The lingering, unspoken pain of white youth who fought for apartheid by Theresa Edlmann

The legacies of apartheid in South Africa can only be understood by making sense of the complexities of the past. This includes recognising what those who were young during the apartheid era – and who are now the elders and leaders of our society – experienced during that time.

In the roughly 30 years between the Sharpeville massacre and the 1994 democratic elections that ended apartheid, a generation of Southern Africans faced challenging and often conflicting choices about ideological allegiances.

For young white boys, the end of their school careers came with a choice about responding to the “call-up” to the South African Defence Force (SADF). This system of military conscription was instituted in 1957 by the apartheid government and became compulsory from 1968 onwards.

Military conscription was key in the apartheid state’s “total response” to what was construed as a “total onslaught” by the perceived threats of communism and African nationalism. The state tried to draw white society into supporting this campaign by invoking a generations-long tradition of men doing military service to protect their country, values and families.

The end of apartheid meant this was the last generation of white South African and South West African (now Namibian) families to send their young men off to war in such large numbers. The very different dynamics of contemporary South Africa make it hard to understand the scale of pressure these young men experienced at home, in many churches and in most social and political domains. White South African society was politically conservative and deeply invested in protecting its interests. Democratic notions such as freedom of choice were almost unheard of. Calls of duty and service were paramount.

The impact that the system of conscription had on the roughly 600,000 white men, or 7.1% of the roughly 4.2 million white people in South Africa in 1992, who became both pawns and agents of the apartheid state, has seldom been publicly acknowledged in post-apartheid South Africa.

Duty and conscience

Those who accepted the call-up received rigorous military training, followed by deployment in South Africa, Namibia or Angola for the rest of their period of service. After that came several years of annual short-term “camps”. Over the 25 years that conscription was in place, service increased from nine months to a total of 720 days including camps.

Military combat was rare until 1975, when the SADF invaded Angola after its Portuguese colonial government collapsed. This initiated 14 years of what became known as the “Border War”, consisting of intense military and guerrilla warfare in northern Namibia and southern Angola.

There were harsh consequences for those who disobeyed the call-up. Their choices? A court martial and up to six years in prison, exile in another country or going into hiding in South Africa.

University studies could delay military service, and some men exploited this for as long as possible. 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.

The war comes home

White South African society lived in almost complete ignorance about the scale of the war and the SADF’s strategies. Most conscripts said little about what they experienced. This was partly because they had to sign the Official Secrets Act upon joining. It was also the result of the “willed ignorance” of most white South Africans and the draconian censorship laws of the time.

In the mid-1980s, anti-apartheid resistance within South Africa intensified and SADF soldiers were deployed domestically. Suddenly, young white men were being called on to police fellow citizens by patrolling the racially defined borders between segregated communities. The “Border War” had come home.

The unsustainable nature of the morally and economically bankrupt apartheid system became increasingly evident, even to apartheid’s leaders who initiated discussions with the then banned African National Congress (ANC) during this time.

The ramifications were widespread. The war in Namibia and Angola ended with the 1989 withdrawal of the SADF from Namibia. Namibia gained independence a year later. The ANC and other organisations were unbanned, political prisoners released and the negotiations that led to the 1994 elections got under way.

1994: A new era

Conscription was officially disbanded in 1995, as was the SADF. A new integrated army was established – and conscription slipped into the realms of silence and memory for most people. For conscripts themselves, the memories of their time in the military haven’t faded. Some have embraced the possibilities of new freedoms while others have fought to maintain and celebrate historical identities in a changed context.

There have been some efforts by the public and civil society to recognise the complexities of conscripts’ experiences, being both victims of a system and perpetrators in its name. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission held a special hearing on conscription. Increasing numbers of books about and by conscripts have been published. And several groups such as veterans, some NGOs and the Legacy of Apartheid Wars Project at Rhodes University have done some work around the issue, mostly in the form of research, public dialogues and workshops to address issues of woundedness and trauma – for conscripts and those who fought against apartheid.

However, for the majority of conscripts, the discursive laagers that have shaped their social positioning remain intact. Most of the trauma they might have experienced remains unspoken or manifests in aggression, particularly when dealing with people, groups and situations they perceive to be a threat in some way.

As the more complex dimensions of our apartheid history begin to emerge, the healing and transformative possibilities of stories about conscription surfacing in the public domain should not be underestimated – especially as a way of making sense of our deeply racially divided society.