SAN brings gender to the fore


Coinciding with Women’s Month, the South African Navy (SAN) recently held a SAN Gender Conference over three days in Cape Town.  

The SAN is one a very few navies that allow women access to all roles and musterings within the navy. The two big no-go areas were submarine crew and diving, but these have now been opened to all and women now participate at all levels in the SAN, including the command of warships. 

The SAN Gender Conference of 2009, the first to be hosted by the Navy, was focused on building all South Africans together. Although it focused on gender and ensuring that women take their rightful role in society, it also recognised that men must also be mainstreamed in their rightful role.  

Rear Admiral Robert “Rusty” Higgs, Flag Officer Fleet, said: “We take everybody equally seriously and therefore it is very important that all women in the navy must be strong. If they are not strong, then we will do what we can to make them strong. Similarly, we need every man in the navy, but we don`t need weak men, we need strong men.” 

As such, the navy has implemented a strenuous training and development program which encapsulates the body, mind and spirit. 

“We are looking at women in themselves; we are looking at men in themselves. We need both strong,” Higgs said with reference to the Conference. 

The Navy is working towards a 30% representivity by women within the entire navy. To achieve this, the latest Military Skills Development intake is 40% female.  

According to Higgs, the integration of females on board ships has evolved over the years and has generally been a smooth process. This is current issue is how the Navy is going to address how people regard themselves, not as men and women at sea, but to regard themselves as professional navy people serving at sea.  

Higgs said that there were still important issues such as fraternisation where there are clear policies to prevent the command system being destroyed. “Discipline is fundamental to everything, but the Navy must reflect society. If we end up with gender issues such as with fraternisation or improper relationships, then it will undermine command and control, it will undermine discipline and effectiveness and ultimately the safety of the ship”. 

As such, there has been an evolution of naval culture, which has had to adapt over the years. For example, there was a time when people were allowed to drink alcohol at sea which is now forbidden. Similarly, men have had to improve their language. 

Capt JG Rustin-Patrick, Base Manager, Naval Base Simon`s Town, mentioned that there are reports of discipline amongst sailors having improved since there have been women on board the ship.  

“Men have improved their language, the old sailor language is still there, but not as crude and as prevalent as it was in the past. The men have just adopted this attitude that we have women in our midst. Yes, they are colleagues and they are fellow sailors, but they are women. As women, we appreciate these things because it shows that they respect you as a women as well as being their colleague and a fellow sailor,” Rustin-Patrick said.  

As explained by Capt NS Gumede, Assistant Director Naval Transformation, the Navy has an overall Equity Committee Forum, chaired by the Chief of the Navy, representing all the units of the Navy. The workings of the Equity Committee is sent to the Gender Forum in all the units. These Gender Forums look at issues of sexual harassment, promotional and pregnant policies, etc.  

The Equity Committee Forum also reports to the Chief Directorate Transformation Management at Defence headquarters. They have a solution, advisory and monitory function, monitoring the overall transformation in the Department of Defence. 

Over 250 uniform and civilian members of the navy attended the conference, of which 70% were women.