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, to do this the SADF was tasked with the mobilisation of Citizen Force units called Ontvang/Reception depots (OVD/RCD) units around the country. These Reception Depots, which fell under the Regional Command structures had not been used since the Second World War, and they were re-activated, especially in areas of high population density.
Primary units, such as 15 RCD were activated on 29 April 1964, and its 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 (PSC), 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 were 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 which consisted of conscripted ‘whites’ and ‘black’ volunteers.
Members of 15 RCD undertaking a security inspection on new SADF ‘whites only’ conscripts, mustered at NASREC in Johannesburg cira 1988/89
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 were 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 we Sizwe 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 an 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’ 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 legitimized 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, socialization 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 innocent civilians 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.
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 moral 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 became more acute, the SADF’s media liaison officers and officers 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.
SADF members round up looters in Mafikeng during the attempted BDF uprising in 1994 and bring peace to the streets
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 still needed more troop strength to guard election booths, secure ballot box transit and secure key installations around the country during the election itself.
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 – demonized 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.
SADF member stands guard at an election booth in April 1994, a group of newly enfranchised South African wait to vote.
Armed SADF guards a election booth behind razor wire in downtown Johannesburg, a newly enfranchised South African points the way to the booth
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.
The First ‘all race’ Voluntary Military Service (VMS) intake. A member of 15 RCD points the new recruits to a processing hall at NASREC Johannesburg.
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 again (as they were after the 2nd World War) to be reactivated in the event South Africa ‘goes to war’ in any significant way again.
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 became an English teacher.
6. Neil Mitchell – served a year in 1982. He also became a teacher.
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. he became a IT programme manager.
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.
Article written and researched by Peter Dickens.
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