The toughest moment in Lieutenant-Colonel Tiisetso Sekgobela’s career happened in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She was in the operations room of her base when her troops ran into an ambush by rebel forces.
“Hearing the gunshots over the radio, the heavy rate of fire as they became involved in an intense battle, I was worried for my soldiers, but at the same time I had to calm the entire unit, reassure them that our patrol was being well looked after and we were doing everything we could to support them.”
At the same time, Sekgobela’s base came under fire in a separate, but synchronised attack. Her troops repelled the rebels, as she oversaw the successful extraction. “You have to act instantly, you forget whatever fear you have and you focus on how to support your troops,” she said.
Sekgobela is the commanding officer of seven South African infantry battalions, the only female commander on the continent.
She was also the first female battalion commander of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade stationed in the DRC; the global body’s only peacekeeping unit mandated to use force.
“People say women are emotional, but we didn’t crack.”
She’s about to join an all-women delegation of 10 SANDF combat officers to the UN at the end of the month to attend the global body’s summit on women, peace and security, and share testimonies on the importance of women in peacekeeping.
The SANDF has shattered the glass ceiling when it comes to appointing women not just to combat roles, but also to command roles in combat units, far ahead of the global average.
“In terms of peacekeeping, we are far better suited. We listen and we think out of the box when it comes to finding solutions.”
One of those solutions is epitomised by Major Seitebatso Block of the Intelligence Corps, who has spent two year-long tours in the DRC during which she designed a bulk SMS platform to communicate instantly and directly with the local population.
She evolved this into a campaign against gender-based violence for which she later received the UN’s military gender advocate of the year award.
Winning hearts and minds is a key component of the SANDF’s peacekeeping missions said Lieutenant-Colonel Constance Tlhaole, who recently commanded the RSA Engineer Squadron attached to the FIB.
“What broke my heart was seeing the children on the other side of the fence screaming for bread, the women who had been forced to become prostitutes. Security also became a challenge.”
Her response was to answer a request to assist the local orphans suffering from malnutrition. Her troops got involved, helping to look after the kids and even raising their own funds through a variety of internal initiatives from offerings at unit church services and movie nights, even beauty pageants - over and above pledging $20 (R295) a month to sustain the orphanage.
The engineers ended up planting a vegetable garden that not only sustained the orphanage, but supplemented their own diet too.
Tlhaole was interviewed by a local radio station and the story went viral, leading to local university students volunteering to come to teach the children whose education had been disrupted by the conflict.
There were added spin-offs too for Tlhaole. Grounding her troops with a hands-on humanitarian mission meant the discipline problems that sometimes beset peacekeeping missions became a thing of the past.
For Lieutenant-Colonel Caro Duven, peacekeeping has a different meaning altogether. The first woman commander of a C130 transport aircraft in Africa, she’s been flying to conflict zones since 2004, doing everything from peacekeeping to peace enforcement and humanitarian missions.
“The longest we are ever away is a month, by definition we fly in and out, but while you’re there if you can show civilians that kindness, they show you more respect. Showing compassion makes a huge difference, they will support you and not the rebels,” she said.
Major Caroline Komsana agrees. She is a directing staff at the Peace Mission Training Centre, where she is responsible for training the SANDF peacekeepers prior to deployments on UN/AU Peacekeeping/Peace Enforcement missions, as well as the SAPS.
She’s also a veteran peacekeeper, having spent a year as part of UNAMID mission Darfur (Sudan) where she was originally deployed as a Military Observer before being quickly re-assigned as Chief G9 (Civil-Military Co-ordination).
While she was in the Sudan, she oversaw a number of successful projects including the rehabilitation of a drug centre in Darfur, the equipping of a laboratory for a women and children’s clinic, the construction of a school for returning exiles and the construction of a fence around a girls’ school. She was also part of the female engagement teams that interacted with local women and victims of gender-based violence and rape.
“The women were far more open to speaking to me (rather than male officers) and we were able to create whistle-blower networks that were a very good source of intelligence allowing our military commanders to identify threats and plan their operations accordingly to neutralise them.
“I also spent a lot of time giving awareness courses to the soldiers on gender related issues, especially sexual exploitation and abuse.
“The civil military co-operation activities and the quick impact projects all contributed positively to building confidence between the peacekeepers and local authorities.
“What kept me going and motivated was the quote: ‘Do your little bit of good wherever you are, it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world’.”
Last month, South Africa ratified its own National Action Plan on women, peace and security, in alignment with UN Resolution 1325.
“As we think of peace in Africa, we are profoundly aware that peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to handle conflict through peaceful means. It underlines how important our National Action Plan on women, peace and security is, aligning ourselves to the UN’s Resolution 1325 - and foregrounding women in the prevention and resolution of conflict, humanitarian response and post-conflict reconstruction,” Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said at the time.
“The National Action Plan addresses all of this through four pillars: participation, prevention, protection, relief and recovery: ensuring that women are part of the process to develop, implement and assess gender-sensitive laws, policies and strategies; ensuring that women meaningfully take part in and are part of peace processes, structures and institutions; creating an inclusive, peaceful and safe society, ensuring they are protected and providing safe spaces of refuge for victims of humanitarian crises.”
For Sekgobela, it’s about ensuring that women soldiers get their chance, nothing more, just an equal opportunity to be in combat and to be in command.
“I’ve been in the infantry for a long time and women’s participation in operations was always questioned.
“I needed to go there and see for myself and prove that it wasn’t women who were part of the problem.”