Campaigners ‘not so angelic’

2009-11-13 00:00

IDID my military service from 1978 to 1979, spending 16 months of it “on the border” and afterwards I studied history at the University of Cape Town (UCT). I did not love the South African Defence Force (SADF) and responded with great reluctance when called up for a township camp in 1986 and 1987. Around UCT, the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) had a high profile, but I did not support it, although I disagreed strongly with the state’s crude harassment of the organisation.

I have a lucid memory, from around mid-1986, of sitting next to a young fashionably lefty woman in a UCT lecture hall, watching an overseas news video showing a black woman, a supposed informer, being burnt to death by a petrol-filled tyre which had been placed around her neck. Members of the mob kicked at her flaming body; a barbaric scene that would have fitted details of the worst human right abuses in human history.

The lefty woman related that such actions did not morally concern her. She “supported” the “execution” of collaborators. “Necklace” homicides constituted phenomena exemplifying the grimmest and darkest features of human behaviour, but many ECC old girls and boys would probably prefer not to recall their sometimes tepid reactions to such atrocities.

Alternate voices that criticised the murderous recklessness among the so-called township “young comrades” and suggested that their criminal attacks on all forms of state authority and opponents might have future dire consequences, were generally scathingly dismissed by ECC types.

Where the ECC was particularly weak was in its blindness in assuming that among the violence of eighties South Africa, only the state’s forces carried any moral blameworthiness. ECC members never really understood the cynicism where mobs loosely associated to the ANC perpetrated township and rural violence against opponents in a pattern that also served an expedient agenda related to the seizure of political power.

But where the ECC was undoubtedly strong was that it included a few men who cited their Christian, pacifist, political and other reasons to justify defying their call-up instructions. Such moral strength displayed by Ivan Toms and others meant they did not just attend meetings and parties, but they actually went to prison. Nobody can dispute that that took courage.

But the ECC was also an organisation that was top-heavy with women members who did not face military call-up and who displayed little balanced insight into the complexity of military culture and its undeniable unique attraction to a certain kind of man. Feminist and pacifist critiques predominated among them, yet in contradiction many of the women idealised the ANC Umkhonto weSizwe “soldiers” and township “foot­soldiers” as noble Che Guevara guerillas and sansculottes. While the ANC and its UDF front supported a loose strategy to intimidate their black opponents, from Crossroads to the Natal valleys, ECC members explained the violence with an easy and ignorant detachment, largely innocent, concerning the ghoulish horrors coldly euphemised as “the struggle”. The more politically hard-eyed ECC members despised the troopies in Angola, not because the “apartheid frontline” actually lay between Unita and Fapla, but because the SADF was in combat against ANC allies. But the student bars of Rondebosch were a long way from Lombe River or Quattro camp.

During the eighties, there was no easy path towards containing township violence, with the police thinly stretched and comprising numerous individuals unsuitable for any form of law enforcement, let alone riot control. The presence of the army in the townships demonstrated that significant state force was still available and the circumstances demanded it.

It is not really accurate to say that the SADF was the “last line of apartheid defence”. That is just an old ECC cliché, devoid of real empirical substance. If the country had indeed become ungovernable, as was called for by the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) in April 1985, what entity existed which could have restored some semblance of order?

For all its deviousness and dishonesty, the National Party government was grasping for some way out, which inevitably had to shift towards a national convention-type situation. We know now that the ANC attended the initial secret negotiations, because it was also conscious of this potential incendiary national fragmentation, over which any new government would assert state authority with great difficulty.

But conscription also meant that the SADF’s white manpower consisted of mostly part-time soldiers: a mixed bunch like the communities they originated from, but unlike the police, they did not have a collective history of harsh riot control. Their total reliance upon citizen soldiers also precluded the SADF from historically directing national politics. ECC members would have experienced a really brutal state had they practised their activism as Chilean, Brazilian or Argentinian citizens did during the seventies when the large regular armed forces assumed direct and draconian political roles. With no disrespect intended to Toms and others, no ECC members were shot dead or hurled out of planes over the sea. At worst, the SADF can be vaguely compared to the role of the Polish military during the early eighties, when the armed forces acted internally to stave off possible Soviet invasion. This would have torn Poland in two, even possibly extending into a general European war. And who knows what implications existed for Africa had South Africa imploded. Once the April 1994 election was held, the citizen soldiers in their vital finale comprised the SADF’s national presence and deterred most men of violence from wrecking the future. General George Meiring personally cautioned AWB leaders not to interfere, bluntly responding to their taunts of turning Afrikaners on Afrikaners, warning that English-speaking citizen force regiments would be mustered against the right-wingers. The SADF served likewise as a watchdog facing the MK, Apla and Inkatha wild men.

The youth and idealism among the ECC members invoked and ensured tremendous moral courage in individuals like Toms, but the organisation encouraged reluctance among its supporters to be more discerning regarding township violence realities and the SADF’s policing role. ECC members lapsed into the old failing of the self-righteous political zealot, where culpabilities for social injustice are viewed in stark good or evil terms. Unfortunately, as perhaps ECC veterans might ruefully acknowledge, the revolutionary heroes of those student days are now dreadfully tarnished.

• Rodney Warwick lives in Cape Town. He graduated this year with a Ph.D. degree in historical studies from UCT. The topic of his thesis is: White South Africa and Defence 1960-1968: Militarisation, Threat Perceptions and Counter Strategies.

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