IN October 1984, the South African government ordered Army units from the South African Defense Force (SADF), an organization largely of white conscripts, to support the police in quelling unrest in Soweto. A few weeks later, 7,000 troops and policemen launched Operation Palmiet in the black township of Sebokeng. After sealing off the township, soldiers carried out house-to-house searches and made at least 350 arrests. Since then, this technique has played such an increasingly important role in South Africa's efforts to restore and maintain law and order that a tour of duty in a black township for SADF personnel has become fairly common. Clearly, this ``combined maneuver'' strategy has yielded benefits for the government insofar as security forces have succeeded in identifying and apprehending hundreds, if not thousands, of dissidents. During the first half of 1985, authorities arrested most leaders of the United Democratic Front, a loose coalition of some 600 anti-apartheid groups. In the long run, however, the use of regular SADF soldiers in black townships could polarize South Africa's white society. Indeed, this issue has already spawned a small but growing antiwar movement.
The End Conscription Campaign (ECC) -- a group with links to the United Democratic Front and more than 50 church, women's, student, and youth associations -- contends that conscription preserves white minority rule by enabling the state to enforce apartheid, the policy of racial separation. Although groups are forbidden by law from encouraging individuals to resist the draft, the EEC has demonstrated a willingness to defy state authority.
The organization has sponsored panel discussions on conscription and issued statements that the SADF's presence in black townships ``was provocative and was seen as the symbol and defense of apartheid.'' Despite the South African government's having banned many of these activities, the EEC charges that about 7,000 draft dodgers are living in Europe and that more than 7,500 men failed to report for military service in January 1985. The longer the SADF remains in the black townships, the greater the likelihood of the EEC's having influence among the 58,000 young men called up each year.
Individual soldiers, dissatisfied with the call-up and duty in black townships, have also expressed opposition to military service. Employing a tactic often used during America's years in Vietnam, an anonymous SADF trooper complained to the Manchester Guardian Weekly that his country's internal military policies were unnecessarily brutal. If more conscripts start to oppose government policy in black townships, there could be a corresponding reduction in military effectiveness. This in turn could strengthen antigovernment activists throughout South Africa's black townships.
In another incident, Bernard Buter Smith maintained that, as a conscript, he was forced ``to kill innocent men, women, and children . . . in the townships.'' He therefore applied for political asylum in the United States. In a letter to US immigration officials, Mr. Smith said that even if he were thrown in jail in America, ``it would be better than staying in South Africa.'' Pointing out that draft evasion was not in itself grounds for political asylum, US officials denied the request.
Apart from banning some of the activities of organizations such as the EEC, the South African government has employed a variety of tactics to resolve the draft-dodging problem. On Sept. 9, for example, South African police units raided the homes of 20 leading EEC members and detained four anti-conscription campaigners. Official military publications warn conscripts that the penalty for draft dodging is self-imposed exile or six years in prison.
Assessing the political and military significance of South Africa's antiwar movement and draft-dodging problem is difficult. Obviously, there is a tendency among much of the news media to exploit stories about disgruntled white soldiers. Many observers are also inclined to believe that any unrest in the military signifies an erosion of South Africa's military capabilities in the black townships. No matter how appealing the specter of a divisive South African military establishment may be, all available evidence suggests that the overwhelming majority of conscripts, whether serving in the black townships or elsewhere, are still loyal to the government and its security policies.
Prof. Thomas P. Ofcansky is an African affairs specialist with the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education at Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.