Nan Cross: Sup­ported men re­sist­ing apartheid con­scrip­tion

Sunday Times - - News & Opinion -

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

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