When Ivan Toms went to jail in March this year for refusing to serve in the army, he was alone in his stand on moral and political grounds. But by July, Toms' situation was no longer unique. David Bruce, a 26-year-old graduate, had begun a sixyear sentence in Pretoria Central Prison, also for refusing to serve on moral and political grounds – not recognised by the Defence Act, which provides only for religious objection.
Next week, a Christian volunteer worker, Charles Bester, 18, will appear in court on identical charges with an identical stand. Not having rendered any army service, he too faces the maximum six-year sentence. As Toms observed on emerging from Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison this week, freed on R1 000 bail pending an appeal against his jailing, he is no longer a solitary martyr but part of a movement. Euphoric at his release, he was engulfed in the embraces of friends and Supporters who had waited for him outside the prison in a dust-swirling south-easter for almost five hours.
"We're seeing the start of a peace movement. It's no longer just one individual but a group of people deciding to make a stand against the system," Toms said. He apologised for the delay: prison authorities had insisted some complaints he'd lid months ago had to be sorted out Also, his warrant for liberation was mistakenly sent to the maximum security section.
Hours earlier, his leave to appeal granted, Toms appeared in a bail application hearing before the same magistrate who in March said he regretted sentencing Toms, describing him as an asset to society. The magistrate's interpretation of the Defence Act was that a jail sentence, calculated at one and a half times the service owed, was mandatory. The two supreme court judges who last month heard an appeal against Toms' sentence, concurred, while reducing his sentence from 21 to 18 months, finding he owed less service than the SADF claimed.
Whether a jail sentence is obligatory for moral and political objectors, and whether the sentences can be partly suspended are key issues on which Toms' Appellate Division hearing will turn. He was granted bail because he could have served his entire sentence before the appeal court hearing. He had to surrender his passport and must report to police each Sunday between 8am and 1pm. "If the appeal succeeds, it means I won't have to return to jail for the remaining nine months. It could mean others' sentences will be reduced," Toms said. "It also means giving back to the courts some of the power the legislature has taken away."
Three kilogram slighter, Toms described the past nine months as "hard. I can't bluff. It was lonely, isolating and depressing in prison. "But it has strengthened my commitment to working for a South Africa I can believe in. The silencing of the End Conscription Campaign in August, under Emergency powers, hit hard. "It really hurt to know that an oganisation I'd been part of since it was launched in 1983 had been banned by the state "What's exciting is that you don't see people giving up. What the ECC stood for and was doing will continue. The state can't break people's commitment – it simply pops up elsewhere. "I think the state is aware that there is now a movement afoot- one that will bring chance. Nowadays young people think twice before going into the army, unlike when I went in 1979."
Bruce, and now Bester, proved there were others prepared to act with the courage of their convictions. 'There's a new level of commitment to change for a country in which we can live in together and be proud of." Bester was half his age: Toms said he would travel to Johannesburg for the teenager's trial to show his support and solidarity.
Later, at the home of his priest, the Reverend John Freeth, rector of St John's Parish in Wynberg, he was welcomed by the Desmond Tutu, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. "You don't know how proud you make us through the stand you have taken … each person can make a difference by taking a stand – it encourages the more timid," Tutu said.
Toms replied, "White South Africans have felt in the past that there is no place for them … now there is an issue affecting white males and they realise, they can make a difference." "When David Bruce went to court, there were a number of young blacks who went along to support him,'' said Tutu. '"They realised here was someone taking a stand; Who's to say the future survival of certain people will not depend on the actions taken by people like you?"
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.