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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1950s (2)

'Apartheid policy: Unacceptable'

'If you haven't ever been there you are not entitled to judge' - it was the favourite reproach thrown in the face of the then critics of apartheid. But the first Dutchman to put on record his well-founded criticism of the South African apartheid system had indeed been there. J.J. Buskes, the 'red Reverend', travelled to South Africa in early 1955 to study the 'racial problem'. After his return he wrote a book, for which he chose the unmistakable title Zuid-Afrika's apartheidsbeleid: onaanvaardbaar (South Africa's apartheid policy: Unacceptable).

In 1955, the opposition in South Africa against apartheid crystallized into the famous Freedom Charter. In the face of growing oppression - the government used the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 and other laws to silence all non-violent civil disobedience campaigning - a 'Congress Alliance' was welded together by the African National Congress (ANC), organisations of Coloureds, Indians and progressive whites, and the new South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). On 26 June 1955, at the Congress of the People conference in Kliptown, the Congress Alliance adopted the Freedom Charter, a 'roadmap' towards a democratic and non-racial South Africa. During the decades that followed, the Charter stood its ground as a guideline for the resistance against apartheid.

Opponents of apartheid arrested

In 1956, the South African government arrested 156 prominent opponents of apartheid and brought them to trial. The Treason Trial was to last until 1961. A committee formed within South Africa itself, the South African Treason Trials Defence Fund, collected money for the defence of the accused and for the support of their families. The trial ended with the acquittal of all the accused.

'Comité Zuid-Afrika' joins campaign

The international protest movement got into its stride now. In the Netherlands, following the example of initiatives in the US and in Great Britain (where the Defence and Aid Fund was founded to this end), a short-lived support committee was set up in late 1957 called Comité Zuid-Afrika (South Africa Committee). The committee called for donations, and organized an auction of art works. It sent the money it had been able to collect to South Africa, after which it ceased activities. Social Affairs Minister Suurhoff (Labour) visited South Africa in 1958 on the invitation of the South African government, to acquaint himself with the opportunities to promote emigration to the country (as well as to Rhodesia). On his return he made it known that he had gained a wider view of apartheid: "I think I can well say that the slogan we-are-against-apartheid will bring no one nearer to a solution."

The Hague's affinity for South Africa increasingly proved a thorn in the flesh of Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles, together forming the Caribbean part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Indeed, a new cabinet - the first since World War II in which the Labour Party was not represented - took account of these feelings and kept somewhat more distance from the regime of their Afrikaner 'kinsmen'.

In 1959 the Dutch representative to the UN again abstained from voting for an anti-apartheid resolution, apartheid being regarded "an internal affair" of South Africa. But in his verbal explanation the Dutch representative did venture a critical remark: "My government cannot accept the way whites in South Africa view their black fellow men."

Permanent committee in the making

Towards the end of the 1950s, Karel Roskam, who later became well-known in the Netherlands as a foreign affairs commentator, worked on a dissertation on the international law aspects of apartheid. He, too, went to South Africa, to live there for a year. On his return in the fall of 1959, he contacted the Reverend Buskes. Roskam told Buskes of his wish to revive the Comité Zuid-Afrika, and develop new ways of campaigning.

Consumer boycotts of South African products were being organized in several countries; Roskam propagated the idea in the Netherlands, too, warning "If this boycott and the boycott by the South African non-whites themselves remain without success, the last pre-revolutionary means will have been used up."

In May 1960 the rejuvenated Comité Zuid-Afrika, presided by Buskes and with Roskam as secretary and a choice selection of members, went public again - just after South Africa had hit the international headlines indeed as police bullets had killed dozens of unarmed demonstrators in what has gone down in history as the 'Sharpeville massacre'.