In the late 1970s four young men publicly refused to obey their army call-ups by the South African Defence Force (SADF) and were sentenced to up to 18 months in jail. By 1983, 13 objectors had been jailed.
In 1977, compulsory national service had been increased from one to two years, followed by a series of annual "citizen force" camps that could be as lengthy as three months. Legislation had also broadened the base of eligible White men who could be called up, and this included immigrants. It provided stringent sentences for those who refused to do national service - prison terms of up to six years.
In the 1970s, objections to conscription were for religious or pacifist reasons. Then in the early 1980s came the first overtly "political" objectors - Billy Paddock and Pete Hathorn, who spent a year each in prison. Paddock, a journalist, died in a road accident in the 1990s.
The Committee on South African War Resistance (COSAWR) was founded by political exiles in London and Amsterdam in the late 1970s, providing refuge for war resisters seeking political asylum and working with European anti-apartheid movements to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime. COSAWR carried out extensive research on the South African military and debriefed ex-soldiers, providing clandestine structures of the ANC with intelligence that helped it to undermine the police and military from within.
In 1982, Cape Town lawyer Mike Evans, who co-founded the ECC as a UCT student, was helping another objector, Brett Myrdal, with his campaign as he toured the country, speaking at university campuses on conscientious objection.
The following year, at their national conference, the activist women's organisation, the Black Sash, passed a resolution calling for the end to conscription - thus providing the impetus for the ECC.
It was illegal to persuade someone not to do military service but it was not illegal to call for an end to conscription. Military objectors used this loophole in the Defence Act saying that they wanted a choice as opposed to saying, 'Don't go to the army.'
The PW Botha government responded by increasing the period of imprisonment from two to six years for refusing military service. But instead of stamping out a growing irritant, this move had the opposite effect.
The ECC was formed at the Conscientious Objectors Support Group (COSG) conference in 1983 and after a year of branch-building it was publicly launched at the Claremont Civic Centre in October 1984. Initially, it was an umbrella structure backed by 50 affiliate organisations but it quickly developed its own character. It rapidly grew by campaigning against conscription laws, the war in Angola, the troops in the townships and for voluntary forms of alternative service, setting up 13 branches around the country.
The high point came between 1984 and 1986. In September, 1985, its Troops Out of the Township campaign, spearheaded by a three-week fast by three ECC activists, attracted thousands to its rallies, and its publicity material, including posters with slogans like "Wat soek jy in die townships troepie?" (What are you doing in the townships soldier?), clearly had an impact.
By 1985, the country was on fire. That year - shortly after the assassinations of Matthew Goniwe and other Cradock leaders - the ECC hosted an international peace conference in Johannesburg, and branches sprang up in Port Elizabeth, Grahamstown, Pietermaritzburg, Stellenbosch and Pretoria.
In 1985 it was announced in Parliament that 7 589 conscripts had failed to report for the January national call-up, compared with 1596 for the whole of 1984. By then about 7 000 war resisters were living in Europe, but many others simply dodged the call-up by evading the military police, or prolonged their studies indefinitely. That was the last time the Government revealed the number of "draft-dodgers".
The then Defence Minister, Magnus Malan, said: "The End Conscription Campaign is a direct enemy of the SADF (South African Defence Force). It's disgraceful that the SADF, but especially the country's young people, the pride of the nation, should be subjected to the ECC's propaganda, suspicion-sowing and misinformation." To which the Army's Major General, Jan van Loggerenberg, added: "The ECC has only one aim in mind and that is to break our morale and to eventually leave South Africa defenceless."
Then Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok described the ECC as, "The vanguard of those forces that are intent on wrecking the present dispensation and its renewal."
Malan went on to declare the ECC, "Just as much an enemy of the Defence Force as the African National Congress".
Harassment of prominent ECC members had become routine. More than 100 objectors were detained for anything from a day to a year and many went into hiding. Offices and homes were tear-gassed and firebombed, ECC members' cars and motorbikes had their brake cables cut, wheel nuts loosened and tyres overinflated; others were beaten up and, later, a few of members were targeted for assassination.
This prompted a new and even more potent form of resistance. In 1987 a group of 23 Cape-based conscripts publicly refused to obey their call-ups, beginning a new thrust that challenged state power directly.
David Bruce, now a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, was sentenced to six years in 1988. He was released on appeal in 1990.
Saul Batzofin served nine months of a 21-month sentence. He's now an IT programme manager in London.
The late Dr Ivan Toms served nine months of a 21-month sentence imposed in 1988. In 2002, he became Cape Town's director of health, where he led the battle against TB and HIV/Aids. He died in March last year.
Charles Bester, who runs a guesthouse in Plettenberg Bay, was the youngest objector to be jailed. He was just out of school when he was handed a six-year sentence. He served 20 months.
Janet Cherry, who set up and chaired the Port Elizabeth ECC branch, was detained in 1985; from 1986 to 1987; and again in 1988 before being put under house arrest in 1989.
In 1988, the movement went national with 143 objectors signing up and in 1989 the number had risen to 771, several of them SADF officers. The register of objectors soon passed the 1 000 mark -- far too many for the state to charge (although three objectors were jailed during this period).
In August 1988 the ECC became the first white organisation in more than 20 years to be outlawed by the Apartheid regime. The ECC was banned under the emergency regulations in 1988 and some of its members served with restriction orders, with the then Law and Order Minister, Adriaan Vlok, declaring that the ECC was part of the "revolutionary onslaught against South Africa".
In 1989 in response to a national defiance campaign the ECC "unbanned" itself and resumed business. Soon after conscription, was cut from two years to one and after 1990 it was effectively phased out, officially ending in 1993.
The ECC put pressure on the conscription system and in the end made it impossible for the state to enforce. In addition it helped foment divisions in the broader White community. Its mere existence so exasperated the state that millions of rands were diverted in a bid to snuff it out. In the end it contributed to bringing down apartheid.
• Donaldson, A. (2009). 'HELL NO! we didn't go Saying no to apartheid's army' from The Times [Online] 24 Oct. Available at: www.timeslive.co.za [Accessed on 6 November 2009]
• End Conscription Campaign (ECC) Seminar (2009) ”“ SAHA website, Johannesburg [online] .Available at: www.saha.org.za [Accessed on 6 November 2009]
• Nathan, L. (2009). 'The enemy inside the laager' from Mail & Guardian. 30 October - 5 November, p23.
Dear friends of SAHO
South African History Online (SAHO) needs your support.
SAHO is one of the most visited websites in South Africa with over 6 million unique users a year. Our goal is to fulfill our mandate and continue to build, and make accessible, a new people’s history of South Africa and Africa.
Please help us deliver this by contributing upwards of $1.00 a month for the next 12 months.