JOHANNESBURG — SOUTH African authorities have abandoned prosecutions of white draft dodgers pending a review of the whites-only national service system.
This was confirmed Jan. 20 by Deputy Defense Minister Wynand Breytenbach who said it would be unfair to prosecute draft resisters until a current review of conscription was completed. Anti-conscription lobby groups said that Mr. Breytenbach's statement amounted to an admission that the draft was no longer enforceable.
The government has faced growing defiance in recent months from both left- and right-wing conscripts who challenge the legitimacy of the present draft, which has underpinned the might of the South African Defense Force (SADF) for the past three decades.
"The SADF acknowledges there are anomalies in the conscription system, but we have to use the parliamentary process to change legislation and create a new acceptable system," a Defense Ministry spokesman says. But the spokesman confirms that there have been no prosecutions of conscientious objectors or draft dodgers since last June and that future prosecutions are unlikely until a new system of national service had been negotiated.
The whites-only system of national service is facing a growing credibility problem as the country moves closer to a multiracial transitional government, analysts say.
Liberal objectors have stepped up a campaign to end the draft. And on the right, a group calling itself the Campaign for a People's Own Army insists it will only serve to protect whites-only communities and not in a multiracial defense force.
There are also growing calls from the African National Congress (ANC), and other opposition groups, for a national defense force acceptable to the majority.
"Clearly, the system cannot continue as it is," says Rear Adm. Chris Bennett, a retired naval officer who now heads the independent Defense Institute of Southern Africa. "We are reaching a stage where the national service system has less and less credibility and diminishing support from the public."
Admiral Bennett says the trend appears to be away from conscription toward a voluntary force, and that a priority is to negotiate a new system of national service as the basis of a new SADF.
President Frederik de Klerk reduced the period of compulsory military service from two years to 12 months in 1989 after South African troops withdrew from Angola, and it was clear that the threat of a conventional war was greatly diminished.
Until last June, conscientious objectors who refused to serve in an "unjust war" faced imprisonment. Exemption was granted only to religious objectors.
The controversy about national service was sparked by a letter to Defense Minister Roelf Meyer from the chairman of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) - a support group for conscientious objectors that demands abolition of the draft. The letter predicted less than half of drafted white conscripts would turn out in January.
Such calls are coming even as the SADF faces a growing crisis of credibility resulting from continuing disclosures of its involvement in clandestine operations against the ANC and other political groups.
"This is senseless provocation, and nobody will benefit from it," said Mr. Meyer regarding ECC charges. Subsequent turnouts indicate the ECC claim was grossly exaggerated.
For the past six years the SADF has refused to disclose turnout figures for the military call-up. The draft is conducted in accordance with national law that empowers the government to call up all white South Africans above 18 years of age.
But the ECC says that since the government repealed the race classification laws (Population Registration Act) last year the whites-only draft is illegal. Until recently, the government had insisted that the Defense Act, which provides for the draft, is valid and draft-dodgers may be punished.