Marnix de Bruyne

Klaas de Jonge (1937 – 2023) | Challenger of the apartheid state

In the 1980s, De Jonge sheltered in the Dutch embassy in Pretoria for two years after being caught smuggling weapons.

Years ago, in his home in the centre of Amsterdam, full of masks from Congo, Klaas de Jonge suddenly took off his glasses and tapped his right eye hard. He was recounting the revenge attack by the South African secret service. Pok pok echoed through the room. “That's how I got a glass eye,” he said, dryly.

In 1988, in Nijmegen, he had put on a coat that must have been smeared with poison, he later reconstructed. That night, he experienced a stabbing pain in his eye, which doctors did not understand. A week later, it was blind. South African secret agents worked with poison often. The country had good reason to want to deal with him: he had made a complete fool of the apartheid state.

Klaas de Jonge (1937) grew up in Deventer and Olst with artistic parents, whose aversion to bourgeois-ness he adopted. He studied anthropology in Amsterdam, listening with fascination to the activist professor of non-Western sociology Wim Wertheim. Wertheim made him aware of “the importance of the emancipation principle” and the need to pursue it “also in political practice,” he later wrote.

He pursued this principle in Maputo, the capital of socialist, just-independent Mozambique. De Jonge, who had previously conducted research in Tanzania, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau, settled there in 1981 with his wife Hélène Passtoors, who was as idealistic as he was. They brought with them five children from previous marriages, four by Hélène and one by Klaas.

In Maputo, they befriended exiles from the ANC liberation movement banned in South Africa, including Sunny Singh. “He was good at explaining to the children how terrible the apartheid system was. I thought that was important,” De Jonge said in April this year.

Bloody attacks

South Africa held Mozambique in an economic stranglehold and regularly carried out bloody attacks on ANC exiles. When De Jonge and Passtoors were asked to smuggle weapons into South Africa for the ANC, because white tourists were less conspicuous, they hardly hesitated. The murder, with a letter bomb, of their friend and ANC promoter Ruth First strengthened them in this decision.

The illegal work went well until 1985. De Jonge and Passtoors had separated: he lived with son Enno in Harare, Zimbabwe, she in Johannesburg. He visited her to ask her to bury an arms shipment with him, not knowing that the secret police were following Passtoors. It led to the arrest of De Jonge, caught on his way back to Zimbabwe, and that of Passtoors four days later.

The South Africans lied to De Jonge that Passtoors’ daughter Brigitte had also been detained and had attempted suicide: if he talked, she would be released. De Jonge decided to feign cooperation and showed them some weapons stashes, trusting that they had been emptied. He also promised to show them an office where another attack was being planned. That would be in the Nedbank building in Pretoria – where, he knew, the Dutch embassy was based on the first floor.

Once there, he ran to the embassy door, stormed in and announced: “I am a political prisoner, a Dutchman, I am Klaas de Jonge.” His escorts dragged him back, but after the political riot that ensued – the embassy enjoyed immunity – he was brought back. Only after 26 months was he able to return to the Netherlands, as a link in a complex prisoner exchange.

This episode largely defined his life. He constantly had to explain why he had chosen to support armed struggle, even though it also harmed innocent victims. This bothered him: such questions were not, or only rarely, asked of former members of the Second World War resistance. If he had refused to help, then he would have been to blame, he said recently. “And then my children would not have been as proud of me as they are now.”

Critical questions

De Jonge continued to answer critical questions patiently for the rest of his life. Volkskrant correspondent Jenne Jan Holtland spent dozens of hours interviewing him for the book De Koerier van Maputo: Een Nederlander in de Zuid-Afrikaanse Revolutie. (The Courier from Maputo: A Dutchman in the South African Revolution, 2021). He was also questioned by a man who lost both legs in the 1983 bomb attack in Church Street, Pretoria, in Marlou van den Berge’s documentary The Price of Freedom(2023). De Jonge was indirectly involved in this attack.

In the documentary, which will be broadcast on Dutch TV on 25 May, De Jonge also received reproaches from his sons about his absence as a father, and the danger into which he put the family in Maputo. He acknowledged having made mistakes, but comes across as rather emotionless.

Still, he was “stricken” when he saw the film, he later said: again, he realised how much he had underestimated the impact of the tensions in Mozambique on the children. “There were a lot of emotions going around inside him in recent weeks,” his stepson Philippe said in the week De Jonge passed away.

His impending end had to do with that. Suffering from metastatic prostate cancer, he decided to get he wanted to avoid the end stage. Liberation Day, when the Dutch people celebrate the end of the Nazi occupation in 1945, would be a great moment. He spent his last weeks surrounded by his sons, stepchildren, and girlfriends (De Jonge was openly polyamorous). Online, he said goodbye to twenty South African comrades in arms, organised by Ronnie Kasrils, ex-defence minister. Hèléne Passtoors also stopped by.

Two days before he died, he held an open house for friends and comrades. He sat there like it was his birthday, in the sunshine on his balcony, while people said goodbye and his son Enno took photographs. De Jonge enjoyed it, he said: the nice things that are normally said at a funeral, he could now hear for himself. And no, he was not looking forward to 5 May. Until the very end, he would remain in charge of his life.

This article was first published in Dutch daily NRC.