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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1950s (1)

Nationalist Party wins elections

The May 1948 elections in South Africa were narrowly won by D.F. Malan's Nationalist Party on a programme of apartheid. The internationally respected Prime Minister J.C. Smuts, who had steered South Africa through World War II on the side of the Allied Forces and had been one of the founding fathers of the United Nations, had to step aside. Only a few years before, in 1946, he had visited the Netherlands to accept a honorary doctorate from Leiden University. Reactions in the Netherlands were mixed.

 The Dutch still remembered the Nationalists' 'neutral' stance during the war (i.e. anti-British and pro-German), their anti-Semitism and sometimes openly National-Socialist sympathies. In the proposed apartheid policies many also noticed direct parallels with German Nazism.

Most Dutch felt little or no sympathy for their calvinist Afrikaner 'kinsmen'. The appointment by the new South African government of Otto du Plessis as the new South African envoy to the Netherlands sparked a diplomatic row: the Dutch centre-left government under Prime Minister Drees refused to accept him, motivated, however, more by his Nazi ideas than by a principled stand against apartheid.

"He wants a strict segregation, confining nine millions natives well removed from the areas of the whites. One wonders with amazement waht dreadful future faces these people on the poor, barren grounds that will be assigned to them." From the Dutch weekly Elseviers Weekblad (1948),\.

Growing sympathy

Meanwhile the Cold War had broken out, and conservative pre-war morals were being re-established. The Dutch now looked upon the Afrikaner regime with greater sympathy. There certainly were parallels between, on the one hand, the post-war reconstruction ethos and the strictly compartmentalized, 'pillarized' culture prevailing in the Netherlands and, on the other, the conservative cultural outlook of Afrikaners.

Germany had been succeeded as enemy Number One by the Soviet Union, and the anti-communist apartheid regime was increasingly valued as an ally and stronghold of Western civilisation. By 1952, Labour MP Jacques de Kadt - who still had condemned the Nationalists' rise to power in 1948 - thought that rapidly abolishing apartheid would lead to chaos in South Africa, from which only the communists stood to profit.

'Domestic' affairs

South Africa was one of only a handful of UN member states to support the Dutch view that the issues the Netherlands faced concerning the decolonisation of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea were of a 'domestic' nature and that the UN had no right to interfere.

Likewise, the Dutch governments led by Prime Minister Drees regarded the race issue as a domestic South African affair. Dutch UN representatives were instructed to refrain from supporting any draft resolutions against apartheid, of which more and more were being introduced by African and Asian nations.

Courtesy visit

Gradually the two countries grew towards one another. In 1949 South Africa's new Prime Minister D.F. Malan paid a 'courtesy visit' to the Netherlands. While Queen Juliana told her guest that she would never set foot in his country as long as apartheid reigned, he was received with open arms by Prime Minister Drees and Foreign Minister Stikker.
KLM's first special flight for emigrants in 1954

Drees told a South African reporter that as a boy at the time of the Boer War he had been thoroughly imbued with a sense of kinship between his own country and that of the Afrikaners. As a result of Malan's visit, KLM secured extensive landing rights in South Africa, and impediments to growing Dutch emigration were removed. The appointment of Du Plessis was revoked.

1952: Dutch-South African cultural treaty

In 1951 it was decided to elevate the status of the diplomatic posts in The Hague and Pretoria to that of embassies. The improvement of relations was crowned by the cultural treaty signed on 31 May 1951, 'Union Day' in South Africa, in The Hague. The preamble mentioned the friendly relations and the intended exchange and cooperation between "both peoples" - which on the side of South Africa clearly referred to its white inhabitants, especially the Afrikaners. Not a single black South African would be able to visit the Netherlands at any time on the basis of the treaty.

"It is the doctrine of the Herrenvolk which Malan tries to realize in South Africa with cold fanatism, utterly lacking in compassion with his weaker fellow men. What Hitler failed to achieve in Europe. Malan wants to force through in South Africa." From the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland.

In 1952 the only MPs refusing to approve the cultural treaty were those of the Communist Party (CPN) in both chambers of Dutch parliament. By that time, the only critical note outside of parliament came from the weekly Vrij Nederland. Most other media, including the socialist press, had come to endorse the kinship and friendship of the Netherlands and white South Africa.

It was a myth that hardly needed encouragement, as became apparent in 1952 with the tercentennial of the landing of the Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck at the Cape in 1652; the Dutch enthusiastically joined in the celebration. Prime Minister Drees, addressing a massive white South African audience during an official visit in 1953, referred to the Netherlands as "the mother" and South Africa as "the grown-up daughter".

Dutch Jan van Riebeeck tercentenary commemorative stamps

The year of the South African Van Riebeeck festival was not all jubilation, however. 1952 saw the take-off in South Africa of a huge non-violent civil disobedience campaign against the apartheid laws ('Defiance Campaign'). Thousands of people landed in jail. The regime passed further legislation in 1953 making it even illegal to plan any such protests.

Excellent country for emigrants

 1954: Prince Bernhard, sporting his habitual white carnation, visits the Voortrekker monument in Pretoria

Prince Bernhard, as opposed to his wife, Queen Juliana, had no qualms about visiting South Africa. In 1954 he journeyed to Pretoria for talks on economic and defense issues; afterwards he said he had seen "not a single unhappy face" in South Africa, which he considered an "excellent country for emigrants". It was his version of the classic reproach hurled at those who were beginning to strike critical notes again: 'If you haven't ever been there you are not entitled to judge'.

"No person has a right to express a judgement on South Africa's policy of apartheid without knowing the reasons that have occasioned its adoptation." Prins Bernhard on apartheid.