LATEST round of apartheid hagiography appears to curry favour with former combatants in the apartheid-era SADF. The opinion piece doing the rounds in SA media penned by Theresa Edlmann who claims to be a “Post-doctoral fellow in History at University of South Africa” is really a pop-psych makeover of apartheid-era conscription.
More revealing in its failure to adequately deal with the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) who are reduced to one line in a paragraph marked “duty & conscience”. Hey Jiminy Cricket! The piece entirely neglects other anti-apartheid groups such as the Committee on South Africa War Resistance (COSAWR) and War Resisters International (WRI) who are excluded altogether. Never fear, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission Final Report effects a similar reduction into absurdity by conflating the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) with COSAWR!
The piece thus appears to be written by somebody, either without all of the facts at hand, or simply brainwashed by modern textbooks. Struggling to interpret history from a contemporary vantage point, one where revisionism is all the rage. Thus, the dynamic presented by those who opposed conscription and those who stood up for ‘Volk en Vaderland’, is mysteriously lost, as war resisters are turned into footnotes, pacifists into anti-establishment aggressors, and conscientious objectors into non-persons.
Edlmann claims “Conscientious objection (on religious rather than moral ethical or political grounds) became a legal option in the mid-1980s – around the time the End Conscription Campaign was established and began public campaigns in support of conscientious objectors as well as calling for an end to conscription.”
This is blatantly wrong since since the apartheid Defence Act did not provide for conscientious objection, which in any event was unlawful. The individual case histories of those tried for opposing the draft would make a book on its own, and definitely calls for greater investigation. Saul Batzofin, a Jewish objector served nine months of a 21-month sentence. Others like Pete Hathorn sentenced to two years in 1983, served a year in Pollsmoor Prison.
To my knowledge, there were no successful legal defences of this nature, but saying this does not absolve Edlmann of having to prove her case.
At the face of it, it would appear that Edlmann’s tools of analysis are seriously flawed and appear to have been gleaned from Oprah Winfrey or Noeleen.
Instead of a moral tale between right and wrong, an ethical dilemma in which human agency and individual choices were involved, all alluded to in her article, it is rather, (according to Edlmann) all the fault of an all-encompassing but faceless system in which apartheid combatants had no real choices, and therefore can be forgiven for what they did?
Thus South Africa’s former troopies are spared guilt, or blame, and absolved from having to atone, as too are the politicians and bureaucrats, in an ahistorical repositioning and reduction to absurdity of one the central themes associated with apartheid. The piece appears nothing more than a sad attempt to get such individuals onto the therapists couch, so that they can shed tears for what they did in defence of ‘Die Groot Krokodil’, as the late PW Botha was aptly named.
It is noteworthy that the piece has been published by the same press which refuses to acknowledge its role in excoriating anti-War activists following 911 and also by the self-same periodical which in 2007 destroyed my own book review of A Secret Burden, because it was too critical of the apartheid-era SADF and one particular vociferous supporter.