Nelson Mandela and the Dutch

The mainstream view is that the Netherlands was a staunch supporter of South Africa's liberation movement? The story is a bit more complicated.

Nelson Mandela in Amsterdam in 1990 (Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau).

Shortly after his release from prison, Nelson Mandela embarked on a six week tour across Europe. As the Dutch newspaper NRC mentioned last week, he initially declined the invitation to include the Netherlands in this tour, this to the great dismay of Wim Kok, who was the Dutch Finance Minister at the time. Hadn’t the Netherlands been a staunch supporter of the liberation movement? Well, it is a bit more complicated.

Due to its historical and kinship ties–the Dutch were the first colonizers of the Cape and imported slavery there; it would lose the Cape to the French at the end of the 18th century; Afrikaners are partly descended from the Dutch, with some leaders like Hendrik Verwoerd born in the Netherlands–the nation of South Africa has always mattered a lot to the Netherlands. Five years after Apartheid was implemented in its official form in 1948, in the middle of a new wave of Dutch emigration to South Africa, Prime Minister Drees described South Africa as “The Netherlands’ adult daughter.” But when Mandela was imprisoned in 1964, it barely generated attention in Dutch political circles.

Over the course of the next few decades, Apartheid would become one of the most (and perhaps even the single most) heated human rights issue to be discussed in the Dutch parliament. Twice did the issue result in a near-cabinet collapse.

So how, then, did the government of the Netherlands deal with Apartheid?

Overall, it might be best summed up as a whole lot of fondness for moral condemnation, but a reluctance to act. At the U.N., the Netherlands preferred to use its finger for pointing rather than signing. And so it never signed the 2 Anti-Apartheid Conventions and abstained or opposed many of the resolutions that came up in the General Assembly. Fearful of economic loss and overstepping the U.N.’s mandate by interfering in its adult daughter’s domestic affairs, their lack of support was largely driven by realist anxieties.

Of course they framed it differently. In 1982, for example, the Netherlands voted against a General Assembly Resolution because of the way it categorized apartheid’s actors. You see, the document framed the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress of Azania as ‘liberation movements.’ But to the Dutch, this did not make sense. Only if South Africa were under colonial control would the label ‘liberation movement’ be accurate. But since there was no such thing going on, calling the ANC and Mandela liberators would miss the point. (The ANC did refer to South Africa as “colonialism of a special type” of course; because the colonizers also identified as South Africans.) More suitable, they argued, would it be to call them anti-apartheid organizations. And on 5 December 1983 (exactly 30 years before Mandela would pass away) they were one of the few who abstained from yet another resolution (one which also criticized Israel’s continued support for the apartheid state).

The economic costs of actually, rather than rhetorically, condemning Apartheid, and interfering in South Africa’s domestic affairs were just a tad too pricy. Surely the oil deals must have had a lot to do with this. When Mobil decided to withdraw, Royal Dutch Shell, for example, defended their continued presence by saying that it listened “to the voice of black South Africa, thereby conveniently forgetting to add the “as far as apartheid legislation permits” part (as pointed out by Erik van den Bergh). In fact, if we are to believe the Guardian, Shell still profits from its apartheid-deals to this very day.

So when the issue of oil trade came up in the General Assembly, the Netherlands once posed that it would only prohibit oil sales domestically if the Security Council would actually impose an embargo on South Africa, a scenario that the veto power of the United Kingdom and the United States would prevent anyway.

For the VVD, the party who currently governs the Netherlands in coalition with the Labour Party, the issue of sanctions was a matter of pragmatism. They simply didn’t expect that isolating South Africa would be all that effective in ending apartheid.

Dutch ambassador to South Africa Scheltema might capture this Dutch ambivalence towards apartheid best when, back in 1980, he proclaimed that “we do not wish to prescribe how South African society is to be organized … But violations of human rights in the political, economic and social fields are matters of rightful concern to the international community, wherever they take place.” As massive violations in all those three fields were clearly going on, one would reckon that a self-perceived human rights pioneer as the Netherlands would not let any opportunity go by to defend its human rights ideals. And in a way they indeed didn’t. As Scheltema’s quote shows, they certainly condemned it, and not just that one time. That did not, however, mean that they were actually gonna do something about it.

Apartheid surely was a bad, bad thing. But so was a loss of trade. And so the profits usually ended up trumping the atrocities. Declaring apartheid a domestic matter that transcended the U.N.’s mandate was overall more convenient (just like the Netherlands’ own situation with its former colony Indonesia was a domestic matter, a position for which they needed South African support). As a result, of the many anti-apartheid resolutions that came up in the General Assembly and the Security Council, it usually simply abstained. Seemingly deaf to the calls of Dutch activists and NGOs, it continuously refused to align its rhetoric with actions. The one initiative they did take up was the proposal of a voluntary arms embargo in the Security Council, the impact of which is said to have been negligible.

When apartheid slowly drew to a close, and the stakes of the seemingly zero-sum game of realpolitik tumbled, its reticence slowly vanished, culminating in a façade of ANC championship once Mandela was finally released from prison.

After his initial rejection, Mandela decided to accept the Dutch invite. Accompanied by Winnie Mandela, he was welcomed to the Netherlands on June 16th 1990.

Further Reading

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Gregg Mitman’s ‘Empire of Rubber’ is less a historical reading of Liberia than a history of America and racial capitalism through the lens of a US corporate giant.

Africa’s next great war

The international community’s limited attention span is laser-focused on jihadism in the Sahel and the imploding Horn of Africa. But interstate war is potentially brewing in the eastern DRC.

The Cape Colony

The campaign to separate South Africa’s Western Cape from the rest of the country is not only a symptom of white privilege, but also of the myth that the province is better run.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


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It could happen to us

Climate negotiations have repeatedly floundered on the unwillingness of rich countries, but let’s hope their own increasing vulnerability instills greater solidarity.

Defying defeat

Political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s collection of writings are a powerful and evocative reminder that democracy in Egypt remains a bleak prospect.