Refusing Violence, Fighting All Injustice, and Creating Alternatives: conscientious objection in wider nonviolent struggles


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

Laura Pollecutt is a long term activist and writer.  She has been both volunteer and staff member for a number of human rights and peace organisations during apartheid and in the new dispensation – South Africa's post-apartheid state.  Together, she and Hannah Brock write about conscientious objection in wider nonviolent struggles.1

'Conscientious objection is not "opting out".  It is an effort to stimulate a new social imagination and a revolutionary mentality that does not normalise violence'.
Howard Clark, 20102

The conscientious objector movements we have been speaking of in this volume are largely antimilitarist, nonviolent and progressive.  That is to say, their conscientious objection is not an end in itself, but is part of a struggle for a different world.

When I (Hannah, a WRI staff member) talk to new people about conscientious objection (especially those people who are not activists), one of the first things I explain about WRI is that we are not conscientious objectors because we ourselves do not want to go to war for some political or moral reason  – although that is of course a part of it. We are conscientious objectors because we don't want anyone else to go to war, either.  That might sound obvious, but it means that conscientious objection can never,  for us be an issue purely of individual rights.  It is instead one strategy, and not the only strategy, towards a demilitarised society.  Therefore, conscientious objectors often campaign with other antimilitarist movements who have adopted different strategies to work towards demilitarised societies, for example feminist antimilitarists, anti-arms trade campaigners, those working against particular wars or weapons, or against militarism in everyday life, amongst others.  They also work with other movements for freedom and justice, because militarism will not be dismantled without also transforming the violent bases of human organisation more generally: patriarchy, racism, capitalism, and so on.

This chapter is about those links with other antimilitarist and progressive movements, especially where a conscientious objection movement springs up almost incidentally to another movement, for example against a regime that conscripts members of the other movement, for purposes to which they are opposed.  We'll use the examples of South Africa during the apartheid regime and the current militarised regime in Eritrea, to look at how conscientious objection movements can be part of challenging regimes more generally, as well as part of wider campaigns that are not purely antimilitarist.

Conscientious Objectors Resisting the State, Not Just the Military

Social-political contexts draw people into conscientious objection movements, and they also shape their nature.  Two obvious examples are those groups which sprang up in opposition to the South African apartheid regime, and to the ongoing occupation of Palestine.  In both cases, members of the ethnic group in power –  white South Africans on the one hand, Jewish Israelis on the other  –  were called up to take up arms in defence of their ethnic group's position of power and privilege, through conscripted armed forces.

The default position for most young men and sometimes young women (including in Israel currently) - what the state tries so hard to portray as the neutral course of action - is joining the military. Therefore, especially in an authoritarian or oppressive regime, refusing the call up is a way of undermining the morale of the security forces, and pushing back against the power of the repressive state more generally. Let's look at South Africa under apartheid to see an example of this.

The End Conscription Campaign and Apartheid

Living in an oppressive state creates endless micro instances in which the populace colludes in recreating oppressions, and indeed it may be nearly impossible not to do so.  In these cases, withholding your labour from conscription can be one of the clearest ways of expressing discontent.

As member of the Apartheid-era End Conscription Campaign in South Africa Janet Cherry said, 'many young people do not want to go to the army... Where the military is highly politicised and is upholding a repressive regime, there is even more opportunity for creating divisions within the security forces and undermining their legitimacy.  In South Africa, where only white men were conscripted, it was important to make it clear to these young men that they were being used by the apartheid regime to uphold an illegitimate system.  The strategy in this case was to form a “single issue campaign” around the demand for an end to race-based conscription: the End Conscription Campaign (ECC).  In this campaign, we drew on the example of the US Anti-Vietnam war movement, drawing parallels between Angola and Vietnam, and, as the conflict escalated inside South Africa, by questioning why one section of the youth were being used to suppress their peers within the townships'.3

This important campaign was a strategy that evolved from decades of conscientious objection in South Africa.  Judith Connors, in her thesis Empowering Alternatives, points out that the roots of ECC are not always acknowledged post-apartheid.4

The pre-existing conscientious objection movement and the Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG) were the incubators for the birth of the End Conscription Campaign.

Conscription became a necessity for the white minority apartheid government that had come to power in 1948.  The Defence Act No 44 of 1957 introduced a ballot system of three months service for white males. In the 1950s religious groupings, including the forerunner to the South African Council of Churches, the Christian Council of South Africa, were arguing for an exemption to serving in the army if it was against their religion.  This led to the inclusion in the Defence Act No 44 of 1957 of a non-combatant option for anyone whose religious commitment did not permit them to take up arms.  The Defence Act of 1963 retained the provision for religious objection although this did not sit well with the state.  The Defence Act of 1967, when the period of service was extended to nine months, general unhappiness with conscription began to make itself heard.

Connors says, 'although COSG was not to come into existence for at least another 12 years or so, the seeds for its formation were directly sewn by the Defence Act No 85 of 1967, which made it compulsory for all white males between the ages of 17 and 65 to serve a nine month period in the SADF [South African Defence Force].'

In 1977 the Act changed again and doubled the period of military service to 24 months.  While COSG existed informally in the decade before this, it is not surprising that with motivation coming from existing conscientious objectors, the COSG was formalised in 1979. Meanwhile the government had set up the Naude Committee with the purpose of finding a new way to deal with conscientious objectors. The committee proposed a distinction between objectors who were religiously motivated and those who were politically or morally motivated. Eight year prison sentences were proposed for those in the latter category.5

Thanks to action by COSG, the amendment in 1983 allowed for alternative service options for those in the first category but although reduced from what had been proposed, the prison service for those in the second, was six years.

In 1983 the new legislation introduced the Board for Religious Objection.  Connors, however,  says, that the establishment of the Board, with its strict division between religion and politics, created dilemmas for the Board. The amendment establishing the Board was not achieving what the government had hoped for, 'namely the appearance of an enlightened reasonableness through the creation of a forum that would accommodate religious objectors (and hence not alienate the churches), while simultaneously attempting to stifle what it saw as a political movement, which was using the issue of conscription to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the apartheid state and its practices'.

Many conscientious objectors were not motivated by pacifism, but anyone appearing before the board had to be a religious objector or pacifist. Some conscripts wanted to make the point that, whether they were religious or not, they could not take up arms and support an immoral government against their fellow South Africans.  This feeling increased as the country became more militarised and there were more police and army in the townships, especially in the 1980s.  The very large numbers who were not turning up for call-ups towards the end had undoubtedly been influenced by the ECC, but even larger numbers, as Janet Cherry says above, just didn’t want to do military service.   Although many of them rejected apartheid, many were not politicised; they just didn’t want the time in which they should be studying and getting on with establishing a career, spent in the army.  When they sought advice from the Conscription Advice Service their political consciousness may have been raised, but they were generally very ordinary young white people who accepted the status quo.

As stated, the pre-existing Conscientious Objector Support Group (COSG) was the incubator for the birth of the ECC.  This foundation – and in turn the impetus for COSG itself – reflects how organisations with nonviolent action agendas cooperate and help the birthing process that will answer a specific need in a society.

COSG existed in different forms in each province in the country and provided support and advice to conscripts.  It also saw its role as educating the public around conscription and militarisation.  And although it did not have the same pull, media coverage, and popularity that the ECC would have in the future, there was in these early years considerable publicity around the young men taking a stand against conscription.  The group and its Conscription Advice Service (non-directive advice)6

were proactive in publicising their services.  The extensive experience gained by this group and the conscripts who challenged the legislation and went to detention barracks or prison, inspired many more to become conscientious objectors and later to become active in the ECC.

The exact date and circumstances of the formation of the ECC are sometimes questioned but generally the accepted view is that the growing appreciation of the fact that although it was illegal to encourage South Africans to refuse to serve, it was not illegal to call for the end of conscription.  The identification of this legal distinction is attributed to Sheena Duncan who had an uncanny eye for picking up contradictions such as this in apartheid legislation.  In 1983, the Black Sash conference resolved to work towards the abolition of conscription.  The latter is perceived as being the impetus for the ECC and in the same year COSG supported the call resolving to work towards a campaign against compulsory conscription.  

From this point the groundwork started and branches were being formed which would culminate in the launch of the End Conscription Campaign.  Its inaugural meeting is recorded as 17 November 1983 but officially it was launched in October 1984 as an anti-war movement that was actively 'engaged in the struggle against apartheid.'  Its existence was based on resisting the Apartheid state's use of the military to prop up its regime by conscripting all white South African men to serve in the armed forces. The campaign was highly visible with activities appealing to the youth. Although members were harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned and meetings banned, the ECC was a broad church.  Annemarie Hendricks describes its character in Sheena Duncan: 'It allowed space for many, including English and Afrikaans speakers, Christians, liberals, lefties, graphic artists and musicians. It was one of the few anti-apartheid movements to be openly gay-friendly and which prized creativity and self expression without losing sight of South African society as a whole.  It was able to produce enjoyable politicised social events as well as media that attracted attention to the campaign in poignant yet often delightfully amusing ways  – and which infuriated the apartheid regime'.

The many South African conscientious objectors - particularly those who took a conscious stand, in the true sense of the word – cannot all be recognised and mentioned in this chapter, but all were willing to put their lives on hold, make sacrifices and even suffer the wrath of the state, knowing that they could spend years in jail.  They used conscientious objection as a non-violence tool to bring about change. Their actions too were commendable from a non-violent perspective.  For instance, fasting was a way of asserting one’s rights from early on and in 1985 three conscientious objectors fasted for three weeks before the ‘troops out of the township’ campaign took off.7

In 1987, a group of 23 conscientious objectors went public with their stand on refusing to serve and set off a trend of young men stating publicly that they would not serve.  These numbers declaring they would not serve grew steadily despite the possible punitive repercussions they faced.

An organisation’s success can be measured by the government in power’s reaction to it, so it was not surprising that the ECC was banned along with a number of other anti-apartheid organisations, who were all members of the United Democratic Front.8

The ECC's banning was met with strong opposition from students.

In 1988 conscripts were still being jailed. One conscientious objector was jailed a year later. Conscription was reduced in 1989 from two years to one.   The government was already involved in negotiations with the liberation movements behind the scenes while the conscription machinery continued.  Resources had to be mobilised to successfully oppose repressive sections of the 1992 Amendment Bill.  With the banning of the ECC, COSG had to step into the breach and ‘hold up the high profiled anti-militarisation work’.  Fortunately the ECC ‘unbanned’ itself in 1989 and became critically active with COSG in ensuring that conscription would not be a feature of the new dispensation. In 1993 conscription was abolished.

Women and the Conscientious Objection Movement

During the anti-apartheid struggle, gender rights took a back seat to the mammoth task of overcoming apartheid.  That is not to say that they were completely neglected – but they were not always incorporated into campaigns in a way that could have contributed to greater discussion around them. This was especially so with regard to the military and conscientious objection.  Notwithstanding the recognition of women and men as equal within all the arms of the security forces, as with all military institutions, the idea that the weak need to be protected – and that this is a task for males – still prevails.

This was particularly exploited by the Nationalist Party, with all the racist undertones that accompany gender typical white male bravado and the need to protect white women from ‘uncivilised’ black men.

Women did play key roles in the movement. The late Howard Clark in his preface to Women Conscientious Objectors – an anthology9 identifies Sheena Duncan, president of the Black Sash, as the person who saw the opportunity to campaign against conscription and that such a campaign would have the potential to open a new front in the struggle for a non-racist South Africa.

Jacklyn Cock, a feminist, an academic as well as a member of the Black Sash, says of the ECC, 'Many of its members and supporters were white women.  Women were an important source of commitment and energy'.10 However, she also attributes this role to what could be seen as a gender stereotype implying that these women were “moved by their maternal role”.

When Conscription Ends

If one of the conscientious objection movement's core principles is not antimilitarism – or at least, the core principle of enough individuals within a movement is not antimilitarism – then what happens to the group after the regime has changed, but the militarism remains?  In some cases, this overlaps with the general discussion on what happens to conscientious objection movements when conscription ends (see chapter 20); but it is perhaps even more acute when regimes are known as particularly heinous – beyond the realms of 'normal' or 'commonly accepted' militarism – partly because of the sheer number of people involved who might not have been engaged in an anti-conscription campaign under a less controversial regime.

In South Africa, at the closure of the ECC, an organisation came into being that would be a reminder of the rejection of conscription and militarisation of society. That organisation was the Ceasefire Campaign.  It recognised that the country was still highly militarised and that our neighbours were still at war.  For more than 20 years until it closed for lack of funds, the organisation, with a small band of activists, was able to keep demilitarisation and the advantages of nonviolence in the public eye.

Members of the ECC have camaraderie among themselves to this day.  Many went on to be successful in different sectors unrelated to the field they were active in.  However, their commitment to the principles they stood for still informs their lives.  Others continued in the field of peace and justice doing research, advocacy, and campaigning.  Twenty five years after the inauguration of the ECC, ex members raised funding and commemorated the event in the most extraordinary way.  The details of just how much was done can be found in the South African History Archive archive.  In each of the main cities, seminars and exhibitions took place.  Many speakers were ex-ECC staff, leaders and members.  The commemoration culminated in a three day period in Cape Town 29th October to 2nd November 2009.  SAHA records this event: 'formal seminars included honest, incisive and often critical appraisals of the anti-conscription movement.  The event included a range of acclaimed local speakers, as well as an international panel of conscientious objectors and anti-war activists, including a Vietnam veteran, the Chairman of War Resisters' International, an Israeli objector and an Eritrean objector'.

Music11 and art were also a major part of the commemoration, a reminder of the important contribution that the arts made to an exceptional movement that helped prevent out and out civil war in South Africa.  The Deputy President of South Africa at the time, Kgalema Motlanthe, also paid tribute to the movement and its contribution to the struggle for freedom.

Notwithstanding a professional voluntary army, the military today, with its promises of training and financial security, is an attractive option particularly to those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, together with calls for the introduction of national service, makes constant vigilance a necessity.


There are also those repressive, heavily militarised states where labour is militarised far beyond a 'privileged' group who 'police' the majority.  In 2015, the state of Eritrea falls into this category.  Just over six million people live in this country, in which campaigner and former combatant Luwam Estefanos tells us that 'for the last 14 years or more not a single Eritrean has been ordinarily demobilised'.

Conscription in Ertirea is indefinite, with state functions like health and education services populated by staff in civilian clothes who are actually still regimented, and will return to their regiments when their placements are over, or when 'disciplined'.

Conscientious objection movements do not exist in Eritrea as such at present although there are those who refuse to fight, mostly Jehovah's Witnesses, many of whom have been in prison for over 20 years for their refusal, but war resistance is rife in another form: people flee.  The estimated 4,000 plus Eritreans, including unaccompanied minors, who flee the country every month – despite shoot-to-kill orders implemented by border guards and the extreme dangers along escape routes – are probably not pacifists or antimilitarist campaigners: but they do want their freedom and their lives.  The militarisation of Eritrea denies this.

Indefinite conscription is only one factor that that prompts migration in Eritrea.  It works alongside human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and incommunicado detentions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, inhumane prison conditions, and lack of freedom of expression and opinion, assembly, association, religious belief and movement as incentives to flee.  This exodus has a number of consequences.  Firstly, of course, there are fewer people to join the military, and indeed, to fill roles more generally.  Secondly, as it continues, the wider world notices.  In late 2014 the UN Refugee Agency recognised the sharp increase in the number of Eritrean refugees to Europe, Ethiopia and Sudan.  Between January and November 2014, nearly 37,000 Eritreans had sought refuge in Europe, compared to almost 13,000 during the same period in the previous year.

Draft evasion and immigration to avoid conscription may become one of the factors that trigger a change in the Eritrean regime. Perhaps the more militarised a country becomes, the more threatened it is by relying on the labour of a people fatigued and traumatised by its violence.


Conscientious objector movements do not happen in a vacuum.  They are responses to circumstance: militarism as it is played out in each state, community, and home.  It follows that they should never be isolated and unrelated to the struggles that occur around them, be they the most visible and obvious – like those against the Apartheid regime in South Africa – or the most everyday and accepted, like gendered violence everywhere.

As we have seen, thousands of people who would not want to make a politicised stand as a conscientious objector nevertheless reject war and militarisation.  They wish to lead peaceful and productive lives – something which military governments and agents of the military industrial complex reject while they continue to unashamedly pursue the promotion of violence and death.

Anti-conscription and conscientious objection campaigns have been inspired by, and part of, wider campaigns in the past, and they will be in the future.  Where conscientious objection movements are part of 'successful' movements, for example for regime change, the challenge is to adapt as a movement to the new regime, and especially one that might feel less oppressive and militarised.  Nonetheless, there will still be challenges to face, as the life of South Africa post-apartheid demonstrates.

1. For more on Hannah's background, see Chapter 1: Conscientious Objection in History'.
2.  Clark, Howard 2010, 'Objecting: an act of civil disobedience', Open Democracy [online] 14 May 2010, <>, accessed 12th June 2015.
3. Cherry, Janet 2014, ‘Activism in Oppressive Regimes: some lessons from South Africa’, in Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd edn. (London: War Resisters’ International), p116.
4. Connors, Judith 2007, Empowering Alternatives, A History of the Conscientious Objector Support Group’s challenge to military service in South Africa, (dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of M.Com. In the subject of Peace and Conflict Resolution Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal).
5. Connors 2007, p77.
6. Connors quotes Charles Bester: 'Maybe the most impressive aspect of COSG was that they never hijacked my objection.  Here I was, an eighteen year old with specific religious and political views, in the company of people,  whose knowledge of South African politics in general and the military in particular  was far greater than mine. And yet my view were held to be important, and in as much as it was me who was objecting, to be respected' p205.
7. During the WRI conference held in 2014 in Cape Town, South Africans said they were particularly pleased that the event was taking place at the venue, the City Hall, where conscientious objector Ivan Toms broke his fast at the launch of the campaign.
8. The United Democratic Front was a collection of anti-apartheid organisations started in 1983. Initially, it was committed to nonviolence but was influenced by the people’s  insurrection of the mid 1980s.   To be identified with this important internal campaign gave the ECC substantial credence with the broad anti-apartheid movement and local black organisations. (South African History Online n.d.,  United Democratic Front  (UDF), <>, accessed 12th June 2015).
9. Eds. Ellen Elster and Majken Jul Sorensen 2010, (London: War Resisters' International).
10. Cock, Jacklyn 1989, 'Women and the SADF', in War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa, eds. Jacklyn Cock and Laurie Nathan, (New York: St Martin's  Press Inc.).
11. A creative and successful action was to use  the name ‘Forces Favourites’, a radio propaganda programme for soldiers to help increase their morale, for a compilation of mainly anti-apartheid  music.  Shifty Records released  it in conjunction with the ECC.


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