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