The enemy inside the laager
On August 22 1988 the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) became the first white organisation in more than 20 years to be outlawed by the apartheid regime. The banning came as no surprise.
On the eve of the state of emergency two years earlier, 77 of our activists were detained and 25 were served with restriction orders.
Emergency regulations prohibited the making of “subversive” statements, which included those that “undermined or discredited” the system of compulsory military service for white men.
From the time of the ECC’s establishment in late 1983 we were vilified by the government, accused of being part of the “revolutionary onslaught” against the country. Our houses were firebombed, our offices were raided by security police and our members were assaulted by soldiers and right-wing thugs. Many years later we discovered that some of our leaders had been targeted by hit squads of the South African Defence Force (SADF).
Why did the government take the ECC so seriously? We were not engaged in armed struggle. We did not encourage violence. We built crèches in townships, organised rock concerts and tied yellow ribbons on trees! Our branches did include some hard-line lefties but they also housed liberals, churchgoers, hippies, artists, musicians, school pupils and middle-class parents of conscripts. And despite this broad membership and our high profile, numerically we were a small group of dissidents in an overwhelmingly conservative white community.
The government took us seriously because we challenged the role of the SADF in maintaining minority rule. From the mid-1970s the army was used in Namibia and Angola as apartheid’s front line of attack and employed inside the country as its last line of defence.
The conscription of white men was essential for these military roles because it provided 70% of the SADF’s manpower. Unsurprisingly, the state viewed draft evasion and opposition to conscription as major threats to its defence capability and physical survival.
The government also found the ECC threatening because we rattled the cage of state ideology. The National Party placed as much emphasis on maintaining the morale of the white community as it did on repressing the black community.
The psychological preparation portrayed the struggle against apartheid as a conflict between “godless communism” and “Western Christian civilisation”. It sought to win acceptance for the use of state force as an appropriate response against black people fighting for freedom. It inculcated military values of obedience and discipline and projected the SADF as a unifying institution.
Through its campaigns and by its very presence, the ECC defied these notions and brought into question the legitimacy of the state and the military. It denounced the state’s use of force as futile and counter-productive, calling instead for multiparty negotiations that included the liberation movements.
In short, the government took us seriously because our message was radical and subversive. The 1984 ECC Declaration put the core message in the following way: “We live in an unjust society where basic human rights are denied to the majority of the people. We live in an unequal society where the land and wealth are owned by the minority. We live in a society in a state of civil war, where brother is called on to fight brother ... We call for a just peace in our land.”
This message was aimed as much at the black community as at whites. Through our political engagement we wanted to demonstrate that not all whites were racist and that not all white men were prepared to take up arms against their black brothers and sisters. We wanted to promote the vision of nonracialism, championed against the odds by the African National Congress (ANC) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) and we therefore sought to contribute to nonracialism as the character and not only the goal of the struggle.
In the context of the regime’s project of racial discrimination and segregation, the nonracialism of the anti-apartheid struggle was revolutionary. When we invited UDF speakers to address our meetings, spoke at their meetings, marched with them and attended township funerals of slain activists, the power of the message far exceeded our small numbers. For the black community, the message was one of solidarity and hope. For the government, it was one of treason.
In banning the ECC law and order minister Adriaan Vlok insisted that we were “a link in the so-called struggle against apartheid”. Of course there was nothing “so-called” about the struggle. By 1988 the political tide had turned and the ANC and the mass movements that supported it were in the ascendancy. The ANC would soon be unbanned and negotiations would commence to end minority rule and usher in democracy. The ECC’s great achievement was to have contributed to this process of liberation.
Laurie Nathan was the national organiser of the ECC in 1985 to 1986 Old war objectors celebrate