In apartheid South Africa, military service was compulsory for
In 1988, on completing my university studies, I objected to
military service on conscientious grounds.
I was ordered to the Supreme Court in Bloemfontein and sentenced
to six years of Community Service.
Community Service entailed working in a government department
with bare minimum salary (I remember starting off on R530 per
month, back then the equivalent of £126 / month).
Instead of waiting for the Department of Manpower (today the
Department of Employment and Labour) to assign me a random
office job somewhere, I approached the Durban Botanic Gardens to
see if they were interested in 'free labour'. I explained I had
a degree in Botany and was available to work for free, courtesy
of the government. The Botanic Gardens offered me the position
of Horticultural Assistant, and I began my community service on
1st December 1988.
The lush, subtropical Durban
Botanic Gardens was established in 1851 under the
auspices of Kew Gardens, and is Africa's oldest surviving
I began each day feeding the large population of ducks and other
birds that lived in the large pond. I then carried out work that
included weeding, potting, pruning, collecting fallen fruit,
occasionally driving the tractor and generally assisting the
horticulturists with their many duties. When it rained, I worked
in the on-site library - full of magnificent botanical books -
adding protective covers to new arrivals. My biggest and most
satisfying project was creating new concrete beds for the entire
outdoor plant nursery.
After about two years I felt I needed a change and asked to be
transferred to the Durban
Natural Science Museum. The Museum too was very
keen on 'free labour' (particularly as I had studied biological
sciences), and so they offered me the position of Education
I took to the museum like a fish to water. I absolutely loved
being immersed in knowledge of the natural world - and
communicating it to a rich diversity of museum audiences. Soon
after I started, the director asked me to spearhead the
establishment of a new science centre gallery, and KwaZuzulwazi
Fortunately for me (and for the rest of the country), Nelson
Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, and peaceful
political change began in South Africa. Conscientious objectors
throughout the country had their sentences reduced, and by the
end of 1990, most had been released from community service.
The Museum wished to retain me as an employee, so the director
transformed a vacant technician's position into an education
officer role - and held off advertising the post until I
received my release papers.
Yet my keenly anticipated fax failed to arrive. I must have made
a dozen trips to the fax machine every day - for months.
Six months into 1991, the director was under pressure to fill
the education officer post or risk losing it altogether.
I made many frantic calls to the Dept of Manpower and eventually
they found my file - which had been 'misplaced'! Soon thereafter
I received my fax (followed six months later by the certificate
below). I applied for the post of Education Officer, and was
The Natural Science Museum is located in the Durban City Hall
(which is a replica
of the Belfast City Hall)
Although I only served two and a half of my six years of
Community Service - and even though they involved stimulating
work - they were difficult years nonetheless. I never had enough
money, really struggled to make ends meet, and only by sharing a
tiny apartment with two other people did I manage to get by.
Yet being a conscientious objector helped me discover museums
and planetariums, and the science communication career I love so