The white woman of MK

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Brave Bel­gian mother of four sac­ri­ficed so much and risked her life al­most daily in the fight for lib­er­a­tion

Shan­non Ebrahim is the For­eign Ed­i­tor for In­de­pen­dent Me­dia

TO HER tor­turer, Nic Deetlefs, she was an evil com­mu­nist and ter­ror­ist, but to South Africans who fought against apartheid, she was a hero of the Strug­gle. Please meet He­lene Passtoors.

This week the SACP be­stowed a spe­cial recog­ni­tion award at its na­tional congress on her. And as the age­ing vet­eran took to the stage, the sea of red-clad com­rades broke into cheers and gave Passtoors a stand­ing ova­tion.

The hon­our comes six years after she was be­stowed the na­tional Or­der of the Com­pan­ions of OR Tambo for her role in the Strug­gle.

As she boarded a plane back to Bel­gium on Tues­day night, her eyes filled with tears to again leave the coun­try she was will­ing to give her life for.

Passtoors was an im­mensely brave woman and sac­ri­ficed so much for a cause that be­came her own.

What makes her story un­usual is the fact that she is a white Bel­gian who be­came deeply em­bed­ded in South Africa’s lib­er­a­tion Strug­gle, per­form­ing the most highly se­cre­tive spe­cial op­er­a­tions in the 1980s, un­der the di­rect com­mand of Joe Slovo, and Oliver Tambo, the com­man­der of ANC spe­cial op­er­a­tions.

For a for­eigner to have been en­trusted with such sen­si­tive and se­cret work was a tes­ta­ment to her trust­wor­thi­ness and the high re­gard the ANC lead­er­ship had for her.

Her race and pro­file pro­vided a con­ve­nient cover for the work she did, which in­volved re­con­nais­sance of strate­gic coal ex­port/im­port lines, and oil im­ported covertly by the apartheid state.

She iden­ti­fied tar­gets for Umkhonto we Sizwe, and reg­u­larly trans­ported weapons from Mozam­bique and Swazi­land into South Africa, set­ting up arms caches in the coun­try.

All this was in the con­text of a bru­tal war of lib­er­a­tion, where apartheid se­cu­rity forces were bomb­ing ANC tar­gets in the front line states and killing ANC mem­bers as they slept in their beds.

There were ab­duc­tions of com­rades from the front line states who were brought back to South Africa and bru­tally tor­tured in John Vorster Square.

It was the time when apartheid agents sent a let­ter bomb to Joe Slovo’s wife Ruth First, killing her, and set off a bomb in Al­bie Sachs’s car which was in­tended to kill him. Not to men­tion the end­less tor­ture and killings that took place in­side the coun­try. There were no lim­its to what the PW Botha regime would do to main­tain white mi­nor­ity rule.

It was in this con­text that Passtoors risked her life al­most daily.

This was a ded­i­cated mother of four young chil­dren, who un­der­stood full well that the con­se­quences of her ac­tions could mean in­def­i­nite sep­a­ra­tion from her chil­dren or even a death sen­tence that would leave them moth­er­less.

What drove her to en­gage in such dan­ger­ous mis­sions was a be­lief that free­dom in South Africa was a cause worth risk­ing one’s life for.

Ul­ti­mately she paid a heavy price for her com­mit­ment.

In June 1985 she was ar­rested and kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment in John Vorster Square for eight months. There she was re­lent­lessly tor­tured.

Her tor­turer, Deetlefs, never asked for amnesty for any of the tor­ture he ex­acted on her and many other de­tainees, and to­day he lives a nor­mal life in a Joburg sub­urb.

At the time, such high-pro­file de­tainees were sub­jected to men­tal tor­ture and kept in a few spe­cial cells with per­spex walls, which were win­dow­less and hardly let in any ven­ti­la­tion.

Ehen the tor­ture tac­tics failed to work, Passtoors was sent to an iso­lated prison in Kroon­stad in the Free State, where the Se­cu­rity Branch was de­ter­mined to break her.

Left alone for months in the freezing-cold win­ter, she de­vel­oped frost­bite on her hands and feet, mak­ing it un­bear­able to walk.

Amid her des­per­ate con­di­tion in 1988, a Bel­gian diplo­mat forced his way into the Kroon­stad prison to de­liver her a mes­sage: She had been awarded Euro­pean Woman of the Year, over even the wife of French pres­i­dent Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand who was a con­tender.

With her frost­bit­ten hands and feet, Passtoors de­clared that she cer­tainly didn’t feel like Euro­pean woman of the year.

But the low­est point came when the se­cu­rity branch did to her what they had al­ready tried on Thandi Modise – chem­i­cal tor­ture. She was brought a plate of pasta that was a wel­come change to the usual mielie pap, but it was laced with chem­i­cal poi­son that would cause her body to mal­func­tion.

The ef­fect was al­most im­me­di­ate, and she was un­able to walk. Un­aware of what was hap­pen­ing to her, she wrote to her chil­dren say­ing that she be­lieved she was dy­ing, but from what she didn’t know. Her symp­toms were sim­i­lar to that of malaria but with­out the fever, and it caused her to have an epilep­tic fit.

These were the trail of tears walked for our lib­er­a­tion, even by a white for­eigner who was pre­pared to pay the ul­ti­mate price.

For Deetlefs she was a ter­ror­ist, but to most of us she was a free­dom fighter, and it is right that her con­tri­bu­tion is re­mem­bered.

AC­KNOWL­EDGE­MENT: The SACP be­stowed a spe­cial recog­ni­tion award at its congress last week on He­lene Passtoors for her role in the Strug­gle.

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