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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1980s (1)

Boycott controversy - Cabinet almost foundered

Campaigning for the oil embargo against South Africa had intensified by 1980. In the Lower House of Dutch parliament, the activists had a major ally in Jan Nico Scholten, a Christian Democratic MP and foreign affairs spokesman for his party. His motion, passed in November 1979, gave the government of Christian Democrats and right-wing liberals six months to try and get other EC countries to go along; if a joint boycott proved impractible, the Netherlands should join the Arab embargo on South Africa on its own. 
The cabinet hardly pressed ahead with the issue, and so in June 1980, in accordance with the November motion, a large majority of parliament invited the government "to impose an oil boycott on South Africa now". 
A crisis was looming: the cabinet refused to carry out this second Scholten motion. A vote of censure, supported also by six MPs of the governing Christian Democratic Party, was only just defeated - if two more had supported it, the boycott issue would have led to the fall of the government.

Oil embargo 'watchdog'

Oil embargo conference, Amsterdam March 1980. Left to right: B. Akporode Clark, Cor Groenendijk, Mohammed Sahnoun, Sam Nujoma, Jan Nico Scholten

In March 1980, Kairos and KZA, together with the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, organized an international oil embargo conference in Amsterdam, which resulted in the establishment of a unique research institution, the Shipping Research Bureau (SRB).

In a series of reports published between 1980 and 1993 the Amsterdam-based bureau uncovered the leaks in the oil embargo. The SRB's findings were being used world-wide to close loopholes. The evidence presented in its first reports made it abundantly clear that Shell tankers, the port of Rotterdam and Dutch oil traders all played a more than average role, which led to the conclusion that a Dutch oil boycott would certainly be more than just a symbolic gesture.

Cultural treaty with the resistance

In 1980 the Van Agt government tried various ways to weaken the movement for oil sanctions by making alternative proposals. Step one was to press on with the definitive cancellation of the cultural treaty of 1951, which had already been 'frozen' by the Den Uyl government. The cancellation was put to the vote in April 1981; the right-wing liberal VVD party and some smaller right-wing parties were the only ones to vote against.

In addition, a decision to impose visa requirements was announced and introduced as of 1983. As had been the case the other way round since some time, any South Africans wishing to visit the Netherlands were henceforth obliged to apply for a visa. Those coming to the Netherlands for academic, cultural or sports activities could then be stopped. In 1982 a 'UN Sanctions Year Foundation' was set up by Kairos and KZA; its board members included the main trade union federation FNV. Among other activities, the foundation strongly focused on the cultural boycott. Visits to South Africa in those days by the Dutch author W.F. Hermans, singer Heintje and others stirred up commotion in the Netherlands.

Founding ceremony of the UN Sanctions Year Foundation, April 1982. Left to right: Jan Nico Scholten MP, Alhaji Yusuff Maitama-Sule (UN), Albert van den Heuvel, Godfrey Motsepe (ANC), Sietse Bosgra

The AABN did not participate in the Sanctions Year Foundation. The world of anti-apartheid was not always free of frictions and mutual distrust about 'the others' interfering in 'our' field of activity. A new element was meanwhile being introduced in the AABN's own cultural boycott campaign, as the group advocated an 'alternative' cultural treaty - i.e. with the resistance, or more specifically, the ANC. All the Dutch anti-apartheid groups had already been making efforts to acquaint their fellow citizens with South African art, through theatre, books and performances of oppositional artists at political meetings, but the new initiative went further than that.

At the AABN/Novib conference 'The Cultural Voice of Resistance' of December 1982 Dutch and South African artists got a chance to meet with each other. More importantly, the conference was also intended as a unique meeting place for South African artists from 'home' with their colleagues in exile. As Barbara Masekela of the ANC put it on the Amsterdam conference 'Culture in Another South Africa' (CASA) in 1987, Amsterdam grew into "the cultural capital of South Africa" for South Africans during the apartheid years.

Campaign for Mandela

From today's perspective it is extraordinary to think that in the Netherlands until 1980 the topics of South Africa, the ANC and apartheid could be brought up without Nelson Mandela's name being mentioned at all. The ANC leader had been held in jail since 1962. In the fall of 1980, following the example of a South African newspaper that had started a sensational campaign calling for the release of Mandela, the AABN together with Kairos organized a large petition for his release.
It was a broad campaign; within a few months, 45 different organisations had endorsed the Dutch campaign, including all the progressive political parties as well as the Christian Democratic Party, the FNV and CNV trade union federations, churches, the Council of Churches, youth organisations and solidarity committees. The petition was signed by more than 56,000 people. Things fell quiet again after this; it took until the mid-1980s for the illustrious prisoner of apartheid to return to the centre of Dutch anti-apartheid attention again.

Free Nelson Mandela: More than 56,000 signatures handed to Foreign Ministry official by (left to right) Peter Vroonhof, Conny Braam (both AABN) and Ted Strop (Kairos), November 1980

Sports boycott

Those opposing a cultural boycott reasoned that 'If we push white South Africans into cultural isolation, they will get all the more "verkrampt", sticking to their one-dimensional conservative outlook.' Indeed, during all the years of cultural boycott, the ideas of 'freedom of expression' and 'gentle persuasion through dialogue' never lost a certain attraction to many Dutch. A broad majority was easier to achieve against sports contacts with South Africa than it was in the cultural sphere.

The Sanctions Year Foundation, too, dived into the sports boycott, with some success. In 1982 the Christian Democrat De Boer - who as a former 'dissident' had voted against the first Van Agt government on the oil boycott issue - became Deputy Culture Minister responsible for sports in the second Van Agt government. He willingly issued an appeal to all national sports associations that they should avoid all contact with South Africa, even in cases in which it sent in multi-racial teams. The introduction of visa requirements for South Africans as of 1983 was specifically used to bar sports people.

The Foundation lobbied against the granting of visas, while local anti-apartheid groups put pressure on national associations and match organizers. The request from within the South African world of black and non-racial sports and from the United Nations to boycott South Africa was hard to ignore anyway. South African sports people started to stay away indeed, lacking visas, but also because they grew tired of the continuous boycott actions.

Even so some South Africans kept turning up at matches, with a visa (it was only in later years that the Dutch authorities allowed less and less 'exceptions'). And the names of some Dutch sports people kept appearing in blacklists published twice a year by the United Nations. Arguing that they were 'sportsmen not politicians', they let themselves be lured by the large sums the apartheid government was prepared to spend on getting sports people to play in South Africa.