'Go to jail instead of the army'

20 April 2015 | Story by Newsroom
Mike Evans (Photo by Abigail Calata).
Mike Evans (Photo by Abigail Calata).

Mike Evans completed a law degree at UCT in 1986, and is currently the head of public law at Webber Wentzel. He remembers the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) as the first non-parliamentary organisation to really mobilise the white community in the struggle against apartheid.

"Before the ECC there were the conscientious objectors, who would rather go to jail than be conscripted into the army. I was part of the support group for these conscientious objectors. In July 1983, at a Black Sash conference, a resolution was passed calling for an end to military conscription. I don't think they really intended for it to become a campaign. However, a few of us had heard about this, and thought it had the potential for a campaign. The problem with the conscientious objection movement was that it would always have only a small following, because it was very threatening to say to people, 'go to jail instead of the army'.

"The ECC was not telling anyone to go to jail. Instead, it was telling the government to give people a choice. We were saying that the defence force was playing a repressive role. It was involved in an illegal war in Namibia, and later became involved in a war on the townships. The campaign enabled us to draw a whole range of people together around one issue, which was that conscription should be a choice and not compulsory. People should have the right to refuse to do military service, and do other forms of community service.

"Four strands fed into the ECC. There were the conscientious objectors, the churches, political organisations like the UDF and Black Sash, and the student movement.

"It was the only campaign that touched white people directly. Except for a small minority, the broader white community could not relate to forced removals and pass laws. (Conscription) was something that affected white people. When the military went into the townships, support for the campaign just mushroomed. In September 1985 I spoke at a meeting in the City Hall – I think it was probably the biggest political meeting ever held in the City Hall. The place was absolutely packed. This meeting took place just after the troops were called into the townships. There were probably 5 000 people present. I don't think there had ever been a political meeting of that size where the majority of people were white.

"It was a successful campaign because it managed to mobilise white people, and it was the only campaign to do so on a large scale. Up to that point the white community's only political involvement was with the Progressive Federal Party, the predecessor to the DA. The ECC was the first mass campaign garnering widespread white support. It was seen by the ANC and the UDF as incredibly important, as it was whites making a sacrificial stand against the army in resisting military conscription.

By the late 1980s, masses of people were refusing to do military service. Conscription was formally ended by 1993.

Biko remembered


Steve Biko

"My first year at UCT was 1977; and I can clearly remember the meeting on campus following the death of Steve Biko. He died in September, which was nine months into my first year. A packed meeting was held in the New Science Lecture Theatre (NSLT). Donald Woods, the journalist from the Daily Dispatch (who broke the news of his death) came to speak as Biko's friend. It was an incredibly moving and emotional speech. If I recall correctly, he was banned soon after that." – Mike Evans

Photo of Steve Biko, courtesy of the Nelson Mandela Foundation


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