Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

Date: July 5, 2015
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From poacher to gamekeeper? South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Defence Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge

As she begins the interview, Deputy Minister of Defence Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is honest enough to recall a conversation she had with her interviewer while she was still an MP, and chaired the Parliamentary Women’s Group (PWG), on whether women should “buy into the patriarchal agenda” by enlisting for the army.

A Quaker and pacifist by background, Madlala-Routledge confided her dilemma that on the one hand women have an equal right to participate in the defence of their country, yet on the other doing so legitimises its very existence. She says in her current post, “there is a continuous struggle for me internally to say: I am in this organisation, and my task is to work for transformation. I have to be aware that I am not absorbed in the process.”

Globally, according to the IPU, women comprise a mere 2.1 percent of ministers of defence, the lowest proportion of all women cabinet ministers.

She describes how the job came as a complete surprise: “I had not put it in my mind that I would be appointed as a deputy minister let alone the deputy minister of defence! When I got the phone call, I said you must have made a mistake, and I gave the name of the person I thought (the president’s office) was trying to reach.”

When the evening news confirmed her appointment, she sought a meeting with the minister in the office of the president to try and understand why she, with her ambivalent views towards the military, had been appointed. She spoke to others in high places, all of who said, “the President wants you to be there.”

Of all the legacies of apartheid, the military is perhaps one of the most painful. For the last decade, the military has sought to revamp its image of inequality both in terms of gender and race; its secretive and surreptitious ways and the ambivalent feeling that the army evokes among communities.

“The new dispensation wanted a military that is accountable to the people. It needed civilians from a completely different background to help achieve that.” She reasons that appointing a woman had the double advantage of “sending out the message that there is political will to transform; and that women are encouraged to participate at every level of the national defence force.”

She sought to understand “what the senior officials, especially generals from the old South African National Defence Force (SANDF) thought, because they still occupy quite a significant role in the different structures. They were more worried about the fact that I am a woman, rather than that I am a pacifist.”

After three years, she says, “I have a very positive feeling about my acceptance. I have learned that it is okay to plead ignorance, to say I don’t know everything, but to assert that I have a right to be here. There is a message coming through that says having a woman means that if there is something to get done it will get done. They find I am more accessible.”

With her civilian background Madlala-Routledge has concentrated on making the SANDF a more hospitable environment for women and changing the image of the army generally.

From a virtual zero baseline, women now constitute some twenty percent of the armed forces, although they are still less than this in the most senior ranks.

“I keep posing the question about targets and plans, and whether we are creating a conducive environment for women to participate,” she notes. “What I am trying to do is to encourage women in the command structures to know that they can use my office when their own authority is no longer sufficient or when they need support.”

She adds: “We have a policy on sexual harassment that I helped to formulate. We are looking at issues like pregnancy and the military environment; at what stage should pregnant women soldiers stop going on parade, or is it no longer safe for them to go on the frontline. There are also issues of procurement: how do we ensure that blacks and women benefit. When people come and brief us, they already prepare points on issues they know I would ask. If they do make mistakes and fail to mention them, they know I will raise them.”

The high point for Madlala-Routledge in her new job was a workshop that “brought together civil society and the military to talk about peace through a gender lens. A few men participated in the workshop. I got feedback from the men who said ‘you have allowed us to see peace through a different perspective’, something other than a traditional male perspective.”

A few days before the interview, Madlala- Routledge recalled how she had spoken at a dinner in the archly conservative town of Stellenbosch, the cradle of apartheid. A male officer and his wife came up after the speech and thanked her for the space that she had given him to feel that “as soldiers, we are actually pacifists. We do not want to go to war. I felt good that he felt comfortable to say that to me. I doubt that he could have said it to a man.”

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