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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1980s (5)

South Africa back into the limelight

In the mid-1980s, apartheid re-entered the limelight in the Netherlands, which was once again prompted first and foremost by developments in South Africa itself. The South African government was going out of its way to crush the growing resistance; the military invaded the townships. 'Collaborating' black officials were being boycotted and assaulted by the people. The number of actions by Umkhonto weSizwe ('Spear of the Nation'), the ANC guerrilla army, rose spectacularly.

South Africa applied every means, both militarily and economically, to deter its neighbours from helping the liberation movement. In the country itself, ANC and UDF flags were now being openly carried at funerals of victims of army and police violence; all too often this sparked renewed bloodshed.

In summer 1985 a state of emergency was declared in parts of the country. Many thousands of people were detained, among them many children. Images of brutal security force operations shook the world. Expectations ran high for a speech by President Botha on 15 August 1985. Would it mark a policy U-turn? It turned out to be a huge anti-climax. International banks froze new credit to South Africa in the midst of the political and economic turbulence. In defiance of the official ban a group of South African businessmen and newspaper editors travelled to Lusaka, Zambia, for talks with the exiled ANC leadership.

In November COSATU, the new South African trade union federation, was founded; its programme included the call for international sanctions against South Africa. In June 1986, days before the 10th anniversary of the Soweto uprising, the government imposed a second, more stringent and comprehensive state of emergency.

Spate of anti-apartheid actions

Developments in South Africa boosted the international movement for a more complete isolation of the apartheid government, and new players entered the already rather crowded field of Dutch anti-apartheid. In late 1984 Jan Nico Scholten's Association of West European Parliamentarians for Action against Apartheid (AWEPAA) opened its office here. In March 1985 a group of black Dutch citizens presented itself as Black People in Holland Against Apartheid (BPHAA).

New forms of action were meanwhile being introduced. In January 1985 the premises of Dutch oil trader John Deuss in Berg en Dal were set alight. Deuss's company, Transworld Oil, had been identified in reports of the Amsterdam-based Shipping Research Bureau (SRB) as one of the worst violators of the oil embargo. The action was claimed by mysterious 'Pyromaniacs against Apartheid'.

Later that year a group calling itself 'Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action' (RaRa) burned down a branch of wholesaler Makro. Makro was active in South Africa, and its parent company SHV imported South African coal (a coal boycott was also on the anti-apartheid wishlist). More nocturnal attacks on Makro branches, Shell petrol stations et cetera followed, claimed by RaRa or by groups carrying names such as 'Burn Down Apartheid' or 'Deadly Nightshade'. Any Shell petrol pump now ran the risk of falling victim to activists cutting its hoses. The 'established' anti-apartheid movement expressed its disapproval of these practices.

Less controversial activities were also initiated outside the mainstream anti-apartheid movement, for instance when Dutch SNV development workers in Tanzania refused to travel by KLM anymore in 1985. Their action developed into a campaign to urge KLM to stop flying to South Africa, endorsed not only by the Dutch Southern Africa solidarity groups but also by other development organisations including Novib and ICCO, the FNV trade union federation and the Dutch Reformed Church.

Reviving the oil campaign

In March 1985, after consultations in 1984 between European anti-apartheid groups and the ANC and SWAPO, the Presidents of both resistance movements launched a joint call to seriously implement the oil embargo internationally. The Dutch Shipping Research Bureau had cooperated in the preparation of the document. An international day of action followed with demonstrations all over Europe, including Berg en Dal and Rotterdam. Earlier, in late 1984, after being pressurized for years by KZA, Kairos and Rotterdam against Apartheid, the municipality of Rotterdam had commissioned a report from the SRB. The municipality considered "to develop policy measures to halt, as far as possible, oil flowing [to South Africa] from Rotterdam".

The SRB supported an initiative of international maritime unions against apartheid launched in 1984. Besides, from 1985 onwards the bureau published a regular Newsletter on the Oil Embargo against South Africa, which grew into a major channel for the exchange of information among participants in the revived campaign against Shell, which now took on a much stronger international character.

Indeed, at an international level the work on the oil embargo had never stopped. Thus, the SRB had over many years been feeding successful campaigns in Denmark and Norway with its research findings. Both countries had their own access to North Sea crude oil and boasted a number of major tanker operators accounting for a large share in oil transports to South Africa; in 1986-1987 they adopted legal bans on the sale and transport of crude oil to South Africa. From its inception in 1980 the SRB had also acted as an advisor, whether on request or self-appointed, to the United Nations, bombarding it with its findings on violations of the embargo. In 1986 the UN set up a special oil embargo monitoring group, and the UN Committee against Apartheid decided to subsidize the Dutch bureau with which it had been cooperating closely over the years.

'No taking the lead'

"Meanwhile, I cannot think of any really significant measures in the area of economic sanctions in which you won't find one or more countries having the lead on us." (Jan Nico Scholten MP, in reaction to the government's maintaining that the Netherlands 'does not want to lead the way' on sanctions against South Africa (September 1985)

Numerous countries and international bodies were now preparing more significant ways to put pressure on South Africa. The Netherlands clearly wasn't taking the lead - it didn't want to. When the Reverend Beyers Naudé visited the Netherlands in 1985 on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Kairos, he joined a silent procession in Utrecht in commemoration of the victims of apartheid violence, but as usual the South Africa movement had also arranged for him to meet the Christian Democratic party (CDA).

Albert van den Heuvel of the Dutch Council of Churches later described the meeting as "a dialogue between deaf ears". The regime would never give up apartheid voluntarily, Beyers explained to his hosts. External pressure remained a necessity. Codes of conduct for companies wouldn't work any longer; disinvestment was the last peaceful means of change, as South African trade union leaders had told him. From their side, the Dutch Christian Democratic politicians cautioned against too much polarisation, which they said would only lead to chaos, and against a too rapid shift of power, as blacks were not yet ready for it; we in the Netherlands are not in a position to do a lot more, they told Beyers.

In August 1985, Foreign Minister Van den Broek (CDA) visited South Africa as a member of an EC delegation. President P.W. Botha had refused to allow the delegation a visit to Nelson Mandela in jail; on South African television, Van den Broek told viewers that he had intended to tell the ANC leader that violence could offer no solution. "Grist to the mill of the apartheid state," fumed Dutch Labour Party spokesman Jacques Wallage.

In September 1985, after the visit, which was considered a complete failure, Europe adopted a combination of 'restrictive' and 'positive' measures as a 'signal to the South African government' - measures which several EC countries had already introduced on their own. As a result of the agreement the Netherlands was to implement an oil embargo at last - that is to say, as the anti-apartheid movement never tired to argue, an embargo of a hardly significant, cut-down-to-the-bone variety.