Nan Cross: Supported men resisting apartheid conscription
NAN Cross, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79, popularised conscientious objection in South Africa in the ’80s.
The woman who helped start the Conscientious Objector Support Group in 1980 and the End Conscription Campaign three years later was a very small person physically but had the heart of a lion.
She was driven by a commitment to social justice that was underpinned by a quiet, unpretentious bravery that manifested itself in a simple refusal to be cowed.
Many conscientious objectors from that decade remember her as their moral compass.
But there was nothing selfrighteous or self aggrandising about her. She was as down-toearth and practical as was the advice she gave to youngsters facing what for many of them was a terrible dilemma.
Cross’s Kensington, Johannesburg, home was not only an important venue for meetings. It was also where anti-apartheid activists on the run from the security police knew they could get a decent meal and bed for the night.
Conscription was introduced in 1967 but it was only in about 1978 and 1979 that conscientious objectors who were not from the “peace churches”, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, began to make a stand.
By the late ’80s, thanks to the efforts of Cross and a small band of volunteers who encouraged, organised, assisted and supported conscientious objectors, it had become an issue of some concern to the government.
In 1983, when the End Conscription Campaign started, the penalty for refusing to do national service was increased from between 10 and 18 months in jail — with time often suspended or reduced — to a non-negotiable six years.
In spite of this, the numbers of young white men refusing to fight what they saw as a war to defend apartheid increased steadily. Almost 2 000 applied to the Board for Religious Objectors and more and more left the country to evade the call-up. By the late ’80s there were mass objections.
In 1987, 23 conscientious objectors made a combined stand. In 1988, the number rose to 143, and in 1989, there were 771 who refused conscription.
Many of them received moral as well as practical support from Cross. To stick her neck out like that in the repressive climate of the time took courage. And she was under no illusions that helping young men evade military service made her a target for the security police.
Although she was never detained, she was harassed by them and interrogated several times at her home. It was broken into several times and suspicion fell heavily on the security police.
The level of their interest in Cross was further demonstrated by the fact that a person who attended meetings of the conscientious objection support group at her home was subsequently exposed as a security police spy.
In addition to writing pamphlets, Cross helped conscientious objectors with their statements, visited them in jail, and was a consistent source of comfort and strength for them and their families who she supported in any way she could.
Although Cross had a very forceful personality, she kept out of the limelight. Extremely articulate, she was no public speaker. Yelling slogans from the podium was not for her. She did the hard, time-consuming, nitty-gritty background work that oiled the wheels of conscientious objection.
A stickler for detail and getting things absolutely right, she did this necessary work with a pedantry that even those who loved and admired her often found extremely trying.
As selfless and brave as she was, she could be very difficult.
After 1994 Cross helped start the Ceasefire Campaign which fought for disarmament and the reduction and eventual elimination of arms trading by South Africa.
Cross was born in Pretoria on January 3 1928. Her father was a lawyer for the Pretoria City Council. After matriculating at Pretoria Girls High School she completed a degree in social science at Rhodes University and embarked on life as a social worker. She worked for, among many other projects, the African Children’s Feeding Scheme and was in Soweto running the Orlando sheltered employment workshop for the Johannesburg City Council housing department on June 16 1976, when the Soweto uprising began.
She never spoke much about this other than to say that getting out of the township that day was a terrifying experience.
Shortly before her retirement, in order to ensure that she would qualify for a half-decent pension, she was deployed to the Johannesburg library service where she delivered books to elderly people and invalids.
Cross was deeply inspired by her religion although, funnily enough given her religious pacifism and commitment to social justice, the Baptist Church of which she was a lifelong member had no “peace” tradition itself and was politically conservative. This made her a fairly isolated member of her religious community.
She never married and is survived by two sisters and 15 nieces and nephews. — Chris Barron
BRAVE HEART: Nan Cross, who supported conscientious objectors