Richard Steele was born to a Scottish father and a South African mother, in Pretoria, in 1956. His father emigrated to South Africa at the end of the Second World War. Steele‘s parents were very conservative and did their best to instil Christian values in their children. They were Baptists, the church at which Steele’s mother had been a long-standing member.
Steele’s parents sent him to a Baptist boarding school in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). While there, Steele got the opportunity to volunteer in township soup kitchens at the encouragement of his Principal. After five years here, he went back to the Witwatersrand and studied at a government English medium School in Kempton Park.
Academically, Steele was an exceptional student. He was captain of the cricket and athletics teams, and was the head prefect of his class. He also became active in the Student Christian Association. Steele matriculated in 1974.
After matriculation, Steele was awarded a scholarship to America. He spent a year in a Portland high school where he got to view his native country from the view of an outsider. Steele’s eyes were opened to the extent at which the then government sold and justified apartheid as just.
Steele returned to South Africa in 1976 and went to do his university studies in Cape Town. It was around this time that the Soweto student uprising took place and Steele found himself attending protest meetings. The violence and anger in both Black people and the South African Defence Force (SADF) shocked Steele, but also woke him to the reality of the effect that apartheid had on the country. This made him question the society that he lived in against Christian beliefs and teachings.
Steele, together with his friends, founded a Christian social awareness group at the University of Cape Town. The group became involved in the resistance of forced removals, though sometimes unsuccessfully. It was during this time that Steele and his fellow students started the End Conscription Campaign (ECC).
As Steele neared the completion of his undergraduate studies, he became more conscious of his own looming conscription. He had long prepared himself to disobey the conscription, to the horror of his parents and even other Christians. His parents feared him being imprisoned while other Christians simply did not feel that being in the defence force conflicted with their religion.
Steele’s argument was that Jesus Christ would never have taken part in combat for any reason, and so for that reason, he would not either. Other Christians who shared Steele’s views opted to avoid conscription by leaving the country. For Steele, this was not an option. He was determined that when he was to be conscripted, he would argue his way out.
Eventually, Steele was instructed to report for duty on 4 July 1979. His response was to write a letter explaining that he would be unable to report for duty due to him being a pacifist. His call for duty date was postponed. He was called again the following year, this time he arranged a meeting with four of the authorities in the army. However, the meeting proved fruitless. Steele was eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
During the trial, he pleaded not guilty on grounds of him being a conscientious objector. While in prison, Steele met Christians from other denominations and, thus, was exposed to other forms of spirituality. This expanded his own spirituality and he began to question his long time congregation, the Baptists. He read about Mahatma Gandhi and came to respect his teachings.
After his release from prison, Steele travelled the world, learning and seeking a more integrated spirituality. On his return he served as caretaker of the Gandhi Centre in Durban. He and his wife, Anita Kromberg, continued with anti-conscription activities; the movement lasted up until the early 1990s.
Today Steele practises as a homeopath, integrating both science and spirituality.