SAR, Vol 9, No 2, November 1993
WAR AND GENDER
REVIEW BY THOM WORKMAN
Thom Workman is Associate Director of York University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies.
Colonels & Cadres: War & Gender in South Africa by Jacklyn Cock, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1991. 253 pages
Jacklyn Cock's Colonels and Cadres: War and Gender in South Africa offers a sobering assessment of the future of South African politics. Colonels and Cadres laments the violent trajectory of South African society, and expresses the fear that the ordeals of war will force South Africans into a "survival mentality" involving "an emotional anaesthesia, a disengagement from others, a retreat from social involvement into a private defensive core."
One of the primary challenges thus facing South Africans, according to Cock, involves the collective extrication from the belief that violence is a "legitimate solution to conflict." But Cock concludes that the prospects for such a solution are bleak - unless accompanied by the radical alteration of gender relations in South African society. Thus, while Cock's concern with the "normalization" of violence has a prosaic ring in societies despoiled by the protracted wars of the twentieth century, she submits a distinct assessment of the violent turn that calls attention to South Africa's politics of gender.
Colonels and Cadres is theoretically driven by a rapidly expanding body of research that contemplates warfare from the perspective of the power relations between men and women, relations largely resting upon traditional notions of masculinity and femininity. War itself is understood to be bound up intimately with conventional notions that men and women have about themselves; genuine peace therefore requires the extensive alteration of traditional views of maleness and femaleness. "The construction of the male sense of self," Cock writes, "have conventionally required a militancy; militancy is the culturally endorsed way to be manly." Peace, in short, necessarily embodies the dismantling of oppressive relations of power between men and women within any society.
Cock cuts into the South African experience by similarly contending that the suspension of violence, especially the violence practised by the SADF, can only proceed if undergirded by the transformation of power relations between males and females. That is, she argues that the development of South Africa's "war culture" is bound up with conventional notions of masculinity in the South African context. Through the compilation of extensive interview research she persuasively argues that the militarization of South African society has mobilized traditional ideas of men as the protector and women as the protected. The masculinity of the protectors is equated with extreme aggression, bordering on savagery, and is carefully distanced from the soldier's understanding of women (the thing to be protected) and the enemy (the emblem of evil and disorder). When unleashed upon the civilian population, the policing forces of the apartheid state have proven capable of hideous acts of violence including the execution of prisoners, assassinations and disappearances, police killings, detention without trial, torture, arson, armed attacks and rape.
Women have also been drawn into the South African war machine, Cock shows, but in a manner consistent with the immuring social codes for women. In a society that defines women in terms of their nurturing roles, for example, women are thus called upon to be supportive wives and mothers to the men at the front. Similarly, in a society with discriminatory employment practices that relegate women to a narrow array of job options, women were consequently incorporated into the SADF in clerical, administrative and service capacities. Thus the growing involvement of women in the strategy of total war drew upon, but did not challenge, the traditional understandings of femininity in South African society. "It is significant that the increasing incorporation of women as a minority of the armed forces," stresses Cock, "has not seriously breached the ideology of gender roles or the sexual division of labour."
Cock also argues, however, that the practices of the SADF were unique only by dint of their scope and relationship to the South African state. The socialization (largely of men) into violence proceeds in all quarters of South African society, and invariably draws upon traditional notions of manliness and masculinity. The necklacing of suspected informants, for example, is imbued with the same "militarist masculinity" that characterizes SADF soldiers. Both the "war" and the "resistance" are widely viewed as avenues to manhood - avenues that transcend racial and class boundaries.
Cock carefully notes the reluctance of the ANC to accept the necessity of the violent struggle against the apartheid state, especially in the wake of the brutality of the SADF. She also draws attention to the fact that once the ANC accepted the role of violent struggle, there still was a greater tendency of the MK to include women into non-traditional roles. Nonetheless, Cock observes that the MK tends to exclude women from direct combat and from exercising any power and authority of men. Both the state and the liberation armies, she stresses, draw upon and contribute to the perpetuation of gendered stereotypes.
The socialization into violence/masculinity also registers among black and white school boys. Young black boys, for example, improvise toys and games such as "playing chicken" around used tear gas canisters or parading with wooden models of AK47s. Many young white boys, similarly, are actively involved in the playing of war games - played with pellet guns - in Johannesburg. These number among many childhood activities that effectively prepare boys for adult life in a violence-torn society.
Although Cock's argument proceeds on a number of levels, in the end it presses the bald contention that the increasing violence characteristic of South African society over the last two decades relies upon traditional constructions of masculinity. This thesis demands an equally blunt solution: The cultural notion that violence and aggression are acceptable forms of behaviour for men must be eradicated, a process that necessarily entails the recasting of gender relations throughout South African society. Residual traces of prevailing notions of masculinity will necessarily work to undermine the attainment of a viable and just peace.
In many respects Cock's study is intellectually derivative, selectively drawing as it does upon path-breaking examinations of gender relations in the context of WWI, WWII, the Vietnam War and the Nicaraguan revolution. The conclusion arising from the South African context, however, has profound implications for the construction of a more inclusive South African polity. Cock's conclusions conjure up well-elaborated critiques of reformist and nominalist political agendas. They help guard against the scholarly complacency characteristic of post-1989 social and political commentary. A partial solution to social oppression in South Africa is woefully inconsistent with a movement towards a meaningful and lasting peace.
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