Drift in South African draft

Grant, a 19-year-old white South African, has always been uneasy about his legal obligation to serve in this country's Army. But the large-scale use of the Army last week to quash black unrest has made this blue-jeans-clad university student angry and indignant - perhaps to the point where he will resist conscription.

''It's frightening and immoral,'' Grant says, shaking a mop of curly blond hair. ''I could find grounds for fighting in Namibia (South-West Africa). But I'd never go to Sebokeng,'' he adds, referring to the black township circled by Army troops last week as police conducted house-to-house searches.

The South African government is not overly worried about people like Grant. But it is certainly watching him and other would-be draft resisters out of the corner of its eye. Draft resistance is not a major problem for the government, since most white males (only whites are conscripted) believe there is a legitimate external threat to South Africa that necessitates a strong military.

But a stepped-up use of the military in South Africa's domestic racial affairs could swell the number of draft resisters in this country, say people associated with the conscientious-objection movement here.

And any rise in draft-resister numbers could aggravate what is a major concern of the government: maintaining a large enough manpower pool for South Africa's Defense Force. The government has in recent years taken several steps to expand its military manpower base, causing a fair amount of grumbling among whites - not about the politics of Army service but about the length of commitment Pretoria demands and its consequences on family life and work.

All white South African men must serve two years in the military. And a law passed in 1982 expanded the amount of part-time duty required of men after they leave full-time service. After 12 years of part-time service, all men up to age 55 may be called on to serve in local military units, if needed. The 1982 law increased by about 50 percent the pool of white manpower on which the Defense Force can call.

Grant says most of his friends at the English-speaking university he attends are opposed to mandatory military service. But this does not usually translate into actually evading or opposing the draft. ''If draft evasion is big, I don't know about it,'' he says.

Yet Grant says his peers' criticism of mandatory conscription is getting louder following the use of Army troops in black townships last week.

Grant is particularly worried abut the impact on black-white relations. Blacks are accustomed to being harassed by the police, he says. Although ''blacks hate the police in South Africa,'' he says, ''that is not unusual since everyone hates the police, all over the world.''

But since the military is seen as a tool of the whites, using the Army against blacks in the townships has sinister implications, Grant says. ''The use of the Army makes blacks antiwhite, not just anti-Army,'' he fears.

Under a new law passed last year, the government has become more accommodating of people who object to military service for religious reasons. It has outlined alternative service for these objectors.

But at the same time the government has stiffened the penalty for those who object to military service for other reasons, such as political objections to apartheid policies or objection to South Africa's war effort in Namibia. The penalty for such draft resisters is six years in jail. Previously, draft resisters were typically jailed for only one or two years.

One draft resister who has been granted alternative service by the government says the number of young men resisting the draft is still small. ''But even a small number of resisters creates a lack of consensus that is frightening'' to Pretoria, he asserts. The government board set up to consider the cases of religious objectors is dealing with about 20 cases per month. But many analysts feel the number will increase as young men become more aware of thelaw.

Aside from the relatively small number of men who openly refuse to do military service in South Africa, there is probably a larger number of men who try to evade service. Some church officials involved with helping those who decide to resist the draft (encouraging draft resistance is against the law) estimate that a few thousand men may leave the country each year or go into hiding inside the country to evade the draft.

To further expand its manpower pool for the military, the South African government this month required white immigrants to do military service or lose their permanent-resident status in the country. All immigrants aged 15 to 25 who have been in the country at least five years now automatically become South African citizens, thus making them liable for conscription. Those refusing citizenship can remain in the country only as temporary residents.

The government also appears headed toward the conscription of Coloreds (persons of mixed race) and Indians. Both these groups were given roles in the central government this year. The government has also said it plans to expand military conscription in Namibia, where it already includes all races, to draw more manpower locally for the border war. Service requirements will be longer and the age brackets expanded.

As the government moves to increase its military manpower pool, the draft-resistance movement also appears to be changing its focus.

In the past, most efforts have been aimed at supporting and helping conscientious objectors. But last year, at the suggestion of the Black Sash human-rights organization, an End Conscription Campaign was launched.

Its basic aim is to ''make conscription an issue publicly,'' explains chairperson Evita Pavlopovitch. She claims this task is achievable, particularly since the use of the Army in the black areas ''made it clear that the military is everywhere and is affecting everyone.''

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