with members of the SANDF across South Africa. A report was issued in December 2020. They mentioned that there is a gap between the high standards established by military ethos, policies, and the practice in the military environment. Some military women have reflected how they experienced an aggressive sexualised space in which fraternization, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct were part of their encounters.” The MTT Report recommended that the entire DOD had to transform their leadership style by owning and publicly acknowledges that there are challenges within the institution related to sexual violations. The DOD and VM/SANDF must transform their organisational culture to suit female excel and in a manner of healthy professional relations. A culture that will embrace the channels that will mitigate and provide avenues for the necessary healing of survivors.


The pre-1994 South African military environment was predominantly a patriarchal society. Although the combative roles were reserved only for white males, while black males and white women were restricted to non-combative, auxiliary, and caring services under the UDF. Even under the SADF women were permitted to serve only in supportive roles. They trained and slept in barracks separately from males. SADF women were encouraged to adhere to their femininity to allow men to bond and process with their “boys to men”, rite of passage.” Black women also have a strong foundation in the military as they were part of the armed struggle for national liberation, which emerged during the 1960s. MK of the ANC and APLA of the PAC were predominantly operating in exile, in Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia. They trained together as female and male colleagues, fighting against the Apartheid state. On the advent of the democracy (post 1994), the South African military environment obligated to transform in order to serve South Africa’s democratic societies. The SADF, statutory forces of the Bantustan TBVC, MK of ANC, APLA of PAC and the KwaZulu Self-Protection Force of IFP were integrated into the new SANDF. In 1998 South Africa and the SANDF adopted the White Paper on South African Participation in International Peace Missions. Both male and female soldiers had been deployed to African countries such as the DRC, for peacekeeping operations. South Africa also partnered with the Elsie Initiate for Women in Peace Operations with the mandate of endorsing the role of women in peacekeeping operations as well as the UN Secretary General’s Circle of Leadership on the prevention of, and responses to, sexual exploitation and abuse in UN operations. Despite that, South African peacekeeping efforts were negatively impacted and tarnished by the allegations made against SANDF troops.

President Cyril Ramaphosa strongly warned the troops that “Sexual misconducts go against the grain of the SANDF ethos and characters and violate the very principles on which our democracy is founded.” The Minister of DOD and VM urged the members to be great exemplary and leave a legacy for the future generation that will respect the law and policies of its country. Under the maxim “A Defence Force that Cares”, Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, tasked and lodged a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) to investigate and report on sexual transgressions and allegations that were previously levelled against the SANDF troops. The MTT discovered that there was a gap of high standards between the reality in units and bases and the ethos. The MTT recommended that the entire DOD and VM/SANDF leadership and culture should be transformed. First the leadership must admit and publicly acknowledge that there are challenges regarding GBV, SEA, and other sexual violations in the DOD and VM/SANDF. They must also drive the message of the Zero Tolerance ethos for GBV, SEA and other sexual transgressions. They must also involve civilian support organisations to assist in providing the professional assistance in healing the victims of sexual abuse. The leadership should ensure that the DOD and VM/SANDF become a safe space for women to work in and report such conducts without fear. GBV, SEA and sexual violations should not be tolerated in the SANDF or in South African communities.

16. Minister of DOD and MV, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, forewords the MTT Report, December 2020. 

17. Nosive Mapisa-Nqakula was elected as Speaker of the National Assembly on 19 August 2021, effectively have swapped positions with Thandi Modise. Available at 19 September 2021.

Article Verified by

S R Mackenzie


Ditsong Logo

Open Daily : 08:30 ‒ 15:00

GaMohle Building
70 WF Nkomo (Church) Street
West Pretoria
+27 12 492 5744, +27 12 323-6592