Contesting the masculine state: white male war resisters in apartheid South Africa

Conway, Daniel (2008). Contesting the masculine state: white male war resisters in apartheid South Africa. In: Parpart, Jane L. and Zalewski, Marysia eds. Rethinking the Man Question: Sex, Gender and Violence in International Relations. London: Zed Books, pp. 127–142.



Asking the man question in a society where compulsory all-male military conscription is standard inevitably requires interrogating how masculinities are militarized and how militaries are masculinized. A militarized state devotes considerable cultural, legal and discursive resources to perpetuating the militarization of masculinities. Men who feel anxious about serving, who consider it a waste of time or see it as an abuse of state power, are likely made to feel they are unreasonable, "unmanly" and subversive. Exploring the impact of this gender dissidence allows an analysis of Cynthia Enloe's insight that "if a state's military begins to lose legitimacy, the tension between masculinity and military service can become acute" (1993:54). In 1980s apartheid South Africa, two years of full-time compulsory conscription existed for all white men and this was followed by a fifteen-year period of alternate-year "camp duty". Tensions between masculinity and military service emerged when a small number of white men publicly rejected compulsory conscription. They were then joined by white men and women who established a war resistance and anti-apartheid movement called the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). Objection to military service for expressly political reasons reflected deeper cultural shifts and widening divisions in South Africa's white community (Phillips 2002:224; Charney 1987) and demonstrated how the contradictory pressures of militarization on a society can provoke projound political change. The analysis of the war resistance movement in South Africa reveals the possibilities and constraints for contesting and destabilizing dominant militarized gender norms and contesting racist and authoritarian rule. The use of sexist and homophobic discourses to stigmatize objectors and their supporters demonstrated the heteronormativity of the public realm, and the dilemma of how to transgress such stigmatization confronts peace activists across contexts. The case study of war resistance in apartheid South Africa and the cultures of masculinity that underpinned it resonate with social practices in contemporary militarized societies such as in Israel and Turkey. This chapter will begin by theoretically conceptualizing conscription and political objection to it as "performative" (Butler 1999) acts generative of individual and collective identity. I will move on to analyse the discursive and material means by which the apartheid state militarized masculinity; and finally I will conceptualize and assess resistance to conscription in South Africa.

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