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Tshwane Peace Group

9 November 2009

On Friday evening Val and I went along to a meeting we had been invited to. We had little idea what to expect, except that the speakers would be conscientious objectors from Israel, and someone who had been involved in the civil wars in the DRC.

It was a very informal gathering, and the Congolese speaker did not turn up, but was replaced by Cori Wielenga, who spoke about her experiences doing peace education in Rwanda following the genocide there 15 years ago. And a guy called Yuval spoke of his experiences as a conscientious objector in Israel. He said that there were many conscientious objectors who refused to fight in the occupied territories of Palestine. What he said sounded like a rerun of South Africa during the 1980s, when the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) started 25 years ago. Yuval had been tried before a military court and sent to prison three times. The conscientious objectors there call themselves Shministim, which refers to the highest class in high school, because on leaving school they are conscripted into the Israeli army. You can read more about the Shministim (including Yuval) here.

Some people at the meeting had been involved in the ECC, and had refused military service at that time, and recalled their own experiences of those days, and the similarities with the current situation in Israel.

It was a very interesting evening, and we found we knew some of the people there, so it was good to catch up with old friends. We also agreed to keep in touch, and to arrange future meetings. We have established an electronic contact point for the Tshwane Peace Group (which we called it for want of a better name), and anyone living in or around Tshwane who is concerned about peace is welcome to join in (for anyone who doesn’t know, Tshwane is a new megacity, formed in 2000, that covers most of northern Gauteng, which incorporated 13 former local authorities, the biggest of which were Pretoria, Centurion and Akasia/Soshanguve).

One of the things I recalled, while we were reminiscing about the bad old days of the “total onslaught”, was that 30 years ago I had a look at a war memorial in the churchyard of St Peter’s Anglican Church, Vryheid, in northern Natal. Two sides had the names of people in the district who had been killed in WWI and WWII. The other two sides, with many more names, even back in 1979, commemorated those who had been killed in the war on the “border”. The government at the time was trying to hide the number of soldiers being killed in that conflict, but the memorial told its own story.

The government at that time was trying to hide where they were fighting — not on the “border”, but South African troops were involved in an invasion of Angola. Back in WWII, when many luminaries of the National Party did not want to fight in “Britain’s war” (they overlooked the fact that it was actually Poland’s war) members of the SA Defence Force were not required to serve outside the country. The volunteers who did wore red shoulder flashes, which made them liable to be attacked at home by fascist mobs. But in Angola, the “voluntary” nature of service “beyond the border” was overlooked, and conscripts were sent there willy-nilly.

But what gave many of the conscripts the biggest problem was not service beyond the border, but when they were sent to the townships (“deployed” is the current milspeak buzzword) and told to fire upon their fellow citizens. The “border” became extremely elastic, both ways.

But the South African invasion of Angola, like the contemporary Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, had the effect of bringing down both governments: the National Party regime in South Africa and the Bolshevik regime in the USSR collapsed, with somewhat opposite effects. South Africa was put back together again after apartheid, while the Soviet Union fell apart under the influence of ethnic nationalism.

Now the Brits and Americans are in Afghanistan. Unlike the South African government in 1979, they (well the Brits, at least) make no attempt to hide the deaths of soldiers, and last week a whole day on Sky News was devoted to reruns of six disembodied pairs of feet emerging from a cargo plane, eventually being revealed as carrying a flag-draped coffin. The fact that some of the coffins were draped in the Union Jack and others in English flags shows that it wasn’t just re-runs of the emergence of the same body. And all the TV reporters wore red poppies, though it was long before Poppy Day — TV presenters appear to be decorated for the occasion earlier and earlier, like the shops putting up Christmas decorations in October.

Bishop Alan puts it rather well on his blog Afghanistan and Remembrance:

On a micro- scale our forces are doing what they are being asked to do, whatever the cost. However, the bigger macro aim is unclear, and nobody is hearing a clear or convincing answer to the question of what our macro-aims might be from the politicians who put our troops in danger in the first place. Simply asserting it’s all somehow vaguely necessary, without explaining what and why, is not enough. Those making big sacrifices, along with the rest of us, deserve better. Perhaps greater clarity is unachievable for as long as the Americans don’t know what they’re trying to achieve there either.

In South Africa the “border” war is over, but the xenophobic violence in Tshwane in March and April last year shows that there is a need for peace education right here at home, and the attitudes that lie behind the violence, that are stirred up by unscrupulous people for their own ends, are what led to the genocide in Rwanda.

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