Source: Times Live
The helicopter hovers over the SAS Drakensberg. The paratroopers throw a rope from the aircraft. They’re dressed in full kit, faces hidden by headgear. They are part of an exercise by the South African National Defence Force to test the reaction capability of the army in a war situation. One by one, they climb down the rope and onto the ship, which is stationary off Saldanha. Among all the testosterone is one woman – the first to qualify as a paratrooper in South Africa.
When I meet Captain Suzan Johannes face-to-face at the Air Defence Artillery School in Kimberley two weeks later, I’m surprised at how tiny she is. She shows me around the base. A couple of metres away, soldiers mow the lawns while, further on, others jog on the sports field. Soldiers (all male) salute her along the way as we enter the reception area. How does a woman, and especially one who’s this slight, crack it in one of the most macho environments on the planet?
In fact, for 32-year-old Johannes, the physicality of it was relatively easy. She was always sporty while growing up, she says, and she still plays rugby and soccer. It was because of her athleticism that one of her matric teachers suggested the army.
« He told me he saw me in a career that was very physical. He didn’t see me being a nurse or a teacher. He told me that the army was where I should go. And having grown up in Limpopo, which is a very rural area, my parents didn’t have the money to enable me to study further, so I took the opportunity. » She joined the army in 1998.
She asks if I’ve seen the movie GIJane, during which Demi Moore undergoes hell to become a member of the elite US Navy SEALS. She says what she went through when she qualified in 2005 is similar to what’s depicted in the movie – very physical and difficult.
There’s a three-day selection process where soldiers go through various obstacles. During this time, they are given only one meal, which consists of a slice of bread and milk.
« They want to see how you’ll survive. You can survive without food for three days as long as you are drinking water. The moment you tell yourself ‘I’m not going to eat for three days’, then your mind will adjust to that. »
There are challenges, such as running 3.2km with a 10kg weight and a rifle in 18 minutes. Another is doing 67 sit-ups within two minutes at a maintained pace and rhythm.
« One of the things I had to do, was to walk 20km with 35kg on my back. I did that in one hour 58 minutes, » she says.
Only those who successfully complete the first day are allowed to continue.
« On day two, we do bush training, where we will do stuff like picking up a marble stone of 20kg, place it on our shoulders and then run with it. »
After the physical stuff comes the real challenge for a paratrooper: conquering the fear of jumping out of a plane.
« They train you on the ground first. There’s a simulator that we use. Then you jump from a high building with tethers to prevent you from falling.
« If you fail the building test, you won’t cope in an aircraft. »
Johannes says the fear of jumping from the sky is something she has to deal with every time she goes up.
« The fear creeps up on you when the aircraft is still on the ground and it starts to vibrate. You ask yourself, what if something goes wrong? Because once you’re out of the aircraft, you’re on your own.
« If you are up there and the parachute doesn’t open, you must know not to panic, you must know what to do. You must apply the drills or you’ll have to prepare yourself to die. »
Most people talk about death as if it’s an abstract concept, something that won’t ever happen to them. When Johannes speaks of it, however, it’s in that raw manner of someone who’s had close brushes with it.
On one occasion, a colleague who jumped out of the plane after her didn’t make it.
« He was three places behind me. His parachute didn’t open and he died. Most times I do feel that I’m putting my life at risk, but it’s my job and, at the same time, I love what I do. »
Johannes plays two roles in her life: that of commander, and also mom to 12-year-old son Lebogang and 10-year-old daughter Sue-Carmen. « Here I’m the commander and I command. I don’t beg or talk nicely. I give an order. But, of course, when you’re a woman, men will always want to challenge your authority.
« The moment I get home and take off this uniform, I’m the mom. And when I’m home I only wear dresses, because I’m always wearing pants at work. »
Johannes exudes confidence and her square jaw and direct way of talking display authority and strength.
« But it’s not easy for men to accept me. Some feel threatened, because they ask themselves, how can this woman do what they do? Some of them have tried three or four times to qualify as paratroopers, and still fail. I attempted it once and made it. »
In South Africa, the defence force started accepting women as soldiers only in the 1970s. Johannes is just one of the women who are part of the SANDF today. Below are the stories of other women who, like Johannes, have chosen a military life.
Major Catherine Labuschagne
- Age: 32, Jet fighter pilot
« I joined the air force straight after school because I wanted to fly, » says Labuschagne. « I thought the air force was the best route. I was 19 . In the first year we did basic military training, which was quite a shock to the system .
« Here you are, very young, straight out of school and you’ve got someone screaming and yelling at you. Telling you when to wake up, when to go to bed. You grow up quickly and there’s a certain amount of discipline. But I think it’s good. »
Although she got her wings in 2000, Labuschagne says that it’s a long road to get to where she is now. She flew Hawk helicopters for three-and-a-half years. She says that as a jet fighter pilot there are always new things to learn. « And because you’re always being assessed, you can never just sit back and relax. »
If you met her in any location other than the Overberg air force base, where we are today, you’d never believe that this demure woman – whose flying code-name is « Siren » – with stud earrings and clear nail polish on short nails is a fighter pilot in the SANDF, the only woman to achieve it.
Labuschagne tries to explain the physicality of her job. Flying at that height and speed is intense; so intense that fighter pilots wear a kit that weighs 13kg, part of it a cooling vest, and a G-suit, designed to prevent them from blacking out due to high levels of acceleration.
« When you are at the G-force limit of the aircraft, it’s actually quite painful, » she says. « You’re strapped in really tight in the cockpit so it’s quite restrictive … but the flying is just beautiful. »
Labuschagne tries her best to describe flying a Gripen. Then one of her colleagues gets into one to practise for an air show that’s taking place at the base at the weekend, and we see it in action. The sound it makes as it takes off, and while disappearing into the sky, hits you right in the heart. Even the ground crew of burly men hanging around the hangar, who work with the aircraft every day, stop to stare at it while it’s flying.
Labuschagne says she’s ready for war.
« We’ve always got to be ready. And just because there’s no war doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything. You can’t wait for a war before you start practising. »
Corporal Gwendoline Basson
- Age: 29, Rooikat crew commander
Basson is polite and shy as she introduces herself. She puts on her army beret in a masculine manner and stands up straight as she introduces the other three women who are part of her Rooikat team. She lets the crew of the 1 Special Service Battalion in Bloemfontein offer technical information about the armoured fighting vehicle. The women each have their own function – driver, loader and gunner. This demure crew, with their girly chatter, don’t look as though they could shoot from the vehicle. They say that at first it was intimidating to do it during army exercises, but now it’s easy.
Basson, who is originally from Upington, says: « I’ve been in the army for 10 years now. I joined right out of high school. At that time I wanted to study and I thought it would be a good opportunity to use the army to study. Then, when I joined, I felt that this is the life for me. »
In a war situation, the Rooikats would head out before the tanks to assess the enemy and relay information back to the tanks. The driver, Luriska Jooste, does a three-point turn in the 28-ton Rooikat and disappears around the corner to park it.
Basson recently married someone who’s also in the defence force.
« I think it’s better to have your husband or boyfriend in the army . Civvies don’t understand the day-to-day life of a lady in the army. »
By Ziphezinhle Msimango