Johannesburg — Somewhere in the recesses of the sprawling Voortrekkerhoogte military base near the South African capital of Pretoria, a young man named Peter Moll is being held in detention.
The reason? He refuses to go to war to defend apartheid -- South Africa's pervasive system of racial discrimination.
Mr. Moll's case illustrates the problems facing a number of young white South African males as this white-ruled country faces the prospect of mounting conflict with black nationalist guerrillas.
Already locked in a bush war on the northern border of Namibia (South-West Africa), and with guerrilla attacks in South Africa itself becoming more numerous and costly, the government needs all the military manpower it can get. In fact, Prime Minister (and former Minister of Defense) Pieter W. Botha says that the "honor and duty" of military service "should not be made subservient to one's religious convictions."
Translated into official government policy, that means that conscientious objection to military service, even if based on religious beliefs, is simply not an option open to most young South Africans.
Peter Moll is finding that out firsthand. His refusal to report for military duty led to a court-martial and a one-year sentence to detention barracks in Voortrekkerhoogte. His further refusal to wear the rust-colored overalls of a soldier being punished -- on grounds that it is a military uniform -- has led to continuous 14-day periods of solitary confinement.
Mr. Moll spent a total of 118 days in solitary confinement before the South African Defense Force officially recognized him as a conscientious objector.
Such is the fate of some conscientious objectors in South Africa.
It is difficult to pinpoint just how many of them there are in this country. Under the South African government's narrow definition, the number probably is under 200 each year.
The South African government strives to make conscientious objection extremely difficult, levying stiff fines and long periods in detention for those who refuse to join the South African Defense Force.
But if broader definitions of conscientious objection, similar to those in other Western countries, were applied here -- and the South African government took a more conciliatory approach to the subject -- the number could grow.
"How many others there are that might come forward, nobody knows," says A. Paul Hare, a University of Cape Town sociology professor who has taken an interest in the subject.
Under South African law, anyone who refuses military service is subject to two years' imprisonment and a fine of $2,500. Theoretically, the penalty could be reimposed each time military service were refused.
Faced with such onerous punishments, plus the pressure of a society that glorifies militarism, most young white South Africans report for two years of national military service at age 18. The intake each year is about 27,000.
But each year, a significant number fail to report. Since 1975, the figure has been above 3,000 annually, reaching a high of 3,814 in 1977. In 1978, the last year for which statistics are available, the number was 3,123. Judging from those figures, around 1 in 8 young South African men is not appearing at intake centers.
Yet in 1978 the government convicted only 284 people for refusing military service. Another 1,250 provided excuses, many on medical and educational grounds.
What happened to the remaining 1,589 men who failed to report? It is likely that some left the country. From time to time, reports are received from neighboring countries -- especially Botswana and Swaziland -- of young whites who leave South Africa rather than serve in its armed forces.
"This is a tremendous loss to the country," says the Rev. Robert Roberston, a Presbyterian minister who counsels conscientious objectors, "because it's mostly highly intelligent and socially sensitive young men who leave for this reason -- people who work for, and would like to see, a peaceful resolution of the country's problems."
Some young men may also be going underground here in South Africa, avoiding conscription, yet not registering at any educational institution or otherwise informing the South African government of their whereabouts.
"Thousands" of young South Africans have taken this path of resistance, according to Omkeer (Afrikaans for "turn down"), a magazine aimed at encouraging draft resistance. The magazine, although banned here, occasionally finds its way into South Africa. Three issues were mailed to national service inductees in Transvaal Province recently, allegedly after a mailing list was stolen from Army computers in Pretoria. Government sources say its claims of massive draft evasion here are nonsensical.
At least two organizations outside the country -- the South African Military Refugees Aid Fund and the Committee on South African War Resistance -- provide assistance to draftees who leave the country. But draft resistance campaigns inside South Africa have only limited effect, since anyone encouraging such activity here is subject to a $6,400 fine, six years' imprisonment, or both.
Those who choose to stay in South Africa and become conscientious objectors face a particularly difficult and lonely struggle. South African law tightly circumscribes the limits of conscientious objection, recognizing only one group entitled to special treatment: those who belong to "a recognized religious denomination by the tenets whereof its members may not participate in war."
In practice, the government has interpreted this to mean only members of so-called "peace churches" such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, and a few smaller denominations.
Members of these denominations are usually allowed to serve in a noncombat role. But if they refuse to serve at all, they can be held in detention barracks for up to three years.
The situations is even more difficult for young men who do not belong to a recognized "peace church," but whose personal convictions preclude military service.
Many churches here recognize that differing interpretations of church doctrine and scripture lead some members to object to military service, while others see nothing wrong in entering combat. These denominations leave the question of military service as a matter for the individual member's conscience.
Other denominations condone participation only in a "just" war, a concept in Christian philosophy stretching back to Thomas Aquinas and embodied in several international treaties and charters.
(Various interpretations hold that a war is "just" only if it is declared by a legitimate authority, is for a just cause, is undertaken as a last resort, is waged by just means, and if there is a reasonable chance for success.)
In 1974, the South African Council of Churches questioned whether taking up arms to defend white minority rule here constituted involvement in a "just" war, and called on young South Africans to search their consciences for the answer.
Nor surprisingly, different poeple have come up with different answers.
Many young South Africans, convinced they are fithting "communist terrorists, " willingly undergo military service. Others reject the use of violence on principle, instead espousing pacifism. Others say they would participate in some wars, but not in the conflict in which South Africa is now engaged.
Even among conscientious objectors here, there are varying shades of opinion. Some have no objection to noncombat duty, while others refuse to enter the South African military in any capacity.
For some, the decision to become conscientious objectors is not arrived at quickly. Peter Moll, for example, underwent a year of basic training in 1974. But, like many other South Africans, he was later subject to eight annual month-long "call-ups." By 1976, he relates, he determined not to report for call-up duty if he was called on to put down civil disturbances during that tumultuous year. By the following year, he had determined not to report for duty at all.
Mr. Moll, a Baptist, concedes he is not a pacifist, but argues that the conflict in which South Africa is engaged does not constitute a "just" war, but a civil war in which whites are involved in an ultimately futile effort to defend economic and political privilege.
After three refusals to report for call-ups, Mr. Moll was court- martialed and sentenced to a year in military detention barracks, where he refused to wear the requisite overalls on grounds that they are meant for disobedient soldiers, not conscientious objectors.
Each time he refused to don the uniform, he was ordered back into solitary confinement for disobeying an order. Theoretically, the cycle of punishment, refusal, and punishment could have continued until Mr. Moll reached age 65.
The South African authorities relented only after he had endured nearly four months in solitary confinement.
At a military base in the city of Bloemfontein, another young man named Richard Steele was caught in a similar legal quagmire. A Baptist who found "military service incompatible with my Christian convictions," Mr. Steele served 50 days in solitary confinement before finally being granted conscientious objector status.
The two young men must still serve sentences in detention barracks, however, which could theoretically stretch up to three years.
Nevertheless, some observers say the two cass represent a moral victory of sorts for those who demand the right not to fight. It came only after repeated entreties to military and government authorities, prayer vigils, and fasts -- both by the two detainees and people on the outside who sympathized with them.
Although South African military spokesmen stress that the two cases are exceptional, some observers think otherwise. At least one observer says that the cases amount to a de facto widening of the grounds for conscientious objection in South Africa.
Even so, "The law needs to be changeD," says the Rev. Mr. Robertson, "so that recognition of conscientious objectors is based on the person's own conviction, whether religious or ethical, instead of what church he belongs to.
?What we need," he adds, "is an alternative form of national service, outside the military."
Mr. Robertson says such alternative service could be longer than the two-year national service period, and might involve work in "hospitals, firefighting, education, anything of general welfare."
But the South African government is having no part of that. Last year, Professor Hare attepted to set up an ambulance service, to be staffed by conscientious objectors, in the Namibian war zone. A government hospital in Runtu, on Namibia's northern border, initially approved the idea, but it was overruled by officials in Pretoria, he says.
A private hospital in the area was receptive, however, and invited Professor Hare up to make arrangements with clinics in the war area. But the professor says that on his way to northern Namibia he was stopped by South African security police and escorted back south.
"There's never been any explanation," he says. "They never put any reason in writing."
This newspaper asked the South African government for its views on conscientious objection. The government referred to a statement by Maj. Gen. J. A. van Zyl, chaplain-general of the South African Defense Force.
In the statement, the chaplain raised a number of questions about conscientious objection. Among them:
* "Is the Word of God ambiguous, in other words does it lead to conscientious objection for one person, while for another it is a call to respon sibility -- a God-given assignment to defend his country, his nation, his church, women and children, and Christian civilization?"
* "If the citizens of a country put a government into power according to democratic procedures, to rule and govern that country, and those citizens are Christians, does that government not hold office by the will of God?"
"(The South African goverment is, of course, elected by the 18 percent white minority here.)
The chaplain continued, "All are aware that Karl Marx declared open war against God."
"It is a question to be asked," the chaplain concluded, "to those who defend the right of conscientious objection, if they are not playing into the hands of these Marxist powers by way of indirect support."
Peter Moll had already confronted that question when he contributed an article last October to the South African magazine Outlook. The South African government banned the issue, however, and his words may not be disseminated in this country.
"Let it be said," Mr. Moll wrote, "that the communist is the enemy we would have to invent if he did not exist. He is necessary; otherwise, our martial resolve might be eroded by compassion. Our convoluted logic requires that he remain; the enemy is the best rationalization of our power."