Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Can a pacifist lead S. Africa's defense?

By Corinna SchulerSpecial to the Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 1999


Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge is an avowed pacifist and a member of the Quakers, a religious movement that objects to guns, conscription, and war.

Skip to next paragraph

So why did she land the second most senior job in South Africa's Department of Defense - presiding over arms deals and military missions?

"It is like appointing a vegetarian to be deputy head of a butcher shop," says Jakkie Cilliers, director of the Institute for Security Studies.

Ever since Mrs. Madlala-Routledge was appointed as the department's deputy minister in June, analysts have been debating whether the appointment is a stupendous gaffe or a stroke of genius.

She can only smile.

"Many people were surprised," Madlala-Routledge admits with a chuckle, settling down for a plate of fish and chips and an interview in her expansive Pretoria office.

"But I am prepared to face the challenges. In this deployment, I can work hard to create an environment where we don't have to use violence."

Madlala-Routledge is clear:

she hopes to steer the country's 50,000 uniformed soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel into a purely peacekeeping role in southern Africa.

Mr. Cilliers suggests her philosophy may well suit the South African government, which has cut defense spending by 60 percent over the past five years. Furthermore, "Her presence in the department could undercut any potential criticism from peace activists and civil society."

Still, there can be no denying that Madlala-Routledge's public duties are bound to lead to personal battles of conscience.

The Defense Department is planning to spend more than $5 billion on new jet fighters, ships, submarines, and helicopters from European arms manufacturers. And the South African Army may soon be called upon to enforce a peace deal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There are difficulties, says her husband, Jeremy Routledge, director of the Quaker Peace Centre in Cape Town and the man who introduced her to her religion more than a decade ago."There are some Quakers who think it is an impossible position [for her] to be in."

Madlala-Routledge, a mother of two, readily admits that she never expected to find herself walking the oak-paneled corridors of power at defense headquarters in Pretoria. She grew up in a mud-baked hut in rural Kwa Zulu Natal, where her single mother worked as a schoolteacher. She knew little of apartheid until she went to a missionary school, and the young black-consciousness leader, Steve Biko, came to talk to her class.

Madlala's resentment toward the government grew when she went to university and saw how apartheid police used guns and tear gas to quell student protest. At the same time, she turned away from traditional Christian churches.

"I was very angry because the church leaders did not want to get involved in politics," she says. "But politics was such a big part of our life. I also had a problem with how the church was interpreting Scriptures. I had a problem with this God, who was presented to us as white. How could God look like these people who were humiliating us, oppressing us through apartheid?"

She was keen to help fight apartheid, but didn't want to take up arms, a measure the African National Congress (ANC) had already adopted in its efforts to end white rule. So, for the first time, young Madlala walked a fine line between her personal principles and her political duties.