Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences - Institute of Asian and African Studies



Gendering Military Communities: Black Civilian Women and Apartheid South Africa’s Military

Project lead: Dr. Lennart Bolliger

Throughout history, militaries have rarely been confined to military activities or military bases and the (male) soldiers within them. As recent studies of militaries have begun to show, armies have always been deeply integrated in and dependent on relations with civilians, especially civilian women, leading to the formation of so-called ‘military communities’. From early modern Europe to the American Revolution, countless civilian women have not only lived and migrated with militaries but have been essential to their functioning and survival. As a result, these women have shaped the impact of male-dominated militaries on social, political, and economic relations, in ways that go far beyond strictly military functions. For instance, army commanders have sought to regulate relations between male soldiers and women through marriage and family policies, which affected wider religious, cultural, and legal practices linked to marriage in civilian society. By being brought closer into the military’s fold, women, in turn, were able to at times use their strengthened connection not only to the military but the state to further their own interests, thus transforming their status and understanding of citizenship.

Such approaches to understanding militaries, however, have rarely been applied in African contexts, where the relations and impacts of military communities have been further complicated by the combined histories of race and colonialism. This holds especially true for the case of locally recruited armies of European colonial and settler regimes, which were central to the making of colonial states – first by expanding and securing territory, and then maintaining internal control and guarding borders. This research project focuses on the oral histories of black civilian women who were associated with one of the most powerful and influential African militaries: the apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF). At its core, this project asks: how does the focus on women’s stories in the study of military communities allow for the re-examination of civil-military relations and state-making?

This two-year project (2019-2021) is funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.