ECC: Let the wounds heal

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - COMMENT -

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


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