Colonel declares war on gay troops

27 September 2013 - 08:20 By GRAEME HOSKEN
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Allegations of discrimination against homosexual soldiers by a senior officer have sparked an investigation and demands for his immediate suspension.

The alleged discrimination, which is being investigated by the Triangle Project - a gay and lesbian rights group - and the SA National Defence Union, is said to have occurred over the past five years.

The military careers of scores of soldiers are said to have been ended because of their commanding officer's alleged homophobia.

Triangle Project and the union want a Defence Ministry inquiry .

Defence force spokesman Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga said he would respond to the allegations after he had received more information from the army.

Triangle Project's advocacy coordinator, Ingrid Lynch, said the allegations were symptomatic of the homophobic discrimination common in the defence force despite its world-class anti-discrimination policies.

The officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Feni, who commands 9South African Infantry Battalion, based in Western Cape, allegedly prevented young recruits from securing long-term service contracts because of their sexual orientation.

Feni has refused to comment on the allegations.

The defence force has established a "military skills development system" to attract volunteers into the military after high school. Recruits serve for two years. If they meet certain criteria they are offered a long-term contract, enabling them to make a career in the military. Unsuccessful recruits join the SANDF's reserve force.

A commanding officer's recommendation is required for recruits to secure a contract.

A soldier whom Feni allegedly prevented from securing a contract last year said: "The first day we stood on the parade ground the commander said if we were gay or lesbian we should leave.

"I thought he was joking but he was not. Right from the beginning we were told that we would go no further than the reserves. He said he would not have gays or lesbians in his unit.

"All I want is my job back .

"This man must be stopped from ending the careers of many good soldiers," she said.

The Times is in possession of complaints written in 2010 by a group of five former female soldiers who claim they were forced out of the SANDF by Feni.

The documents include a letter from the group to the then head of the military's interim service commission, Judge Ronnie Bosielo.

In his reply, on December 31 2010, Bosielo said: "The content of your submission has been duly considered in providing more insight on the views of how the conditions of service impact on the SANDF . Your submission has subsequently been referred to the chief of the SANDF for the service chiefs/divisional heads' attention to respond to your submission and finalise it upon which the commission will monitor the progress."

Despite Bosielo's reply, discrimination against homosexual soldiers in 9South African Infantry Battalion allegedly continues.

Those who signed the letter, and raised concerns on behalf of 17 other soldiers, are now unemployed.

As reserve force members, their only income is their stipend for the annual month-long military call-up.

One of the letter's authors said she wanted her job back.

"I love my country and want to serve. What happened was wrong ... this must be investigated. We tried raising the matter but no one listened. We were promised help, but no one did."

The Triangle Project's Lynch said: "The military has policies banning discrimination but there is a vast difference between what the policies say and what happens.

"It is in the implementation of these policies that the failures occur, with no consequences for those violating these policies.

"As long as soldiers continue to experience discrimination based on sexual orientation the policies remain nothing but paper rights offering little real protection.

"What allegedly happened is not unique ... it is part of a far wider problem.

"On a monthly basis, our staff counsel SANDF members suffering from discrimination because of their sexual orientation . some discrimination is outright, some subtle but with equally devastating effects, often career- inhibiting.

"We don't just want this specific case investigated . we want an investigation into the wider discrimination ... into the conditions making this possible."

The defence force union's Western Cape organiser, Tim Flack, said: "Evidence, including sworn statements from officers sitting on panels [that decide] whether [recruits] can receive long-term contracts, show how the officer allegedly discriminates against homosexual troops.

"The minister must take action. Nothing appears to have been done to stop the alleged discrimination."

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