SA’s fight for freedom was hard won, but some ‘don’t feel free at all’
Anti-apartheid activist Klaas de Jonge details what he and others went through to break apartheid’s shackles
In his book, The ANC Spy Bible, Moe Shaik describes how apartheid agents interrogated political prisoners. Though I was never physically tortured, memories of my three-week detention at Johannesburg’s John Vorster Square came flooding back.
My partner, Belgian/Dutch anti-apartheid activist Hélène Passtoors, and I had separated by then, but remained members of the same special operations unit under Rashid, the nom de guerre of Commander Aboobaker Ismail. Until the end of 1984, Hélène and I mainly operated from Maputo in Mozambique. From early 1985, I operated from Harare, where I was teaching at a secondary school. Hélène operated from Johannesburg, where she worked at a university. From 1981, our ANC activities involved occasionally introducing weapons and explosives into SA and conducting reconnaissance of potential targets.
After moving to SA, Hélène was to “take it easy” for a while, but I could call on her for help if necessary. That is what I did in June 1985, when Rashid asked me to install an arms cache somewhere between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
It was to be our last.
Hélène’s house was under observation by a Detective Sergeant Pitout. On the afternoon of June 22, Pitout saw Hélène pick me up and followed us to an area in Halfway House, now Midrand, which seemed suitable for a dead letterbox (DLB). That evening he followed us again when we returned, this time in my car, to install it. Though we were trained in Maputo by Rashid and Ronnie Kasrils to spot if we were being followed, I did not manage to do so. Looking back, I realised I saw some signs and could have kicked myself for not taking seriously the feeling that I was being followed.
Hours later I was arrested and transferred to John Vorster Square. That Sunday, June 23, as I was returning to Harare, the road was blocked by three cars not far from the Botswana border. Hélène was arrested five days later, after being followed by security police hoping to make further arrests.
Like Shaik, Hélène and I were arrested under Section 29 of the Internal Security Act, which allowed for indefinite detention for interrogation and solitary confinement. Shortly after our arrests, on July 20 1985, apartheid president PW Botha declared a state of emergency that would last four years. Numerous anti-apartheid leaders were arrested, isolated, interrogated, bullied and tortured.
Shaik was detained for helping prominent ANC member Ebrahim (Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim) leave the country illegally. Despite belonging to a different unit, Hélène became involved in that operation unbeknown to Rashid, who, had he known, would never have allowed me to contact her when I did. None of us knew that the Security Branch was aware that Hélène and Ebrahim knew each other. They also discovered Hélène and I had been a couple.
Later, during her trial, it was revealed that Hélène had been under permanent surveillance since at least June 6.
“I don’t know any Klaas or Hélène. No, I don’t know either of them,” Shaik told his interrogator, Lieutenant Botha.
“I believe you,” Botha replied. “The woman’s name is Hélène and the guy is named Klaas, damn fucking foreign terrorists. But we have them locked up.”
Hélène spent eight months at John Vorster Square in solitary confinement. I knew she was very afraid of small, enclosed spaces and now she was locked up for months in a small cell.
Her trial was held only in May 1986. She was charged with high treason and sentenced to 10 years in Pretoria Central Prison. She was released three years later, mainly because of public pressure on the Belgian government. Every day until her release, the De Morgen newspaper published a large box, usually on its front page, stating how many days she’d been in prison — 1,412 in the end.
After my arrest near Zeerust I was transferred to John Vorster Square, where I was held in solitary confinement. From my first day in detention I was regularly subjected to lengthy interrogations, usually by two secret service officers, who would occasionally insult and threaten me.
If we give you a push now, you’ll break your neck.A security policeman to Klaas de Jonge in John Vorster Square
But soon I got the feeling that I would not be physically tortured. I first thought this was because I was a white Dutchman, but later I heard they believed I might be connected to the Dutch secret service. It went no further than the comment, when I was walking down a concrete staircase with my hands cuffed behind my back: “If we give you a push now, you’ll break your neck.” Or a burly police general, standing so close I could look down his throat, roaring threateningly: “Talk you will, my lad!” Or: “We know where you lived in Harare, so we can hurt your family and kill your dog.” The screaming of a senior officer after my attempted escape was impressive: “I’ll beat you in a pulp and then I’ll say you fell down the stairs!”
But they never laid a finger on me, only when I tried to escape.
Much more dangerous was the interrogation process. Investigating officers try all kinds of ways — from flattery and promises to threats and physical violence — to take apart your “legends”, half-truths and lies. They try to get as much information as possible: names of comrades, activities carried out. From the beginning I saw it as a game, a dangerous and fascinating game I hoped to win. But which unfortunately didn’t always work out — and through which I may have caused harm to others, like Hélène.
Lies and deceit
“We have Hélène’s daughter and she is in bad shape, but if you co-operate with us, we’ll let her go.” My almost stepdaughter, who was 17, was a very nice girl that I loved — and I knew she was pregnant. Could it be true? I knew she spent much time with Hélène in Johannesburg and that she planned to visit my son and me in Harare. I went berserk and called my police interrogators all kinds of foul names. It later turned out not to be true. Damn stupid of me to believe it. Hélène had not fallen for it. This round was theirs.
I was very worried about my 18-year-old son, my then girlfriend (by this time my romantic relationship with Hélène had ended) and her little son, with whom I lived in Harare. I also considered the shock my arrest would have on my youngest son, then 15, who lived with his mother in The Hague. The impact of our arrest on the lives of our children (Hélène had four and I two) was much greater and longer-lasting than I had ever anticipated.
As the ANC’s Kabwe conference drew to a close, Rashid learnt I had not returned from SA and had probably been arrested. He immediately called Ronnie and asked him to warn Hélène to leave immediately, but it was too late.
Ronnie took the children to safety and sent them to their families in Europe. He also moved my girlfriend and her son to another location. The small weapons cache in our house was cleared.
“Hélène has already confessed everything, we already know everything, so you better give up,” they told me. I was convinced Hélène would never do that, but we could have made mistakes and revealed more than we intended. The officers triumphantly announced that Hélène confessed to being implicated in the Church Street car bomb on May 20 1983. I knew this was the case, but I couldn’t imagine she would confess to something that carried the death penalty.
They would call me “k****rboetie” and “traitor of the white race”. They showed me many photographs of injured, killed and maimed people for which they said I, because of my weapons and explosives, was to blame. They showed me books with portraits of alleged ANC members. After a lot of leafing I pointed out some: Joe Slovo and OR Tambo. I recognised my friend, Victor, but skipped that picture.
I wanted to buy time so others would be at less risk. I intended to admit to certain things I thought couldn’t do any harm and to show them some DLBs I assumed would have been emptied. I took the police officers to DLBs, where I would exaggerate the number of explosives and weapons hidden there, which scared the hell out of them. Reactions like “With that you could have blown up the whole of Pretoria!” made me feel good.
Plotting a way out
I planned to escape from the first moment. I soon realised that escaping from John Vorster Square would be impossible. Not even a “pointing-out” session at a DLB would provide a chance to flee. I always wore ankle cuffs and sometimes handcuffs, which during transport were attached to a bench of the car. There were always at least three armed men with me.
The Dutch embassy had an office in the Nedbank building in central Pretoria and I had to make up something and take them there. Running fast with leg irons was impossible though, so I needed to make a plan. My shoelaces had been removed and I would need a plan for that too. In the shower a few days later, I noticed a pair of shoes with laces, so I took them.
I hesitated to carry out my plan, afraid that the nervous-looking officer who accompanied me would shoot at me in panic if I ran. But I knew the ANC had just gathered for the Kabwe conference in Zambia to discuss tougher MK action against military targets and companies that did not respect the boycott. I could therefore tell my escorts we were planning an attack on the office of such a company in the Nedbank building.
Meanwhile, my three wardens thought I was cooperating quite well. Once they left me alone for a moment in a café, probably to observe what I would do. So I didn’t move at all. After that, they were no longer very vigilant. I got to know them and we chatted about anything and everything. They rather liked me. They told me they had heard from colleagues that Hélène was a “tough cookie”.
A few days later I told them I had installed a DLB in Mamelodi and where it was. By the time I was taken to the scene, they had already found it and there were bags full of firearms and limpet mines on display. How could this be possible, I wondered. Did my comrades not empty it?
A senior police officer told me: “If we would release you now, the ANC would consider you a traitor and kill you.” I knew that wasn’t true and was angry with myself, but I also saw it as an opportunity to get out of there. As devastated as possible I muttered: “OK, now I may as well tell you everything.”
Escape in Pretoria
During my next interrogation, I told them I had taken pictures of a military airfield from the Voortrekker Monument, which meant we should pay it a visit. I told them I did not want to walk around crouched all the time and I needed a piece of string to pull up the chain of my ankle cuffs. They gave it to me and failed to notice I no longer shuffled. And I was wearing my stolen shoelaces, so the plan was falling into place.
From the Voortrekker Monument I took them to the Nedbank building, where I managed to outsmart them and flee into the embassy. I was immediately dragged out again by the three police officers. It triggered a diplomatic crisis and, in the following days, I was questioned extensively. Then, to my surprise, I was suddenly told I would be released.
The South African government was forced to return me to the Dutch embassy 10 days later. Shaik wrote that the police generals in charge of investigating Hélène and I were furious. They had hoped that putting two terrorists on trial would mute European government criticism, but now SA and the Security Branch became the focus of international attention.
Fast forward to March 30 2020, when I thought I had completed this article. I received, through my son, a copy of an account of her imprisonment that Hélène wrote in February. She said on the first day of her interrogation at John Vorster Square, her interrogators (of whom a Warrant Officer Deetlefs was the most sadistic) told her, as they had told me, that she was on the same 10th floor from which Ahmed Timol had jumped. We knew this story — he was the elder brother of one of our comrades in Maputo — and we knew he was murdered there.
Hélène was interrogated for days on end. She was locked in a cell similar to mine: dimly lit, lights on day and night, with just a toilet and no water tap, no ventilation and no privacy. Unlike mine, her cell was completely soundproofed, which had to have aggravated her claustrophobia. Hélène later told me that during her four-year detention she never banged on the door and tried to avoid the walls as much as possible to control her fear.
Hélène was convinced that my going to her home in Johannesburg with a load of weapons for special operations, despite her poor security situation, sparked our arrest. She found it hard to believe that Rashid and I never received any information on her other activities. She wasn’t aware she was under surveillance.
The security police told her that in the five days between my detention and hers, I had made a “full statement” on “all” reconnaissance missions and DLBs we had installed together. It wasn’t until I had been in the embassy for a few months that I completely understood the impact of the “full confession” I used to escape — perhaps seen as betrayal, lack of loyalty or cowardice.
Pitted against each other
I received a copy of a letter that Hélène, while still in isolation in John Vorster Square, wrote to her children, who were living with their father in Europe. It was written in cramped handwriting, allowing her to fit 45 lines on an A4-sheet. Written in the margin was: “Don’t worry too much about Kl: he’s OK in the embassy and has done a hell of a lot of damage really.” This hit me hard.
Hélène had started to doubt my loyalty. We had been played off against one another, making matters that much more difficult for a recently separated couple.
Hélène’s statement describes how she was tortured by a dentist to whom her warders had taken her. The man told her a lot of nonsense about the ANC while drilling directly on a nerve of a tooth that did not need treatment. There were also two attempts to poison her.
While I was in John Vorster Square for 26 days, Helene was there for eight months.
It would take nearly 26 months before I could leave my room in the “old”, deserted Netherlands embassy in Pretoria. The staff had moved to another building in a better part of town and two Dutch military police officers kept me company. Around the perimeter, armed riot-unit police officers in plain clothes kept watch — on breaks from committing atrocities in Namibia or South African townships.
Eventually I was released, the outcome of a complex prisoner swap in Maputo on September 7 1987, in which apartheid soldier Wynand du Toit was exchanged for 133 Angolan prisoners of war, French anti-apartheid activist Pierre-André Albertini and me.
A flawed freedom
Last year I received the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in Silver for my contribution to the liberation struggle. Soon afterwards I was approached by a young black man, who hesitantly told me he felt uncomfortable in my presence and added: “I feel that I am expected to be grateful for what you have done for South Africa. But deep down I don’t feel that gratitude at all. When I look at my country, I don’t feel free at all; inequality, violence, corruption and injustice are still there. The freedom that you and other older people have fought for and about which you are talking all the time is by no means the freedom that we young people are experiencing now.”
He greeted, turned and disappeared.