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I refuse to serve in the SADF

On Thursday, the 3rd March this year, a doctor from Cape Town was sentenced to 630 days in jail. His crime was refusing to serve in the South African Defence Force.

“I’m making the one choice I have as a white South African,” he told the court. “I can choose to go to prison rather than serve in the SADF.”

After the four day trial, Dr Ivan Toms hugged his family and friends goodbye. For Ivan it was the beginning of a long, lonely time in prison. But it was also the end of many months of soul searching. He thought long and hard before he decided not to go to an army camp when he was called up last November.

What made Ivan Toms decide not to go to the army? To find the answer, we need to look at the life of this deeply religious young man — and to follow the road he has walked.


In many ways Ivan Toms is like any ordinary white South African. Soon after Ivan was born in Germiston 35 years ago, his family moved to Durban. They were not rich people. His father worked as a water meter reader for the municipality. His mother taught music from home.

At school Ivan did well — he was captain of the rugby team and deputy head boy. He then went on to study medicine at the University of Cape Town. He became a doctor in 1976.

Ivan then went into the army to do his two years ‘National Service1. Ivan was not very happy about it. He was not scared of the hard life in the army — but he was already beginning to question who and what the army is fighting for.

But, like many young white South Africans, Ivan went into the army anyway. At that time in his life he could not think of leaving the country, or going to jail.


After doing three months basic training, Ivan became a first lieutenant because he was a doctor. He was sent to work at a hospital in the Ciskei. After nine months, he was moved to an army staff hospital in Cape Town.

This upset him. He believed that there was a much greater need for his work in the “barren homelands” than the hospital in Cape Town “where there were more doctors than patients.”

Ivan was then sent to the border of Namibia and Angola for six months. He soon found out that the Namibian people do not want the SADF in their country. “My contact with the Namibian people convinced me that they do not want the SADF there.”

In Namibia Ivan also decided that he could not carry a gun — “to kill another person was impossible for me.”

The army allowed Ivan to stop carrying a gun. But Ivan was still not happy. In court he said: “Even as a doctor working in mission hospitals in that area, I still felt that the people did not want me. This kind of work by the army never won the hearts and minds of the people.”

“I also believed that even though I did not carry a gun, I was still useful to the SADF. I was still part of the machine that sent young men to fight in Namibia and in the townships of South Africa.”


After his two years in the SADF, Ivan “felt called” to work in the squatter camp of Crossroads near Cape Town. “At that time there were already 40 000 people living there in great need of proper health care. The government did not give them this health care because they saw Crossroads as a temporary place. Yet by 1986 there were 130 000 people in Crossroads.”

“With a small team I built a caring Christian clinic that served the community faithfully for six years. I was fully trusted by the people as their doctor and they treated me as a brother.”

One of Ivan’s fellow workers at the clinic remembers Ivan as a jack of all trades. “He was a doctor and a plumber and an administrator. He had a lot of energy and he would often work right around the clock.”

Ivan’s hard work and caring heart earned him the respect and love of the people. He has become known as the “Angel of Crossroads.”


Ivan was part of the community — and he saw how they suffered. He remembers the time when officials from the Administration Board came to Crossroads in 1983. They came for three weeks, day in and day out, to break down the plastic shelters that were peoples’ homes.

“Old women and babies were left out in the rain and the cold Cape winter. Rubber bullets, teargas, sneeze powder and dogs were used against the people. We treated many of these people at the clinic.”

Ivan says the police came to Crossroads in Caspirs, dressed in green army uniforms— and this meant the people could not tell the difference between the police and the army. “They were all ‘amajoni’ to the children — to be feared and hated.”

In 1983 Ivan wrote to his commanding officer and told him that, as a Christian, he could no longer serve in the SADF — even if he did not have to carry a gun.


In February 1985 the government decided to force all black people from Langa and Guguletu to the “sand dunes” of Khayelitsha. In two days, the police killed 18 people at Crossroads. 178 people were treated at the clinic where Ivan worked.

But for Ivan, the “greatest evil” was still to come. “The government used the ‘witdoeke’ from the Old Crossroads to attack and burn the homes of 70 000 people in Nyanga Extension, Portland Cement and KTC.”

Ivan says there is much proof to show that the police and the SADF did not protect the people from the witdoeke. At times they even helped the witdoeke. Afterwards the SADF were used to clear the area and stop the people from returning.

Then on 16 June 1986, the SADF took over the clinic in Crossroads. “A community clinic run by a Christian staff was now used by the SADF to try and win the hearts and minds of the people. Posters saying ‘SADF from the people for the people’ were put up, yet patients were treated by doctors with guns in their belts.”

Ivan says he does not blame the soldiers who were forced to work in the clinic at this time. Some of the doctors had worked in the clinic while they were still at university, and now they were not happy with what they had to do.


After Ivan was forced to leave the clinic in Crossroad, he got a job with the South African Christian Leadership Association (SACLA). Together with other SACLA staff members, he went into the townships of Cape Town to train health workers.

Ivan was working for SACLA when he was called up for an army camp last November. His mind was already made up. He went to his commanding officer and said that he refused to serve in the SADF.

His officer told him that if it was against his religion to go to the army, he could go work in another government organisation — like a post office.

Ivan refused. He said he was not only refusing because he is a Christian. He could not separate his religious beliefs from his political beliefs. He wanted to stand up with those young men who are not Christians — but who also feel they cannot go to the army.


Last month, when Ivan told the court his reasons for refusing to go on a camp, even the magistrate seemed to understand. He did not enjoy sending Ivan to jail. “I am very sad that you went as far as refusing, as your services will be lost to the community. You are not a criminal,” he said.

The magistrate said that he hoped Ivan would soon change his mind so he would not have to stay in jail. Ivan has appealed against his sentence — but there is little chance that he will ever change his mind.

“If the SADF was truly a defence force protecting the rights and property of all South Africans, then I would willingly serve,” Ivan said.

“But since 1984, the SADF has been used to control the black townships of South Africa. The border is no longer thousands of miles away in Namibia, but right on our doorstep in Langa, Gugeletu and KTC…

“South Africa is in a state of civil war and we have to take sides. I believe the side of justice and truth is the side of the poor and oppressed in our country. I stand on that side.”


Dr Ivan Toms is a member of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). The ECC believes that people should have the freedom to choose if they want to serve in the army or not.

Until people have this right, the ECC believes that young men should be allowed to do “alternative military service”. Under the law today, the army allows only certain religious people to do alternative military service. The law says these people must do their service in a government organisation.

The ECC believes that the army must let people do alternative military service if they have other reasons for not wanting to go to the army — like political reasons. And they must not be forced to do their service in a government organisation. They must be allowed to serve in church, welfare or community organisations.

The ECC also believes that people should not be punished for doing alternative military service. Now the few people who are allowed to do alternative military service for religious reasons must serve in a government organisation for six years. This is one and a half times longer than the time other young men stay in the army.

At his trial, Ivan Toms said he hoped that by going to jail, the government will think about changing the law. Maybe one day the law will be changed — and Ivan will be able to say that he did not go to prison for nothing!


barren — empty, dry convince — to make someone (or yourself) believe something is true  temporary — for a short time  administrator — a person who runs an office  commanding officer — the officer in charge  protect — to look after  oppressed — people who are pushed down alternative military service — doing something else rather than fighting in the army  conscription — forcing people by law to go to the army


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