'Hell no, we won't go!'
It is 20 years to the week since the End Conscription Campaign was banned. Jonathan Ancer celebrates the remarkable movement of white activists.
I was 18 and my main ambition in life was to grow my hair.
I tore open the brown envelope and out slid a piece of paper my “call-up” for two years of military service.
It was time for me to protect our women and children from the terries. I’d be a man; a soldier. I’d be doing my bit for my country. So, why did I want to hurl? I joined the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) instead.
“The ECC took anyone opposed to the South African Defence Force, even troops,” says Brett Myrdal, one of the campaign’s founders. “Conscription was the only way whites felt the pain of apartheid and this made it an ideal mobilising tool - apartheid wasn’t worth dying for.”
Support for the ECC grew to such an extent that it became a bayonet in the belly of the apartheid beast. Defence minister Magnus Malan declared the country’s top three enemies to be the South African Communist party, the ANC and, in third place, the ECC. It was 20 years ago, on August 22 1988, that the government banned the ECC.
“A resolution at a Black Sash conference in 1983 called for an end to conscription,” says Myrdell. “That night a few of us chatting in a graveyard realised that this resolution was the way to bypass the Defence Act, which prescribed a 10-year jail sentence for anyone who encouraged people to disobey their call-up.
“We could call on the state not to conscript, as we were not calling on individuals to refuse to serve.” The ECC was made up of pacifists, old liberals, young commies, liberation theologians, just war advocates, bunny huggers, trendoids, Christians and tie-dyed hippies, but Christian pacifists and student lefties predominated. “It was not without tensions, but it was held together by a clever leadership,” says former ECC activist Roddie Payne.
Adele Kirsten, one of the ECC’s founding mothers, is proud of the organisation’s achievements. “It was a scary time to be a young activist. People did much braver things than us, but we were breaking very deliberately with our group. Those days were awful. We lived in fear of being detained, an experience not shared by the rest of the white population.”
Many whites went to the army reluctantly, while some became professional students, did alternative service (a punitive six years), dodged the draft or skipped the country. But 14 men gave the army the most dramatic middle finger of all - they went to jail. The first man who put up his hand was Anton Eberhard. In 1970 he did his national service; but seven years later, when he was called up to a camp, his life had changed dramatically.
“I befriended Vusi Khanyile [now chair of the investment company Thebe] and got a taste of what life was like for black South Africans. When I received my call up in 1977 Vusi was detained. I knew I couldn’t put on an SADF uniform.”
Eberhard wrote to his commanding officer saying he refused to defend a system he didn’t believe in. “My boss was furious with me. ‘So, who will stop our daughters being raped on the border?’ he asked.”
Six months later military police knocked on his door. Eberhard served two months in detention barracks. “I was put in solitary confinement and - amazingly - left with my books. I got to read Wittgenstein and all the books I always wanted to read but didn’t have the time.”
Eberhard says he didn’t feel “particularly evangelical” about his stand. “I don’t know if it did anything directly; for me it was an issue of conscience.”
Peter Moll and Richard Steele set out to raise consciousness. “I was trying to get people to think; to question authority,” says Steele.
“There was an expectation that whites would collaborate with the apartheid government, but the fact that there were people prepared to make a sacrifice sent a powerful message.”
Steele was willing to do community service, but objected to military service. “Any violence was contrary to the spirit of love, peace and healing, the path I’d chosen to follow. This was my country and I wanted to make a contribution.” In jail Steele refused to wear a uniform, salute or eat meat. “There were lots of threats, but I stood my ground. Every time I refused an order I felt stronger.’”
An Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, Steele received thousands of letters of support. The censors read every one. “Now I’ve no reason to feel guilty. I can look black people in the eyes because I was a freedom fighter too.” Charles Yeats, dodging the draft in London, was so inspired by Steele’s stand that he returned home and refused to serve.
He passed the baton to Mike Viveiros, who had watched Casspirs roll down the streets of Hanover Park where he taught Sunday school. “I saw soldiers shooting at children. I thought: ‘How could I teach these people the love of God when later I would be expected to shoot at them?’” Viveiros was jailed for 12 months. “I had an amazing opportunity to have Breyten Breytenbach in the next cell. I benefited from apartheid, but I did my small part in trying to fight it.”
Viveiros handed the objector baton to Neil Mitchell who, in 1998, 15 years after his release, found himself sitting next to army chief Siphiwe Nyanda at a Soweto school’s anniversary celebration. “I told him I hoped he would be out of a job soon because I wanted to live in a world without armies. He just laughed.”
The Conscientious Objector Support Group was formed to support jailed refuseniks; they were becoming martyrs and the government was worried. In September 1983, three days before Myrdal’s trial started, the state increased prison sentences for objectors from two years to a mandatory six years.
He joined Umkhonto weSizwe and went into exile. That seemed to solve the question of what to do with objectors: no one would go to jail for six years. The state hadn’t counted on David Bruce.
After he was sentenced The Star carried a photo of him with the headline: “Bruce gets six years”. “Commuters to Soweto stuck the page on their buses,” recalls Kirsten. “I had goosebumps.” The ECC plastered images of Bruce’s brooding gaze around the country.
Then Charles Bester, an earnest, articulate, fresh-faced Christian of just 18, told a court that his beliefs taught him apartheid was evil.
“We desperately need reconciliation to come together and find out more about each other,” he testified. Bam! The gavel came down. Six years.
For the government it was a public relations disaster. It accused the ECC of aiding the “communist onslaught” and detained its leaders, banned its publications, raided its offices and conducted smear campaigns against its members.
Two weeks before the ECC was banned, 143 men publicly refused to serve in the army. Steele says the government realised it could no longer rely on conscripts to enforce its rule. “This helped the push to democracy. We disempowered the South African government. We were a major threat because we were coming from within.” The banning didn’t stop the momentum. Nine months later 771 men said: “Hell no, we won’t go!” During the talks after Nelson Mandela’s release conscription fell away.
“Thanks to the ECC the conscription issue was settled very quickly,” says Kirsten. “I like saying to my nephews—and I do boast a bit—that it’s because of me that you don’t have to go into the military.”
Jailed objectors: where are they now?
Anton Eberhard Sentenced to 12 months, 10 of which were suspended, in 1977 for refusing to do a camp. Now a research professor at the University of Cape Town’s business school.
Peter Moll Sentenced to 18 months in 1979; served a year. Now a senior economist at the World Bank. Richard Steele Served a year in jail in 1980; now a homeopath.
Charles Yeats Served a year in detention barracks in 1981, then sentenced to a year in civilian prison for refusing to wear a uniform. He teaches at Durham University and advises corporations on their social, environmental and moral responsibilities. He wrote a book about his experiences.
Mike Viveiros Sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in 1982, served a year in Pretoria Central. Has been living in Taiwan since 2001 where he teaches English.
Neil Mitchell Served a year in 1982. A teacher, he works for the Catholics School Office.
Billy Paddock Served a year in 1982. Died in a road accident in the early 1990s.
Etienne Essery Served four months in 1983. Is writing a feature film script looking at South Africa in the Seventies and Eighties.
Pete Hathorn sentenced to two years in 1983, served a year in Pollsmoor Prison. He is now an advocate. Paul Dodson sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1983. He died in a motorbike accident in the late 1980s. David Bruce sentenced to six years in 1988, Bruce was released in 1990 after an appeal arguing for a review of maximum jail penalties for objectors. Now a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Saul Batzofin served nine months of a 21-month sentence. Now an IT programme manager at Imperial College, London.
Ivan Toms served nine months of a 21-month sentence imposed in 1988. In 2002 became Cape Town’s director of health, where he led the battle against TB and HIV/Aids. Was awarded the Order of the Baobab in 2006 in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and sexual discrimination”. He died from meningitis in April.
Charles Bester The last objector to be jailed, Bester served 20 months of a six-year sentence. He now runs a guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay.