Lu­cia Raad­schelders: Dutch hero­ine who fought for SA free­dom 1954-2018

Sunday Times - - Obituaries -

Lu­cia Raad­schelders, who has died in Jo­han­nes­burg at the age of 64, ran safe houses for the ANC in Swazi­land and played a key role in Op­er­a­tion Vula, a top-se­cret Umkhonto we Sizwe mis­sion to in­fil­trate lead­ers and weapons into SA and pre­pare the ground for a pos­si­ble over­throw of the apartheid gov­ern­ment.

The youngest of 10 chil­dren born to a baker in the Nether­lands in June 1954, she trained as a teacher and lived in a squat in Am­s­ter­dam while work­ing for the Dutch anti-apartheid move­ment from 1979 to 1986.

When Conny Braam, the chair of the Dutch an­ti­a­partheid move­ment, asked her to run safe houses for the ANC un­der­ground in Swazi­land, she jumped at the op­por­tu­nity.

A mar­riage for anonymity

The first step was to get rid of her sur­name, which she thought was too recog­nis­able. She ap­proached her neigh­bour, a fi­nal-year med­i­cal stu­dent, who agreed to marry her so she could take his name. Armed with a new sur­name (Van der Meer), con­tact lenses, and a perm, she flew to Swazi­land on a tourist visa in Oc­to­ber 1986.

Her first task was to learn how to drive. The day she got her li­cence she was given her first mis­sion for the ANC, which was to drive a car to a park­ing lot and leave it there with the keys hid­den un­der­neath it.

She rented a house in Mba­bane and was soon sent the first of a num­ber of ANC un­der­ground cadres who needed safe houses. She worked in a restau­rant and an of­fice by day and ran er­rands for the ANC at night and on week­ends, mainly fetch­ing com­rades at the bor­der when they crossed from SA.

When­ever her com­man­der felt the se­cu­rity of a house had ex­pired, ev­ery four months or so, she’d rent an­other.

When the ‘Bo­ers’ found out

Fears about se­cu­rity proved all too real when her first ANC com­man­der, Ebrahim Is­mail Ebrahim, was ab­ducted from his home by South African se­cu­rity forces three months af­ter her ar­rival. He was taken to SA, found guilty of trea­son and sen­tenced to 20 years on Robben Is­land. He was re­leased in 1991 and be­came deputy minister of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions in 2009.

In June 1988, af­ter cadres she’d shel­tered were ar­rested in SA, she was warned that the “Bo­ers” knew about her, and she flew back to the Nether­lands.

In Oc­to­ber 1988, Mac Ma­haraj’s wife Za­rina, who ran the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem in Lusaka for Op­er­a­tion Vula, was in­volved in a se­ri­ous ac­ci­dent. There was an ur­gent need for some­one to take her place.

Braam rec­om­mended Raad­schelders, who was then re­cruited by Ivan Pil­lay.

She was sent to Lon­don, where Tim Jenkin, who had de­vel­oped the com­puter-based com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem Op­er­a­tion Vula used, taught her how it worked. She had never used a com­puter.

Then she flew to Lusaka to meet Pil­lay. He took her to a house in a town­ship on the out­skirts of the cap­i­tal where she was the only white per­son. She stayed there pretty much round the clock for two-and-a-half years, send­ing and re­ceiv­ing the mes­sages that were the lifeblood of Op­er­a­tion Vula.

De­cryp­tion tech­nol­ogy

En­crypted mes­sages came to her from Ma­haraj and later Nel­son Man­dela in SA via Jenkin in Lon­don. Jenkin would de­code the mes­sages he re­ceived, re-en­ci­pher them and send them to Raad­schelders (then known only by her ANC co­de­name, Mary van Zyl). Us­ing spe­cial de­cryp­tion tech­nol­ogy she would de­ci­pher and print out the mes­sages, which would be col­lected ev­ery day by Pil­lay and taken to Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo.

Af­ter con­fer­ring with them, Pil­lay would pre­pare re­sponses, which he’d take to Raad­schelders. She would en­ci­pher them and send them to Lon­don, where they would be de­coded, re-en­ci­phered and sent to SA.

The mes­sages con­tained vi­tal in­for­ma­tion about who was go­ing to be in­fil­trated into SA through the Vula net­work, when and how, and dis­cussed the prac­ti­cal ar­range­ments for what­ever else was be­ing planned.

Along with Tambo, Ma­haraj, Slovo and Pil­lay, Raad­schelders knew more than any­one about what was hap­pen­ing in the un­der­ground move­ment in SA.

No so­cial life

It was a des­per­ately lonely and fru­gal time for her, though. She had prac­ti­cally no so­cial life and no visitors apart from Pil­lay and oc­ca­sion­ally Slovo.

Ev­ery now and then, Tambo would send one of his driv­ers to fetch her for a brief meeting in his of­fice.

The rest of the time, she sat in a small room all day for 30 months, send­ing and re­ceiv­ing mes­sages. She had no TV and sub­sisted on the mea­gre “pocket money” the ANC gave her and food parcels Pil­lay would drop off. For se­cu­rity con­cerns, she was not al­lowed to do her own shop­ping.

Vula was blown in June 1990 af­ter two op­er­a­tives were ar­rested in SA, tor­tured, killed and thrown in the Tugela River. Ma­haraj was ar­rested a month later.

Raad­schelders con­tin­ued re­lay­ing mes­sages be­tween the re­main­ing op­er­a­tives in SA and the lead­er­ship in Lusaka until mid-1991, when Vula was fi­nally wrapped up.

Af­ter a brief stay in the Nether­lands, she moved to SA in 1993, work­ing for The At­lantic Phi­lan­thropies and as a photo ar­chiv­ist for the Nel­son Man­dela Foun­da­tion. Her mar­riage of con­ve­nience to her med­i­cal-stu­dent neigh­bour ended when he mar­ried some­one else soon af­ter she ar­rived in Swazi­land. She never mar­ried again or had chil­dren.

A smoker who also had as­besto­sis, she was di­ag­nosed with lung can­cer two-and-a-half years ago.

Man­dela Foun­da­tion/Deb­bie Yazbek © Nel­son

Lu­cia Raad­schelders with Nel­son Man­dela.

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