Can a pacifist lead S. Africa's defense?

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

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.

In1979, she joined the underground structures of the banned ANC. "We supported the armed struggle. But I had this principle that I would not hold a gun."

Madlala's pacifist ethics led her to work with the End Conscription Campaign in the 1980s - through which she met her future husband. He took her to Quaker meetings in Cape Town.

This religion was like none she had ever known. Madlala discovered a faith that focuses only on quiet meditation as a means of reaching God. Followers uphold five basic testaments: truth, equality, peace, simplicity. and community.

Madlala and Routledge were married in 1989 in a Quaker wedding ceremony and, after years of volunteer work with peace groups and women's organizations, Madlala-Routledge was elected to South Africa's first black government in 1994.

She toiled in obscurity as a mere back-bencher for five years. But, when the ANC won its second landslide victory last June, a party official phoned to say President Thabo Mbeki wanted her in his Cabinet - as the deputy minister of defense.

She was torn. This was her chance to leave small-time politics for a position of power. But her religion asks members to refrain from war. Could she do both? She decided she could. "Quakerism is about recognizing and upholding life, and being a Quaker helps me ... to think deeply about issues, and I believe we need that to achieve peace."

It is not secret that her appointment shocked many longtime defense employees. Col. Gordon Lennox, a senior administrator at defense headquarters, says the biggest surprise was not that the new deputy is a pacifist - but that the boss is a woman. "She's no defense hawk. She wasn't known.... But I haven't heard any rumblings about her religion."

Her personal security guard, Rhode Truter, says Madlala-Routledge has brought a soft touch to the department. "She's relaxed, friendly, a real family person. I'm low-ranking, but she always talks to us like we are somebody."

Former colleagues give her almost exclusively rave reviews. Many remember her dogged work on two important parliamentary committees - Land Affairs and the Status of Women. She has been called frank and open, humble, and too modest - a politician who refused to make power plays and was never opportunistic.

Some Quakers see the opportunities her appointment represents. The Quaker-led Coalition for Defense Alternatives, which lobbied vigorously against the government's weapons procurement, is planning to request a meeting.

Meanwhile, others are waiting to see how Madlala-Routledge's role will be defined. Will she sit on the powerful committee that oversees the export and import of weapons - as her predecessor did? Will she take a leading role in deciding upon military missions?

Routledge, her husband, recalls the story of William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania hundreds of years ago. When he joined the movement, he asked fellow followers if he could continue to carry his nobleman's sword. They told him to carry it for as long as he could. But one day Penn announced that he could carry it no more. "Nozizwe is carrying the sword right now," Routledge says. "And I support her all the way. But ...the day may come when she can carry it no more."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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