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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1960s (1)

Sharpeville turning point

Laws restricting the freedom of Africans to move freely within their own country had been in force for several generations, but the apartheid regime had further tightened them. On 21 March 1960 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville against the much-hated pass laws were halted by the police, whose bullets killed 69 people and injured 180.

The Sharpeville massacre marked a turning point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and in the movement to support that struggle world-wide, including the Netherlands. In South Africa, the massacre sparked demonstrations and strikes throughout the country. Martial law was declared, 20,000 people were arrested. A new 'Unlawful Organisations Act' cleared the way for a ban on the African National Congress (active since 1912) and the younger Pan-Africanist Congress (1959). During almost fifty years the protest had been non-violent, but to no effect. The ANC and PAC went underground and started preparations for armed resistance.

Protest in the Netherlands

'Remember the dead of Sharpeville', 'Stop the prosecution of negroes in South Africa!', 'One race: mankind'. The authorities allowed these and a few other slogans to be carried on banners at a march in Amsterdam, five days after Sharpeville. There had been some less orderly demonstrations of local youngsters immediately after the massacre, but the march was organized by a respectable looking committee of citizens, led by a teacher who was exposed as a shrewd secret service agent only 40 years later - all activity smacking of communism was being watched closely indeed.

Soon the Comité Zuid-Afrika (CZA) re-emerged. The Reverend Buskes became its chairman, Karel Roskam its secretary. Unlike in 1957, when it went public for the first time, it did not just stage a one-off support campaign: this time the committee was here to stay.

Call for economic boycott

Calls were now being heard world-wide to boycott South Africa. In late 1959 a major appeal came from the future Nobel Prize laureate, ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli:  "Economic boycott is one way in which the world at large can bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer from them."
In the Netherlands a call for this kind of sanctions was made by a group of rather more radical young people within the broad and somewhat sedate Comité Zuid-Afrika. In 1964 the Comité organized the first Dutch campaign to boycott South African products, together with other organisations including the Labour Party, the NVV trade union federation and their respective youth wings.


Sharpeville: politicians start to move

Hendrik Verwoerd (1901-1966), South Africa's second apartheid Prime Minister, was born at a house along one of Amsterdam's canals

More and more people were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the Dutch origin of the term 'apartheid' and with the fact that South Africa's Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd was of Dutch descent - Verwoerd, the 'architect of apartheid', was born in Amsterdam in 1901.

In April 1960, immediately after the Sharpeville massacre, the Labour Party leader in parliament, Jaap Burger, introduced a motion in the Dutch Lower House condemning apartheid as being contrary to the United Nations Charter and the European Human Rights Convention. The government was called upon to take steps both within and without the UN.

Burger's motion was only supported by the Labour Party, the left-socialist Pacifist-Socialist Party (PSP) and the Communist Party (CPN). Another motion was adopted, though, appealing to the South African parliament to "consider a policy that rules out racial discrimination and that will effectively prevent any violation of human rights". The De Quay government, a coalition of the Christian Democratic and right-wing liberal parties, refused to commit itself, citing the time-honoured argument that this was a "domestic affair of the South African government". The cabinet therefore felt in no way compelled to take steps against South Africa.

The Netherlands in the United Nations

Surprisingly, the Netherlands was the only Western country to vote in favour of an anti-apartheid resolution in the UN in 1961, one of the reasons being that it wanted to gain the support of the African countries for its plans regarding Papua New-Guinea; even the most moderate among African governments fiercely rejected apartheid. The Netherlands, however, refrained from supporting any resolutions aiming at expelling South Africa from the UN or imposing sanctions.

In 1963 the UN adopted an arms embargo on South Africa; the Netherlands voted in favour. But the embargo was selective and non-mandatory. Around that time, the opportunity came up of selling Dutch-built submarines to South Africa; according to the new Christian Democratic and right-wing liberal coalition government under Prime Minister Marijnen (1963-1965), the UN embargo did not stand in the way of such a sale. In the Cals government (1965-1966), however, the Labour Party was represented again; the socialist members of the new cabinet strongly resisted a possible sale.