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Cape Town - In the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) grievances are rarely heard and often go under-reported as a result of a “band of brothers” culture, the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) has charged.
Commanding officers are protected by friends in higher ranks, who can easily make sure that if complaints are made, they “won’t go anywhere”, said Sandu national spokesman Pikkie Greeff.
Most people don’t even report complaints, because they are told it would be pointless.
Annual reports by the Defence Department from 2007 to 2012 show that, in the past five years, only one case of sexual assault has been reported in the military.
Comparatively, in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 2003 and 2011, 38 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse were reported against 58 SANDF members. Of these cases, eight were lost and 20 were never prosecuted.
In the US military, as many as 26 000 members were sexually assaulted last year alone, according to a recent report from international research organisation the Rand Corporation.
“How is it possible therefore that, over the past five years (in South Africa), only one case of sexual abuse is recorded in annual reports of the Department of Defence?” asked David Maynier, the DA’s spokesman on defence.
“I suspect there is massive under-reporting of sexual abuse in the SANDF,” he added.
Helmoed Romer Heitman, military and defence analyst and senior correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the culture of being “well-connected” in the military was particularly evident in Third World countries.
“There is a heck of a lot more sexual assaults than one, but women don’t think anyone will follow it up,” he said, adding that “if you are a loyal party member, the offences against you will be quashed”.
In the Western Cape, five female soldiers were allegedly also discriminated against due to their sexual orientation, while
13 soldiers have died over the past decade at the Oudtshoorn Infantry School.
No one has been held responsible.
Asked to comment, SANDF spokesman
Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga said the responsibility to hear each alleged grievance lay with the complainant, with each unit’s grievance office, and the relevant military authority structure.
“There are many avenues within the military for your grievance to be heard. It is beyond my comprehension that people are reporting grievances and nothing is being done,” he said.
But Tim Flack, Western Cape spokesman for Sandu, was adamant that sexual harassment was common, but that people were too afraid to report it.
“Because lower ranks are terrified of higher ranks, these incidents can easily be swept under the rug,” Flack said.
One Cape Town corporal, who did not wish to be named, said that while the SANDF’s code of conduct dictated that no one may be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation, nor may anyone use their rank to exploit others, the policy was not being adhered to.
“They (commanding officers) are not working according to the code of conduct. They are working according to their own policies,” he said.
“If you’re in a high-ranking position you have the authority to do what you want. They are the management and no one is above them in the unit,” he said, referring specifically to the case of a lieutenant-colonel accused of refusing contracts to lesbians at the 9 SA Infantry Battalion in the Western Cape.
Despite reports of discrimination dating back to 2010, the lieutenant-colonel remains in charge of the battalion.
He refused to comment on the allegations when approached by Weekend Argus.
In 2011, he allegedly denied a military contract to a female soldier who successfully completed training. She said he told her he did not want any gay or lesbian people in his unit.
She is currently unemployed, and has been able to serve only in the South African Army Reserves.
She said she would never forget him telling her: “I know people in higher places.”
This incident, along with some other cases, was reported to the military police. But nothing was done.
“How can we do what the code of conduct is telling us if my superior isn’t?” the woman asked. “What kind of example is he setting for other officers and troops?”
The Triangle Project, a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights, has joined forces with the union to seek justice for these women.
Project advocacy co-ordinator Dr Ingrid Lynch said that despite the military’s policy against discrimination and harassment, there was no will to implement it.
“The power differential in the military allows for this discrimination and harassment to happen. It makes it difficult to come forward because victims of lower rank are easily silenced,” she said.
Lynch hoped that a
s more people came forward to report their grievances, momentum would build, putting pressure on the SANDF to finally act.
The DA’s Maynier agreed, saying the gap between policy and implementation had to be bridged.
“There is an environment and culture that when you make a complaint, nothing will get done,” he said. “And that is backed up by facts.”
Harassed and fired
One female soldier from Potchefstroom told Weekend Argus she was sexually harassed by her superior for more than three months while on deployment. The sergeant major in charge of her unit would call for her late at night, visit her barracks after hours, and even walked in on her while she was in the shower.
He told her that if she did not have sex with him, he would terminate her contract, she said. She tried to file a formal complaint in May, but the military police refused to take it. She ultimately lost her job for not keeping quiet.
She said she was told by her superiors: “If you open a case of sexual harassment against the sergeant major, or see a social worker, he will terminate your contract and withdraw you from deployment.
“He is the sergeant major, he can do whatever he wants,” they told her. The man was never charged. In August, the woman took her case to the Sandu. Crying, she told of the result: “They won, I am out of deployment, I don’t have my contract any more.”