Refusing to serve in apartheid South Africa
Michael Titlestad, Johannesburg

As many people must discover, the opportunity to refuse military service outright is often impossible. For various reasons, among them a complicated family circumstance and my awareness that I was neither strong enough to spend seven years in jail nor had any desire to leave South Africa, I entered the apartheid military for the compulsory two years in 1987. I decided, having come from a background of student politics and having taught in one of the townships to which I might be sent on active duty, that I would do nothing that was an outright violation of my beliefs.

I was first sent to officers' training school because I had recently qualified as a teacher. There I began my infantry training. A month into basic training, I approached the authorities informing them that I was unable and unwilling to continue. At the time political grounds were not recognized as a basis for refusal to bear arms and, since I was not a member of an established church, I could not choose religious conscientious objection. My argument was that it was simply not possible for me to continue training for combat given the dissonance between the military's desired outcomes and my moral convictions. Strangely (but apparently not uncommonly), I was institutionalized in a psychiatric ward in Cape Town for 'observation.' During the seven weeks in that ward I saw something of the effects of abuse, violence and trauma in the South African military.

After several tribunals, my security rating was cancelled and I was classified (largely due to the intervention of a compassionate civilian psychologist) as non-combatant. I was then forced to begin basic training from scratch in new unit comprising, according to its officers, 'gays, communists and drug addicts'. Many of us were at least two out the three. Conditions in the unit were atrocious and individuals were constantly selected for forms of abuse in excess of anything resembling 'military discipline.' After six months, I was transferred to an office job involving teaching advanced training methodology in various sectors of the defense force. This move, which still seems illogical given the military's view of me, was a blessed example of the army's poor organization.

Throughout my time in the military I was, because I had elected to refuse combat service, treated with the utmost disdain and saw the effects of this ill-treatment on many of my fellow soldiers. The instance of drug abuse, of nervous ailments and of suicide was particularly high in the unit in which I spent the whole of my second year of national service. I lost three friends in the course of that year, one to an overdose and two to suicide.

After national service we were obliged to do 'camps' of up to three months a year. Given emerging political possibilities and my changed personal circumstances, I refused outright, was pursued endlessly by the military and eventually chose to leave the country for Botswana. I returned for the country's first democratic elections in 1994 and, given the demise of the military establishment, made a commitment to return, which I did in 1996. The five years I had spent in other (democratic) African countries gave me a taste for this country's future.

For various perfectly obvious reasons, white South African men who served in the military are now something of a national embarrassment. This denies the complex ethical decisions many confronted and the complex tactics of dissent many employed (nothing happened in our unit that the ANC did not know about within the week). Given a politics of blame, these stories (sad, domestic and miniscule though they might be) will never be heard. The politics of refusal were, though, complex and heart-rending, and the effects are still felt by many of us.

refusing to kill