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The Netherlands against Apartheid - 1990s (1)

Mandela free after 27 years

At the onset of a new decade, drastic steps to break the deadlock situation in South Africa were being expected of De Klerk, the country's new president. There was widespread speculation as to how drastic indeed, and what the timetable would be. South African participants at the large 'Malibongwe' women's conference in Amsterdam in early January of 1990 feared they would return home too late to witness 'the moment'. On February 2, at the start of the parliamentary year, De Klerk delivered a speech in which he announced that the bans on the ANC, the PAC, the Communist Party and 58 other organisations would be lifted; De Klerk also announced a partial end to the state of emergency, the lifting of some media restrictions, the suspension of executions and reform of the death penalty system - and a quick decision on the release of Nelson Mandela.

'The moment' eventually came nine days later, on Sunday 11 February 1990. That afternoon, after 27 years of imprisonment Mandela walked out of prison a free man, hand in hand with his wife Winnie. Throughout the world, also in the Netherlands, people sat glued to the television for hours to watch the event live. In the evening Amsterdam's central Dam square filled up with anti-apartheid activists celebrating the anti-apartheid hero's release in an unannounced demonstration of joy.

Four months later, on June 16, Nelson and Winnie Mandela appeared on the balcony of the Amsterdam municipal theatre amid enthusiastic cheers of 20,000 people gathered on Leidseplein to welcome the ANC leader on his first visit to the Netherlands.

Let them be praised - Women in the struggle

The Malibongwe ('Let them be praised') conference, held in Amsterdam from 6 to 18 January 1990 and organized by the AABN together with the ANC Women's Section, was the last of a tradition of large conferences which brought together exiled South Africans and their compatriots from 'inside', and, in this case, Dutch women's groups. There were justified misgivings about whether the rights of women would be safeguarded in 'post-apartheid' South Africa; partly thanks to this conference the issue was put on the agenda of the liberation movement.

A few hundreds of South African women travelled to Amsterdam to attend discussion meetings, workshops and working visits, with female artists adding lustre to the programme. Malibongwe was also part of a long tradition of activities on women's issues in the anti-apartheid movement. Every year since 1980 the AABN women's section, jointly with the Centre for Black Women in Amsterdam, had for instance celebrated South African Women's Day on August 9, with street collections and cultural manifestations. Joint fundraising and information campaigns of KZA and AABN had highlighted the women's organisations affiliated to the UDF.

The Eduardo Mondlane Foundation had created a women's section back in the late 1970s, which maintained contacts chiefly with women and women's groups in Mozambique and Cape Verde. From 1985 to 1990 the Kairos-affiliated group Vrouw, Kerk, 2/3 Wereld ('Woman, Church, 2/3 World') campaigned in support of the newly-founded South African Domestic Workers Union (SADWU). The SADWU support campaign, in which the Protestant development organisation ICCO was also involved, was later taken over by Kairos and the Roman Catholic Lenten fundraising appeal (Vastenactie).

No more need for sanctions?

What followed after Mandela's release was in effect a repetition of moves and countermoves. The Dutch Foreign Minister, Van den Broek, immediately called for the suspension of sanctions against South Africa. During his visit in June, however, Mandela made it clear to the Dutch government just how crucial it was that sanctions were being kept up. As Dr. Beyers Naudé put it in early 1991: "Economic pressure on South Africa remains an absolute necessity until the ANC and the government have reached an agreement and decide to march on together." Quotes such as these were constantly being repeated - in this case by Kairos - to hammer home the message that the transition process from apartheid to democracy had only just started. It was not yet time to ease the pressure.
"Ladies and Gentlemen. After a temporary absence your oldest trade partner is present here with a Holland Trade Fair."  (State Secretary Van Rooy at the opening of the Holland Trade Fair in Johannesburg, 4 March 1992)

A few months after Mandela, De Klerk visited the Netherlands. The Dutch government still considered the white regime, rather than the liberation movement, to be its principal interlocutor on the road to a non-racial, democratic society in South Africa.

It came to a clash in early 1992, when Van den Broek and Prime Minister Lubbers wanted to visit South Africa without consulting, or even informing, the ANC. A Dutch government spokesman rubbed salt in the wound by declaring that state visits were arranged between governments.  "As if the racist minority regime of South Africa deserves the treatment that is generally awarded to democratic governments," 
sneered Carl Niehaus, ANC spokesman in the Netherlands. Mandela refused to meet the Dutch couple, and the trip was cancelled.