End Conscription Campaign celebrates 25 years
THE End Conscription Campaign (ECC) awakened the consciousness of a generation of white youth. The lure was music, concerts, festivals and parties. Funky T-shirts, some of the most cutting political posters to come out of the struggle. Witty graffiti added to the aura.
But like most things political, the ECC was born in the boardroom – at a meeting of young communist underground idealists, the Black Sash, and the SA Council of Churches in the eminent person of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.
The problem put on the table was how to engage the energy of the white youth in the struggle for democracy in South Africa. The answer they came up with was the ECC.
“We were organising in the oppressor classes and had to be creative in the way we did it,” Crispin “Chippy” Olver, later director in the Department of Environment and Tourism, remembers.
The issue targeted was that of military conscription. Under the National Party government of the day, it was compulsory for young white men to do military service.
By the time the ECC was formed, this was for an initial period of two years, followed by a series of socalled camps of between three weeks and three months, which would take the conscript into early middle age before he was finally free of his national burden.
Those who objected could be sentenced for up to two years in prison.
To avoid conscription many left the country. Many others endlessly deferred their national service by remaining at university.
Those at the forefront of the ECC remember hard work, organising, churning out posters within hours and political rallies under the guise of “big fat jols”, where bands such as Bright Blue played for nothing.
But it was all part of a careful strategy. At the time it was a crime to encourage young men to not pitch for military service. But it was not a crime to campaign for the end of conscription, remembers Mike Evans, one of the first chairmen of the Western Cape chapter of the ECC.
Evans, who is now a lawyer specialising in public law, “held it all together”, according to Marlene Powell, another at the forefront of the campaign.
Powell says it was a scary time – the defence force had set up a special unit (later exposed at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) to run a “dirty tricks” campaign against the ECC.
Olver remembers how the squad would put up posters looking like legitimate ECC posters, posters that attacked ECC leaders’ sexuality and their loyalty.
They all soon learnt to check their hubcaps to ensure the wheel nuts were fastened. Homes and cars were, on more than one occasion, firebombed.
The ECC was launched in 1983 just short of a year after the launch of the UDF.
“We went public in 1984, and had a launch at the Claremont Civic, then we launched in Durban and Joburg,” said Evans.
By the end of 1987 the ECC was banned. But by this time the campaign was unstoppable. In 1987, 23 activists publicly stated they would not report for military service.
With the end of apartheid, conscription too, came to an end.
Next weekend the ECC will mark its 25th anniversary at the Spier Wine Estate near Cape Town. Bright Blue will perform at a concert on the Saturday night, alongside new-generation bands such as FreshlyGround.
The celebrations will start on Friday evening, with minister Trevor Manuel and Premier Helen Zille speaking.
Old ECC posters and photographs will be exhibited.