South Africa: Conscription can lurk in the wings


Laura Pollecutt

The apartheid government used conscription of white males to grow its military might and keep the majority of South Africans oppressed. Introduced in 1967 for white males, the initial nine months was increased to one year in 1972. From the very beginning there were objections, and in 1974 the South African Council of Churches passed a resolution challenging its members to consider becoming conscientious objectors. In the same year the National Union of South African Students came out in support of the churches and the government made it an offence to encourage conscientious objection. This did not deter the churches from encouraging conscientious objection and to reject government’s attempts to make it illegal to encourage such action.

In 1977 national service was increased to two years. The call for a non-military national service became louder after this - as did the call for political asylum for war resisters and deserters from apartheid’s armed forces. Notwithstanding Michael Bevan’s suicide hours before he was to report for national service, penalties for those convicted for failing to perform military service were increased.

In 1978 the Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) was formed in Britain and in South Africa itself, the Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG) was beginning to come together. This group was formalised at a conference in July 1980. Help was offered on a number of levels including support, advice and assistance to COs and their families. Some members of the anti-apartheid women’s organization, the Black Sash, who also worked in COSG, initiated a resolution – which was passed - calling for the end of conscription. Although it was illegal to convince conscripts not to go to the army, it was not illegal to call for the end of conscription. The End Conscription Campaign was therefore formed at the COSG conference in 1983, and publicly launched in October 1984. COSG then became an affiliate of the campaign.

Thorn in apartheid’s side

The ECC was to become a real thorn in the side of the apartheid government that accused it of subjecting young South Africans to ECC’s “propaganda, suspicion sowing and misinformation”. ECC members were harassed, detained, tear-gassed and firebombed. But instead of fostering hatred and condemnation of the ECC, the government’s actions spurred more conscripts to become involved and sign the register of objectors. Although forced to give up its campaign when it was banned in 1988 along with other internal anti-apartheid organizations (as opposed to those organizations operating outside of the country), the ECC unbanned itself in 1989 by ignoring the banning order and continuing its campaign against conscription. In February 1990, the President, FW de Klerk, announced the release of Nelson Mandela and unbanning of political parties. This led to the return of those who had gone into exile, peace talks and the first free elections in 1994. Conscription as well as the ECC ended officially in 1993. COSG faded away, but not before the group made strong arguments for South Africa to articulate it’s position regarding the right not to bear arms. With the disbandment of the ECC, the Ceasefire Campaign came into being to continue to promote demilitarization, disarmament and peace in a new South Africa.

Although the new dispensation made a commitment to a professional voluntary army, different defence ministers have suggested that there should be military service, especially Lindiwe Sisulu who held the position from 2009 to 2012. In May 2010 she announced her intention of enlisting unemployed youths in a ‘national service programme’. She said this would not mean the reintroduction of military conscription. However, although it would not be compulsory, it would be unavoidable!

Minister Sisulu pandered to that section of the population who believe that crime and service delivery protests have their origins in the ‘ill-discipline’ of the youth: "We would like to have a period in which we take your children and give them a bit of discipline,” she said.

Even though there is no legislation on the statute book at this point, the army is taking advantage of the fact that millions of schools leavers do not have jobs and lack opportunities to continue their studies. The Military Skills Development System (MSDS) is a two-year voluntary service system with the long-term goal of “enhancing the South African National Defence Force's deployment capability. Recruits are required to sign up for a period of two years”.

Defence review encourages ‘militarisation of South Africa’s democracy’

During the period 1996-1998, the new government embarked upon a defence review. More recently it saw fit to once again do such a review. The Committee was appointed by Minister Sisulu. Although she was relieved of her position as Minister of Defence in 2012, Sisulu’s influence surfaces in sections that recommend national service. Apart from the many items Ceasefire took issue with in the report - believing that its contents could be a recipe for the militarization of South Africa’s democracy - we were particularly concerned with these proposals for national service.

We concluded that the Committee evidently viewed the inculcation of a military world-view in the minds and attitudes of young people as an unqualified good.

In Chapter 2, section 57 of the first draft it is stated:
“Military service, even quite brief periods, can play an important and valuable role in:

  • a. Maturing and socializing young adults;
  • b. Providing a stable environment in which to enhance the education of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds;
  • c. Developing in young people from different communities and social sectors a national consciousness and cohesion…”

In order to achieve this, the draft report proposes:

  • the establishment of a National Youth Service (NYS) as an auxiliary service of the Department of Defence
  • the introduction of cadet systems
  • the use of research and development funding to attract young people to engineering and science (Chapter 2, section 63(b));
  • service-specific “Youth Development Programmes”
  • the use of these programmes to recruit for the SANDF

Ceasefire argued that these proposals were particularly problematic and reminiscent of the apartheid regime’s military response to the “total onslaught”. Young people should not be taught the ways of violence or to glorify war. Our submission argued: “The introduction of war games in schools through a cadet system will inevitably result in or necessitate compulsion, thus condoning conscription at ages at which children are not mature enough to challenge militarist thinking and make ethical choices between conscription and conscientious objection. In fact nowhere in the draft report is there a rejection of conscription per se. The only reference to conscription is a comment in Chapter 4, section 57 blaming the decline in the reserve component on the abolition of conscription. The Committee needs not only to reconsider the above-mentioned proposals but also to make it clear that there should be no compulsory military service or conscription of any form whatsoever.”

Peace corps alternative

The Ceasefire Campaign recommended that instead of military service, the government should establish a peace corps outside of the Department of Defence. This would enable young people to contribute to peace and development both in South Africa and amongst our neighbouring states. That would be a far better way of inculcating constructive values amongst young people. As it is, the proposal smacks of empire-building.

Although the Committee accepted our submission, it was not taken seriously. Some window-dressing consultation did take place but we were not given time to do a presentation. The third, and we presume final draft, has not changed this position in any significantly positive way.


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