The home front: a white woman against apartheid and conscription

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Kathryn Mathers

The most telling image of my adolescence in 1980s South Africa was the silhouette of a war memorial, like many found all over the world, listing the names of soldiers killed defending our borders. Some of these soldiers were con-scripts. Most white South Africans could ignore the social and political consequences of apartheid, which cre-ated their privilege. “Our boys on the border” were an ever-present reminder to them of where they lived.

The “border” was that ephemeral place, more ideological than geographic: the last barrier between South Africa and what the propaganda of the day called the Black and Communist Onslaughts. The physical border was between Namibia (then South West Africa) and Angola. While we were told we were being protected from SWAPO (South West African Peoples Organisation), whose members were furthering the goals of international communism by fighting for their independence, “Our Boys” were dying across that border, inside Angola and across other borders in Mozambique. Later, conscripts patrolled the townships, where the civil war that was never acknowledged was being fought.

My high school years were dominated by the sights and sounds of “Forces Favourites” (an extremely popular radio request programme for the “boys on the border”), movies like Boetie gaan Border toe (literally, “Little Brother goes to the Border”), “Ride Safe” signs (these showed where travellers should pick up homecoming conscripts along the freeways) and cadets (pseudo-military units established in high schools). Between a father in the South African Defence Force (SADF) and a conviction that we were threatened by external forces, I was very comfortable with the level of the militarisation of my country - until I went to university, and started to learn more.

As apartheid degrades, conscription escalates

The draft, and the use to which draftees were put, escalated during my adolescence: by 1985, conscription for all white men not registered in college full time had increased from one to two years, with an additional two years of reserve service in camps - perhaps a week running the office of the local reserves, a month on the “border”, patrolling a township. Religious grounds were the only formally accepted basis for conscientious objection, which then earned you six years of alternative service in a government institution.

Such posts were seldom of much service to anybody. Teachers, for example, were not allowed to do work that brought them into contact with children. The risk of corruption was presumably too grave. Objection on any other grounds led to six years in jail, or less if a portion of your time had already been served.

To avoid conscription, white South African men were achieving a level of education way beyond their needs or their means, or flocking to Britain and the Netherlands to apply for refugee status. One way of dodging your call-up was to just never receive the registered letter in which it came. As a result, many white South African parents were sharing an experience common to so many black South African families: they did not know where their sons were.

Another ironic escape was open to many medical doctors, who went to work in the hospitals in the so-called independent homelands created as reserves for black South Africans. These options were, however, only available to the wealthy and privileged, by no means a universal for all white South Africans. Conscription depended on misplaced patriotism and relative poverty.

Joining the struggle by fighting conscription

With a father and a brother in the volunteer forces, my decision to enter the struggle against apartheid by joining the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was a very personal one. Whether this was the rebellion of a “good girl” against her militarist and conservative family or the fulfilment of that same family's liberal values, conscription was the most intimate connection I had to the struggle being fought on so many fronts in my country.

Like many white South Africans I was very removed, with my perfect record at my girls-only, whites-only high school, from the realities of apartheid. It was still possible to live a life completely separate from the country's black population, and poverty, violence and oppression. My own opposition to apartheid felt then too intellectual: no matter how fervent and earnest, any battle I might fight against apartheid felt patronising. I would be working on behalf of others, for the freedom of others, not so unlike the “masters” of apartheid. This is not to put down the incredible contribution that white South Africans made in the full spectrum of anti-apartheid organisations, but I needed my contribution to be direct, to be personal.

Conscription was personal. I was intimately aware of the damage that military training, whether it leads to active service or not, could do to an individual, a family and a society. White South Africans had to face the results of putting the vast majority of their men through basic training (boot camp) and combat. Domestic violence was endemic and post-traumatic stress disorder was striking the most patriotic families.

I also had the privilege of meeting and working with a conscientious objector serving three years in a mind numbing, soul-destroying job. If it is possible to have ones life changed by one person in six weeks of unrelated work, this was it. I went back to university determined to become actively involved in “The Struggle”.

Reaching out to apartheid's enforcers

I walked up to the ECC recruitment table during orientation week 1988, well, because the people seemed less threatening and friendlier than those running the alternatives, such as NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students. I remain convinced that I took the right decision, although ECC may have made for a tougher job. NUSAS was reaching primarily the converted, trendy lefties who hated apartheid anyway, but the ECC was appealing to conscripts and their families who had to believe in the threat against their county. The toughest thing I ever did as an activist was to hand a pamphlet to a man whose son had died on the “border”. How do you tell a father that his son died for a lie?

ECC's ability to attract the attention of the apartheid government and military forces was closely linked to its tight focus. The ECC really did touch a nerve, one it seems that went right to the core of the supporters of apartheid; the one area of their lives where apartheid caused them suffering. Conscription was the only way in which the military regime, that must have seemed so omnipresent to black South Africans, actually touched the lives of white South Africans.

The ECC was good at getting itself noticed. Launched in 1983 it quickly gained a reputation for its exciting artwork and for a cultural liveliness and spirit that was infectious no matter what your politics. This ability to capture the imagination, or at least the attention, of the public led to severe harassment of ECC activists.

Activists were detained (jailed without trial) in at least one case for more than a year, their houses fire bombed, they were slandered, followed, phones were tapped and brake fuel drained from their cars. Of course the constant condemnation of the ECC by government and military officials brought more publicity to the cause than anything else could have. Even though it was illegal to call for the end of conscription, every mention of the ECC's name forced the media and the police to say: “End Conscription!”

The last gasp of apartheid

I joined the ECC after the height of its activities, which had been curtailed by the 1986 State of Emergency (a state of martial law). But the spirit that made ECC as much a cultural movement as a peace movement was always strong. This is why the tales of activists in the anti-Vietnam and Free Speech movements in the US resonate so powerfully with me.

The ECC was banned in August 1988, and in 1989 we joined the Mass Democratic Movements Defiance Campaign. We began to operate underground and “unbanned” ourselves along with all the other banned organisations. This was a period when government reactions to defiance ranged unpredictably from apathy to severe repression. Conscription was reduced to one year and exiles returned to face possible jail terms for avoiding their call ups. ECC was officially unbanned at the beginning of 1990 when the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organisations were unbanned.

While objectors serving prison terms were released, trials continued. The ECC launched an alternative service campaign, a dreadful compromise for some. Though even without an end to conscription, it was very satisfying to build instead of destroying, like the child care centre we built in the township of Khayalitsha.

After the African National Congress came to power, under President Nelson Mandela, the political process shifted to the hallowed arena of negotiations. Politicians came into their own and activists were left goal-less. Namibia was independent, the army was out of the townships, ECC activists were gearing up for more prominent, formal political and bureaucratic role and the ECC seemed to have little else to do but support the odd objector through his trial. Conscription continued until the new government came to power in April of 1994.

A new era of militarism?

Despite the end of conscription, South Africa still needs an End Conscription Campaign. It needs anti-militarist activists. South Africa remains one of the most militarised, armed and violent soceties on the planet. The vast majority of its men over the age of 30, both black and white, have lived through some form of military violence. The South African National Defence Force is too big as it seeks to accommodate two armies, that of the old regime and Mkhonto we Siswe, the armed wing of the ANC.

The new government has never made a conclusive statement against conscription. Volunteers flock to the army as a rare employment opportunity. The ECC represented some of the best and most creative spirit of the anti-apartheid struggle. That spirit is fading as South Africans forget that even a democratic country needs activists.