As South Africa approaches the twentieth anniversary of the country’s first non-racial, democratic election in 1994, there is a reassessment of the iconic liberation struggle and the extent to which the legacies of apartheid continue to define everyday life. In particular, white South Africans’ place in the country remains controversial and the extent to which they should be held to account for their complicity in apartheid continues to be hotly debated. White South Africans who opposed apartheid were the exception to the rule, but some did defy the norm and did so publicly and forcefully.
I interviewed white men who refused to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) in the 1980s and white men and women in the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) who campaigned against conscription and apartheid. Through this I became aware of how politically and socially significant the histories of these men and women continue to be in contemporary South Africa. The men who objected to military service did so for diverse personal, religious and political reasons, but what united them was both their rejection of apartheid and commitment to creating a non-racial, democratic country.
The ECC highlighted and amplified the unease in white society about the violent direction of the country under President PW Botha. A key argument of the ECC was that conscription and apartheid were inextricably linked and neither were in white self-interest. The growing loss of confidence, division and the open rejection of apartheid in white society were important factors leading to the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of the transition to democracy. Objectors to conscription and ECC activists also helped make Mandela’s call for reconciliation between races, and a South Africa where whites would have a home regardless of the past, more credible.
While the BBC’s John Simpson questions whether white people have a future in South Africa, the commitment of war resisters and ECC activists to the liberation struggle, sometimes at considerable personal cost, demonstrates the desire of these white South Africans for non-racial democracy. The fact that many have gone on to become politically influential in the new South Africa, refutes the simplistic assumption that whites cannot have a home or play a constructive role in the country. Indeed, Helen Zille, once vice chair of the ECC in the Western Cape, is now Premier of the Wester Cape province and leader of the Democratic Alliance political party.
Thinking about the ECC and conscientious objection in South Africa is important because we continue to live in a world where compulsory conscription defines the lives of men and women. In countries such as Israel, Turkey and Eritrea, the social and political dynamics of militarisation are remarkably similar to those in apartheid South Africa. Soldiers like Joe Glenton in the UK have also been imprisoned after objecting to what they consider to be the political use of the military in an unjust war.
The ECC was a highly creative protest movement that challenged the notion that to be a man you had to be a soldier and also helped to expose and destabilise apartheid. The men who refused to serve in the SADF for political reasons made personal, but very public acts of defiance, risking not only their freedom but their acceptance in white society and identities as men. When reflecting on the South African liberation struggle it is important to consider the defiance shown by these white men and women in order to help non-racial democracy happen and to end military conscription as a requirement of South African citizenship.
Daniel Conway is author of Masculinities, militarisation and the End Conscription campaign and Lecturer in Politics and International Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the Open University