It was my war

The anthropologist involved in ANC’s most devastating attack

Photo by Rob Croes/Anefo/Nationaal ArchiefKlaas de Jonge arriving at Schiphol Airport after being stuck at the Dutch embassy in Pretoria for more than two years.

By Frank Provoost

Klaas de Jonge was arrested for smuggling arms for the ANC. He fled to the Dutch embassy and was in exile there for more than two years. Now Mare is the first to hear about his involvement in the ANC’s most devastating attack.

He knew they hated him but had never realised it went so deep, until last year when he discovered the words that were to supposed to seal his fate: The cunt must die.

He found the order in documents released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when the hit men of South Africa’s apartheid regime, hoping for forgiveness, admitted to their horrific deeds at the amnesty hearings.

Suddenly, it emerged that “people close to the President” had ordered the Civil Cooperation Bureau, the South African army’s secret death squad, to arrange his death in 1988. A safe house was arranged for them. They were only waiting for an explosives expert to fly in and set up a bomb in the letterbox at his Amsterdam address. That was to have been the end of Klaas de Jonge (1937).

He has no idea why they didn’t succeed – but he does know why they were so angry.

It all started quite accidently: he was working as an anthropologist on the academic staff at Leiden’s African Studies Centre when he met Hélène Passtoors, a linguist at the university.

Head over heels in love, they moved to Mozambique, where Hélène lectured at the University of Maputo, while he went out into the rural areas. It was an exciting time; the country was only just free of the Portuguese and the Marxist Liberation Front Frelimo was attempting to set up a democratic republic. However, South Africa was doing all it could to thwart those efforts. He witnessed how conservative Renamo rebels, supported by the apartheid regime, plundered villages, murdering the inhabitants and kidnapping young boys to work as child soldiers.

He was seething: he had to do something. In Maputo, he met numerous exiled ANC members: the communist Ruth First, her husband Joe Slovo, who was head of the armed branch Umkhonto we Sizwe (a.k.a. MK), the future president Jacob Zuma, etc. Can’t you help us, they implored. He had spent some time at university in Paris, where he was influenced by philosophers like Foucault and Sartre. From the latter, he learnt: no choice is also a choice. You cannot say “it’s not my war”. And yes, he was gripped by a sense of adventure too. Nothing wrong with that.

In 1981, he and Hélène started conveying money, messages and propaganda material. After a year, they were asked if they could smuggle arms as well. If he had been asked at the beginning, he would have refused, but gradually, he found himself willing to do more. Fifty years of demanding equal rights in South Africa had not produced any result. Peaceful protesters were locked up or killed. Now it was time to take up arms.

They became “international solidarity workers” for Special Ops, an elite unit of MK that sabotaged large, strategic sites. First, they would reconnoitre the area, take pictures and mark out escape routes before bringing in the weapons: handguns, Kalashnikovs, anti-tank rifles, dynamite and mines. Everything was packed airtight so that the sniffer dogs would not find the weapons if they were stopped. They would bury a package, take a picture of the “dead-letter box” and mark the site on a map. After that, it was up to the guerrillas. Factories, a nuclear power station under construction, pipe lines, petrol reserves and bridges were targeted in incredible attacks, about ten in all.

He could tell himself: we don’t kill anyone but our enemies do. In August 1982, their close friend Ruth First opened a letter at the university that blew her face off. She died instantly and other friends were wounded. Ruth was a peace-loving academic who had never been involved in armed warfare. In incidents before the letter bomb, seven members of their unit had been killed and shortly afterwards, another thirty ANC people were killed during a huge raid in Lesotho.

He wanted the enemy to feel pain too – it was possible, damn it. In the end, he was convinced that all whites in South Africa were actually guilty and that’s partly why he supported the revenge attack planned for Kerkstraat in Pretoria: they would set off a car bomb outside the air force headquarters.

After the reconnaissance he drove a car full of explosives, nuts and bolts and other bits of scrap metal to Swaziland. Hélène drove the car to Pretoria and two MK people parked it in front of the office. The bomb was scheduled to go off as most of the military staff left the building, but it exploded too soon, killing nineteen people (including the two who had planted it) and wounding 217.

He has never admitted his involvement to the most devastating attack in the history of the ANC before because he did not want to betray Hélène. However, she publicly confessed to the deed in 2013 so he can talk about it now.

Most casualties were soldiers and that did not worry him. However, some were office workers and thirty per cent of the victims were civilians. Although he does not regret the attack, he cannot accept the civilian causalities. He has learnt to live with the guilt, just like a pilot who pressed the button to release bombs on an enemy target. It will never be easy.

Two years later – Klaas and Hélène were divorced by then – he felt as if he had driven into a Hollywood blockbuster. He was cut off by three cars on the motorway and within minutes he was standing, legs apart, against a car bonnet and held at gun point by six police officers. They threw him into a cell without a mattress or blankets and where they left the light so he did not know whether it was day or night. During the continual interrogations, he was shown photographs that made him realise they had been watching him for some time.

He was not tortured, although they often threatened him. Once, when he was returned to his cell, handcuffed, by way of a metal staircase, one officer said: “If we push you now, you’ll break your neck”. Another time, they boasted that they had thrown more than one ANC member from the tenth floor.

He hatched a plan: if he led them to some abandoned weapons sites, he might be able to escape from there. The trouble was he could hardly move due to the ankle cuffs. They tied a piece of rope to the chain between his legs so he could walk more easily by lifting up the chain. Hoping for a chance to run, he showed the police as many sites as possible.

He devised an escape. He told them that there would be attacks on companies that ignored the economic boycott. Those companies were located in the Nedbank building on Pretoria’s Kerkstraat. He would show them how he had done the reconnaissance and hoped the police would not be aware that the Dutch embassy was in the same office block.

When they reached the corridor on the first floor, he pointed to the right and said “Here it is”. When three officers turned to look, he picked up his ankle cuffs and ran the other way, aware that he might be shot in the back. Nonetheless, he made it, storming into the embassy yelling “I’m a political prisoner!”

He felt triumphant: he had outwitted them. Then the officers threw him to the ground and dragged him outside while the embassy staff protested in vain: the embassy is Dutch territory and the South African police have no authority there. It started a diplomatic row.

After ten days of legal to-ing and fro-ing, he was returned to the embassy. He was free but could not go anywhere. He was given a room with a bed, a desk and some bookcases. At night, the military police on guard outside would taunt him nonstop. They yelled to keep him awake and shone their floodlights on the windows. Once, a bullet flew through his window.

It was a very trying period. He set up a daily regime for himself consisting of exercises and writing. He started to hate the diplomats more and more. “You don’t think they can give those blacks equal rights, do you?” they would say. “They’ve only just come down from the trees!” He made to shut up and refrain from doing anything to anger the South Africans. He was punished if he put up any ANC posters or anti-apartheid stickers. Cowards.

He had to kick up a fuss to stop people forgetting him. Just look at Julian Assange, who’s been at the Ecuadorian embassy in London for over three years now. If he doesn’t wander out onto the balcony now and then, everyone thinks everything’s alright. The same goes for that other exile, Edward Snowden. You need to attract the public’s attention, which is why, at the embassy, he kept calling for the Dutch to break off all contacts with South Africa.

He was stuck there for two years and two months, from 19 July 1985 to 7 September 1987. He can thank the French for his release. Pierre-André Albertini, a young teacher who also smuggled arms for the ANC, and some Angolan prisoners-of-war were exchanged for a South African captain, Wynand du Toit, who had been arrested in Angola. The bodies of the soldiers in the captain’s unit who had been killed were to go with the captain. At the last moment, Klaas was included in the negotiations.

When he gave a talk at the Leiden Law School about ten years ago, he discovered he still had enemies. Before he gave the talk, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially announced its displeasure about the deal – twenty years later!

They apparently have long memories for that sort of thing.

Klaas de Jonge’s photographs are part of the exhibition Good Hope. South Africa and the Netherlands from 1600. The exhibition is open until 21 May at the Rijksmuseum 
in Amsterdam.

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