ECC: Let the wounds heal
RELUCTANT though I am to stick my head into a hornet’s nest, like the explosion of angry correspondence about Rodney Warwick’s think-piece about the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), I feel compelled to make a few comments.
First, Dr Gavin Evans’s remark about Warwick’s “curious” assertion that conscripts held the line during the 1994 election, considering that conscription had ended in 1993: Warwick is absolutely correct. I know this because as a security adviser on the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) at the time, I was involved in that call-up.
What happened was that 10 days before the election, the police finally revealed a huge shortfall in the minimum numbers of security staff required.
The IEC security committee suggested that an appropriate number of the tens of thousands of Citizen Force and Commando troops still on the army’s books – all trained under the national service system – be mobilised at extremely short notice on a strictly volunteer basis.
That these men responded in adequate numbers redounds to their everlasting credit. Thanks to them, the election enjoyed the necessary credibility, because there was no suggestion of fraud.
Second, the number of ECC objectors who went to prison for refusing to serve did not materially affect the situation, because more than 33 000 men were called up every year – far more, in fact, than were needed internally or externally.
By the late 1980s more than 70 percent of the “bayonets” (combat troops) in the counter-insurgency campaign in South-West Africa/Namibia (as it was then called) were local enlistments, and there was no shortage of troops for internal deployments in support of the police – a grave mistake and a misinterpretation of the accepted principle of support for the civil power that the then government apparently never grasped.
But that is not the point. I do not believe that the ECC thought it could lure the majority or even a large number of people away from military service.
Third, the ECC fought, quite correctly, against the alternative service system because it was punitive, rather than an attempt at accommodating a legitimate moral objection, and was so narrowly defined – religious objection being the only permissible one – that it served only to engender bitterness and more resistance.
A genuine conscientious objector – and someone who ducks out to overseas “exile” out of pure selfishness does not fall into this category – is a moral asset to any country, irritating though he or she might be to some people.
Fourth, the ECC (as one of your correspondents remarked) was a one-issue organisation. It did not directly concern itself with the other great issue of the time, namely the Cold War struggle against communism, which motivated a vast number of national servicemen-to-be. Its adherents objected to apartheid and serving, as they perceived it, the purposes of apartheid.
There were elements inside it which were, of course, very much involved with fostering a Soviet-bloc victory, but that does not change what I said above. At the end of the day there were two legitimate issues involved, and there is no sense in denigrating either.
I mention all this because it seems to me that we have a potential debate here which threatens to become a futile exchange of insults and accusations. To the ECC supporters, I say: Do not oversimplify the issues. The 1980s period was complex, and a blanket condemnation of everyone who chose to serve as a tool of apartheid is a self-defeating oversimplification.
To those holding opposite views I say: Do not write off the ECC as a bunch of left-wing traitors, because that would be an equally self-defeating oversimplification.
Rather speak to one another from your hearts and in a spirit of true reconciliation and humility (and contrition, where this is required), and you would be surprised at how much you have in common once the bitterness and the hurtful memories have been stripped away – not to be forgotten, but safely confined where they cannot harm your and the country’s march into the future.
We have gone through this before. During the Second Anglo-Boer War, the atrocities inflicted by the British “scorched-earth” policy remain as a ghastly period in our history.
The inability of many South Africans to move on (there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission then) distorted our future development. Do we want all that again?
Let the wounds heal. Be satisfied that you did the right thing according to your lights, whatever they might be, and move on. Willem Steenkamp