Resilient as ever

2017-09-10 06:00
Transkei, 1992: Chris Hani, head of Umkhonto weSizwe, shares a laugh with Klaas de Jonge. Picture: Pieter Boersma

Transkei, 1992: Chris Hani, head of Umkhonto weSizwe, shares a laugh with Klaas de Jonge. Picture: Pieter Boersma

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Dutch anti-apartheid activists Klaas de Jonge and Hélène Passtoors were jailed for supplying arms to the ANC’s military wing. They have been acknowledged for their heroism, but what about the others, asks Yunus Carrim.

Dutch national Klaas de Jonge turned 80 on September 5 – marking 30 years to the day that he was told he would be released, after being holed up in the Netherlands embassy in Pretoria for 26 months. He had escaped there while in police detention for his activities as part of Umkhonto weSizwe’s (MK’s) special operations unit, otherwise known as Special Ops. 

“It was stupid how I got caught, and I was very angry with myself,” said De Jonge.

“I was determined to escape from the first day, but how? I needed the police to take me out of my cell. So I told them that I would take them to the places where I had buried arms caches, knowing they were empty.

“They took me out several times and began to be more relaxed. I even persuaded them to loosen my leg irons so I could walk better. Then I bluffed them that Special Ops was also going to bomb foreign companies doing business in South Africa and I would show them where. So they took me to the Nedbank building and I pointed to the company supposedly targeted, which was opposite the embassy. As the three policemen turned their heads towards that office, I stumbled into the embassy. They jumped on me. Too late – I was in already.”

The police hauled him out, but, after huge protests from the Dutch and other embassies about the violation of diplomatic protocol, De Jonge was returned to the embassy. He was finally released as part of a complex five-way prisoner exchange involving Angola, France, Holland and South Africa. It included the release of Wynand du Toit – a member of the then SA Defence Force – from an Angolan prison, and of MK French operative Pierre Albertini from a South African prison.

“I was such a headache for the government. The National Party’s Pik Botha said he was so happy that I had left, he could have given me 10 baskets of flowers and boxes of chocolates. I never got the flowers and chocolates from him!”

"We felt we almost had no choice"

De Jonge, an anthropologist, and his wife Hélène Passtoors, a linguist, went to Mozambique in 1981 to work.

“It was such a nice time in Mozambique then. Left-wing people from many countries came to support the new socialist experiment there. I was a Marxist, but not a Soviet-communist.”

De Jonge and Passtoors were recruited by Joe Slovo to join MK’s Special Ops.

“In the 1960s, I took part in demonstrations supporting the Algerian and Vietnam struggles. I was born before World War 2, so the use of organised violence to respond to violence, including by a government, was normal to me.

“I read Che Guevara, Amílcar Cabral and others. I was more interested in Cabral, who focused on the importance of political mobilisation for armed struggle, as opposed to Guevara’s more militaristic approach.

“But Slovo explained that Special Ops was focusing on economic and military targets as part of armed propaganda to complement the mass struggles. Civilian casualties would be avoided. But we knew about the possibilities of collateral damage, and you have to, unfortunately, live with this.

“Also, Hélène had to go for medical treatment in South Africa and we were shocked to see what apartheid was really like. We were very upset at the destruction caused by [opposition movement] Renamo, with South African support, in Mozambique.

“We realised that, as whites, it was easier for us to bring arms into South Africa. We felt we almost had no choice when Slovo approached us.”

But De Jonge and Passtoors had five children with them in Maputo. Still, they decided to take part in the armed struggle, knowing that they could be imprisoned or killed. Was that not irresponsible?

“Hélène and I discussed this. We had arranged with the ANC that my ex-wife and Hélène’s ex-husband would take responsibility for the children. We left letters explaining our decisions, but we did not discuss this with our former partners for obvious security reasons.”

Do the children now feel that they were made vulnerable? “Some of them have said: ‘How could you do that? I could never have done that to my children,’” said De Jonge, adding that he “underestimated the effect it would have on them”.

He and Passtoors did reconnaissance on pylons, railway and power stations, military camps and other targets, and brought in arms for use by the South African Special Ops members who carried out the operations.

“I asked if we could carry out the operations, but was told it had to be done by South Africans. Our role was to provide support.”

They did reconnaissance on targets with a high concentration of security personnel, including the air force headquarters in Pretoria – which, unknown to them, Special Ops later chose as its target. The bomb went off earlier than planned – 21 people, including two MK operatives, died and 217 were injured.

“Although others carried out the operation, I accept my share of responsibility. I felt very bad, but it was a war situation and
the South Africans were killing innocent civilians inside the country and in southern Africa, and the Lesotho massacre had just taken place.”

"Possibilities for change."

In 1984, De Jonge and Passtoors separated.

In 1985, Special Ops decided that Passtoors should be based full-time in Johannesburg. Through contact with other underground activists, she came to the attention of the security police, who tapped her phone.

De Jonge traced her phone number and asked her in coded language for help to identify suitable places to bury arms caches. They were both arrested shortly thereafter.

In 1986, Passtoors was sentenced to 10 years in jail, but was released in 1989 following the Belgian government’s intervention.

After returning to Holland, De Jonge continued to help the ANC underground and campaign internationally. The security police did not let up on him, and he believes they were responsible for poisoning his clothes, which led to the loss of his left eye in 1988.

De Jonge remains resilient: “I was a small fish, but I am glad to have played a role in MK. I grew and developed from it. I am not the hero type, but I also found it an adventure. I liked being part of a big movement with such a big goal.

“And I met some wonderful people. Oliver Reginald Tambo, dignified and wise. Slovo, humorous, engaged; a great motivator. Chris Hani, that energy and will. Ronnie Kasrils, always looking for new angles. And our immediate commander, Rashid [Aboobaker Ismail], who planned in detail and with such imagination, and cared so much for the operatives. I also liked working with Victor Molefe, who, sadly, died in poverty.”

“Perhaps we did not get the relationship between the military and mass struggles right. Operation Vula, which tried to strengthen the political underground, did not have enough time to consolidate by the time the ANC was unbanned. Maybe my own more useful role was the political mobilisation that came from my stay in the Dutch embassy.”

What does he think of South Africa today?

“The main thing is that apartheid is gone. It is now for the people in South Africa to decide their future. But [President Jacob] Zuma is a disaster. There is also this racist discourse again that is worrying. But, unlike elsewhere in Africa, you have a strong civil society and media, and I see people mobilising. The Economic Freedom Fighters is populist, but it shakes things up, especially about economic redistribution. There are certainly possibilities for change.”

In 2011, Passtoors was awarded the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo. De Jonge said he could not accept it while Zuma was president.

Of course, apartheid was defeated primarily because of the heroic struggles of the masses. But the struggle took many forms, and many forces and individuals played a role. Not sufficiently acknowledged is the heroic role of internationalists, including in the armed struggle. There were many others apart from De Jonge and Passtoors, many of them unknown to the current ANC-led movement, let alone the masses.

We owe it to our own people and our international comrades that our struggle to fulfil the considerable potential of our country was realised.

Carrim is an ANC MP and a member of the  SA Communist Party Politburo.

Activists will celebrate De Jonge’s life in Amsterdam today

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