For perhaps last time, S. Africa conducts whites-only draft

January 11, 1993|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRIA — JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Thousands of freshly scrubbed young men reported for military service across the country last week in one of apartheid's remaining rituals, the whites-only draft.

In Johannesburg, flanked by their parents and carrying small overnight bags, a stream of 18-to-20 year-olds flowed into the main fairgrounds.

"It's something all the men in my family have done. They say you become a man in the army," said Greg Palmer, 20, who works in his father's construction firm.

This year's exercise has been described by military officials as perhaps the last of its kind, a relic of a political system that is being consigned to history as racist and unworkable. Army officials insist they are moving toward the new South Africa as fast as the law allows.

But critics are outraged that the whites-only draft hasn't been scrapped already. They say it is ridiculous and hypocritical that in the midst of reform the government continues to maintain a race-based draft that was designed to enforce apartheid.

"I think they pulled a fast one when they talked about the pillars ofapartheid being knocked down," said Chris de Villiers, the leader of an anti-draft organization called the End Conscription Campaign.

"This is one of the pillars of apartheid because the bottom line of apartheid was force. If it wasn't a pillar, then it was the base upon which it was built."

The ECC predicted that a mere 30 percent of the 18,000 men ordered to report for duty would show up. The organization said that was the rate last year, but the army disputed that figure. It said only a small percentage of men failed to show up.

Critics say the draft is particularly outrageous in light of recent revelations about military units involved in dirty-tricks campaigns and possibly assassination plots against political opponents of the government.

President F. W. de Klerk last month ordered 16 military officials into early retirement and conceded that top military men were involved in dirty tricks campaigns that are no longer acceptable in South Africa's changing political climate.

The South African Defense Force has played a vital role in maintaining apartheid by defending white-ruled South Africa against the "swart gevaar," the black danger that was believed to be presented by anti-apartheid organizations inside the country and black countries on its borders.

Every white man over the age of 18 is required to perform military service under the Defense Act, which remains in effect despite the repeal of most other apartheid laws. Men are required to serve one year of duty and remain on the rolls for possible call-ups for 12 years. Until a few years ago, the service time was two years.

Defense Minister Gene Louw said recently that young men are required to answer their draft notices until the Defense Act is changed by Parliament. In the new South Africa, he said, there would be no place for a whites-only draft system. But for now, he said, it remains the law.

But an increasing number of whites are beginning to ask what the point of maintaining an apartheid army is if apartheid is supposed to be dead.

"The role played by the defense force has been to enforce apartheid," said Donovan Smith, 22, a university student who received a draft notice ordering him to report for duty Thursday.

He didn't go. Instead, he joined a growing class of draft dodgers who are gambling that the government won't send them to jail.

Most of the men simply don't show up. But Mr. Smith, a campus activist, went a step farther. He put his name on a list of 21 draft resisters who publicly proclaimed their refusal to report and virtually dared the government to come after them.

Men have gone to jail for defying the draft, but last year no one was prosecuted despite obvious resistance. The End Conscription Campaign is telling young men it's a safe bet that no one will be prosecuted this year either.

"Every time they enforce the conscription law it calls their sincerity into question," said Mr. Donovan.

A Defense Force spokesman said that the government definitely would prosecute draft dodgers.

Maj. Mannie Alho said the South African Defense Force, which includes the army, navy, air force and intelligence agency, was not blind to the changes in South Africa. He noted that a system has been created under which blacks could volunteer for the military, which thousands have done in these times of high unemployment.

Black volunteers are trained separately and housed at different sites than whites.

"We're now in a temporary measure. In the future we're going to have to accommodate all races because I think whites are getting tired of being the only ones called up," he said.

The comment reflected a common feeling among young white men, who object to the draft not because it upholds apartheid but because it requires them to perform services for the nation that blacks may avoid. Mr. Louw agrees that the law discriminates against whites.

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