With pounding hearts but eyes firmly on target, record numbers of women are learning to use firearms in crime-riddled South Africa. Training starts with the legalities of owning a firearm, which to most, is probably the most effective tool to disarm attackers, and also an introduction to the sport of shooting.
By Paula Slier
– Additional reporting by Khaka Ngcof
– *Surname removed to protect privacy
Sitting on a carpet, I’m overwhelmed with a feeling of foreboding. A Kalashnikov rifle is pointed at me by a masked man smoking a cigarette. Behind him, three armed fighters chatter anxiously, casting looks in my direction. The far-off spurts of gunfire light up the night sky. I’m in a remote village in Afghanistan waiting for an interview that might or might not happen.
I chide myself, not for the first time, for coming here alone. If this tip-off proves false, I’m at the mercy of these men. The thought crosses my mind that I could grab the AK47 and…. then what? I’ve never held one of those guns, let alone shoot with it.
Which is why, a few weeks later, I find myself at a shooting range in South Africa. Despite the tip-off being correct, I am making good on a promise to myself that if I got out of that village alive, I would take control of my safety and no longer leave it to fate – or the goodwill of others. It’s fitting I’ve chosen to sign up in South Africa.
While a long way from Afghanistan, the statistics here are amongst the worst in the world which explains why record numbers of people, women in particular, are learning how to use firearms. Most want to be able to shoot for their own safety and that of their families.
From July to September last year, 13,000 women were victims of assault and [over 10,000] rape cases were opened by the police – “a needle in the haystack,” says Lynette Oxley, founder of Gun Owners SA (GOSA) Girls On Fire.
“Statistics show that only one out of six rapes actually gets reported. The police and the broader society are part of the problem. From interviews I’ve conducted over the past three weeks, 13,701 women were victims of assault, nearly 1,000 were murdered and 1,277 were victims of attempted murder.
There were 558 children killed and 1,895 who were victims of assault.”
However, stresses Oxley, this is not just a South African, but a global, problem.
“We have changed our focus from activism to action as predators will always be predators and standing on street corners [with posters] hoping to change people’s minds around gender-based violence just doesn’t work.”
GOSA focuses on firearm litigation, political and public outreach programs and empowering women. Oxley, who started shooting when she was 18 years old, was the first female South African instructor of the International Defence Pistol Association. She drew up GOSA’s training modules.
“A reporter told me that I would never get involved in the gun lobby because it was only white men,” she laughs. That was the catalyst that led to her establishing the organization.
“I feel very strongly that as a woman I do not need to stand back and sit in the background. Women are warriors; we don’t need to be second-class citizens.”
Girls and women from 11-to-85-years-old have benefited from the organization.
“There are some very sad, sad stories out there,” sighs Oxley.
“If you have to fight back, a firearm is probably your most effective tool, especially with a stronger and bigger attacker. It basically equalizes the playing field. You’re not going to be able to karate-chop a guy who is tough. Firearms are stoppages, you need to know how to at least pick the stoppage without even thinking about it.”
Training starts with the legalities of owning a firearm and progresses to situational awareness that includes tips like: don’t sit on your Facebook page while you’re stuck in traffic, look around, be aware of what’s going on; do not look like a victim because then you’re going to be chosen as one.
Many of the women who’ve completed Oxley’s training are now fully-fledged gun range officers, like Nthabiseng*. She survived being repeatedly raped at gunpoint by both her neighbor and a former friend.
Her initial reaction to learning how to fire a gun was understandably to stay as far away as possible!
“But then I just thought let me give it a try and see if I can finally close this chapter and get over my fear,” she confides.
“And when I went, I found quite a lot of women who were not only learning how to handle a gun but empowering themselves at the same time. It’s a kind of therapy. The idea is not to go and kill whoever is bothering you. You’re just trying to disarm them. It’s more about learning how to defend yourself!”
That first day was very emotional for Nthabiseng because it brought back the nightmares of what she’d endured.
“As I held the gun I remembered what it was like being on the other side of it and how much was taken from me. I’d seen my life flash by at the hands of men I trusted. I blamed not only the person holding the gun, but the gun as well. You soon realize that in the right hands, this piece of metal can have very different results.”
For many women, learning how to handle a weapon is not just about self-defence; it’s an introduction to the sport of shooting that is growing quickly around the globe.
In 2025, South Africa will, for the first time in over two decades, host the World Championship of the International Practical Shooting Confederation under the auspices of its South African chapter, the South African Practical Shooting Association (SAPSA). Zimbabwe and Kenya boast professional teams,
despite the relative high cost of the sport.
A competitive shooter with the SAPSA, Martin Janse van Rensburg, meets me at a gun range outside Johannesburg.
Four years ago, he set up a non-profit, MF Arms, to help men and women feel more confident and comfortable around firearms.
“For many women,” says van Rensburg, “the idea of getting a gun is scary. In a perfect world, every law-abiding citizen would be armed. You’re never going to get rid of illegal guns, but at least in this way, with responsible firearm owners, society would be a lot safer.”
Almost 70% of van Rensburg’s clientele is female and like me, most have never held a gun in their life.
As I pick up a pistol, with a pounding heart and sweaty palm, I’m convinced I can’t do this.
But half an hour later and not only have I become more used to gripping a gun, I’ve also learned how to load it and aim at a target.
The recoil frightens me and takes a while to get used to.
“Women have to take things into their own hands and become their own first responders,” van Rensburg insists. “It’s about becoming aware of your surroundings and then choosing how to best protect yourself. Many women prefer learning hand-to-hand combat to shooting because they’re intimidated by a gun. So I train them how to get out of a grip and neutralize a partner. We repeat it over and over. Repetition is important. Technique overcomes power. A small woman can overcome a big man.”
Using a knife is also an option and is more effective than hand-to-hand combat. There are many ways of concealing a weapon and for a city girl dressed in a corporate suit, a small knife hanging from her necklace underneath her blouse, can be very effective.
“Your first choice is always a firearm, but you must know that the second you pull it, you are prepared to use it. You can’t use it just as a threat. You need to know what you can and cannot do with it.”
Van Rensburg encourages all his clients to practice at least once a month at a shooting range so they don’t forget the skill. He has seen how, for some women, what started off as a way to defend themselves, soon becomes a passion for the sport.
“It’s a safe, controlled environment where one competes against shooters of different levels. You compete on speed, accuracy, and power. You become more proficient in using a gun and that selfconfidence rolls over into your life. It’s also not a very physical sport which is something women like,” he says.
Sharmaine Lombard, a gun range officer in training, admits that when she first picked up a gun she was “deathly afraid, I can speak to the girl who is quivering in her boots because she’s thinking this is a real gun, with real ammo, and she’s having scary thoughts of what she can do with it”.
Lombard’s husband introduced her to shooting, and she quickly became hooked, especially after growing up in an abusive home.
“There’s this whole mental metamorphosis you undergo from the moment you start. The things you learn even before you get to the firearm part is amazing. The biggest lesson is that as women, we don’t have to take crap or be in an abusive situation. We can take care of ourselves – and nothing is more empowering than that!”
As for me, I’m due for my second session with van Rensburg. Firing a gun hasn’t come naturally to me and I sense the journey is going to be a long one. While there is definitely something liberating about taking control of one’s personal safety, don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself.