Reshaping the forces.


South Africa's Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, remembers the day she walked into a conference of defence ministers, confident and ready for deliberations, and realized that her counterparts, mostly men, thought she was just an aide to a defence minister. Their surprise grew when she sat in the chair reserved for the minister from South Africa.

'Their reaction was like, 'Oh, OK, you are the defence minister of South Africa?'' Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula recalls in an interview with Africa Renewal at the UN headquarters in New York.

The lady minister is soft-spoken, chatty and charming, but she's toughened by years of courageous activism during the apartheid era and the storied actions that led to her becoming head of key government ministries.

Cabinet positions

Since 2004 successive South African presidents have appointed her to key cabinet positions. Thabo Mbeki appointed her minister of home affairs in 2004; Jacob Zuma appointed her minister of correctional services in 2009 and minister of defence and military veterans in 2012. She retained the defence portfolio under current president Cyril Ramaphosa: first after he took over from Mr. Zuma in 2018 and then in May 2019 following his election to a full term.

On issues relating to women's empowerment, Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula's steely resolve comes to the surface. 'Women must take their rightful place,' she says emphatically. 'Women don't want to be patronised, they want to be recognised for what they do.'

South African women, like women in other African countries, face many obstacles, including income inequality and cultural practices that discriminate against them. But Ms. Mapisa-Nqakula is optimistic about women's march toward equality, believing that her success despite myriad obstacles, and the successes of others like her, may begin a domino effect that will ultimately lead to a positive social change.

'South African women are assertive and are rising to the challenge. Women all over the world are taking their rightful place,' she points out.

Of her views on women's empowerment, she favours a focus on women's abilities, which is why she draws attention to her substantive accomplishments.

'For me, the proof is in the pudding. I think I have earned [the South African people's] respect,' she says.

Key accomplishment

A key accomplishment of her ministry is making the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) attractive to 'men and women [who will] enlist...

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