The truth behind the bombing of Witwatersrand Command

Very few people today (including some SADF military veterans) are aware that Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) insurgents actually attacked some bone-fide South African Defence Force (SADF) military installations, but only a handful of occasions and this story covers one of them – the bombing of the Witwatersrand Command’s building – the Drill Hall (known as Wit Command).

Other than the bombing of Wit Command and the Nedbank Plaza in Pretoria (which housed the target – a SAAF command office), the only other standout ANC MK attacks on actual SADF installations were low key and completely ineffectual.  These included the rocketing of the Personnel Services army base in Voortrekker Hoogte (with minor injuries to one civilian and no substantive building damage). The faulted attempt at bombing a Wits Command medic centre in Hillbrow (no injuries). The speculative bombing of some cars in the car-park of the Kaffarian Rifles (no injuries, and no information either). Finally, the bombing of a dustbin outside Natal Command (no injuries or building damage).  Finally, the bombing of two SADF recruitment offices and an SADF radio installation – with no injuries.

Information on the bombing at Wit Command itself is really difficult to come by, at best it is presented as a resounding victory by MK claiming 58 injuries and 1 death of SADF personnel and at worst there is little to almost no information, video or photographs in both the military and media records of showing any deaths.  There is certainly no death of a SADF serviceman recorded on the honour roll. So where does the truth lie?

There are two key reasons why ‘in-depth’ knowledge of this incident remains obscured.  Firstly, although a bomb had gone off in down-town Johannesburg (no hiding that), the grip of the National Party over South African media limited ensured the incident would be carefully managed (attacks on SADF military installations would affect morale) and, more importantly, it was very carefully managed because of the profile of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) attacker who committed it.  The outcry, profile and ‘hunt’ for him was somewhat muted, angry announcements identifying him for the purposes of the ‘hunt’ were made, yes – but in-depth media analysis on the attack or investigative journalists seeking an exposé on the attacker’s profile and motivation – no – there’s nothing of this sort.  

Simply put, this ‘managed’ outcry was because this particular MK operative was from an upper class, ‘white’ Afrikaner, well to do and influential family.  He grew up in an up market ‘white’s only’ conservative suburb in Johannesburg and attended a prestigious Afrikaans High School  – he didn’t fit the National Party’s ‘swart-gevaar’ (Black danger)/’rooi-gevaar’ (Communist danger) terrorist narrative of the time, he was in fact embarrassing enough ‘one of their own’.

So, lets get to the ‘truth’ of matter in all of this, what was the actual damage caused, what actually happened?

Background 

The treason trials started off like an action-packed cowboy filmOn 30 July 1987, a bomb exploded at the Witwatersrand Command’s Drill Hall injuring 26 people (no deaths), the injured were made up of a mix of both military personnel and by-standing civilians. The Drill Hall was targeted because not only was it a military installation, it was also the same historic Hall in which the 1956 Treason Trial took place and significant to ‘struggle’ politics.

The ‘Treason Trial’ had lasted from 1956 to 1961 (not to be confused with the ‘Rivonia Trial in 1964) and revolved around 156 people arrested on charges of treason – it was overseen by Oswald Pirow and it included a mix racial bag of South African political party leaders from across the spectrum, notably Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Stanely Lollan, Helen Joseph, Joe and Ruth Slovo and Leon Levy to name a few.  They were all found ‘not guilty’ but the trial did force Oliver Tambo into exile.

Treason trialists inside the Drill

Treason Trial in the Drill Hall

So, like the mixed racial bag of the Treason Trial itself, the actual attack on the Drill Hall (by then a SADF command centre and military building) did not come from an angry disenfranchised ‘Black’ ANC MK operative, rather, this attack came from very “blue blooded” ‘White’ Afrikaner – Heinrick (Hein) Grosskopf.

The Bombing

As part of the Amnesty Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings Hein Grosskopf, by that stage a former MK operative, revealed how he detonated a car bomb at the Witwatersrand Command military base.

Grosskopf, a graduate of Linden Hoërskool (High School) and the son of Johannes Grosskopf, a former editor of the Beeld newspaper, said he joined the African National Congress in exile in 1986 after concluding that apartheid was reprehensible.

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Johannes Grosskopf

He linked up with the ANC in Lusaka, where he volunteered for MK military service and after undergoing training in Angola, he returned to Lusaka at the end of 1986.

Six months of planning then went into the attack, which was to be a “one-man” operation. An attack on the Braamfontein gas works in Johannesburg had also been considered, but it was rejected as too dangerous for civilians in the area. Witwatersrand (“Wits”) Command was chosen after much deliberation and according to Grosskopf;

“Because the state had so clearly politicised the role of the SA Defence Force by deploying troops in townships, SADF personnel and installations were by definition justifiable targets.”

The explosion was planned to go off by 9.45am, when the morning rush-hour was over, children would be in school and restaurants around the site were still closed. A car with an automatic gearbox would be used and by lashing the steering wheel in a fixed position, the car could be made to move without a driver towards the target.

In June 1987, Grosskopf entered South Africa on a motorcycle from Botswana, along the way he bought an old Valiant pickup ‘bakkie’ in De Deur and travelled to Johannesburg with the motorcycle in the back of the ‘bakkie’.

After booking in at the Holiday Inn in Pretoria, under the name if JR Evans, Grosskopf rented a small flat in Linden, Johannesburg (a suburb he was highly familiar with and near his old High School).

Between the 5th and 10th of July 1987, Grosskolf carried out reconnaissance at Wits Command and found it would be possible to park in Quartz Street, opposite the target. He also measured the height of the pavement the attack vehicle would have to mount before reaching the wall of Wits Command.

After concluding that the operation was feasible, Grosskopf returned to Botswana and requested 120kg of explosives from his support group. The load was hidden behind the seats of the bakkie, and steel plate was welded over it.

On July 17, Grosskopf rented a house in Ventersdorp, intending to use it as an operational base, believing that a single Afrikaner would be under less scrutiny in a small town than in Johannesburg’s suburbs, but as he was moving in, two policemen arrived and asked why his bakkie was registered in a name different from the one he used when renting the house. Thinking his cover might be blown Grosskopf spent only one night in the house before returning to Johannesburg.

Early on the day of the attack, he rode into Johannesburg on his motorbike and left it two street blocks from the target. He returned to the Linden flat by taxi. Around 9am he left for Johannesburg after loading the explosives into the bakkie. The vehicle was parked in Quartz Street. With the car idling, he lashed the steering wheel in the required position and threw three switches to arm the vehicle and bomb, got out the vehicle, locked it and walked towards Sterland (a cinema complex) next to Wits Command.

Just before reaching the inside of the Sterland complex proper, the Valiant’s engine revved very fast and loudly, with the explosion that followed. He jumped on the motorcycle and rode back to Linden, collected some belongings and then headed for Botswana on the motorcycle.

Aletta Klaasen was 17 years old when she lost her left eye in the explosion. Minutes before the blast she had been talking to two SADF soldiers in front of the building, Cpl. Paul Duncan and his army chum Stoffel, when Grosskopf parked his vehicle close by to where they where standing.

She noted Grosskopf looking in her direction and called out to him “What are you looking at – I’m not for sale” (the area around Wit Command was a notorious ‘red light’ district known for prostitution). He turned around and walked off and shortly after that the bomb went off.

When she recovered from the blast she noted that one of the SADF troops, Cpl. Paul Duncan, who she was chatting to, was blown off his feet and found in the guardhouse, bleeding from the head and unconscious – he later fully recovered from his injuries.

An unassuming, quiet and reserved person, Grosskopf built up his resentment of the status quo whilst a student at Linden Hoērskool, were he had been bullied and teased by the vastly conservative white Afrikaans students for his “liberal” views. On matriculating from Linden Hoërskool, Hein Grosskolf, although openly stating he would never join the South African Defence Force (SADF), did in fact attend to his national service military call up and was discharged from his SADF conscription commitment on medical grounds. Highly politicised, he then went on to join the ANC and its military wing MK.

Aftermath

The Drill Hall after the bombing was deemed by the SADF to be an ‘unsafe’ building due to structural damage caused it and the Command moved into a high-rise building adjacent to the Drill Hall. On occasion the Drill Hall would be used by Citizen Force units and Regiments for mustering (in the very famous hall in which the Treason Trial took place) but more often than not it remained empty but guarded during the early 1990’s.

Once the command relocated from the high-rise building to Doornkop military base in the mid 1990’s, the drill hall building was taken over by vagrants and became an informal settlement – it eventually became derelict, caught fire and burned down. Today, the façade and some perimeter buildings is all that remains of the complex.  The façade has been restored as a monument to Johannesburg’s history and the significant historical events which took place in the building – including it’s bombing.

Truth and Reconciliation

Aletta Klaasen and Hein Grosskopf were both at the TRC Hearing in November 2000, Grosskopf apologised to Aletta in person and regretted the injuries caused to civilians. Grosskopf concluded the meeting by saying that he was proud of the small role he had played in the struggle for freedom.  He said,

“Taking a life is never easy. I believe all life, even that of my enemies is sacrosanct. Violence can never be good; it can only be necessary. I am truly sorry for the injuries and suffering I caused”

14225369_632870203549382_188786347975450644_nAt her request Klaasen and Grosskopf met for a few minutes in private after the hearing and then they both posed briefly and rather awkwardly for this photograph (note the body language). Neither of them elaborated on their meeting, Klaasen was only prepared to say that it had been good.

Heinrich Grosskopf, was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on 13th December 2000 whilst he was resident in the United Kingdom, it is thought he may still be there, and there is an irony here.  One of the SADF victims of the bombing – Paul Duncan, also lives in the United Kingdom now.  Paul was kind enough to recount his eye-witness account (both as a casualty and the fact that he was very near the epicentre of the blast). ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘apologies’ aside, I have it on good authority that it’s very unlikely Hein will be attending one of Paul’s famous ‘braai’s’ (a South African barbecue) in England anytime soon.

Written and researched by Peter Dickens


Reference: News 24 Archives.  Interview with Paul Duncan.  South African History On-line. Wikipedia.

1994 The fight for Freedom … continued.

On the 27th April 1994 we saw the first fully democratic election in South Africa’s history and this picture taken in 1994 says everything. Here a group of former “old” SADF servicemen are seen in a Buffel armoured personnel carrier (APC) in front of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 electoral promises to newly enfranchised South Africans – “more Jobs, Peace and Freedom”.

During this period ex-conscript SADF soldiers, in collaboration with “permanent force” soldiers, all put themselves at risk securing the country and paving the way for the South African ‘miracle’. conscription by 1994 had been abandoned so they did this for the love of peace and freedom – and they volunteered freely in their thousands to do it.

Bear in mind the far right wing AWB was still bombing installations right up to the day before the election itself and extreme violence between IFP and ANC supporters was still rife, so much so that SADF servicemen had to provide armed escort of election ballots to the independent electoral commission counting stations and provide armed security at the booths themselves.  

From 1990 to 1994 South Africa saw more violence than the entire preceding period of actual “Apartheid”. There was extensive violence and thousands of deaths in the run-up to the first non-racial elections in South Africa in April 1994 – and to be fair it was not just the ANC , the violence was driven by a number of political parties left and right of the political spectrum as they jostled for political power in the power vacuum created by CODESA negotiations.

To deal with this escalation of all out political violence, the SADF called out for an urgent boost in resources, however conscription was unravelling and numbers dropping off rapidly from the “national service” pool.  Luckily however, tens of thousands of “white” ex National servicemen were now serving out “camp commitments” in various Citizen Force units, SADF Regiments and in the Regional Commando structures who heeded the call and volunteered to stay on – fully dedicated to serving the country above all else, and fully committed to keep the country on the peace process track and stop the country sliding into civil war.

This service to their country is now conveniently forgotten by the ANC government – as it is now an inconvenient truth to think ‘white’ South African conscripts also secured the country its ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’.  It simply does not fit with the current “struggle” rhetoric.

In the back-ground of this telling featured photograph is an old ANC poster with Nelson Mandela promising jobs and freedom to people who vote for ANC, however anyone with an understanding of economics knows it was an absurd thing for a political party to promise jobs to the masses in South Africa.   The economic sector makes jobs, not the political sector.  The political sector needs to enfranchise the economic sector as much as possible to allow it to generate wealth.

In 1994, the vast majority of South Africans remained upbeat about its new democracy – that the coalition government and ten year sunset clause would safely steer the country into representative politics, economic wealth generation and stability.

So, just over two decades years later with South Africa under ANC rule – spiralling unemployment, reverse racism, junk status and corruption on a epic level – the ruling elite is still promising the same absurd promise – More Jobs.  The idea now is to plunder state pensions and plunder ‘free’ enterprise ‘white’ capital (there is no such thing as ‘white capital’ really, but lets not dwell on facts), all done in the hopes it will somehow finance jobs for the masses and keep their voters happy.

To many of those optimistic soldiers in 1994, actively participating in making a world changing event a reality, the current state of affairs in South Africa is now as far removed from the lofty ideals of democracy and freedom that they fought for and put their lives on the line for.

Fortunately there are still many South Africans (and many of these veterans) who protect our highly prized constitution with its guaranteed freedoms and hold it in high regard, and we have a tenacity in-bred in ourselves as South Africans to make things happen – like paradigm shifts in our country’s future – its happened before and it can happen again.

PFP (now the DA) anti-SADF conscription poster

So here’s an interesting poster doing the rounds in military veteran social media groups, with all the South African veterans branding it as a ECC (End Conscription Campaign) poster with the usual ho-hum “they ran away to the UK” and “where are these liberals now that the country has dipped to junk status” rhetoric.

But again I despair as its NOT a ECC (End Conscription Campaign) poster. This time its a PFP (Progressive Federal Party) youth league i.e. “Young Progressives” poster. The PFP as many know is the predecessor (Grandfather) of the Democratic Alliance – the DA, the same organisation most these military veterans now vote for and strongly support … go figure!

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The Progressive Federal Party (PFP), formed in 1977 advocated power sharing in federal constitution in place of the National Party’s policy of Apartheid.  Its leader was Colin Eglin, who was succeeded by Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and then Zach de Beer.  It held out as the official political “white” opposition to Apartheid and the National Party for just over a decade and its best known parliamentarian was Helen Suzman.

The Democratic Party (DP) was formed on 8 April 1989, when the Progressive Federal Party (PFP) merged with the smaller Independent Party and National Democratic Movement.  The DP contested the 1994 elections as the mainstream democratic alternative to the ANC, the IFP and the National Party.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) was formed when additional parties were added to the Democratic Party (DP) in June 2000 to form a bigger alliance against the ANC.

For reference, these are “End Conscription Campaign” posters, note the ECC logo comprising symbolically of a broken chain:

Like the PFP’s “Young Progressives”, The End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was another organisation made up of primarily “white” anti-apartheid supporters.  The ECC was a university/student organisation allied to the United Democratic Front and composed of conscientious objectors and supporters in opposition to serving in SADF under the National Service Conscription regulations laid out for all “white male adults”.

The ECC served to undermine the SADF by finding loopholes in the laws which enabled legal objection to conscription and targeted South Africa’s “English” medium universities during the 1980’s.

The irony now, is that where the country’s “centre” democrats so dogmatically fought the Apartheid government they now fight the ANC government with the same veracity.  So to answer the old SADF military veterans questions of “where are all these ‘libtards’ (liberals) who refused army service now that the country is in the toilet after hitting junk status?” Well, many are still in South Africa in the form of the DA, still very active in anti-ruling party politics, still driving centre democratic political philosophy, still holding rather large “Anti-Apartheid” credentials (whether the ANC and EFF like it or not) and funnily if you regularly put a Big X next to the ‘DA’ in an election – you are now one of them.

Many of odd twists and turns of inconvenient South African history that makes it so very interesting.

Conveniently ignored ‘Heroes of the struggle for Democracy’ … the ‘old’ SADF

Here is an unusual “hero of the struggle for democracy in South Africa”.  This is a South African Defence Force (SADF) former “whites only” National Service conscript turned “volunteer” holding a R4 assault rifle as he safely escorts the ballot boxes to a counting station during South Africa’s landmark 1994 election.

He, like thousands of other old SADF white “National Servicemen” literally volunteered over the transition between 1990 and 1994 to bring democracy to all South Africans and make the elections a reality.  For good reason to, even on the election day itself bomb attacks where still going on and lives were still under threat. Yet now these military “heroes” are conveniently forgotten or vanquished and rather inappropriately branded as “racists” by a brainwashed South African public that has lost perspective.

This is their story and it needs to be told. 1990 was a significant year – Apartheid in all its legal forms was removed from the law books, the system that had generated “the struggle” was dead. The African National Congress (ANC) was also officially unbanned in February 1990, unhindered to practice its politics. All that remained was a period of peaceful negotiation and reconciliation … the future looked bright.  But did that happen?

Unfortunately not, all hell broke out and the organisations that ultimately kept the peace were the statute armed forces of South Africa (SADF and SAP), who by default steered the country safely on the path to democracy in its final course up to and through the 1994 elections, and not the “struggle heroes” of the ANC, who it can really be said to have stumbled at the last hurdle.

It’s a pity as without this stumble the ANC could truly claim the mantle of  the “liberators” who brought democracy to all South Africans but now, rather inconveniently for them, they have to share it with the SADF – and in addition to SADF professional soldiers a huge debt gratitude is owed by the country to the old “white” SADF National Servicemen.

In 1990, once unbanned the ANC immediately went into armed conflict with all the other South Africans who did not favourably agree with them – especially the Zulu ’s political representation at the time – the Inkata Freedom Party (IFP), but also other “Black” liberation movements such as AZAPO (Azanian Peoples Organisation) and the old “homeland” governments and their supporters.  Instead of taking up a role of actively peacekeeping to keep the country on the peace negotiation track, they nearly drew South Africa into full-blown war.

From 1990 to 1994 South Africa saw more violence than the entire preceding period of actual “Apartheid”. There was extensive violence and thousands of deaths in the run-up to the first non-racial elections in South Africa in April 1994 – and to be fair it was not just the ANC , the violence was driven by a number of political parties left and right of the political spectrum as they jostled for political power in the power vacuum created by CODESA negotiations.

To deal with this escalation of all out political violence, the SADF called out for an urgent boost in resources, however conscription was unravelling and numbers dropping off rapidly from the “national service” pool.  Luckily however, tens of thousands of “white” ex National servicemen were now serving out “camp commitments” in various Citizen Force units, SADF Regiments and in the Regional Commando structures who heeded the call and volunteered to stay on – fully dedicated to serving the country above all else, and fully committed to keep the country on the peace process track and stop the country sliding into civil war.

In an odd sense, if you really think about it, these “white conscripts” are the real “heroes” that paved the way for peace. For four full years of political vacuum they literally risked their lives by getting into harms way between the various warring protagonists, left/right white/black – ANC, IFP, PAC and even the AWB – and it cannot be underestimated the degree to which they prevented an all out war from 1991 to 1994 whilst keeping the peace negotiations on track to a fully democratic settlement.

That South Africa enjoys the fruits of the CODESA democratic process, without plunging itself into civil war whilst democracy was negotiated is very much directly attributed to the men and women in the SADF.

In 1991, the armed insurrection in South Africa became more complex when far right-wing “white supremacist” break-away groups such as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) began to increasing turn to armed violence to further their cause. South Africa’s Defence Force and Police structures and personnel now also had to deal with this added, rather violent, dynamic to an already feuding and violent ethnic and political landscape.

“White” loyalties where quickly cleared up between white right wingers and white members of the statute forces when the issue came to a head at ‘The battle of Ventersdorp’ on 9 August 1991.  The statute force maintained the upper hand and in all, 3 AWB members and 1 passer-by were killed. 6 policemen, 13 AWB members and 29 civilians were injured in the clash.

In addition to Pretoria and surrounds, this right wing “revolution” also focused  on Bophuthatswana in 1994,  The AWB attempted an armed Coup d’état (takeover by force of arms) after Bophuthatswana homeland’s President Mangope was overthrown by a popular revolt.  In addition to the SADF, this uprising was also foiled by what remained of the statute forces of Bophuthatswana, and was to cumulate in the infamous shooting of 3 surrendered AWB members in front of the world’s media by a policeman.

Luckily not part of this particular controversy, the SADF ‘national service’ soldiers were deployed into the region to quell the uprising and arrested looters in the chaos of the revolt stabilising the situation – as the below famous image taken in Mmabatho by Greg Marinovich shows.

The net result of all this is recorded as a “SADF victory, removal and abolition of Lucas Mangope’s regime, disestablishment of Bantustan”.  In all, Volksfront: 1 killed, AWB: 4 killed, 3 wounded and Bophuthatswana’s mutineers suffered 50 dead, 285 wounded.

To get an idea of this low-level war between the ANC and IFP for political control in Kwa-Zulu Natal alone, The Human Rights Committee (HRC) estimated that, between July 1990 and June 1993, an average of 101 people died per month in politically related incidents – a total of 3 653 deaths. In the period July 1993 to April 1994, conflict steadily intensified, so that by election month it was 2.5 times its previous levels. Here SADF soldiers conduct a search through bush veld in KwaZulu Natal 1994 and keep a close eye on protesters with “traditional weapons” – Section A KwaMashu Hostel, an Inkatha stronghold.

Moreover, political violence in this period extended to the PWV (Pretoria– Witwatersrand-Vereeniging) region in the Transvaal. The HRC estimated that between July 1990 and June 1993, some 4 756 people were killed in politically related violence in the PWV area. In the period immediately following the announcement of an election date, the death toll in the PWV region rose to four times its previous levels. Here are SADF National Service soldiers on patrol in Soweto, South Africa, 1991/2 and keeping the peace in Bekkersdal in 1994.

Much of this climaxed into famous incident when the IFP chose to march in Johannesburg brandishing “traditional weapons” in 1994.  Outside the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters at ‘Shell House’  a shootout in downtown Johannesburg between the ANC and IFP supporters erupted. Here in a famous photo taken by Greg Marinovich is a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) who lies dead, his shoes are taken off for the journey to the next life. These three SADF soldiers have come forward into the line of fire – strait between the two warring factions and are keeping the ANC gunmen at Shell House at bay preventing further loss of life, the another image shows a SADF medic coming to the assistance of a wounded IFP member at Shell House – the degree of the life changing injury of a bullet shattering his leg quite graphically evident.

Another good example is also seen here at Bekkersdal township, Transvaal, South Africa 1994. AZAPO supporters fire at ANC supporters in armed clashes between these two groups of the “liberation struggle”.  The SADF again suppressed the clash, the next image shows heavy armed SADF National Servicemen in support by driving into the middle of the fray and keeping the belligerents apart – in effect saving lives.

Bigger clashes took place in KaZulu Natal – an example is seen here at KwaMashu in 1994. ANC militants with a home-made gun or ‘kwash’ do battle with Inkatha Freedom party supporters across the valley at Richmond Farm.  Again SADF personnel were moved in to separate the protagonists, here 61 Mech National Servicemen in a SADF “Ratel” IFV patrol Section A, KwaMashu Hostel, an Inkatha stronghold.

In an even stranger twist, a blame game ensured with the ANC not blaming itself and instead accusing a “third force” of guiding the violence and laid the blame on FW de Klerk.  Funnily no evidence of a “third force” has ever been found and the TRC hearings rejected the idea after a long investigation.

In the lead-up to the elections in April 1994, on 24 August 1993 Minister of Defence Kobie Coetsee announced the end of “whites only” conscription. In 1994 there would be no more call-ups for the one-year initial training. Although conscription was suspended it was not entirely abandoned, as the SADF Citizen Force and SADF Commando ‘camps’ system for fully trained conscripts remained place. Due to priorities facing the country, especially in stabilising the country ahead of the 1994 General Elections and the Peace Progress negotiations, the SADF still needed more strength to guard election booths and secure key installations.

So in 1994, the SADF “called-up” up even more “white” SADF Civilian force members, SADF Commando and SADF National Reservists to serve again, and despite the unravelling of conscription laws the response was highly positive with thousands of more national servicemen ‘voluntarily’ returning to service in order to safeguard the country into it’s new epoch.

National Reserve members were mustered at Group 18 outside Soweto in January 1994, some even arriving without uniform.  As part of this mustering I even have the personal experience of asking one of them what happened to his equipment and uniform to which the reply was “burnt it after my camps, but for this I am prepared to serve my country again.”  This comment says a lot as to devotion and commitment of someone making a difference at a turning point of history.

“Camp” call-ups and the call-up of ex-conscript SADF members on the National Reserve reached record proportions over the period of the April 1994 elections, and for the first time in history, in a strange twist of fate, the “End Conscription Campaign”( ECC) called these conscripts to consider these “election” call-ups to be different from previous call-ups and attend to their military duties.

It is highly ironic that even the ECC could see the necessity of security to deliver South Africa to democracy in this period – it was not going to come from the “liberation” movements or any “cadres” as they were part of the problem perpetuating the violent cycle in the power vacuum – it had to come from these SADF conscripts and statutory force members committed to their primary role of serving the country (and not a political ideology or party).

The threats on election day where very real – here South African Defence Force personnel cordon off a bomb blast area and South African police personnel inspect the bombing near the air terminals at Jan Smuts International Airport (now OR Tambo International).  This was the final Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) cell attack on April 27, 1994 in response to the landmark election day held the same day.

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While campaigning for the Presidency, even Nelson Mandela, seen here in traditional dress, made sure to stop and thank citizen force members of the SADF for their support and duty during South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994.

These ordinary South African servicemen showed what they are really made of by putting themselves in harm’s way to bring about the democracy that South Africans share today – they where literally the unsung heroes, and all respect to Nelson Mandela, he knew that and took  time in his campaigning to recognise it – these men did not ask for much in return and this small recognition would have been enough.

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Here a SADF member keeps a guarding and secure eye whilst fellow South Africans are queuing to vote in the historic first democratic election on April 27, 1994. This election poll was in Lindelani, Kwa Zulu Natal. Nelson Mandela voted here at 6am and his car passed by as these youngsters sang to honour him.  Another image shows a SADF National Serviceman guarding the election booths in Johannesburg, whilst a newly enfranchised South African eagerly points the way to the voting polls.

It was not just National Servicemen, all the uniformed men and women of the SADF and the SAP, of all ethnic groups in South Africa, paved the way for real peace when the country really stood at the edge and about to fall into the abyss of violence and destruction from 1990 to 1994.

This is an inconvenient truth – something kept away from the contemporary narrative of South Africa’s “Liberation” and “Struggle” – as it does not play to the current ANC political narrative. These men and women are now openly branded by lessor Politicians in sweeping statements as “Apartheid Forces” – demonised and vanquished – whereas, in reality nothing can be further from the truth. South Africans today – whether they realise it or not, owe these SADF Professionals and especially the former “whites only” national service conscripts a deep debt of gratitude for their current democracy, civil rights and freedom.

If you had to summarise the military involvement in the transition period, it was the SADF – not the “Liberation” armies of the ANC and PAC, who brought down civil revolts in all the ex-“Bantustans”, it was the SADF that suppressed an armed right-wing revolutionary takeover in South Africa , it was the SADF that put itself into harms way between all the warring political parties in the townships all over the country and literally saved thousands of lives for 4 long years and it was the SADF who stood guard and secured the 94 election itself.

The SADF veterans by far make up the majority of South Africa’s military veteran community, they also fought for liberation and peace, and as they say whenever current South African politicians idealise the MK veterans and demonise the old pre 94 SADF veterans – “please don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Article researched and written by Peter Dickens.

Photo copyrights to Greg Marinovich and Ian Berry.  Feature image photograph copyright Paul Weinberg

Epic Navy Style Water Skiing

South African Navy task Force returning from a flag showing cruise to Taiwan in mid 1990. This fun photo showing typical South African spirit was taken of a South African Navy Strike Craft – SAS Jan Smuts towing Richard Snook who is seen water skiing behind it.

The photo was taken from the deck of the SAS Drakensberg travelling at about 20 – 25 knots (40-45 km/h). Another strike craft – the SAS Hendrick Mentz was also in attendance when this fun stunt was performed.

According to Richard Snook, the skier, “the water was a bit choppy, but I managed to stay up until we had given Admiral Woodburne the salute”.

Salute to you Richard for demonstrating a typically South African can do attitude and sense of humour.

Photo courtesy Geoff Johnstone.

The SADF’s finest hour

The tragedy of the MS Oceanos can be regarded as the finest hour for the SADF and more specifically one where both the South African Navy and South African Air Force proved their mantra as the best in Africa and more.  It is also regarded as one of the greatest and most successful maritime rescues ever undertaken – anywhere in the world.

Not only was every soul saved, the SAN and SAAF personnel conducted themselves in great regard with a number of medals awarded for bravery, and even a Honoris Crux Gold awarded to Able Seaman Paul Burger Whiley (one of only six ever awarded).

On 3 August 1991, the Oceanos set out from East London heading to Durban. Unwittingly she headed into highly dangerous sea conditions with 40-knot winds and 9 m swells.

At approximately 21:30 while off the Wild Coast, a muffled explosion was heard and the Oceanos lost her power following a leak in the engine room’s sea chest , the ship was left adrift and then started to sink. The crew at this stage did not conduct themselves with great decorum and reports indicated that they were quite prepared to save themselves and abandon the passengers.

Nearby vessels responded to the ship’s SOS and were the first to provide assistance. The South African Navy along with the South African Air Force launched a seven-hour mission in which 16 helicopters were used to airlift the passengers and crew to a site south of Coffee Bay. Of the 16 rescue helicopters, 13 were South African Air Force Pumas, nine of which hoisted 225 passengers off the deck of the sinking ship. All 571 people on board were saved.

Of the many awards and citations of bravery, one stands out. Able Seaman AB Wiley from the SAS Scorpion was presented with the Honoris Crux Gold Decoration by the then Minister of Defence, Mr R.P. Meyer on the 6 March 1992.

He was cited as the first diver to be lowered aboard the MV Oceanos, and although he was severely beaten against the ship’s superstructure, he reached the deck.
Under extremely trying conditions he then succeeded in creating order and stability among the passengers. He then started hoisting passengers, on the first lift he accompanied a survivor up to the helicopter, after which it took a further 10 minutes of nerve-racking hovering to get him back on the deck.

During this maneuver, after being severely battered against the railing of the ship he was flung out of the hoisting strap and fell to a deck lower than intended. Thereupon a male survivor also fell out of a hoisting strap and fell 40 meters into the mountainous swells. AB Whiley, disregarding his own life, dived into the treacherous seas and on reaching the semi-conscious passenger, revived him and assisted him into a rescue craft.

Not quite finished Able Seaman Whiley then swam back to the sinking ship and was confronted with the further difficulty of climbing back on board. Whilst scaling a ladder draped over the ship’s side, he was repeatedly beaten against the ship’s hull. However, his perseverance paid off and he managed to return to the deck to continue his vital task. After six hours aboard the Oceanos Able Seaman Whiley was one of the last persons to be hoisted from the stricken vessel.

This rescue proves beyond any shadow of doubt the exemplary level South Africa’s statutory forces had become by the early 1990’s.  This rescue cannot be politicised –  there are no “struggle heroes” in it, it has nothing to do with any political mantra or policy –  it stands as a pure example of the heroism, skill and professionalism of the statute forces of the time.  It truly is the SADF’s finest hour.

Quickly forgotten now as these fine men and woman are now painted as “Apartheid Forces” and great deeds such as this rescue are confined to a history nobody references or even considers anymore – however it stands as another “inconvenient truth” to the current ANC’s political narrative.

Conscription in the SADF and the ‘End Conscription Campaign’

Overview of SADF’s role in military conscription in South Africa

The South African government, owing to a threat of United Nations actions in respect of South West Africa, initiated a citizen call up in 1964, the SADF was tasked with the mobilization of Citizen Force units. Ontvang/Reception depots (OVD/RCD) units around the country, which had been used during the second world war where re-activated in areas of high population density to muster these Citizen Force units. Primary units, such as 15 RCD were activated on 29 April 1964, and it’s mandate was the highest population density region – the Witwatersrand (now Gauteng). When the United Nations intervention threat subsided, the Reception Depots were retained and from 1967 onwards they began to process the national service intake of recruits drawn from their receptive areas of responsibility.

Conscription in the SADF was tasked to the Personnel Services Corps, and operated by Reception Depots located  in the regional command structures. The role of Reception Depots included the issue of call up papers, checking the ‘called up’ recruit had indeed arrived, and then playing a public relations role at the mustering points around the country – once ‘called up’ the reception depots coordinated the movement of recruits to their various units of call up (usually by train convoy and later buses) and acted as security to see these convoys safely to their destinations.

The government policy of compulsory conscription preceding 1994 was exclusively for young ‘white’ South African men. Men of ‘black’ African heritage at the time where recruited on a voluntary basis and joined usually ethnically differentiated Battalions, an example been 21 Battalion which was primarily Zulu in its ethnic makeup. This led to a unique defence force comprised of conscripted ‘whites’ and ‘black’ volunteers.

White South African men prior to 1994 were expected to perform military service at regular intervals, starting with an extended conscript period which was extended to two years at its height. Conscripts where expected to join the SADF after leaving Secondary School, however many were granted deferment, for example to attend University and complete an undergraduate degree first, but very few ‘white’ young men were exempted from conscription for any reason other than being medically unfit. Valid reasons for exclusion of service included conscientious objection based on religious beliefs.

In response, as South Africa only recognised conscientious objectors belonging to peace churches, the United Nations in 1978 adopted a resolution that urged South Africa to recognise the right of all persons to refuse service in military forces used to enforce apartheid, and at the same time urged other governments to grant asylum to those refusing conscription.

1983 The End Conscription Campaign formed

The Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) was founded by political exiles in London and Amsterdam in the late 1970s, this organisation preceded the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) and it provided refuge for conscientious objectors seeking political asylum and working with European anti-apartheid movements to impose sanctions.

COSAWR carried out extensive research on the South African military and debriefed ex-soldiers, providing clandestine structures of the ANC with intelligence that helped it to undermine the police and military from within.

In 1982, Cape Town lawyer Mike Evans, who co-founded the ECC as a UCT student, was helping another objector, Brett Myrdal, with his campaign as he toured the country, speaking at university campuses on conscientious objection.

In 1983, at the national conference the Black Sash ‘Conscientious Objectors Support Group (COSG) conference’, the women’s activist organisation passed a resolution calling for the end to conscription – thus providing the impetus for the ECC.

In terms of South African statue at the time it was illegal to persuade someone not to do military service but it was not illegal to call for an end to conscription. Military objectors used this loophole in the Defence Act saying that they wanted a choice as opposed to saying, ‘Don’t go to the army.’

From the 1983 Black Sash conference the ECC embarked on a year of branch-building and it was publicly launched at the Claremont Civic Centre in October 1984. The expressed statement of the ECC was that it was in protest against compulsory military service. As part of its expressed mission the ECC mobilised support for its campaigns, proposed service alternatives, supported conscientious objectors and provided a forum for the public with information on conscription and the alternatives.

Initially, it was an umbrella structure backed by 50 affiliate organisations but it quickly developed its own character. It rapidly grew by campaigning against conscription laws, the war in Angola, the troops in the townships and for voluntary forms of alternative service, setting up 13 branches around the country.

The ECC joined a growing group of known organisations like COSAWR but also religious organisations and student organisations such as the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) and the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) which were also engaged in anti-conscription activities. During the mid 80’s, ECC groupings were participating in a broad front of organisations including The United Democratic Front (UDF) which had become a ANC mouthpiece in light of its banning in South Africa.

Brett Myrdal’s Trial

In 1983, a high profile ECC co-founder- Brett Myrdal, publicly refused his call-up and elected to stand trial, reasoning that 2 years sentence would have constituted the conscription period in any event.

However, in September 1983, three days before Myrdal’s trial started, the state increased prison sentences for objectors from two years to a mandatory six years. The ANC in exile felt that Brett Mydral was too useful to be ‘out of circulation’ sitting in jail and urged him to go into exile. He then joined Umkhonto weSizwe and went into exile to continue ECC activities abroad.

Objections against the Border War and Internal Peacekeeping Operations

Broadly, ECC members objected to military service and the war in Angola, their view was generally based on the role of the military and security forces in enforcing the policy of apartheid , the logic been that a ‘whites only call-up’ – which was ethnically differentiated, was at its essence naturally upholding a Apartheid philosophy.

From 1966 to 1990, Southern Africa and some of the frontline states i.e. countries bordering the republic including South West Africa (now Namibia), Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and Mozambique, where all in some sort of civil turmoil against some sort of communist backed guerrilla war.

The SADF, at the request of the South African backed South West African government, maintained a presence in South West Africa, essentially to protect South West Africa (now Namibia) from armed insurrection and to stem the ‘communist tide’.  This resulted in the SADF engaged in a protracted conventional war against the MPLA, SWAPO (PLAN), Soviet ‘advisors’ and Cuban forces in Angola as well as PLAN insurgents in Namibia.

At this time a policy of ‘destabilisation’ of neighbouring states was initiated by the South African government to keep the conflict and insurgency away from South West African and South African borders. This also resulted in the South African government and military collaborating with Angolan UNITA forces and other anti communist movements in Southern Africa.

Aside from the SADF’s involvement in the ‘Border War’ or ‘Bush War’ as it also became to be known – which was a conventional war fighting a guerrilla insurgency for the most part, the SADF was called to ‘internal peacekeeping’ duties following a steady rise in internal conflict. This role increased somewhat after PW Botha, the then State President’s ‘Rubicon Speech’ in 1985, and the military became increasingly active in suppressing civil dissonance, unrest, armed insurgency and violence in South Africa’s ‘black’ townships – mainly in support of Police operations.

Now the ECC had a clear propaganda message – that the SADF was involved in the suppression of a popular uprising and not only in a conventional war suppressing communism.  No longer involved in a far way war, conscripts were now asked to “police” fellow South Africans – in essence it legitimised their standpoint in the eyes of the global media and the liberal South African media.

Those who refused conscript military service were subject to exclusion from their communities, primarily as the ‘white’ communities in South Africa recognized the very real threat of Communist ideologies – especially African socialism on the Capitalist economy and society they and their forefathers had worked hard to build in Africa. They only had to look north to Zimbabwe and other African states to see the consequences of land grab and capital grab reforms to give importance to sending their young men into the army.

Therefore, socialisation of white South Africans during the 70’s and 80’s led to very real social barriers and chastisement and alienation by both immediate family and friends should military service be avoided. However, the internal conflict and ‘township duty’ did not sit well with many SADF leftist or liberal conscripts. Faced with little real choice some just simply failed to arrive at their citizen force units, embarked on perpetual ‘work’ or ‘study’ commitments and exclusions or got ‘lost in the system’ when it came to conscription based Commando or Citizen Force commitments.

Many other conscripts however saw this duty in a different light and where happy to get on with it – these men viewed it as protecting innocents and loved ones from an increasing violent internal armed insurrection operating on a terrorist methodology.

1985 Troops out of the townships campaign

In 1985, the ECC held the “Troops out of the Townships” rally – mainly across ‘English’ speaking ‘university campuses with strong ‘white demographics’ and were successful in demonstrating the growing dissatisfaction with the government of the day.

The rally was preceded by a three-week fast by objectors Ivan Toms, Harold Winkler and Richard Steele. This high point for the ECC attracted thousands to its student rallies, and its propaganda material, including posters with slogans like “Wat soek jy in die townships troepie?” (translated – what business do you have in the townships troop?) aimed at conscripts now been tasked to police their fellow South Africans at home and no longer in a “war” in a foreign land.

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Conscription data

In 1985, It was announced in parliament that 7 589 conscripts failed to report for National Service in January 1985, as opposed to only 1 596 in the whole of 1984. As there were two intakes annually, in January and July, this would suggest a tenfold increase in non-reportees over the previous year. An estimated 7 000 “draft-dodgers” were also said to be living in Europe in 1985. Conscription levels were not reported in Parliament post 1985 so it is difficult to statistically prove one way or another.

This data may be slightly skewed in that in January 1985 and July 1985 were the first so-called “immigrant intakes” after the involuntary nationalisation of white immigrant men of a predetermined age group in November 1984. Although many of these men reported as part of their commitment to South African citizenship and serve their new country of adoption, it can be assumed that some of these men opted to return to their countries of origin rather than do military service. Since this opportunity was easily available to them because of their dual citizenship.

ECC Group registrations in opposition to call-ups

In 1987, a group of 23 conscientious objectors from the Universities of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, including Cameron Dugmore, then University of Cape Town Students Representative Council Chairperson and Jonathan Handler, South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) Chairperson, refused to do military service in the South African Defence Force. Handlers’ objection was based upon the notion of an “Unjust War” as opposed to the Pacifist position held by many Christian students.

In 1988, the ECC expanded its activities considerably and convinced 143 objectors to sign up and in 1989 the number had risen to 771, several of them SADF members. The register of objectors soon passed the 1 000 mark – which proved far too many for the state to charge (although three objectors were jailed during this period) and led the state to take a decision to ban the ECC.

1988 ECC banned

An effort had been made on the 15 June, 1988 for a negotiated settlement – when a meeting between the End Conscription Campaign and the SADF took place, with a main objective to discuss alternative national service. In August Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan broke off relations with the ECC.

The ECC was banned under the emergency regulations in 1988 and some of its members served with restriction orders, with the then Law and Order Minister, Adriaan Vlok, declaring that the ECC was part of the “revolutionary onslaught against South Africa”.

In a press statement Adriaan Vlok said: “The changes posed by the activities of the End Conscription Campaign to the safety of the public, the maintenance of public order and the termination of the State of Emergency, leave no other choice than to act against the ECC and to prohibit the organisation from continuing any activities or acts.”

Magnus Malan declared the country’s top three enemies to be the South African Communist party, the ANC and, in third place, the ECC. Magnus Malan, also went on to say “The End Conscription Campaign is a direct enemy of the SADF (South African Defence Force). It’s 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.” To which the Army’s Major General, Jan van Loggerenberg, added: “The ECC has only one aim in mind and that is to break our morale and to eventually leave South Africa defenceless.”

Magnus Malan even went as far as to declare the ECC, “Just as much an enemy of the Defence Force as the African National Congress”. Adriaan Vlok described the ECC as, “The vanguard of those forces that are intent on wrecking the present dispensation and its renewal.”

The same month, an issue of an alternative newspaper, the Weekly Mail, was confiscated by security police, “on the grounds that it had covered, and therefore promoted, opposition to conscription.” News coverage included a cartoon, an advertisement from War Resisters International, and “a report on 143 men who stated they would never serve in the South African Defence Force.”

As a result of the banning of the ECC and confiscation of the Weekly Mail, protests at the University of Cape Town (UCT), WITS University, Rhodes University and other campuses were held. A crowd of 3000 UCT students marched on campus after a meeting condemning the banning.

1989 Conscription shortened

In 1989, conscription was reduced from two years to one year, and during the negotiations to end apartheid from 1990 to 1994, it was less rigorously enforced. A Kairos campaign against conscription was the defacto ‘1989 End Conscription Campaign’.

The banning of the ECC did not stop its campaigning momentum. During September 1989, thirty Stellenbosch conscientious objectors joined a group, now 771 strong of listed Conscientious Objectors nation-wide – publicly refusing to do military service. The National Registry of Conscientious Objectors was also launched at this time.

SADF Public Relations in Opposition to anti-SADF Propaganda

A consistent campaign was implemented by the South African Defence Force in opposition to anti-SADF propaganda for example, SADF magazines such as Paratus worked strongly to raise awareness of terrorism tactics as well as supporting a wholesome image of the SADF. Aside from a well oiled SADF Media Relations team, the Reception Depots involved with recruitment also interfaced with the public and around the country during the annual intakes in a positive manner. In the case of the Witwatersrand, the reception unit there embarked on a Public Relations role to show off the wholesome side of the SADF and this cumulated with pretty spectacular SADF shows at the annual call-ups at Nasrec in the late 80’s early 90’s.

Due to the high media interests in the Call Up – the Personnel Services function, The SADF media liaison officers and officer commanding reception depots also acted as media liaison and acted to counter-act media speculation or slander from groups such as the End Conscription Campaign. Reception depots and Commands also handed out SADF propaganda leaflets to families saying goodbye to conscripts at mustering points – painting a positive image of the SADF and conscription.

1990 – 1994 The end of conscription, outbreak of major hostilities and mobilisation of ex-conscripts as volunteers

During this period there was extensive violence and thousands of civilian deaths in the run-up to the first non-racial elections in South Africa in April 1994 – violence was driven by political parties left and right of the political spectrum as they jostled for political power in the power vacuum created by the removal of all Apartheid laws in 1990, the subsequent CODESA negotiations and the unbanning of the ANC.

The SADF called out for an urgent boost in resources, however conscription was unravelling and numbers dropping off rapidly from the “national service” pool – however, it was thousands of “white” ex National servicemen who were now serving “camp commitments” in various Citizen Force units, SADF Regiments and in the Regional Commando structures who heeded the call and volunteered to stay on – fully dedicated to serving the country above all else, and fully committed to keep the country on the peace process track and stop the country sliding into civil war.

In an odd sense, if you really think about it, these “white conscripts” are the real “heroes” that paved the way for peace. For four full years of political vacuum they literally risked their lives by getting into harms way between the various warring protagonists, left/right white/black – ANC, IFP, PAC and even the AWB – and it cannot be underestimated the degree to which they prevented an all out war from 1990 to 1994 whilst keeping the peace negotiations on track to a fully democratic settlement for South Africa.

In the lead-up to the elections in April 1994, On 24 August 1993 Minister of Defence Kobie Coetsee announced the end of conscription. In 1994 there would be no more call-ups for the one-year initial training. Although conscription was suspended it was not entirely abandoned, as the Citizen Force and Commando ‘camps’ system for fully trained conscripts remained place. Due to priorities facing the country, especially in stabilising the country ahead of the 1994 General Elections and the Peace Progress negotiations, the SADF was still needed more strength to guard election booths and secure key installations.

Again, the SADF called on its conscription and recruitment structure, and its reception depots – which – instead of mustering conscripts became involved in the mustering of the country’s reservists for the country’s first free election campaign in 1994. This was to boost experienced troop levels to maintain national security over this rather tumultuous period in South Africa’s history.

“Camp” call-ups and the call-up of ex-conscript SADF members on the National Reserve reached record proportions over the period of the April 1994 elections, and for the first time in history, in a strange twist of fate, the ECC called these conscripts to consider these “election” call-ups to be different from previous call-ups and attend to their military duties.   Even the ECC could see the necessity of security to deliver South Africa to democracy in this period – it was not going to come from the “liberation” movements or any “cadres” as they were part of the problem perpetuating the violent cycle in the power vacuum – it had to come from these SADF conscripts and  statutory force members committed to their primary role of serving the country (and not a political ideology or party).

This is an inconvenient truth – something kept away from the contemporary narrative of South Africa’s “Liberation” and “Struggle” – as it does not play to the current ANC political narrative. These men are now branded in sweeping statements now as “Apartheid Forces” – demonised and vanquished – whereas, in reality nothing can be further from the truth, South Africans today – whether they realise it or not, owe these “white” conscripts a deep debt of gratitude for their current democracy, civil rights and freedoms.

1994 Conscription moratorium

Until the August 1994 moratorium on prosecutions for not responding to call-ups, several of those who did not respond to “camp” call-ups were simply just fined. After the first multi-racial election in 1994, conscription has no longer applied in South Africa.

The SADF’s conscription based Reception Depots then focused their priority on the intake or drafting of all the former Umkhonto we Sizwe and The Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) members into the SADF.

Voluntary Military System (VMS) replaces the National Service System

In 1994 the newly formed SANDF redefined it’s Personnel Service’s functionality and called on the Reception Depots to manage the Voluntary Military Service (VMS) System which took its place.

Instead of handling the bi-annual serviceman intake of conscripted “white” South African young men, here 15 Reception Depot (15 OVD/RCD) personnel (now part of Gauteng Command) are mustering the first multi-racial military service volunteers.

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The “VMS” i.e. Voluntary Military Service system was designed to replace the National Service system by screening and then calling up young men and women of all South African communities to do two years short service and then transfer them into the Citizen Force units and Regiments where they would be regularly called up for additional short service, replacing the “camps” system.

It was the forerunner of what is now the SANDF Reserve Force’s recruitment system and designed to equalise the odd racial balances that the Apartheid era “whites only” Conscript National Service had structured the SADF Reserve and Citizen Force into.

The VMS system ended around 2002 and has been replaced by direct recruitment by Reserve Force units, whilst the SANDF has continued with structured permanent force recruitment processes.

The Commands across the country no longer “intake” or “muster” recruits from their catchment zones – effectively putting the “Reception Depot” units in each Command on ice.

Psychiatric Facility – Admissions of Conscientious Objectors

In order to get out of conscription into the SADF, some conscripts allowed themselves to be labelled as mentally ill, sick, or incapable of carrying a weapon (this earned them a G5K5 discharge) A risk also existed that they would be admitted into one of South Africa’s psychiatric facilities. Instances of psychiatric abuse of conscripts who refused national service have also been recorded. The cases of conscripts who ended up in mental hospitals are in the process of being documented by groups such as MindFreedom International.

Convicted Conscientious Objectors

A small number – 14 conscientious objectors, set in the conviction that the SADF did not sit with their moral or political values, actually went to jail. However, although the number was small, the public nature of the trials were very strongly leveraged by anti-apartheid organisations (especially the ECC) – and generated strong media momentum with ‘liberal’ media inside South Africa and mainstream media outside South Africa.

Who they were, their stories and where they are now:

1. Anton Eberhard. In 1970, he did his national service; but when serving on a ‘camp’ seven years later had a life changing incident which changed his convictions and refused further service. Anton Eberhard was sentenced to 12 months, 10 of which were suspended. Now a research professor at the University of Cape Town’s business school.
2. Peter Moll – Sentenced to 18 months in 1979; served a year. Now a senior economist at the World Bank.
3. Richard Steele – was willing to do community service, but objected to military service, after been sentenced to a jail term he continued a disobedience campaign whilst in jail. His status was changed to an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. Richard Steele Served a year in jail in 1980; now a homeopath.
4. Charles Yeats – who had been dodging the draft in London, was so inspired by Steele’s campaign that he returned to South Africa and refused to serve. Charles Yeats Served a year in detention barracks in 1981, then sentenced to a year in civilian prison for refusing to wear a uniform. He teaches at Durham University and advises corporations on their social, environmental and moral responsibilities. He wrote a book about his experiences.
5. Mike Viveiros – sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment in 1982, served a year in Pretoria Central. Has been living in Taiwan since 2001 where he teaches English.
6. Neil Mitchell – served a year in 1982. A teacher, he works for the Catholics School Office.
7. Billy Paddock – served a year in 1982. Died in a road accident in the early 1990s.
8. Etienne Essery – served four months in 1983. Is writing a feature film script looking at South Africa in the Seventies and Eighties.
9. Pete Hathorn – sentenced to two years in 1983, served a year in Pollsmoor Prison. He is now an advocate.
10. Paul Dodson – sentenced to a year’s imprisonment in 1983. He died in a motorbike accident in the late 1980s.
11. David Bruce – jailed for six years in 1988. His case was made ‘high profile’ and leveraged by the ECC in both propaganda and media relations. Bruce was released in 1990 after an appeal arguing for a review of maximum jail penalties for objectors. His case for release also became a ground breaking legal case against the conscription laws and was carried in all mainstream media in South Africa and globally. He is now a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
12. Saul Batzofin served nine months of a 21-month sentence. Now an IT programme manager at Imperial College, London
13. Ivan Toms served nine months of a 21-month sentence imposed in 1988. In 2002 became Cape Town’s director of health, he was awarded the Order of the Baobab in 2006 in recognition of his “outstanding contribution to the struggle against apartheid and sexual discrimination” by the SANDF. He died from meningitis.
14. Charles Bester was jailed for six years after told a court that his religious beliefs taught him apartheid was evil, thereby blending religious objection with political conviction. The last objector to be jailed, he served 20 months of his sentence. He now runs a guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay.
Janet Cherry, although not a conscientious objector as such, set up and chaired the Port Elizabeth ECC branch, and she was detained in 1985; and again from 1986 to 1987; and again in 1988 before being put under house arrest in 1989.

The Impact of the ECC

Whatever way the ECC is looked at, either as a ‘freedom front against injustice’ or a ‘terrorist organisation’ bent on undermining the fighting capacity of a statute defence force, it did put pressure on the SADF’s conscription system.

Whilst statistically speaking it can be argued that given the ECC activities, and more so the conscientious objectors who were jailed – only 14, compared to the 600 000 plus men who were conscripted into the SADF – this figure seems insignificant. Also, the sharp drop off in called up conscripts in the early 1990’s can be attributed to a multitude of social changes in the context of the ANC’s unbanning, the fall of Soviet communism, the cessation of hostilities in Namibia and Angola and the end of the Border War. During the early 1990’s, the writing was clearly on the wall as to direction the country was taking, and ‘white’ South Africans were acutely aware that conscription based on racial lines would come to an end.

However after a decade of ECC propaganda, local and foreign media activities, high profile legal cases, overturning of legal precedents and protests the ECC had contributed somewhat to making difficult for the state to enforce a conscription service based on ethnic differentiation. In addition to undermining conscription, its mere existence pressurised the state as it also created divisions in the broader ‘white’ community, especially the English speaking community whose University’s were so heavily targeted by the ECC.

By far biggest impact of the ECC to the SADF’s war effort in Angola and the internal armed insurrections was the simple drain on resources – the significant funds and resources which were diverted in legal bids and Intelligence activities to counter act ECC activities – the vast amount of time, money and skills set aside to deal with what was in effect a very small but very vocal and belligerent “white” university student’s political lobby group. In this respect they did serve the goal of subversion of the state’s policies of the day and the SADF ahead of peaceful negotiations.

References:

South African History On-line, Wikipedia, 15 Reception Depot – Unit Role and Mandate, South African History Archive Collection, Mail and Guardian On Line, South African History Archive

Article composed by Peter Dickens