SADF’s full role never ap­pre­ci­ated by its ac­tivist ECC de­trac­tors

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - ROD­NEY WAR­WICK Dr War­wick writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity

I COM­PLETED mil­i­tary na­tional ser­vice from 1977 to 1979, spending 16 months of it “on the bor­der”, and af­ter­wards stud­ied his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Town. I did not love the SADF and re­sponded with great re­luc­tance when called for a “town­ship camp” dur­ing 1986-87. Around UCT, the End Con­scrip­tion Cam­paign (ECC) had a high pro­file, but I did not sup­port it, al­though I dis­agreed strongly with crude ha­rass­ment of the ECC by the state.

I have a mem­ory of sit­ting next to a young “fash­ion­ably lefty” girl in a UCT lec­ture hall, watch­ing an over­seas news video show­ing a black, sup­posed “in­former”, be­ing neck­laced. Mem­bers of the mob kicked at her flam­ing body – a bar­baric scene that would have fit­ted de­tails of the worst hu­man rights abuses in hu­man his­tory. My neigh­bour said such ac­tions did not morally con­cern her; that she “sup­ported” the “ex­e­cu­tion” of col­lab­o­ra­tors.

“Neck­lace” mur­ders ex­em­pli­fied the grimmest and dark­est fea­tures of hu­man be­hav­iour, but many ECC old girls and boys would prob­a­bly pre­fer not to re­call their some­times-tepid re­ac­tions to such atroc­i­ties.

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

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

But the ECC was an or­gan­i­sa­tion top-heavy with fe­male mem­bers – who were not fac­ing mil­i­tary call-up – who dis­played scant bal­anced in­sight into the com­plex­ity of mil­i­tary cul­ture and its un­de­ni­able at­trac­tion to a cer­tain kind of male. Fem­i­nist and paci­fist cri­tiques dom­i­nated, yet, in con­tra­dic­tion, many ide­alised the ANC MK “sol­diers” and town­ship “foot sol­diers” as noble “Che Gue­vara gueril­las” and sans cu­lottes.

While the ANC and its UDF front sup­ported a loose strat­egy to in­tim­i­date their black op­po­nents, from Cross­roads to the Natal val­leys, ECC mem­bers ex­plained the vi­o­lence with an easy and ig­no­rant de­tach­ment, largely in­no­cent, con­cern­ing the ghoul­ish hor­rors coldly eu­phemised as “the strug­gle”.

The more po­lit­i­cally hard-eyed ECC mem­bers de­spised the troop­ies in An­gola, not be­cause the “apartheid front­line” ac­tu­ally lay be­tween Unita and Fapla, but be­cause the SADF was in com­bat against ANC al­lies. But the stu­dent bars of Ron­de­bosch were a long way from Lombe River or Qu­at­tro camp.

Dur­ing the 1980s, there was no easy path to­wards con­tain­ing town­ship vi­o­lence, with the po­lice thinly stretched and com­pris­ing nu­mer­ous in­di­vid­u­als un­suit­able for any form of law en­force­ment, let alone riot con­trol. The pres­ence of the ar my in the town­ships demon­strated that sig­nif­i­cant state force was still avail­able.

It is not re­ally ac­cu­rate, as Lau­rie Nathan claims, that the SADF was the “last line of apartheid de­fence”. If the coun­try had in­deed be­come “un­govern­able” as was called for by the ANC’s na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee in April 1985, what en­tity ex­isted which could have re­stored some sem­blance of or­der?

For all its de­vi­ous­ness and dis­hon­esty, the NP gov­ern­ment was grasp­ing for some way out, which in­evitably had to shift to­wards a na­tional con­ven­tion-type sit­u­a­tion.

We now know the ANC at­tended the ini­tial se­cret ne­go­ti­a­tions be­cause it was also con­scious of this po­ten­tial in­cen­di­ary na­tional frag­men­ta­tion, over which any new gov­ern­ment would – with great dif­fi­culty – as­sert state au­thor­ity.

But con­scrip­tion also meant the SADF’s white man­power mostly com­prised part-time sol­diers – a mixed bunch like the com­mu­ni­ties they orig­i­nated from. But – un­like the po­lice – it did not have a col­lec­tive his­tory of harsh riot con­trol. Its to­tal re­liance upon ci­ti­zen-sol­diers also pre­cluded the SADF from his­tor­i­cally di­rect­ing na­tional pol­i­tics. ECC mem­bers would have ex­pe­ri­enced a re­ally bru­tal state had they prac­tised their ac­tivism as Chilean, Brazil­ian or Ar­gen­tinean cit­i­zens did, when dur­ing the 1970s the armed forces as­sumed di­rect and dra­co­nian po­lit­i­cal roles.

With no dis­re­spect to Toms and oth­ers, I must point out that no ECC mem­bers were shot dead or hurled out of planes over the sea. At worst, the SADF can be vaguely com­pared to the Pol­ish mil­i­tary dur­ing the early 1980s, where the armed forces acted in­ter­nally to stave off pos­si­ble Soviet in­va­sion. And who knows what im­pli­ca­tions ex­isted for Africa had South Africa im­ploded?

Once the April 1994 elec­tions were held, the ci­ti­zen-sol­diers, in their vi­tal fi­nale, com­prised the SADF’s na­tional pres­ence and de­terred most men of vi­o­lence from wreck­ing the fu­ture. Gen­eral “Ge­orge” Meir­ing per­son­ally cau­tioned AWB leaders not to in­ter­fere, bluntly re­spond­ing to their taunts of turn­ing Afrikan­ers on Afrikan­ers, warn­ing that English-speak­ing ci­ti­zen force reg­i­ments would be mus­tered against the right-wingers. The SADF like­wise served as a watch­dog fac­ing the MK, Apla and Inkatha wild men.

The youth and ide­al­ism of the ECC mem­bers in­voked and en­sured tremendous moral courage in in­di­vid­u­als like Toms, but the or­gan­i­sa­tion en­cour­aged re­luc­tance amongst its sup­port­ers to be more dis­cern­ing re­gard­ing town­ship vi­o­lence and the SADF’s polic­ing role.

ECC mem­bers lapsed into the old fail­ing of the self-righ­teous po­lit­i­cal zealot, where cul­pa­bil­i­ties for so­cial in­jus­tice are viewed in stark goodor-evil terms. Un­for­tu­nately, as ECC vet­er­ans might rue­fully ac­knowl­edge, the “rev­o­lu­tion­ary he­roes” of those stu­dent days are now dread­fully tar­nished.

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