The apartheid minister of defence, Magnus Malan, said in banning the End Conscription Campaign in 1986 that it was as ?dangerous? to South Africa as the African National Congress itself. Last November, the vice-president of the country (and of the ANC) told a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the ECC that Malan had been right. The ECC was a remarkable campaign, full of very talented mainly young white people (only whites were conscripted) determined to stop apartheid and confident that they had found a new fault line in the ?wall of steel and flame?. Part of my job for War Resisters’ International (WRI) from 1985 onwards was to work with a number of these young people, and in 1989 when I visited South Africa for activities around 15 May ? International Conscientious Objection Day ? I found myself echoing sentiments expressed in the USA during the Vietnam war: the brightest and best young white South Africans were saying an ever-louder ?no? to the society and privileges they were supposed to inherit.
One of the panels of the Quaker Tapestry is labelled ?Conscientious objection 1916 ? 1919?. On one side a conscientious objector is shown being interviewed by a tribunal and being taunted by ladies with white feathers, on the other side we see the prison cell which probably awaited him; beneath are illustrated some of the forms of alternative service which the conscientious objection movement eventually negotiated with the authorities. This is how people in Britain generally see conscientious objection: a historical phenomenon, linked to conscription in the two World Wars. Anyone who looks for instance at the book ?Women conscientious objectors: an anthology? published last month by War Resisters’ International will realise that conscientious objection is however alive and well as the focus of a global movement to counter the pervading violence and militarism of the current world order.