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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Explosion of Dutch anti-apartheid activities, 1970 - 1975

Berend Schuitema 1970

     “The students’ ideological revolt, inspired by the writings of Herbert Marcuse, had begun in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1968, spread to Paris and other European cities, crossed the Channel to the United Kingdom and then traversed the Atlantic making a deep impact on an American youth already radicalized by the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-Vietnam war campaign. These initiatives dovetailed with the New Left, which had its origins in the post-Hungary 1956 split from the Communist Party in the UK. (12). The movement embraced a Marxist class analysis of society while rejecting the Stalinism of the USSR and its satellite countries. Naturally the SACP, which looked to the USSR since its inception for inspiration, guidance and support, was uncomfortable with the New Left”. (Luli Callinicos, 2004)

     Much has been said of “Okhela” which was never an organization nor ever intended to be an organization. It was also never intended as integral to problems or groupings within the ANC and its alliance partners in exile. In her biography on Oliver Tambo Luli Callinicos had to deal with threadbare information. This is to be understood because of the paucity of information of the period. And not for nothing does State President Thabo Mbeki refer to the period in general and Tambo in particular as being a “dark memory from a forgotten past” in a forward to the biography. This implies a great loss because the grand vision of a luminary Oliver Tambo is entirely lost and dissipated in versions of the truth without any light left except the shadows of pretenders or writers entirely ignorant of the real context Tambo was working with and what precisely he had in mind when he initiated a group of people to follow through a stream within the organized solidarity movement connection with other streams operative in South Africa.

     Luli Callinicos speaks about the caution many of the so-called “New Left” had with regard to the SACP. While at the superficial level this was true given the highly orthodox (Stalinist) stance of the SACP, the major consideration was a lack of insight that South Africa was a powerful sub-imperialist outpost not tackled as easily by military means as was the case in Mozambique, Angola and later Zimbabwe. Many in this so-called “New Left” saw the South African problem more in terms of the balance of power in Cold War relations. Likewise one could never imagine Ireland, for example, becoming the Cuba of Europe.

     But the argument that the “New Left” avoided the Soviet Union or any of its anti imperialist projects is belied by the fact of the major strength of the Vietnam solidarity movement. The Soviet Union was much more overtly involved in Vietnam than in the case of its alliance with the ANC in the South African scenario. So the observation that the “New Left” was uncomfortable with the SACP because of its link with the USSR is rather shallow to say the least. 

     Her statement on the other hand, in attempting to describe the social movements of the 1960s does come to the point, although many knowledgeable people from the period or those more in tune with the period today would notice the superficial nature of her statement as well. She speaks about the “students ideological revolt” which spread from country to country. There was no central organization or group of people driving the spread of the “ideological revolt” and naming Herbert Marcuse as the inspiration says very little of her knowledge of the period. This is a great pity because being shallow in this vital area of major concern to Tambo makes his idea and vision with forming what was later personalized, as “Okhela” seem shallow as well.

     Certainly Oliver Tambo noticed this “ideological movement spreading from country to country”. And as certainly he was aware of thre Anti Apartheid Movements with warts and all. On the one hand there was a rather isolated British Anti Apartheid in the firm grasp of South African exiles shying from too close connections with the black agenda of the UK itself.  And with regard to the “ideological revolt” in general, the UK remained rather insular and never had any effervescence in the steam that blew up in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris amongst other places.

     What I found Oliver Tambo understanding very well was that in Amsterdam and Paris it was possible to start a stream of action in the context of larger streams and organizations to achieve specific and limited objectives to play a catalyst role for white activist involvement and interaction in these cities and in South Africa. Those whom he selected were to be the fish in the water and cause currents and certainly no organizations. In Paris Henri Curiel’s Solidarité and the AABN in Amsterdam formed the contexts within which white activists in particular had a context to work within. We were a loosely organized team of scouts and nothing else. In this regard there was a seamless flow of action within and between a few organizations bench marked on the economic sanctions programme of the AABN, and Solidarité as the main training and logistical hub. We never did, nor were we supposed to know where the strings were being pulled other than trusting in Makatini as our direct link and Tambo as the head of the Movement. Given the nature of this situation thus explained, we were sworn to secrecy about any direct link to the ANC, the AABN or Solidarité.    
     Oliver Tambo did not invent the model he chose to work with, namely conceiving of flows within flows rather than formal organizations. Neither did he have to read Herbert Marcuse to come to such an understanding. As a thinker he could observe from the vantage point of a leader who stood apart and not bound by any specific outlook or fact. What he perceived as I came to understand from his explanations to me were based on intelligent observations. Understanding what the “students ideological revolt” was all about was in no way easy, either then or in retrospect to a similar generational wave which flared up at Seattle in 1999. My own perception of Tambo’s idea was that seeds of the social movement activism of the time in Europe could become powerful generators for increased effectiveness among white activists engaged in key areas such as the Wages Commissions and other flows of action in South Africa.

     From this “flows within flows” which implicitly avoids formality and pronounced hierarchical organization, we can go over to time and notice what a powerful approach this turned out to be. There were three distinct periods with increasing effervescence, a sharpening direction and momentum in action that developed which I describe as follows:

·         Period One

     This had little or nothing to do with apartheid or South Africa, but more to do with internal ideological dynamics at the University of Amsterdam. In 1969 sociology students had occupied the administrative building of the University. They also took control over all the facilities of the Sociology Faculty. A few weeks later the students of the Economics Faculty had done the same. These occupations were not of short duration and threw up student leaderships and flows of action in both instances, the sociologists probably being more insurrectionary and in tune with what was happening in Paris. The economics students formed a group called Aktiegroep Ekonomen with a flexible leadership set around a number of study groups, one of which was an Anti Imperialist Solidarity Committee code named “Pluto”.

     I was a Pluto enthusiast. With a small cadre group we had at least three daily lecture series on imperialism in the occupied Economics Faculty, plus a weekly meeting to look at interventions that had to be made outside of the University. Becoming part of the Vietnam Solidarity Committee was taken for granted as the cornerstone of Pluto activities. Members also participated in Sietse Bosgra’s Angola Committee. In addition the dictatorship situations in Portugal, Spain and Greece were extensively debated and action perspectives developed.

     As a leading figure in Pluto I was mindful of the advice of Mike Harmel and was ready for an intervention with the CZA. Initially I found little enthusiasm for this among the militant students. For weeks on end we had debates on economic sanctions in perspective of anti imperialist class struggle. Two views emerged. On the one hand the idea of a sanctions campaign based on a boycott of consumer goods was seen as “salve for the liberal conscience”. Also, pressure for disinvestment was seen to be seriously flawed as in the final result, in the absence of a revolutionary agency it’s the international financial institutions who wield the scepter as to whether or not to stop the boycott.   

     On the other hand the view emerged that any sanctions campaign should have attritional effect in conjunction with armed struggle while at the same time should build the agency role of the workers in determining development and investment. This meant that economic sanctions only made sense if they were rooted in progressive forces of a host country as a solidarity project for the liberation and direct participation of workers in the targeted country. In other words, Pluto could never see itself as being anything beyond a catalyst group. Getting the progressive trade union and political movements involved as “owners” of the solidarity project.

     Interestingly, and ahead of our time, a macro analysis emerged looking at the great depression and war as logical outcomes of falling rates of profit and competition for markets. While these perceptions are easily picked up from the classics, Rosa Luxembourg in particular, it is remarkable how little attention was given to American Marshal Aid for the reconstruction of Europe as intrinsically imperialist in nature. Likewise the direct imperialist motive involved in so-called “development aid” for the poor countries during the 1960s, or even today.  In retrospect, the role of international finance engaged few progressive thinkers and movements at the time. But in Amsterdam this was not the case. Hayek and Friedman were part of the Aktiegroep debating list long before international finance showed its ugly teeth with the coup in Chile. Much of this advanced knowledge was the result of our close interaction with the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. 
     These were no easy discussions. Rubbishing the liberal conscience and tearful pleas for consumer boycotts and disinvestments taking easy shots was easy enough. But defining “radical agencies” and alignment with the class struggle was a lot more difficult. Bringing opposing views together, that of Pluto and the other CZA presented spectacular charades for people not wanting to understand one another initially. The idea of a liberal, social democrat or even socialist political party lending direct support to a “terrorist organization” did not sell well in the case of South Africa. The CZA had a few liberal heavyweights like the famous professor Willem Albeda who made convincing arguments that economic sanctions were shortsighted and that investment would erode apartheid.

     Eventually there was no longer debate, but action that forged the way ahead. As part of the Vietnam movement and in alliance with a militant socialist youth group we got action going such as blocking a springbok water polo team, and taking an initiative to expose the South African Bantustan system as a classic form of super-exploitation of labor in an exhibition in the Anna Frank House. With a few more such spectacular events garnering publicity we shamed the CZA into not only dealing with us, but throw in the towel and leaving things over to the militant students group. This then was the genesis of a revived Dutch Anti Apartheid Movement that took place in 1971.

·         Period 2

     Carrying over the same fears as the previous leadership of the CZA, namely not to excite moderate support already on board or incite conservative moves against the nascent movement, the first year we adopted tactics that had been proven to be acceptable to the general public in the Netherlands. Above all we did not wish to alienate the social democratic trade union movement or the Labor Party (PvdA). The PvdA was crucial and the Den Uyl government promised much in the way of development aid and support for countries like South Africa and Chile. For this reason we maintained the Trust format of organization, namely “Stichting AABN”, even though this was regarded as ultimately undemocratic by some of our crew. The Chairperson of the CZA, Dr. Piet van Andel was invited to remain in his position as Chairperson of the AABN.  A student from the Protestant Vrije Universiteit, a staunch Labor Party member, was also invited to keep his post in the management board of five members of the new AABN.    

     A neat plan was thought out to implement our radical ideas in the short term with sanctions. Discussions were held with the Rhodesia Committee to integrate with the new AABN. The fact that trade with Rhodesia was illegal and backed up by mandatory UN Security Council sanctions meant that adopting “extra ordinary measures” to bring these culprits to court could be tolerated. The rationale was that one could steal the garbage to gain incriminating evidence of a suspected trader in contraband with Rhodesia with impunity.  In the end, when the case came to a court of law the actual infringement was overlooked and treated as curious at most in the media.

     This period also exemplifies itself for a sound working relationship directly with the ANC in London. In addition there were very close relationships with SWAPO and ZAPU. After the changes were made, Jaap de Visser (the student leader adopted from the CZA) and I paid a visit in London where we met and had extended discussions with Reg September of the ANC, and Ethel de Keyser of the AAM. We also met with John Gateway and Moses Mabida, SG and President respectively of SACTU. I developed a close working relationship with John who often came to Amsterdam to speak to Dutch unionists.  I had the great privilege of meeting and speaking to Ruth First. At the time of the “take over” of the CZA by the “radical students”, there was a good deal of background clatter and opposition from exiles like Esau du Plessis and later Allan Boesak. While I shook these jitters off me, the fact that Ruth told me that she was happy with the way things had gone with the AABN indicated to me that the opponents were less of a bother than at first suspected. Esau du Plessis was a regular visitor to London and started a Boycott Outspan Oranges in the Netherlands, Belgium and later to Paris. Alan Boesak had a problem with economic sanctions shared by Professor Willem Albeda so that was really no problem.

     All systems were “go” and there was great enthusiasm for the new AABN especially in the Dutch Press.     

·         Period 3

     This is the period in which I was under command of Johnny Makatini. In many respects the action programme of the AABN went far beyond the national limits of the Netherlands. Also some of the decisions taken with Makatini considered broader parameters than the AABN Executive Committee could deal with. Later this problem rebounded on us.    
     This period can be seen to be in full swing by 1973/74. A huge repertoire of successful actions, accumulation of strategies and tactics had developed over a short space of two or three years. Each success generated new successes. Each tactic applied in one action became a refinement for the next. The arsenal of tactics snowballed and the area of operations of an intelligence-led economic sanctions campaign kept expanding. Making use of international forums such as provided by UN agencies where the AABN had observer status our networking expanded considerably.     

     Of cardinal importance (and most controversial) was the clandestine connection made with the ANC through the French group, Henri Curiel’s Solidarité. According to documentation at the International Institute of Social History leaders of the ANC approached Henri Curiel for assistance to facilitate a clandestine group that would make contacts with militant whites in South Africa. At a later date there was a follow up meeting and the ANC suggested to Curiel that he work with Breyten Breytenbach as “coordinator” of the project under direct supervision of Johnny Makatini. (See IISH, references to document given)

     The two leaders who were ostensibly the initiators of the project were Oliver Tambo and Johnny Makatini. Johnny Makatini was directly in charge and at all times I was under his command and being briefed and debriefed on missions by him directly. Oliver Tambo committed me to an oath of secrecy about the very existence of the group. Makatini at a later date deployed an MK comrade under my command to do intelligence work in Rotterdam harbor. Given the nature of the project there were no formalities regarding an MK number, or anything linking me to the ANC or to MK. I was code named “Jan” and all further training and preparation for underground work entrusted to Henri Curiel.
       The connection with Solidarité enhanced our intelligence capabilities with regard to surveillance and counter surveillance, camouflaging of documents, preparing and altering of official papers, as well as a number of defenses when in the hands of the enemy. There was not much that AABN militants at that stage could be taught with regard to intelligence on sanctions busting in which we were skilled in Amsterdam. David Beresford   (The Guardian, 1978) wrote about our “fairly sophisticated acts of espionage” which were highly effective under the conditions we were operating under. AABN experience in economic intelligence work rubbed off more on Solidarité than the other way round. Given the Amsterdam track record there was mutual enrichment, rather than our cadres being taught from scratch by Solidarité.

     The networking capacity was also considerably extended with the relationship between the AABN and the Transnational Institute (TNI) in Amsterdam. The TNI was set up in Amsterdam in 1972 as an affiliate of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. At that time the AABN was known as the strongest and most effective “research-based” activist organization, making us ideal partners for opening up and networking of the TNI in Amsterdam. (“Research” given in parenthesis; our unique form of research, meant penetrating firms, infiltrating post offices, plying informants, stealing garbage bags and all that.) There was great mutual benefit in this relationship. Amongst others learning first hand from people like Eqbal Ahmed who was one of the icons of the anti Vietnam War movement in the US; getting to know the Chilean hero Orlando Letelier who was later assassinated in Washington. The TNI also sponsored one of our AABN members to do fulltime research on a renewable fellowship basis.

     The networking capacity overall was very extensive and often outside of the control of the AABN and in hands of Johnny Makatini. This was particularly so after I became actively involved with Johnny Makatini in 1973 when most of the strategic decisions and actions were planned and executed under his direct command. At international gatherings we would sit down with other national groups and make plans for action with the “AABN recipe”. Sometimes we would go on tour and form groups ourselves, especially in harbor cities like Hamburg and Rouen. In Liechtenstein we organized a single activist to start the only social justice group challenging banking and post office secrecy in the Principality.