The white woman of MK
More cartoons online at
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.