/ 13 November 2023

Giving apartheid the finger

Warmongers need young men and women as fodder. But, as we are seeing again in the bloody conflicts raging in places such as Israel (see right) and Russia (see below), there will always be those who resist — refuseniks who say, “Hell no, we won’t go!” or “Not in our name.”

And with conscripts being mostly young people, popular culture is  often prominent their in resistance.

Exactly 40 years ago, an organisation of young, white South Africans was formed and they immediately found themselves in a battle of fingers with the powerful apartheid state. The subversive End Conscription Campaign (ECC) showed a middle finger to the man with the wagging index finger, PW Botha, and compulsory military service.

PW, or “Die Groot Krokodil” (Afrikaans for “the big crocodile”), had been prime minister since 1978. In 1984, he became South Africa’s first executive state president, and stayed in the position until 1989.

The ECC’s members didn’t want to, as the satirical song Hou My Vas Korporaal (Hold Me Tight Corporal) by Bernoldus Niemand had it, “play war with their best days”. 

But the paranoid Botha did not care, because white South Africa faced what he called a “total onslaught”. Forces both within the country and in its neighbouring states were resisting apartheid. 

So, the South African Defence Force (SADF) regularly launched cross-border raids on suspected ANC bases and became an occupying force in what was then South West Africa (now Namibia). 

In the 1980s, Botha used troops to occupy the restive townships.

The country had become increasingly militarised. A mischievous poster by the ECC summed it up best during the 1987 whites-only general election which was held during a State of Emergency: “The problem with this general election is we don’t know which general we’re electing.”

The SADF needed more and more men to serve in the army. By the 1980s, compulsory military service had been extended to two years (plus month-long annual camps for years after that) for all white men from the age of 18. They had no choice.

Many didn’t want to join the army and fight for a country whose policies they did not believe in. Some left and went into exile. Others went to university in order to avoid the draft for as long as possible. 

Small numbers chose to be conscientious objectors — in return they were given a six-year jail sentence.

It was not until the formation of the ECC in 1983 that there was a co-ordinated response to conscription.

So far, so serious.

The ECC, unlike some of its serious allies in the left’s struggle against apartheid, understood that you had to fight this battle differently. Its weapons were humour, subversion and popular culture. Shit-stirring was their go-to setting, because this is exactly what appealed to their young, diverse audience.

In his 2002 master’s thesis about the ECC, Merran Phillips quoted academic Matthew Blatchford, who believed the organisation succeeded “because it cut itself loose from the deadening hand of the white left”. 

“Nusas and UDF [National Union of South African Students and United Democratic Front] cadres were outnumbered by gays, greens, feminists and Unitarians and the arrogance of those organisations was voided in favour of mad schemes, publicity and sex and drugs and rock and roll,” Blatchford said.

When the ECC turned 25 in 2008, I wrote a piece about how the decision to use popular culture as a tool back then was a deliberate one. 

“For the serious politicos in the ECC it initially was a nice-to-have,” former ECC leader Chippy Olver told me, but insanity prevailed with the formation of a very active and creative cultural sub-committee early on. 

“The use of culture grew over the period of the campaign and, by using posters, youth culture and bands, our message reached a much wider audience.”

One of those culture sub-committee subversives was Mike Rautenbach, then a student at UCT. At a massive ECC concert at the Sea Point town hall he wore a huge PW Botha puppet head. Another ECC comrade was “first lady” Elize Botha.

The cops didn’t see the humour in this and shot teargas into the packed hall just as the “Bothas” made their way down the passage. No concert happened, but a whole bunch of young people got conscientised.

Former journalist Rautenbach, now in environmental management, is still droll and still puffs almost nonstop on hand-rolled cigarettes as we chat on Zoom.

“The ECC brought a lighter, more creative style to politics — we used a lot of humour, maybe a slightly black humour,” he says with a half-smile. “The culture committee was made up of a lot of artists, cartoonists, homosexuals — even, um, daggarokers …”

In addition to the best concerts, with the top lefty bands, the ECC held photographic and art exhibitions. There was also the ironically titled Forces Favourites album, a compilation featuring some of the strongest political songs of the time. 

The ECC produced “know your rights” booklets in cartoon form for conscripts. Their posters were striking, witty and well-designed. Fellow sub-committee member and now archivist Marlene Powell tells me that a lot of hard work went into it.

“You’d meet, brainstorm and come up with the poster, then you would actually have to create the poster. 

“Then you would have to make the poster, then you would have to go and put it up in the middle of the night. And, generally, by 8 o’clock in the morning, the police would take them down.”

By understanding the power of the party, the ECC got their message across in a more powerful way than many politicians managed to. It took the authorities a while to realise that. But when they did, they came for the ECC, military boots and all. 

Defence minister Magnus Malan called it “disgraceful that the SADF, but especially the country’s young people, the pride of the nation, should be subjected to the ECC’s propaganda, suspicion-sowing and misinformation”. 

His police colleague Adriaan Vlok declared that the ECC was part of the “revolutionary onslaught against South Africa”.

As it was still a State of Emergency in South Africa, it was no surprise that in August 1988 the ECC became the first white organisation in more than two decades to be banned by the apartheid regime. 

Now, 40 years later, Powell believes there are lessons one can learn from the ECC, maybe even to be applied in other parts of the world.

“It’s always important for young people to be informed and to be part of a movement that changes the trajectory of where they’re going because, they’re basically starting their lives,” she says. 

“They need to take the steps to try and shape it and they need to bring in the people who, in the end, would be most affected because that’s the country and the environment that they’re going to inherit. 

“While it’s not really what you would want in the world, young people need to be thinking about war and stopping wars and creating an environment that’s equal, safe, peaceful and productive. But these are the times we find ourselves in. 

“So, a youth component to whatever struggles are being fought is a necessary thing, because a lot of energy also comes from the youth.”