"Life is but given to those who continue to win it back through struggle."1
Celebrating the ECC
The success of the 25th anniversary celebration since the launch of the End Conscription Campaign has revealed its ongoing relevance and the universality of its cause. According to ex-member Gavin Evans, most "defunct political organisations don't get to celebrate anniversaries."2 The launch of the campaign in 1983-1984 was celebrated through public talks, concerts, art exhibitions, and small, intimate gatherings in a number of the original ECC centres, including Durban, Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
On the 16 October 2009, the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Centre for Critical Research on Race and Identity hosted a seminar with papers presented by ex-conscientious objector Dr. Richard Steele, and Judy Connors, who has widely researched the twin issues of militarism and conscientious objection.3 The Durban Art Gallery's ‘Out of Step' exhibition showcased the creative energy of the ECC, and included a wall of remembrance honouring those who died or were physically or psychology affected by conscription.4 The Johannesburg event was held at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) in late October. The seminar included panel speakers Laurie Nathan, Gavin Cawthstra, Jo Ratcliffe, amongst others. In Port Elizabeth, a month-long series of events was headlined with a ‘Give Peace a Chance' concert, including original anti-war rock, with covers of classics like ‘Alice's Restaurant' and ‘Weeping.'5
For those who could not attend the local festivities, a number of smaller gatherings were organised overseas. Old ECC members have been re-energised by these celebrations, as seen on the End Conscription Campaign Facebook group, an effective platform for reconnecting old friends and comrades.
The official ECC: 25 commemorative events were held over three days at Cape Town's Spier Estate from 29 October-2 November 2009. Several fine art and photographic exhibitions were launched on the first day of the event. SAHA's extensive collection of ECC posters were displayed under the banner ‘Waar is Die Grens Nou?" and this was also linked to the ECC-25 virtual exhibition. Formal seminars included honest, incisive, and often critical, appraisals of the anti-conscription movement. The event included a range of acclaimed local speakers, as well as an international panel of conscientious objectors and anti-war activists, including a Vietnam veteran, the Chairman of War Resisters' International, an Israeli objector and an Eritrean objector.6
Tom Fox, front-man of Bright Blue, a renowned band in South Africa's 1980s counter-cultural music scene, described the reunion performance as a tribute to all "conscientious objectors and supporters."7
This show reincarnated an alternative lifestyle associated with this time - serving as a reminder that "lefty politics" were not only for "serious people who majored in Marx, wore woolly jumpers and ate lentils."8 For ex-ECC activist Alaister Teeling-Smith, "it was a dark time, but ironically it was a fun time."9
Addressing the Sunday thanksgiving service, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe spoke about how the ECC had contributed to the struggle, ensuring that "non-racialism was not just a vision."10 For a generation of young white South Africans, conscription had been their "most intimate connection" with the struggle.11 Civil society leader Zackie Achmat spoke about the inequalities that still plague South African society; it was necessary to question whether a civil war had been "averted...or...merely postponed."12
Today's conscientious objector: an international context
"From Soweto to Ramalla, bullets flew and the tear gas filled the streets attempting to suffocate the resistance..."13
Support and solidarity for the global conscientious objectors movement remains important, especially at a time of global economic hardship and rising trends of state-sanctioned militarism. According to the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection (EBCO), conscientious objection is not recognized in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Turkey, with COs being prosecuted as criminal offenders.14
Similarly, COs are recognized but discriminated against in Cyprus, Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Finland, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova, Albania, Poland and Montenegro.15
Contemporary struggles echo those of South African objectors in the late 1970s and 1980s, but today's objectors are protected by international human rights standards on the right to conscientious objection.16
War Resisters' International, an "81 year old international network of pacifist organisations with 90 affiliates in 45 countries" has created an International CO Day on the 15th of May, with the aim of highlighting current global CO struggles.17 In 2009, South Korea was the focal point of a campaign against forced conscription and militarism. Over thirteen thousand COs have been imprisoned in South Korea since 1939, leading one Korean CO supporter to argue that the movement is important not only in making people "think about what peace is but also (in) remind (ing) people of their lost human sympathy."18
The CO movement also supports anti-war struggles in countries where "conscientious objectors face challenges different from elsewhere."19 In Colombia, WRI's 2007 focus, it is "impossible to distinguish between any of the armed forces - be they government forces, paramilitaries, or guerillas."20
In a global culture of rising militarism, armies seek new methods to recruit volunteer soldiers. This has led to the revival of the counter-recruitment movement in the United States with the "primary focus" of demilitarizing the nation "by attempting to first demilitarise the minds of its youth."21 It helps many to make an informed decision about a "life altering decision that they are bound to for eight years of their life."22 The US-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors has helped tens of thousands of conscientious objectors in their countries since it was founded in 1948. Sadly, "due to the economy", it closed its offices in early 2009.23
Israeli CO Yuval Ophir-Auron has described the history of conscientious objection as the existence, "around the world" of "people who, win or lose, have managed to rise up and shout and choose and love and believe and struggle."24
The End Conscription Campaign has embodied this spirit of conscientious objection, and the overarching legacy of the ECC transcends debates about the relative contribution of the ECC to the broader struggle. What is important is that it allowed so many to rise up against conscription, to shout about apartheid, to choose not to serve, but instead to believe in, and struggle for, a more peaceful, just society.
The ECC remains an important example to the international peace movement of how the spirit of defiance can trump the might of the military.
13 Vardi, S. Ophir-Auron, Y., Goldman, O. ‘Ashley Kriel: A global legacy for Social Justice - A legacy for joint-struggle for freedom, equality and security for all in Israel-Palestine', 6th Annual Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture, University of the Western Cape, 6 October, 2009
14 See European Bureau for Conscientious Objection website
23 See Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors website
24 Vardi, S. Ophir-Auron, Y., Goldman, O. ‘Ashley Kriel: A global legacy for Social Justice - A legacy for joint-struggle for freedom, equality and security for all in Israel-Palestine', 6th Annual Ashley Kriel Memorial Lecture, University of the Western Cape, 6 October, 2009