Hell No, We Wouldn’t Go

Guest Column: Gavin Evans
Twenty five years ago, the End Conscription Campaign emerged to change the face of white activist opposition to the apartheid regime. My good friend Gavin Evans pays tribute

The natural order of politics is that defunct organisations are bit like failed marriages: they just don’t get celebrated. If remembered at all it is invariably with a hint of embarrassment; either that, or they just fade away

But the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) is different. The 25th anniversary of its national launch has prompted a wave of unrestrained delight, an outpouring of fond memories. ECC-related groups sprung up on Facebook and Google, and in no time attracted hundreds of users. Celebrations began in earnest in October, with ECC25 events taking place for Pretoria, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and London, but the highlight was a three-day national event held at Spier, near Cape Town. This attracted over 1000 visitors, combining music, art and photography with speeches and discussion (addressed by the country’s former president Kgalema Motlanthe and the leader of the opposition Helen Zille, among others). What started as nostalgia, grew into something more, with a much-needed celebration of non-racialism, a strong youth thrust and a concerted expression of support for Israeli conscientious objectors. The anniversary attracted an astonishing level of publicity within South Africa, with all the major newspapers, radio stations and television channels pitching in.

So why all the festivities and attention? One reason is that we bowed out with heads held high, having achieved our goal, but perhaps more significantly, ECC was such a wonderfully vibrant and inclusive movement. Its single-issue focus made for clarity and simplicity, and the kinds of people it managed to attract helped to spark an energy and creativity that other organisations envied.

Student activists and Christian pacifists

Its origins lay in two sources: First, a dedicated group of socially active Christians who, from the late 1970s, ran the Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG). Second, an energetic collective of leftish students who started campaigning around the ‘military issue’ in 1982.

In the late 1970s, with the South African Defence Force (SADF) fighting a brutal war against Swapo in Namibia and the MPLA in Angola, three young men – Anton Eberhard, Peter Moll and Richard Steele – refused to obey their call-ups and were sentenced to periods of up to 18-months in jail.

There was a fierce debate among student activists within the white, English speaking university campuses at the time. Some argued for ‘strategic participation’ (obeying call-ups and resuming activism when military service was over), while others argued this was damaging to non-racialism and that student activists should follow the lead of the early objectors. This lot joined forces with the Christians in COSG and promoted the idea of a wider campaign against the military (and this drive, combined with the increasing brutality of the SADF in neighbouring countries, settled the debate within the student movement). By 1983 13 objectors had been charged, most sentenced for periods of up to two years imprisonment (by then, all white males faced two years of compulsory military service and two more of military camps).

Broad-based anti-military campaign

In direct response to the momentum around the conscientious objectors, in 1983 PW Botha’s militarist government increased the period of imprisonment for refusing military service from two to six years. This, they assumed, would stamp out a growing irritant, but they were wrong: it had the opposite impact.

The anti-war activists concluded that the best way to draw the broadest support against the military was to launch a single-issue campaign – for a change in the conscription law (formally inspired by a motion at a Black Sash conference) – which meant it would be open both to objectors and to those doing military service or camps. After several months of lobbying, ECC was formed at the COSG conference in Durban in October 1983 and after a further year of branch-building, it was publicly launched in Cape Town.

The role of the ANC

From the outset, ECC chose not to align itself with any other political coalition, including the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front (although like the UDF it started life as an umbrella structure with a core organisation backed by about 50 affiliated groups, including church, student and education organisations, the Black Sash, various UDF groups, and the Young Progressives). But it quickly developed its own structures and character and, having learned from the experience of divisions within the student movement, it made sure that was an inclusive movement with no factions or ideological debates.

A question I am occasionally asked (by graduate students, doing theses on ECC) is what role the ANC played in all this. Naturally, the apartheid state saw ECC as an ANC creature, but they were off the mark. The short answer would be that while the ANC did its bit to spur-on an anti-military movement, its role was miniscule once ECC was launched.

From 1980-onwards the ANC went out of its way to recruit student activists travelling to Zimbabwe. They would receive cursory training, before being placed in ‘units’ and would be given political tasks. One of these was to build on dissatisfaction about military service to create divisions within the military, and to encourage students to defy their call-ups, and to use this as a wedge issue within the wider white community. But that’s about as far as it went.

Once ECC was established, ANC structures would receive reports on our activities, but they had almost no role in influencing strategy, and would usually endorse whatever we tried. My own perception was that the influence went mainly in the other direction – opening ANC eyes to the potential of this kind of work among white South Africans.

I can remember only one rather unfortunate exception in the mid-1980s when some ANC notables strongly objected to the presence of the Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach on an ECC platform for esoteric reasons related to disagreements in Pretoria Central prison. Some ECC leaders succumbed to this pressure – prompting much justified anger and some defections from Afrikaner members.

More generally, ECC avoided crippling debates about political theory and principle, and refused to allow UDF caucuses to emerge, and therefore avoided the pitfalls of factional disputes that blighted so many other organisations.

Botha ek’s gatvol

ECC campaigned against the conscription laws, the SADF’s wars in Angola and Namibia and the troops in the township and campaigned for voluntary forms of alternative service and for a vision of a non-militarised society. Through the momentum of these campaigns it grew rapidly, setting up 13 regional and campus branches within two years and also a couple of high school groups.

At its height, ECC probably had not much more than about 1000 activists, but these were reinforced by thousands more from its affiliate organisations, while its support base was far larger. It quickly attracted a significant number of Afrikaners, along with the English speaking Christians, liberals and leftists, artists and musicians, and was one of the few anti-apartheid organisations to be gay-friendly.

Its message seemed to capture the attention of conscripts and the ‘conscripted community’ (parents, sisters, girlfriends). Three examples: a poster of a broken conscript saying: ‘Botha ek’s gatvol’, another aimed at schools saying: Mannetjie – didn’t they tell you? ‘Cadets maak maletjies’; a booklet aimed at troops – adorned with a cartoon of a young man on his way to the army hugging his girl. He asks: “What’s this little present you’re giving me?” She replies: “It’s a booklet called KNOW YOUR RIGHTS IN THE SADF”

A sense of fun

The hard-edge was softened by a sense of fun. Along with all the posters, stickers, banners and T-shirts there were concerts, poems and short stories, plays, cabarets and songs, fairs and beach parties, with each region competing with each other to be the most innovative. ECC came to be seen as trendy – sexy even.

There were, however, occasions when it missed the mark. For example, in 1984 the Johannesburg branch organised a debate on conscription in which the charismatic leader of the parliamentary opposition, Dr Van Zyl Slabbert, supported conscription (the ECC speaker was Dr David Webster, who was later assassinated by a military hitsquad). The event drew a huge crowd, but it did us no favours to have the popular Slabbert speaking against us (he later resigned from parliament and changed his tune).

And not all our campaigns were successful One of them, called ‘War is not Compulsory – Let’s Choose a Just Peace’ (which soon acquired the suitably ridiculous acronym WINCLCAJP), was so broad and vacuous that it failed to make much impact. After that, ECC learned that it was at its best when its message was clear and specific, and when it appealed directly to conscripts.

The high point came between late 1984 and mid-1986. Its Troops Out of the Township campaign, spearheaded by a three-week fast by three ECC activists, attracted thousands to its rallies, and its publicity material, including posters with slogans like: “What soek jy in die townships troepie? (What are you looking for in the township, soldier)” clearly had an impact.

In 1985 it was announced in parliament that 7589 conscripts had failed to report for the January national call-up, compared with 1596 for the whole of 1984. By 1986 around 7 000 war resisters were living in Europe (many of them supported by the ANC-aligned Committee of South African War Resisters), with emigration outstripping immigration for the first time. Many others dodged the call-up by prolonging studies indefinitely or evading the over-stretched military police. In 1986 a Witwatersrand commanding officer revealed that one in four conscripts was failing to report for army camps.

Partly to counter the idea that ECC was just about opposing things, rather than offering solutions, ECC lobbied for a community service option, not linked to the military, to be available to objectors. In 1986 it launched its ‘Working for a Just Peace’ campaign (with a ‘Construction Not Conscription’ logo). This involved squads of ECC members going into the townships to plant trees, build bridges, renovate child-care centres, assist anti-litter drives and children’s holiday programmes.

ECC also established international relations with war resister groups in America and Europe and its leaders went on several international tours, to rally support and raise money. For example, in 1986, during the first of two US tours, we addressed the UN Special Committee on Apartheid and then used the speaking tour to raise funds, although we had to be careful to avoid being seen as overtly pro-disinvestment, because this would detract from the core message – and the tour was carefully monitored by the South African intelligence services.

State repression

Up until then the main thrust of the state’s response was a mixture of misplaced propaganda and crude attempts at disrupting ECC activities, while also trying to flood it with state informers (a few of whom were detected and expelled, while others, such as the author Mark Behr, were simply left alone).

But once the national State of Emergency was declared (1986), the repression became far more virulent. The Defence Minister, General Magnus Malan summed up the state’s response: “The End Conscription Campaign is a direct enemy of the SADF. … It is 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.” He also described ECC as “the vanguard of those forces that are intent on wrecking the present dispensations and its renewal”. To which Major General Jan van Loggerenberg, the army Chief Director of Operations, added: “The ECC has only one aim in mind and that is to break our morale and to eventually leave South Africa defenceless.”

Over 100 ECC members were detained for anything from a day to a year (and some were detained more than once) while others were served with Emergency restriction orders and many of us went into hiding. Offices and homes were teargassed and firebombed, ECC members’ cars and motorbikes had their break cables cut and their tyres slashed and over-inflated and wheel nuts loosened; others were beaten up by the police or rightwingers, and a few of us were targeted for assassination.

Despite this crackdown, ECC struggled on, although it was more difficult, because it was not the kind of organisation easily able to operate on a clandestine basis. Spies who had previously been left alone, suddenly became a nightmare. The Johannesburg branch, for example, had no option but to expel one known spy, Joy Harnden, who later emerged as a security police lieutenant.

Still, there were breakthroughs such as the Yellow Ribbon campaign, launched a few months after the national State of Emergency was declared, which involved festooning city centres with yellow ribbons as a way of calling for the release of the detainees.

Occasionally ECC found ways of embarrassing the state over its tactics. Soon after the Emergency was declared we launched a yellow ribbon campaign (for example, Eloff Street was festooned with two kilometres of ribbon) as part of its call for the release of detainees, and managed to garner support from newspapers and organisations that had previously kept their distance.

Then in 1988 it successfully interdicted the SADF against further harassment, after a conscript exposed the fact that a military unit based in the Cape Town Castle had carried out a dirty tricks campaign, involving 64 listed acts of intimidation. These included breaking into the ECC office, where one unfortunate private was ordered to take a dump on the carpet (the only one of the 64 acts that they refused to admit). They also dropped pamphlets from a helicopter in the name of the ‘Anti-Liberal Alliance’ on an ECC fair, released false ECC posters and so on. The SADF acknowledged responsibility for “legitimate secret counter-measures” against the organisation. ECC’s lawyer, Sydney Kentridge responded: “The generals have declared martial law by means of an affidavit. These are the pretensions of a junta of South American generals … nothing could be more damaging to good government.”

Despite this repression ECC managed to find gaps within the narrowing legal space – with some of its focus shifting towards ever-more innovative cultural activities, including the music album, Forces Favourites, which was widely distributed within the country and even played on radio stations in the United States (and still sounds fresh and funky today). This cultural thrust had an impact on the UDF, which also began to use culture as, in the unfortunate terminology of the time, ‘a weapon of the struggle’. This cultural thrust helped keep the organisation alive, and strengthened its hip image.

Mass objection drive

But the hard edge had not been abandoned. Just as had happened in 1983, the anti-conscription movement was able to find a new, and even more potent form. In 1987 a group of 23 Cape-based conscripts publicly refused to obey their call-ups, beginning a new thrust that challenged state power directly. Soon after another objector, David Bruce, was sentenced to six years in jail, but this only spurred us on.

It was a criminal offence to encourage anyone to object to military service but by then we had abandoned any pretence that we were doing otherwise. In 1988 the movement went national with 143 objectors including several SADF officers. In response, the government banned ECC under the emergency regulations, with Adriaan Vlok, the minister of Law and Order, declaring they had “no other choice” because it was part of the “revolutionary onslaught”. He also called it “the vanguard of those forces intent on wrecking the present dispensation and its renewal” while Malan described it as a “sick attempt to create a martyr image”. Yet, in 1989 the number of objectors rose to 771 and soon after passed the 1000 mark.

This was far too many for the state to charge en masse and so they tried a piecemeal approach of picking off selected objectors – without success. My own response, for example, was to invite them to come to my house and arrest me. I never heard from them again – and it was the same with most others (although six were charged in this period and two were jailed – 18-year-old Charles Bester received a six year sentence while Saul Batzofin was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment for refusing to obey his army camp call-up).

Conscription ends

In 1989, in response to a national defiance campaign, ECC ‘unbanned’ itself and resumed its normal activities. Some members were detained and charged with ‘furthering the aims of a banned organisation’ but we pressed on regardless. Conscription was cut from two years to one year in 1989, and after 1990 it was phased out, officially ending in 1993. ECC formally disbanded a year later.

In this period there was one last important wag in the ECC tail. Early in 1990 a handful of ECC leaders worked with Dr Van Zyl Slabbert’s IDASA organisation to organise a large group of military-linked people, including several officers (some from SADF military intelligence), to meet with the ANC in Lusaka to discuss the building of a post-apartheid military. It was one of several meetings that helped diffuse tension between two sides and to ease the way towards a cessation of hostilities in South Africa.

ECC’s role in retrospect

Still, the obvious question remains: what role, if any, did ECC play in bringing down apartheid? In the grand scheme of things FW De Klerk was reluctantly prodded to the negotiating table by the fortuitous combination forces, after which he lost control over the agenda. These forces included: the mass movement that made the country ungovernable and helped the drive to isolate South Africa; economic decline, partly as a result of the divestment movement; more targeted financial sanctions in the late-1980s that threatened to accelerate this decline; the dramatically altered international situation that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall (although this probably should not be overstated since informal negotiations started in 1985) and PW Botha stroke (which led to a leadership election within the National Party, with the conservative candidate, De Klerk, squeaking home against the reformist but military-backed Barend du Plessis).

ECC’s place in all this was no doubt a minor one – but perhaps more significant than often realised. It placed huge pressure on the conscription system, and by the end, made it impossible for the state to enforce effectively. In addition, it helped ferment divisions within the broader white community, and its mere existence so exasperated the state, that many millions of Rands were diverted in a bid to snuff it out.

Israel and Ireland

More generally, it stands as a model for working creatively within a ruling group to bring about change. On the one hand, it is heartening to see the connections being made between the Shministim (the Israeli objector movement) and ECC 25 celebrations. And on the other, whenever I visit Ireland (north and south) I catch myself thinking about how much the Irish nationalists could have learned from the likes of ECC when it came to working with the Protestant community in the north.

On a more personal note

Today, 25 years after its launch, most of us former ECC stalwarts are in our 40s or 50s, with children of our own, some the same age as we were back then. No doubt many of us have dropped some of our old beliefs, and look back with some misgiving on aspects of our political pasts (I certainly do), but ECC remains an exception, not just because we won in the end but because of the people involved and the spirit we created. I guess we all still hold a candle for it, remembering it with pride – as something good we created when we were at our best.

• Gavin Evans was a founder member of ECC and its Johannesburg publicity secretary.

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5 Responses to Hell No, We Wouldn’t Go

  1. tom robbins says:

    excellent article

  2. Danielle says:

    Beautiful and inspiring. Thank you for telling us about it.

  3. Matt Temple says:

    Great article….but disappointed that you omit the role played by exiled group COSAWR…

  4. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Matt – you are quite right. It played a huge role, and for far longer than ECC. Thanks. Gavin

  5. Gavin Evans says:

    Hi Matt – looking at it again, I made a tiny mention of it: “By 1986 around 7 000 war resisters were living in Europe (many of them supported by the ANC-aligned Committee of South African War Resisters), with emigration outstripping immigration for the first time.” But it definitely deserved more! Cheers. Gavin

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