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Interview with Kier Schuringa, Dutch Anti-Antipartheid Activist

December 20, 2019

Kier Schuringa served as a full-time activist in the Dutch Anti-Apartheid and southern Africa solidarity movement from the early 1970s until its dissolution in 1994. He subsequently coordinated the Library, Information and Documentation Center of the Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NIZA). He joined the International Institute of Social History in 2008, working with its southern African collection which was transferred from NIZA that year. He was interviewed by Louise Bethlehem and Roni Mikel Arieli on 25 January 2017. The interview has been edited slightly for clarity.

 

 Anti Apartheid Demonstration, Amsterdam, 1985. Sjakkelien Vollebregt / Anefo [CC0]

 

 

Louise Bethlehem: First of all, thank you for agreeing to talk to us. Let us begin perhaps from the story of your personal involvement in the anti-apartheid movement here in the Netherlands, and then move through those experiences to ask you what it means for you as an archivist [at the International Institute of Social History] to have had such experiences.

Roni and I both very recently reread Alex Lichtenstein’s interview with Sietse Bosgra in preparation for this interview [Radical History Review Issue 119, Spring 2014, DOI 10.1215/01636545-2401924].

 

Kier Schuringa: Sietse, yes, I know Sietse very well.

 

LB: What was striking to both of us was how he referenced his childhood and the events of his early youth as a kind of bridge, or as the channel which lead him into activism. He references having grown up hearing stories of Jewish refugees or Jewish deportees crossing the [Dutch] border. Then he references Indonesia, the struggles around Indonesia, and notes that these were some of the immediate precursors for him that broadened into a general struggle against racism. In his case, that path went first through the more general [southern African] liberation struggles in Angola and Mozambique.

 

KS: He started in Algeria.

 

LB: So it was Algeria, Indonesia, Angola, Mozambique, and then eventually a focus on southern Africa and on South Africa. In a similar fashion, we wondered what in your background predisposed you to become so completely committed and involved?

 

KS: This the first time I am actually thinking about it, but Sietse is about ten years older than I am, something like that. And I think when he grew up, interest in Third World issues or struggles elsewhere in the world was much more limited than when I was, let’s say, in secondary school and a student, so I think for him personal experiences in his childhood, his youth, I’m sure, had to be very important. I am a bit more a child of my times, I think. You know, I was born in 1949. I was in secondary school in ’67. That was the time that the debate about changing society and criticizing society really became prominent. So that started at the end of secondary school. I moved to study in Delft at the technical university there in ‘67. I became a student activist because for a lot of young people in the late 60’s and early 70’s, becoming involved in changing society was a very common thing to do. All of my, well most of my friends, a lot of people I lived amongst. At the end of the 60’s, ’69, 1970 in the student movement, generally the left-wing organizations here in the Netherlands, the interest in third world issues, anti-imperialism, liberation struggles, Vietnam, started to grow.

 

LB: Of course, the student revolution in ’68 in Paris.

 

KS: Yeah, that was part of it, but then it was not only in our own society, rather also the international perspective which became important. The first conference on anti-colonialism in the Netherlands, organized by one of the student groups here in Amsterdam, was in 1970. So, at that time, I also became interested in anti-imperialism and I did a lot of reading on that. I quit normal student politics and became really involved in the Vietnam struggle, and also started to read about South Africa and the history of the struggle there. Then, more or less by accident, that became my area of focus. A friend of mine was on the executive of the Dutch branch of Amnesty International which was still very small. He asked me to become coordinator for their adoption group: “Prisoners of Conscience,” they called them in southern Africa. I had been reading about southern Africa and writing a bit about it, so that is why I really started to focus on southern Africa.

 

LB: So we were talking about the beginning of the 1970’s?

 

KS: 70’s, ’71, I think.

 

LB: So that is a good seven, eight years since the Rivonia Trial and the launch of the

political prisoners campaign. How common was the practice among your peers of actually adopting a prisoner? I ask this because I too, in a very different context as a teenager in South Africa in the 1980’s, can remember adopting a prisoner, a Jewish “prisoner of conscience” in the Soviet Union. I can remember walking around for a long period with the name of one of the Jewish political prisoners engraved on a bracelet. And that is really a kind of an attempt to create a personalized emotional identification with individuals. We were having this discussion recently in our research seminar, about the tension between those prisoners who are named and who serve as containers for the entire anti-apartheid struggle versus those prisoners who are not named, whose names are not widely known. Did you have biographies of the people who were adopted?

 

KS: Yes, but they were very sketchy, very limited. I was living in the early 70’s in a commune in a village near Amsterdam. We also had an adoption group at home—I wasn’t that involved in it. For me the personal thing was not the most important thing. My interest in South Africa and the struggle in South Africa largely became reading about the history of the struggle, the Communist Party, the trade unions, the principle of anti-racism. The multi-racialism that they embodied made the biggest impression on me. Definitely I sympathized with the work of Amnesty International in those days, not all of it, but a lot of it. The prisoner work, people, I could sympathize with, but there was a problem. The official policy of Amnesty in those days was that they didn’t want to support people like Mandela.

 

LB: Because of the armed struggle.

 

KS: Because they [the activists] had been advocating violence. We had quite a bit of debate about it in the Dutch branch. I remember a meeting with all the adoption groups of prisoners in South Africa that I organized. Almost all of them felt that we should, that Amnesty should, recognize people like Mandela. Within the executive also, here in the Netherlands, there was also sympathy for that position. And I remember the first time, ’73 or something, I went to London, I went to the headquarters of Amnesty International, to the secretary general at the time, to plea for that position. I was chased out of his office in five minutes or so, he wasn’t interested at all.

 

LB: But eventually the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) and Amnesty came to some kind of agreement around joint campaigns?

KS: Yeah, but that was much later. Because of this, in 1974, I quit Amnesty because I couldn’t deal with that position. I was more interested in the structural part of the struggle.

 

LB: How one creates and maintains resistance?

 

KS: And the international links of those who supported the apartheid regime. But also building supportive links for the liberation movements, internationally, and here in the Netherlands.

 

LB: It seems to me that you are speaking from a very internationalist position: was this perhaps something that came out of a trade unionist background?

 

KS: No. No, not at all. It was very much linked to the general, political mobilization amongst young people in those days. I became a member of the trade union later on. I was working in the Dutch Anti-Apartheid movement but I didn’t know anything [about trade unionism]. My background is very different. My parents belonged to a small Protestant, what we would now call fundamentalist, group. My father sympathized very strongly with the Boers [Afrikaners], because of the Boer war, and didn’t like the English at all. My first experience with South Africa was through the Church and the Right Wing. The Church had a missionary posted in South Africa and he came one day to the Netherlands to explain his work. The only thing I remember was that he spoke about converting black South African people and building a church and building a school. And I thought, why bother these people with religion? Just help them with education. My father took me to a meeting with a pro-apartheid group in the 60’s. There was a guy talking about South Africa, from the embassy or from South Africa, defending apartheid. He said, “apartheid is a beautiful building with some cracks in it that still have to be repaired, but the building is beautiful”.

 

LB: It is so interesting that these ideologues of apartheid invoke structural metaphors. So too, Verwoerd’s notorious gloss on apartheid as “good neighborliness” demands fences…

 

KS: What I remember is that after the break, during the question time, most of the questions from the audience, agreed with apartheid. But in the back there were some students. This was back in the mid 6o’s, I was still in secondary school, didn’t know anything about South Africa. But what I remember is that they put all kind of questions to the speaker and the guy became mad at them. And that secretly, because I didn’t know much about it, but secretly I sympathized with the guys in the background more than with my father and the others. And that is because of my general resistance towards the morals, the values, the religion I was brought up in. The way the older generation conducted itself, not only in our country, generally in the world at large. The enormous differences between the rich and the poor countries, the Third World, those things were for me the driving force to become involved in Anti-apartheid work. It could have been the Vietnam war …but it became South Africa. I had a clear reason for [my involvement], because of the history of that struggle which made a strong impression on me. I really wanted to be involved, I really sympathized with it.

 

LB: Can you articulate what precisely made that struggle feel just to you? You’re describing a generational, or almost a generational, badge of belonging to a struggle that you saw as embodying a particular principle of justice.

 

KS: That was largely the unique mix of apartheid, a mix of racism and oppression and exploitation of black people, and then institutionalized to an extent which was unique in the world. It was all those elements that were important to me: the racism and the rejection of exploitation and the repression.

 

LB: Did you feel your generational codes to be reflected in the work of South African anti-apartheid leaders, the insistence in the ANC on non-racialism, for instance?

 

KS: Yeah, I was really inspired by people like Mandela and the old leadership. I remember reading, I think it was in Mary Benson’s book South Africa: The Struggle for a Birthright, about chief Makana. [ I read] his speech explaining why black South Africans resisted colonization by the British in the nineteenth century. And his principles, anti-racism, the simple way it was expressed, had a very strong impact on me. For me, also, so did the people of the Communist party—the few whites who were really taking sides, at least after the 1920’s. It inspired me to become involved myself and to do the same kind of work here. That is also another important issue: I wanted to work here, because of the role the oppressive worldwide structures played in suppressing the liberation struggles, anywhere in the world, including in southern Africa.

 

LB: But also in former Dutch Colonies?

 

KS: Yes. That was a general thing of course here in the Netherlands, not so much for me because quite a few people, including activists, who felt a bit guilty because of a historical guilt, because of the role that the Boers, the Dutch played in South Africa. That didn’t appeal at all to me because I couldn’t feel responsible even for what my parents did, let alone earlier generations. But of course it clearly had an impact, generally here in the Netherlands. It was one of the reasons that South Africa was one of the most important foreign policy issues, much more than in most European countries. In England it was slightly different because Britain had very strong links with South Africa, economically and also all the exiles. Culturally, of course, much more than the Netherlands. For the Netherlands it was this link through the historical thing, through kinship, yes. […] Until 1976, let’s say the first half of the 1970s, the debate was still largely if apartheid is really that bad and there were still quite a few people defending apartheid. Almost all Dutch people felt that the [National] Party was much too strict about apartheid. They didn’t share the really hard racism with the National Party, but they sympathized because of kinship, because they couldn’t imagine that black people would be able to rule a country themselves.

 

LB: And perhaps that bias is based on people’s experience of colonialism. People who had been leaving the colonies as decolonization takes hold in the former Dutch colonies. There may have been people who come back to the mainland with certain ideas about race?

 

KS: Quite a few Dutch people moved to South Africa in the 1950s, there was a lot of emigration anyway to Canada, New Zealand, Australia and places like that, but also to South Africa. Quite a few of them became really racist, but also some of them came back completely frustrated and joined the anti-apartheid movement in the very early days. But Soweto changed that very much because for the first time it came on television on a massive scale, television, the media played a very important role. A regime which is able to kill children was proof to a large number of people that it couldn’t be. So then the debate moved from being about apartheid to being how to end apartheid, to use boycott or to support the struggle. Of course there were always debates about armed struggle, things like that. It was also important, in those days you had a lot of youth organizations, every political party, every trade union, every women’s organization: they all had youth organizations. And also there were active youth organizations in the universities. Almost all of them made South Africa, at least for a number of years, part of their program, an important part of their program.

 

LB: So we’re talking about the link directly back to ’76 and the manner in which youth activism in South Africa then is taken up institutionally. For me, Soweto was a watershed moment in my life. I was twelve at the time. Retrospectively, I have thought that some of us white South Africans feel generationally bound to men and women of our own age, children at the time of the uprising, from whom we were separated by a mere matter of kilometers but who were also worlds away. It was almost as if we carried these people as our doubles; we carried them, we carried their mortality, as an unacknowledged part of our own teenage identification and coming to be political. A minority of us, admittedly. This is certainly something that I can identify with. But what I am coming to understand more and more is how important it is to look at the nodal networks of structures that involves, as you say, youth organizations, student organizations, women’s organizations, to some extent faith communities. Parallel to that would be the trade union organizations whose histories show fascinating links and overlaps and unexpected alliances. Here in your archive, in the files on the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY), for instance, we found just this morning, an exhibition jointly organized by the ANC and the IUSY in 1986, ten years since Soweto. I think the historiography in general has not yet really given an account of youth festivals, cultural festivals and these links between small and very locally situated organizations which nevertheless begin to have a cumulative influence.

 

Kier: There was one other fact that is important here, definitely here in the Netherlands, it concerns the whole of southern Africa, and of course it was the decolonization of Angola and Mozambique. It was an inspiring factor. And not only in general, but also at an organizational level because the strongest campaigning groups in the first half of the 1970’s were not the Dutch Anti-Apartheid movement, but the Angola Committee and the Committee on the Liberation of Southern Africa supporting the liberation of Angola and Mozambique and Guinea Bissau. And the biggest campaign in those years, the two biggest campaigns in those years, were the Angola coffee boycott campaign and a blanket campaign for Mozambique, mobilizing a lot of people. In maybe 50 or 60 Dutch villages and towns, there were local southern Africa groups, and most of them actually started on Angola and Mozambique. But they almost all worked on the whole of southern Africa, worked on the campaigns, so when the general interest in progressive movements in the Netherlands for South Africa grew after Soweto in ’76, there was already a whole activist network on southern Africa which strengthened and consolidated this whole movement.

 

LB: And of course reciprocally the student movement in South Africa was very, very cognizant of the gains that were being made. There were gains and there were setbacks already from ’73,’74,’ the dock workers’ strikes for instance. This is reflected very beautifully in one of Nadine Gordminer’s novels, The Conservationist (1974) in the figure of a great storm coming from the north. In the novel the storm dredges up the buried body of an unknown black man, which is in itself very symbolic, as literary critics like Stephen Clingman have taught us. So it is interesting how the larger anticolonial struggle plays out similarly here for activists.

 

KS: I think the anti-apartheid groups active in South Africa didn’t have a direct impact on the international anti-apartheid campaign for quite a long time. That only became important in the 1980s because there was very little information coming out, contact was very difficult. So it was more the repression and events like Soweto etc. and afterwards what happened in the Cape, and all the police violence, etc.

 

LB: The forced removals, Crossroads?

 

KS: Yes, that kind, the oppressive part of it, which became a mobilizing factor, clearly. It was important, a lot of people felt like yes, we have to make a contribution in breaking the system down, by boycotting and things like that. But we based ourselves largely on information from the ANC in exile, not from groups inside South Africa. That only became important and possible in the 1980s.

[…] There is one other specific thing on the Netherlands which has influenced me, had an impact on me. In the Netherlands, the solidarity groups like the anti-apartheid movement but also groups devoted to other countries and issues, did get government funding, not directly but indirectly. In the early 70s, the Dutch government established an organization that funded information work about Third World issues. The money all came from the government, from the Ministry of Development Cooperation, through the decision of an independent commission which always tried to protect themselves against direct political influence from the minister. Several ministers tried several times to influence them…

 

LB: In a more conservative way?

 

KS: Yeah, and that was always rejected. In all the other European countries, if solidarity groups received money from political parties, etc., there were always political strings attached. But in the Netherlands, such interference was very, very marginal. This funding gave us the possibility of employing full-time people.

 

LB: That is extraordinary.

 

KS: Like the anti-apartheid movement, when I joined in 1974 we already had three or four fulltime people growing at other times to six, eight. Most of the money came from the government. […] There was a whole group of people in the Netherlands working fulltime and becoming more and more professional at working on southern Africa. This was very different than any other anti-apartheid movement. Like the British Anti-Apartheid movement which was much bigger but they had two or three employees, all the rest were volunteers. Some of them fought against apartheid almost their whole lives. Still there was a difference. I was able to make a living [as an activist].

 

LB: So there was a career path.

 

KS: And for me it became possible to live off of that. We earned very little, but I could live on that. So I decided that I just wanted to live a simple life and I always lived with other people in more or less a communal situation up until today. But I do realize that it was possible specifically here in the Netherlands, and in most other countries activists had to make bigger personal sacrifices than we did.

 

Roni Mikel Arieli: What was your official role in the anti-apartheid movement?

 

KS: I was hired to do documentation but then became a general staff member very quickly. I have always been in charge of documentation. I worked for 60 hours a week, for us that was normal. Let’s say during the day I was doing staff work, mainly organizing work, and then in the evenings or at night, we did documentation. I became a member of our executive committee which met daily, or weekly. It was very much involved in the work. I became the internal secretary, in the late ‘70s or something, and continued with this almost until the end. I served both on the staff and on the executive committee for most of the time. And always in charge of the documentation and the archives. I was the only who, after any particular campaign was finished, would go and compile a file on it, because that was something that I liked doing. For me it was only finished after I had done that, which made the archives of the anti-apartheid movement more organized.

 

LB: So one last question because we have taken up a lot of your time already. Speaking as an archivist, as someone who has devoted his life to processes of documentation, what is the imperative towards the future that the archive now imposes on you? Do you have a vision of how this repository of knowledge could be used in the present, in the future?

 

KS: For me, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and generally struggles in southern Africa and the international campaign against apartheid has been and still is an inspiring process, showing that it is possible to defeat powerful but racist, exploitative forces. Although at the same time I very much realize, and I realized a long time ago while I was an activist, that if liberation movements come to power it never leads to paradise, and power corrupts. This is true of all human beings. The apartheid regime was of course, also the secret police. The liberation movements also had their difficulties. Being so closely involved as I was, also meant that I knew a lot of ANC cadres personally, so I had relatively a lot of inside information. Inside the ANC there were crooks and very authoritarian people. It was also a liberation movement working in a very difficult situation. There were exiles with all the accompanying emotional and psychological problems. Although I have reservations about how the current ANC leadership [under Jacob Zuma] is running the country, this historical struggle is amazing and inspiring. It had a big impact internationally and also here in the Netherlands, embodied most, of course by Nelson Mandela who was an icon for a lot of people. I find it important, and I want to make it possible for people who are interested for whatever reason, to consult its history and use it. People like you who are involved in research projects, of course, people from all over the world. But also for instance young people who have parents who were involved in these kind of the things and became interested in them and want to learn more about the past.

[…]

I am first of all an archivist which means that I just want to make sure that the material is being kept and is accessible for others to use, much more than I want to reach specific goals. I have an activist’s background […] I feel like I have been campaigning for a long time. I still sometimes participate in campaigns here and protests against racism and xenophobia and a lot of these rightist, nationalist groups here in the Netherlands, but not really on an organizational level. I concentrate on my work here as an archivist.

 

LB: But these two personae are not separate for you, presumably, because you are in a sense, as we discussed yesterday, archiving a life course as well, one that is your own.

 

KS: My whole life, in every aspect, including work. In any case, work and private life has never been for me a clear distinction.

 

LB: The personal is the political, as the feminists used to say.

 

KS: It has always been like that, even without the feminist perspective. And that still is.

 

LB: We owe you an enormous debt. Both in our individual capacities and on behalf of our research team. But I think I am also trying to voice something much larger here, in the sense of what we owe to you and your comrades—a huge debt, for the activism and for the incredible wealth of the archive that we have been able to access here. Thank you very much.

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