Book Review: Guerrillas and Combative Mothers: Women and the Armed Struggle in South Africa, by Siphokazi Magadla, Pietermaritzburg, University of KwaZulu Natal Press (9781869145163), 2023, 222 pp.; Oxon, Routledge (R255, 9781032597249), 2024, 248 pp.

Guerrillas and Combative Mothers chronicles the lived experiences of women veterans of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle in response to two primary contextual factors: the silencing and erasure of women’s contributions to armed struggles, both in public culture and in academic and non-academic research, and the ‘untoldness’ of these stories – the ‘things that could not pass through our lips’ (pp. 102, 154) – by the women who took part.

The book has five chapters. The first three detail the experiences of women: combatants in chapter 1, combative mothers in chapter 2, and veterans’ integration into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in chapter 3. Chapter 4 analyzes post-apartheid life and chapter 5 (the conclusion of the book) discusses lessons learned from women’s contributions to the armed struggle for substantive gender equality in post-apartheid South Africa.

The book vividly records women’s firsthand involvement in the liberation struggle and resituates their roles as not just victims or supporters, but political actors in their own right who used their agency to fight apartheid, build acceptance of their presence in the struggle, help improve conditions for women, and, later, to counter gender inequality in what would later be the SANDF. This is an important counterpoint to the widespread fixation with sexual harassment and violence against women and girls in armed conflict, which, as the book shows, was only one aspect of their breadth of gendered experiences.

The book further disrupts distorted narratives around women’s agency in political violence by detailing the complexity of their multiple and intersectional roles and experiences. It brings to fore the layers of invisibilisation of women in the struggle. It takes an intentional intersectional approach to uncovering the voices and stories of women not usually foregrounded in historical accounts, notably combative mothers, thereby offering a more holistic picture of women’s diverse roles and identities. Guerillas and Combative Mothers expands existing framings by the likes of Gentry and Sjoberg (Mothers, Monsters, Whores, 2007),1 Matfess (Weapons, Wives, Witnesses, 20172 and Bloom (Bombshell, 2011),3 showing that these are fundamentally complex and non-binary, and cannot be reduced to simplistic theoretical or analytical frameworks.

Many discourses around women and conflict center on their operational effectiveness, conceptualized as how unwomanly or unfeminine they can become to be accepted. This book goes beyond the surface to help readers see that while women did not distinguish between their identities as women and soldiers, they both defied and enacted socially prescribed gender roles, womanhood and femininity within the armed struggle. Part of their meaning-making in this context includes rare insights into the formidable challenges faced by women in male-dominated security spaces, notably menstruation, sexual harassment and abuse, pregnancy, childbearing, and intimate relationships.

The book reveals the battle for acceptance that women faced in the armed struggle compared to their male comrades, which included the exclusionary terms of post-apartheid demobilization, the choices it forced women to make, and their continued vulnerability to the gendered social norms still regulating politics and security in South Africa today. In light of women’s bravery and the high price they paid in the struggle, the story of Major General Jackie Sedibe – once the highest-ranked woman in the SANDF and accused of receiving the ranking because her husband was defence minister (pp. 134-5) – is particularly telling.

Though focused on historical accounts from the 1970s and 1980s, this book raises questions that hold transgenerational and transcontextual salience. There are striking parallels between the experiences of women in uMkhonto we Sizwe and Poqo, as well as the tensions and contradictions surrounding women’s participation in security sector institutions across the world

The book draws on a rich array of sources, including life histories, documentary interviews, reviews of academic and non-academic knowledge, and poetry by the women whose stories it tells. Their voices are skillfully centered in a way that brings light to the very intricate details of their lives in the struggle. The book also underlines the significance of the person and the personal in feminist research through the expert weaving in of how Magadla’s family history and her personal feminist politics (pp. 17-8) led her to this research. In the concluding chapter, Magadla cites a young female student’s questioning of the women veterans’ gender ideology (pp. 189-191), pointing to a generational tension about approaches to gender inequality that reiterates the imperative of looking back in order to move forward – one of the book’s key objectives.

To this end, Guerillas and Combative Mothers is a critical project in feminist documentation and memorialization that helps narrow transgenerational knowledge gaps about histories of women’s struggle, and could strengthen cohesion towards combating gender inequality. It is a crucial addition to knowledge on women and war that has resonance for liberation struggles, civil wars, security sector reform, terrorism and violent extremism. I would highly recommend this timely,  insightful, and informative book to all scholars of gender/women and security, as well as activists and state actors. It serves as a source of fundamental knowledge to inform gendered reforms that recognize and give full credence to women’s involvement in armed conflict in Africa.

  1. C. E. Gentry, & L. Sjoberg, Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London: Zed Books, 2007..
  2. H. Matfess, Women and the War on Boko Haram: Wives, Weapons, Witnesses. London: Zed Books, 2017.
  3. M. Bloom, Bombshell: Women and Terrorism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
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