Conscription was a choice!
On Friday the Provincial Synod of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa accepted Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s challenge to address “the dehumanizing effect of conscription on a generation of white South African men”. Makgoba described enforced conscription during the years of apartheid as an “unmentionable area that we must dare to tackle”.
While I agree with the Archbishop that “many are still wounded from that time, and need to be able to speak and find healing”, I need to qualify that not all white men actually served two years of compulsory military service in the South African Defence Force before conscription was abolished in 1994. Many of us made the difficult choice, and yes we had a choice, to oppose conscription for both political and religious reasons. Like me, some of these brave men chose neither to run, nor avoid the consequences of defying conscription by enrolling in tertiary study.
As a conscientious objector during the 1980’s I was sentenced to serve four years of community service. I was lucky. Others were sentenced to prison. During this time I was subjected to white minority contempt from both members of my own family and white men and women with whom I was forced to work; to serve a community that would not have cared if I lived or died. I was, in their eyes, a traitor to my country. I did not have the luxury of emotional or spiritual support from either friends or the End Conscription Campaign.
You will remember conscientious objectors like Ivan Toms, Harold Winkler, Richard Steele, Cameron Dugmore, Jonathan Handler, Alistair Teeling Smith, Rob Watson, Anton Eberhard, Peter Moll, Charles Yeats, Mike Viveiros, Neil Mitchell, Billy Paddock, Etienne Essery, Pete Hathorn, Paul Dodson, David Bruce, Saul Batzofin, Ivan Toms and Charles Bester. You’ll remember that in January 1985, 7 589 conscripts simply failed to report for National Service. I was one of them. At the time I was sitting in a military prison for refusing to don a khaki uniform to fight an unjust war in a country I had no business being in.
When conscription ended and my sentence finally concluded, no-one comforted or congratulated me on doing what I believed to have been the correct thing. I may as well have run across the border only to return to a country that no longer valued me for what I had done, but now judged me solely on the basis of my skin colour. I remain a white man in a black man’s country, judged by the actions of other white men. Not a hero, just another loser in the politics of race.
I suspect the white Anglican priests who cried in response to Makgoba’s call to mention the unmentionable did their fair share during the 70’s and 80’s to encourage young men, who either did not mind or did not realize that they had a choice (albeit a painful one), to pick up their guns and fight against ‘the enemy’ of apartheid. Regret is a shameful memory of painful denial. This white man will not bear the burden of your collective shame!