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Struggles for Peace


"We salute all young people who reject violence and who work for justice, because only through justice can peace be achieved."1

 

The ebb and flow of the anti-war movement during the 1980s gave rise to some memorable and often profound anti-conscription campaigns. The central objective was not only to do away with conscription, but to work towards a state of peace where the military would not be needed. This section provides details of some of the early campaigns which secured the ECC's role in the South African anti-war movement.

 

Supporting Conscientious Objectors

"Soldiers van die kerk!
Masters of the lock
Blind sheep and violent goats
Of the devil's own Vlok
Look to the CO and tremble!
Praise for the Conscientious Objector! Praise!
Praise for the Conscientious Objector! Praise!"2

 

The Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG) was a foundational component of the ECC, and since its establishment had "taken on a chunk of the ECC work."3 COSG members had become well equipped in confronting the challenges of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by ex-SADF conscripts, as well as the trauma of those facing conscription. COSGs often prepared COs for their trials - and even for prison time by teaching them "how to relax, how to do yoga, to meditate, to weep."4

COSG often opposed the decision making process of the Board for Religious Objection (BRO) which had been set up to inculcate objectors into the military system. Although 1722 of all applications to the BRO were successful, the narrow system upon which 'bona fide religious pacifism' was accepted excluded many whose 'bona fide' pacifist beliefs were not based on religious grounds.

Pacifism upon political grounds was not accepted - neither was religious pacifism when it stemmed from a non-monotheistic source as the definition of 'religious' required belief in a "supreme being or beings of a divine nature."5 For most COs, serving in the SADF would be a "grave moral compromise."6 Even wearing the uniform in Detention Barracks posed an ethical quandary, as it "implie(d) tacit acknowledgement of the label they put upon you - that you are a normal military offender."7 On this issue, COs such as Peter Moll and Charles Yeats could not be swayed. Yeats served time in his underwear, and even incurred additional prison time for his stance against wearing SADF overalls.

Support groups were often formed for individual COs to aide their families and friends in coping with the incarceration, as well as to raise awareness about the immutability of the CO's stance. Thane Haarhoff, member of the Saul Batzofin Support Group (SBSG) wrote in the COSG newsletter, Objector:

 

"...it feels as though he has been in for long enough now. We have all learned all there is to know about dealing with our emotions... he's not about to escape or crack up or assault his fellow prisoners...he's also not going to change his mind."8

 

The relationship of COSG to the ECC was often confusing, but ultimately the two groups complemented one another. The ECC differed from the COSG. Members "began to accept that support for individual COs did not go far enough," as a broad mandate against conscription would help build the anti-war movement."9

 

Focus on Namibia

"Let there be an end to the war...to the loss of life, the maiming of people, the psychological damage and all other costs this war is engendering..."10

 

One of the first national campaigns of the fledgling ECC was a two-week national 'Focus on Namibia' in May 1984 to draw attention to South Africa's ongoing occupation of what was then known as South-West Africa. Anton Lubowski, a human rights lawyer, as well as the first white Namibian to publicly declare his membership in SWAPO, spoke at press conferences and public meetings around South Africa with the message that South African military occupation in Namibia was unwanted and illegal. According to David Schmidt, ECC (Western Cape) Chairman in 1984, SADF presence in Namibia was "illegal in terms of international law."11 It was, in fact, a cause of the war. Conscription was anathema to peace in the region as it prolonged the military incursions.

Very little information around high mortality rates was disseminated within the South African press. Sheena Duncan, then-chairperson of the Black Sash, argued that the nation had been "put on a war footing without any of the public debate."12

 

Troops out of the Townships

The Border Wars did not only extend beyond South Africa's legal borders, but also took place "across the borders within South African society."13 The territorial policy of apartheid had become so ingrained, and so reliant on the SADF, that the only time most young white South African men could enter townships was when they were deployed there as SADF soldiers.14

The illusion of a white society striving for peaceful 'co-existence' with its neighbours was shattered for many new conscripts. They were forced to patrol the streets of Soweto, Crossroads, Gugulethu and many other black townships established on the edges of South Africa's most affluent cities. The ECC represented a generation of young English and Afrikaans speakers no longer willing to "suffocate in the lap of luxury" while their peers were compelled to occupy impoverished settlements not too far from their own homes.15

The focus of this campaign was a mass fast on 7 October 1985, which was the one year anniversary of troops first being sent into Sebokeng, one of the townships still being occupied by joint SADF and SAP troops. By fasting ECC members would show their "commitment to a just peace, and express solidarity with people suffering throughout South Africa."16

Three 'long fasters' would serve as catalysts for others to join this challenge - this included Richard Steele, ECC activist and conscientious objector, Dr Ivan Toms, a doctor in the Crossroads settlement and conscientious objector, and Harald Winkler, a religious conscientious objector.17

 

"The fasts proved to be an excellent means of reaching people who might feel threatened by more direct forms of political activity... in Cape Town for example Ivan was visited by over 3000 people, many of whom fasted in solidarity with him for shorter periods. ...by the end of the campaign...it was clear that in the white community there now exists a powerful movement for peace and justice."18

 

‘Cadets' is not Compulsory! Troops out of the Schools!

The escalating militancy of the South African education system was a product of the 1967 National Education Policy Act. It advocated 'Youth Preparedness,' which emphasized civic duty, patriotism and moral preparedness, and became a compulsory subject for two periods a week in every province in South Africa except Natal.19 All scholars were required to undergo training as a cadet unless "his parent or guardian objected thereto in writing."20 By 1977 the system was placed under the direct control of the SADF, becoming compulsory in state schools from 1977. By 1985, there were 193 254 Cadets deployed in 653 detachments with a budget of R6.5 million.21

School boys would don military uniforms to school once a week, where they would receive lectures on all things military. This aimed at inculcating the fear, paranoia and blind faith needed by the military to ensure conscripts toed the line. The implementation of the Cadets Out! Campaign would coincide with the first school term of 1986, with the central aim of informing school students of their legal rights to refuse cadets - as well as providing them with some perspective on the issue of militarization, both in their schools and, more broadly, in South African society.

 

Working for a Just Peace Campaign

This campaign saw the ECC add its "voice and muscle to the movement for peace in South Africa."22 Its campaign against conscription led the movement to advocate 'Construction not Conscription.' Numerous community-based projects were organised around the country in order to show the nation that "the energy of young men can be put to building our country rather than destroying it through military force."23 The ECC felt strongly that national service did not have to involve military service and also believed that "those who serve South Africa have the right to choose how they render that service."24 In a national press release, Johannesburg ECC publicity officer Annemarie Rademeyer outlined the ECC's motivation for the campaign:

"The system of conscription forces conscriptees to uphold apartheid policies. ECC knows that there are many patriotic South Africans who would rather participate in building a just, peaceful, democratic South Africa than be forced to take up arms in an escalating civil war."25

The activities of the campaign were to be decided upon in "consultation with representatives from the communities" in order to more effectively respond to their needs, as well as to demonstrate that "there are viable alternatives to military service."26 The response to the campaign was overwhelming, with over 600 participants participating in 6 different centres throughout the month-long campaign.

 

"(This included) a variety of work projects, which were not only constructive in themselves, but also served as a symbolic protest against the system of conscription."27

 

Campaigning for Justice

The campaigns listed above were seminal, placing the End Conscription Campaign on the map in terms of the South African liberation struggle. By the mid 1980s, the movement had experienced significant growth in membership and scope of activities. Centres were established all around South Africa, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth, East London, Grahamstown, as well as numerous active campus groups. Each local ECC faced a different constituency, so the nature of local campaigns often differed in approach, even if they were being carried out on a national level and maintained the general theme of bringing an end to conscription through demilitarizing South African society and bringing about alternative solutions for national service. These campaigns included the Anti-war Toy Campaign, the Yellow Ribbon Campaign, the Alternative Service Campaign, 'War is not Compulsory - Let's Choose a Just Peace' Campaign and the Release Objector Campaign.

Popular methods for implementing the campaigns included maintaining a public profile through posters, pamphlets and regular press statements, writing letters to newspapers and magazines, conducting surveys around issues related to conscription and militarization, picketing, protesting and conducting community work. These were always peaceful, but usually amassed an inordinate level of police presence and/or surveillance. Some activities, including the community work taken on, were done to "demonstrate symbolically and practically" the need for a "viable alternative" to forced conscription into the South African Defence Force.28

These regional centres were united through the constant movement and reporting back of the national organizer, whose task it was to centralize the campaign. After all, at its root the movement was founded on a single campaign aimed at bringing an end to the unique and insipid injustice of forced military conscription.


 

References

1 Statement by Brian Bishop, Chairman, Cape Western Region, South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), to be read at Public meeting, Defence Amendment Bill 59/1983, Rondebosch Congregational Hall, 23 March 1983. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A4.1.1

2 Buckland, Andrew, ‘Praise poem for Ivan, David, Charles and Saul', Objector, August 1989. South African History Archive (SAHA), AL2457 - The Original SAHA Collection, E6.4.5

3 Report on the 5th COSG National Conference, July 1984. South African History Archive (SAHA), AL2457 - The Original SAHA Collection, E6.4.3.

4 'Report of Workshop - how to support a CO'. South African History Archive (SAHA), AL2457 - The Original SAHA Collection, E6.4.2.10.

5 'Buddhist precedent for the Board,' Objector, 1984, South African History Archive (SAHA), AL2457 - The Original SAHA Collection, E6.4.5

6 Excerpts from an open letter, dated 19th October 1979, by Peter Moll (in which he again refuses to attend military camp) addressed to the officer commanding, Cape Flats Commando. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A4.1.1

7 Letter from Peter Moll (Serving a 12 month sentence for refusing to attend a military camp) to a friend, Detention Barracks, Voortrekkerhoogte, 28 January, 1980, Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A4.1.1

8 Haarhoff, Thane, ‘A visit to the dentist? Visiting Saul: a friend's impressions', Objector, December 1989. The South African History Archive (SAHA), AL2457 - The Original SAHA Collection

9 Letter from End Conscription Committee to ECC friends, Undated c. 1985, Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A4.1.1

10 Schmidt, David, ‘The ECC viewpoint', in ‘End Conscription Campaign, NO WIN, No war in Namibia,' Black Sash, August, 1984. Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA)

11 Ibid.

12 Duncan, Sheena, The Black Sash viewpoint', in ‘End Conscription Campaign, NO WIN, No war in Namibia,Black Sash, August, 1984. Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA)

13 O'Leary, Derrick, 'The Borders between Sanity and Insanity-the effects of the Border War on white South African society', Unpublished Honours thesis, Department of History, University of the Witwatersrand, 2007, p. 1

14 Ibid.

15 'Township Beat,' Kalahari Surfers, The Eighties, Volume 1, Shifty Records

16 Letter from End Conscription Committee, Cape Town, to ECC Friends, August 1985, Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.1.2

17 Report on Troops out of the Townships Campaign and Peace fast in South Africa, Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.1.2

18 Ibid.

19 O'Leary, Derrick, 'The Borders between Sanity and Insanity-the effects of the Border War on white South African society', Unpublished Honours thesis, Department of History, University of the Witwatersrand, 2007, p. 11

20 Pamphlet, 'Cadets is not Compulsory', issued by Black Sash, EDASA, PAAG, ECC. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.5

21 'Cadets' (information sheet). Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.5

22 Press Release', Working for a Just Peace. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.2.1

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.

27 Report, 'Working for a Just Peace Success', April-May 1985. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.2.2

28 'Alternative Service Project - Campaign Proposal', undated. Historical Papers, University of the Witwatersrand, AG1977 - End Conscription Campaign, A7.2.9

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