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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1980s (8)

 Operation Vula

It was not just in Angola that South Africa was under attack. Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing the ANC had built up since the early 1960s, had left its marks in 1980 with a series of spectacular simultaneous attacks on installations of the state oil-from-coal company Sasol. The blow dealt to the apartheid bulwark from the inside served to shatter the white South African dream of invulnerability. 'Sasol 1980' went down in history as a legend, featuring in each and every list of anti-apartheid resistance milestones published in the years thereafter. (Details of how the attacks had been planned and conducted, however, remained well hidden, until researchers of the Dutch Shipping Research Bureau, in 1994, for the first time interviewed some of the people directly involved and uncovered the story in the book Embargo: Apartheid's Oil Secrets Revealed.)

The ANC conducted sabotage missions such as those against Sasol from bases in the neighbouring countries. After the events in Soweto and elsewhere many young people had fled the country for military training abroad. By 1985, however, the ANC decided that the time was ripe for a number of exiled leaders to go back inside South Africa in preparation for the final blow to be dealt to apartheid, in an operation codenamed 'Vula'.

South African edition of Conny Braam's 1992 book on Operation Vula, which appeared in April 2004

From 1986 to 1990, among those involved in the underground operation, in strictest secrecy and even unknown to her colleagues, was the leader of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement, Conny Braam. She succeeded in calling in dozens of Dutch helpers, both prominent and obscure. ANC people selected to return 'inside' were provided with a new identity by Dutch wigmakers, a make-up artist usually working for Dutch TV celebrities, professional actors and a dentist who happened to be the AABN's neighbour opposite. KLM stewardesses acted as couriers. Dutch nationals smuggled sensitive material and set up safe houses in South Africa for hunted-after 'comrades'. Computer specialists set up a secure computer network for the ANC leadership; through this network even Nelson Mandela in jail received information. It was not until 1992, when Conny Braam published her book Operatie Vula, that the exciting story of the Dutch involvement ceased to be the jealously guarded secret it had been for years.

South African regime ever more reckless

The state of emergency in South Africa was brought into action to gag the media, which were no longer allowed to report on any 'unrest'. The police regularly prohibited meetings, and even funerals. The UDF and many other organisations were banned, other organisations were no longer allowed to develop any activities without previous permission from the Minister of Law and Order. By 1989, 50,000 people had been detained without trial.

The South African regime's war against the resistance was growing ever more desperate towards the end of the 1980s. As it transpired, death squads had been liquidating opponents in and outside South Africa for a number of years already. More than 4,000 people had been killed, not only in fights with the police and the military, but also in fights between organized self-defence groups in the townships, whether or not deliberately set against each other by shadowy security agents.

Trade union federation COSATU, which was still allowed some elbow-room, now acquired a key position in the resistance. Hundreds of union activists were detained, the police raided union offices, COSATU House suffered a bomb attack, and eventually the federation was banned from any further political activities in 1988. A new Mass Democratic Movement emerged in 1989 from a clandestine alliance of the UDF, COSATU and the ANC. Apartheid was on the verge of breaking down.

Fall of the Wall

With the force of the resistance movement growing ever stronger, the internal situation in South Africa was getting out of hand. At the same time, the international community tightened the screws on the regime, imposing further sanctions that weighed down the economy. At the same time, the regime, seeing its military ambitions stifled in Angola, was forced to give up its grip on Namibia. No 'reform programme' of P.W. Botha was capable of coping with all this. With the changing international political situation, moreover, the white regime's last claim to being a stable bulwark against world communism evaporated. It was time for a regime change.

Botha stepped down in August 1989. He was succeeded as South African president by F.W. de Klerk. The month of September saw another grotesque round of elections for the tricameral parliament. In November, the Berlin Wall came down. That same year, reports filtered through of Botha and later De Klerk making their way to the negotiation table.

The person they met on the other side of the table was the world's most renowned political prisoner: Nelson Mandela.