SOUTH Africa has sophisticated gender machinery present in public life, and 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 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.
An article in the Sunday Times of July 18 mentions several cases of sexual abuse against young cadets who claim, “systematic abuse of power by senior officers”. Among the allegations made were that:

• Two male cadets were raped by senior officials 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 SA 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 predominantly male dominated such as the army, police services, construction, or navy as in the case of Akhona Geveza.

What “rites of passage” do women have to endure to fit in, or is the challenge for women to adapt to a male environment? Commenting on the young cadet’s death the Cape Times said “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”.

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 (aka gossip) and at no time have we heard any allegations of sexual misconduct aboard any Safmarine ships,” she said.

I decided to pose these questions to a former soldier in the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), with the intent of attempting to understand how difficult it was 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 women were employed in the army to rectify the Employment Equity numbers. The SA Transport and Allied Workers Union and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have declared full support for an investigation into the death of Geveza, and hopes such an 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 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 pressurised 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 fanagalo, 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 exchanging sexual favours for help.

The stories for all of these women who seek employment in the mines or in the navy are a bread and butter issue, many are 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, while the men are quite highly ranked and can make the women’s only income disappear (if they whistle blow on sexual harassment)”.

In a research paper – “From the SADF to the SANDF: safeguarding South Africa for a better life for all?” – Noel Stott reflects on the nature of violence, in particular in the SANDF. He says the new legislation introduced to deal with gender related issues highlights the broader constitutional concerns regarding equality and also the role 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 a similar study in relation to the SANDF.

In the same report he refers to the fact that the conflict and violence of our past still plagues us, but has taken on a different form – 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 percent believed men were 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 . Men still considered women more suited to support positions because they were 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.