In 2011, the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo was bestowed on Hélène Passtoors for her contribution to the armed struggle against apartheid. The South African Presidency hailed her for her “excellent contribution to the struggle for liberation, democracy and human rights, and for waging a concerted struggle against racial oppression as an African National Congress (ANC) activist and operative in South Africa, including engagement in underground work”.
Passtoors, who will turn 80 in 2022, lives in Belgium.
In 1981, while teaching at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Joe Slovo recruited her to serve in Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK) special operations unit. She participated in highly secretive special operations under the immediate command of Slovo, with Oliver Tambo as the commander of special operations.
She did mainly reconnaissance and communications missions throughout South Africa, looking for potential targets: among other things, the strategic import lines, South African Defence Force and police targets and a Renamo training base in Limpopo. She transported weapons and established arms caches, and she delivered funds and other necessities to MK agents in South Africa. While being enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand for her PhD, she continued with reconnaissance and liaison tasks, and set up communications for units to be settled inside the country.
Hélène is probably best known for her involvement in the Church Street car bomb attack in Pretoria in 1981, when she delivered the vehicle used in the attack, from Swaziland to MK operatives in Pretoria. In June 1985, she was arrested and kept for eight months in solitary confinement in John Vorster Square, where she was tortured and poisoned during interrogations. In 1986, she was convicted of treason and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Following negotiations between the Belgian and South African governments, she was released in 1989. Thereafter, she worked for the ANC office in Brussels, focusing on international solidarity against apartheid. She was also involved in preparing the ANC’s language policy.
Hélène was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for the role she played in the bombings. While in prison in South Africa, she received the European Woman of the Year Award in 1988.
In this exclusive interview with LitNet and Voertaal, Hélène Passtoors shares memories with Melt Myburgh about her life as an MK operative. She agreed to read some of her answers to questions on video and in sound bites.
Johan Allers produced the sound clips used in this article, and Gys Loubser edited the videos. Footage and images in the video were provided by Hélène Passtoors, or are available in the public domain. Additional images: Rapport and Nationaal Argief (Croes, Rob C. / Anefo).
Growing up in the shadow of war
Hélène Passtoors was born in Eindhoven in 1942 during the worst period of World War II, when the pogroms in Nazi-occupied Europe were building up for the genocidal “final solution”, targeting Jews and gypsies. In this video, she tells about her childhood in a world ravaged by war and colonialism.
“Thanks to the Soviets and the Allies, including South Africa, I didn’t grow up in the ‘Third Reich’, although the shadow of war was ever present.”
“On my second birthday, the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.”
“We formed a little secret society and named it Mau Mau.”
“I set my sights on ‘the world’, wherever the winds of opportunity or destiny would carry me.”
Two springs, two summers and no winter
In this video, Hélène describes her current life in Belgium after living all over the world for many years.
“The cosmopolitan inside me must admit a bit shamefully that a good passport is precious for good, affordable healthcare.”
“Since Chile, I have also given up on husbands and live-in partners.”
“I think I’ve always been considered outlandish and perhaps too militant.”
Delivering a car in California
In this audio clip, Hélène shares her memories of the United States in the sixties. She held several jobs, including being a nanny, a driving instructor and a multilingual social secretary in Beverly Hills. In this period, she met Pierre, a Belgian anthropologist, whom she married one weekend in Las Vegas.
“There were people from all over the world, all nationalities, all cultures. Here, I could truly feel like a ‘citizen of the world’, the ancient Greek idea of cosmopolitanism I had learned about in school.”
“The problem was America and the ‘American way of life’ that one was supposed to embrace as an immigrant.”
“Stunned by the levels of state violence and racism I witnessed, I decided that the life I had been brought up for in Europe was fake; the real world was a very different place.”
Hélène explains how she and Pierre ended up in West Africa:
I took a second degree in African linguistics in the Netherlands, and as an assistant I was socialised in academic life and the international fraternity of African linguists. I did my doctoral research in the Ivory Coast, which brought about visits to West Africa. By the late 1970s, we would have liked to settle in Ghana, where Pierre had started an oral history and social reconstruction project on African coastal societies in the times of the Atlantic slave trade. But Ghana was in political turmoil, and the university was also a hotbed of rebellion against the military dictatorship.
Pierre then wanted us to remain based in Europe and go back and forth on research trips to Africa, as we had done the previous years, taking turns. But I had had enough of living those years in Europe where I found married life claustrophobic, while our years in Congo had been extroverted and full of challenge. I also felt that I didn’t want to raise my children in the narrow world we had been raised in, or frequently be away from them for long months. And I surely couldn’t envisage my life as an Africanist scholar as some kind of intellectual tourist, without teaching and bonding with the country where I worked and with its people. And Pierre had illusions about finding stable academic jobs in our fields anywhere in Europe. That was the last straw for our marriage. Pierre and I separated. While he continued his research on the Ghanaian coast, a job offer came for me from the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo. It was an attractive prospect, because it would be pioneering in terms of the research I was interested in, as well as involve teaching.
The Congo years
The years of working in the Congo defined Hélène’s view of the world – politically, philosophically and as a human being. In this video, she tells about her life as an academic in Kinshasa, being married to Pierre and raising children. She recounts their interaction with the Libinza fishermen of the Congo River. In 1974, after the second student rebellion against Mobutu’s dictatorship, the family decided to leave the Congo.
“Outside visitors were highly unusual in this sparsely populated place, but news travelled faster on the rivers than our little motorboat.”
“Any childhood in Europe left subconscious images of Africa and Africans that were perhaps no longer as racist as the colonial stereotypes in Tintin in the Congo.”
“Repression spread like a damp blanket on campus and society. The lively debates became whispers. Then silence.”
Raising children underground
In this audio clip, Hélène deals with memories, both joyous and painful, of raising her four children in Africa. She also talks about her work in Ghana, the Ivory Coast and the Netherlands. Having separated from Pierre, she moved to Mozambique with her new partner, Klaas de Jonge. Hélène explains how Joe Slovo and Ruth First supported the family in Maputo. She also discusses how constant security threats and her eventual incarceration in South Africa affected the children.
“I needed our children to be part of that, as we had envisaged from the day they were born.”
“I was protective like a mother hen who liked to have them physically close, while at the same time pushing them to be independent from a young age.”
“The older ones became very good at spotting danger and security rules, especially when we lived in an ‘underground’ house in Swaziland later.”
“Watching my little boys walking up to the airplane as they waved goodbye, broke my heart.”
“The children have never criticised my commitment; on the contrary.”
Mozambique and Klaas de Jonge
Hélène and Klaas de Jonge arrived in Mozambique on 30 January 1981, the day the victims of the Matola raid, conducted by South African armed forces, were buried. She shares her earliest memories of Maputo.
“I still find it very hard to conceive of the levels of inhumanity that led Pretoria to want to destroy such a humble, friendly neighbour.”
Joe Slovo and Oliver Tambo
From 1981 to 1985, Hélène served in the ANC’s special operations unit, under the immediate command of Joe Slovo. Oliver Tambo was commander in chief. She remembers these iconic figures of the liberation movement as follows:
Joe became a house friend. After Ruth First’s murder, he came almost every evening. The kids loved him. He would play the guitar and sing his own kind of freedom songs with them. The most popular one in our home went about thus: “This train has no station … goes straight to liberation!”
His many jokes, especially his Soviet jokes, were other favourites. Every time he came back from the USSR, he shared the latest ones.
The children often sat in on our political discussions. My politics were still not very well ordered, let’s say. I’d picked up the big lines and furtively read the banned Marxist classics while we were in Congo. Joe put some order to that. He also taught me about ANC politics, strategies and tactics and the party’s general way of thinking and doing things.
We had many discussions. One topic I remember well was why there were then still only Africans allowed in the leadership structures, even though it was a non-racial movement. Joe explained that those and other issues needed an evolution; they must mature in order to give rise to harmonious unity. Klaas had problems with that; he thought non-racialism is non-racialism. I thought Joe’s was the right way.
As a commander, Joe had fought in World War II and had plenty of combat and command experience. He had no ego problem. Although he was demanding, he allowed me space to take my own initiative and assume responsibility. He was a pleasant commander and a real revolutionary.
OR Tambo, “The Chief”, I only met in person after the Church Street attack. He was very warm and greeted me with a bear hug. But it turned out that he had read all our reports and knew all about us and our work. He was a real commander without having to behave like one. And he was highly intelligent with a kind, almost playful sense of humour.
I had always been a rebel with little disposition to obey, unless I saw good reason to. Authority must be earned. But, to my own surprise, OR was the first, and is so far the only, person in the world whom I felt I could follow blindly. For him, I’d have gone through hell. Without asking questions.
And I’m not the only one. He was that kind of leader. He made a point of knowing his people very well. I will always regret the fact that he died too soon. I think the ANC would be in a much better place had he still led it going into democracy after 1994.
In 1981, Joe Slovo recruited Hélène to serve in Umkhonto we Sizwe’s special operations unit:
Around August 1981, I had to go to Johannesburg for medical treatment of an increasingly debilitating condition that doctors couldn’t find the cause of. I was in Joburg for about two months, often as an outpatient, and finally underwent surgery.
It was my first glance of the apartheid that I’d heard so much about. It was stupefying. It started with my going to the general hospital in Hillbrow on Ruth First’s advice. But she didn’t know that the hospital was then reserved for blacks only. And after many years in Africa, I didn’t find it strange to see mainly African people around. The people at the hospital put me in a white taxi, Rose’s Taxis, so I would not get “lost” again, and I arrived at the new whites-only Johannesburg Hospital.
I found it all totally suffocating. It was as if whites were living in a fishbowl, with the outside world visible, but outside. But in Hillbrow, I also noticed that African people walked fiercely upright, with their heads held high, even more so than in some other African cities. I thought, this apartheid nonsense isn’t going to last long.
Ruth had asked family members of hers to take care of me in Joburg, and they very kindly did. Upon my return to Maputo, Ruth and Joe Slovo asked about my impressions of South Africa. Shortly afterwards, Joe came to recruit me. In my thinking, there was no way I could refuse. Then, he also recruited Klaas to assemble a reconnaissance team. I always appreciated Joe recruiting a woman in her own right.
Our first MK mission in South Africa was during Christmas 1981, eight months before Ruth First was assassinated in her office at the university. I don’t know who spread the word that I was so upset that I joined MK then. I don’t think one jumps with both feet into something as big as a liberation struggle on a surge of emotion.
A nightmare the size of a whole country
As an MK operative based in Mozambique, and later also in Swaziland and South Africa, Hélène had an indelible mark left on her by the apartheid society:
Apartheid was a nightmare the size of a whole country. If you study city and town maps of South Africa, the physical design of apartheid on ground level is staggering. I remember once examining a map, trying to absorb the full implications of the outlay of a town designed to serve the ideals of apartheid – I think it was Phalaborwa. We were there on a reconnaissance mission in 1982 or 1983, driving around and looking for the location of a secret training camp for Renamo.
Townships are usually far out of town, connected only by one single road to the town centre. A single army roadblock could easily block township residents off, and rolls of razor wire quickly drawn all around would leave them no escape. When I look at a satellite map of Phalaborwa today, I notice that township streets still have no names, in contrast to the rest of the town. An innocent little omission?
In those days, state violence was like a sinister pandemic. Every single weekend, there were funerals of fallen comrades all over the country. Then there were also the violent forced removals of people from their ancestral land, always with guns and bullets.
During another reconnaissance mission, we spent a day looking for a target at Voortrekkerhoogte army base. To our amazement, we as whiteys had no trouble entering. We just mentioned some common Afrikaner name, together with an army rank, and we were allowed in. I remember training fields situated next to a huge rubbish dump bordering a township. There were people, including children, some even of preschool age, climbing and crawling up and down the dump. They collected and carried off whatever precious items they could find: food, things to sell. I watched kids going about it very methodically.
That day left me morally exhausted.
Afterwards, we went for a drink at the bar of our Pretoria hotel. The bar was filled with young white conscripts in uniform – loud, boisterous, full of vulgar jokes and fat laughs, typical of young soldiers anywhere in the world. Except, these soldiers were our targets. The next morning, they would ride merrily into a township with their hangovers and vulgar jokes to shoot unarmed youngsters their own age without giving it a second thought. Because they had been fed so many lies. I was sick and walked out. A tremendous anger came over me. How could apartheid leaders do this to their own kids?
But the government, through their violence, torture, states of emergency, detentions, pettiness and lies, was slowly losing hold of white society as well.
Attack on Church Street
“It was hard to be the only public face put to that bomb for many years.”
Hélène explains her involvement in the Church Street bomb attack on 20 May 1983:
I wish my commander hadn’t chosen me to drive that car from Swaziland to Pretoria. At the time, it was just one of the many things I was ordered to do, and few of them were routine jobs. This one also needed some training and experience in secret missions. I knew it was a car bomb, probably for a military target, but hadn’t been involved in the project. Seeing the images of the blast on television was a total shock. Those images have never left me.
I didn’t think in terms of an attack on the heart of Afrikaner conservatism. But I had no say in the choice of targets. If I had wanted to attack the heart of Afrikanerdom, I would have put a bomb, even a tiny one, in or around the Voortrekker Monument. In my eyes, the architecture symbolises pure fascism. Remember, I was a World War II child. But when I suggested that to Joe Slovo once, he rather sternly replied that the ANC didn’t attack people’s cultural places or symbols.
Here, I should mention my great respect for General Gert Opperman, who, as I read on LitNet years ago, transformed the beautiful heritage nature area around the monument into a recreation area for families and organised cultural events – even a non-racial fashion show in the Cenotaph Hall that produced outrage in some circles. That really showed the courage of transformation for a better future. Perhaps I should visit again.
But thinking of the heart of Afrikaner conservatism, I must admit I did hate Pretoria. Of the South African cities and towns that I knew, it was the one where open racism and humiliation lurked around every corner, and of course it was the heart of the regime and all its institutions and headquarters. My dislike of Pretoria was such that I couldn’t appreciate the elegance of the Union Buildings. And once, when I looked out of my 4th floor cell window in Pretoria Central Prison on the purple, city-wide expanse of blooming jacarandas, I was suddenly gripped by anger. That breathtaking beauty concealed untold ugliness and felt like treason.
It was hard to be the only public face put to that bomb for many years. I was made to pay a price. It was war, and one must live with the fluid contours of responsibility that war may call forth. In the ANC, there was much discussion, and it wasn’t always dispassionate. There is a book in progress on the special operations unit of the MK, in which the internal controversy over Church Street will certainly be spun out.
Looking back, I hope it doesn’t sound Machiavellian if I say that in the madness of such a conflict, the stubborn persistence in the escalation of an all-out war can ultimately lead only to total destruction. Sometimes, a big shock is needed for some people to come to their senses. This is what OR Tambo meant when he said to me that sometimes such things are necessary. Tambo certainly didn’t like it. It was also in that period of the early 1980s that Joe Slovo said, “We don’t want to inherit a destroyed economy, a destroyed country.” And also, “All wars end in negotiations.”
I hope that future historians who look at the Church Street bombing in a wider context and time span will see it as a key episode on the way to negotiations and the end of apartheid.
Klaas and Hélène arrested
In the following video, Hélène tells how she and Klaas de Jonge were arrested by the South African security police in 1985. She stood trial alone after Klaas managed to escape into the Dutch embassy in Pretoria, where he was holed up for two years.
“A policeman saw us in the night in the veld in Chloorkop near Kempton Park, checked the spot after we had sped off, and found the full cache.”
“They arrested me the next day, Friday 28 June, five days after Klaas.”
“I stood trial alone in 1986 and was convicted of treason on grounds of being a resident in South Africa, but Klaas never stood trial.”
“Le Jeune is French for De Jonge! So, I understood that Klaas had escaped, but only later I heard he was in the Dutch embassy.”
“You won’t be a human anymore; you won’t be a woman anymore.”
While in custody, Hélène was tortured by the South African security police. She recounts her experience at the hands of a man who is still walking free. For legal reasons, his name is being withheld:
Nobody reported my torturer to the TRC. We probably should have. He claims he never killed anyone, nor used violence or torture. I guess that is why he didn’t care to apply for amnesty. The TRC was restricted to cover “gross human rights abuses”, which more or less tacitly, I think, had to involve murder, death in detention, bloodshed. There was also an idea in ANC and MK circles that the TRC was, in the first place, for innocent victims and their family members, not for combatants.
There is no peace to be had with that man. He is the kind of torturer who wouldn’t stop. If he could have, he wouldn’t have stopped before he had killed our minds and crushed our dignity. “When we’re through with you,” he used to say at the first interrogation at John Vorster Square, “you won’t be a human anymore, you won’t be a woman anymore.” That was his starting line with each of us, and it would soon become clear he meant what he said.
Once I was sentenced, he didn’t stop either. He had me isolated again in the Kroonstad prison, and in overt and especially covert ways, he tried for months to manipulate me into testifying against a comrade. He even had the guts to assure the prosecutor that he got on very well with me. (To my delight, she told him off when they visited me in prison together.)
The torturers didn’t stop in 1994. They are still dangerous. I believe that it was my torturer who passed contents of my security file to the press in 1996. It was before the TRC started, before one could file an amnesty application. And, as a result of his actions, a docket was reopened against me. I guess those men kept material for blackmailing people, as an insurance against having to pay for their crimes.
During one of my visits to South Africa, I stayed in a minister’s residence. On a day when the minister was out of the country – which my torturer apparently got means of knowing – he phoned on the secret ministerial landline and offered the person who took the call “interesting information” on me and another comrade.
When I was in solitary confinement at John Vorster Square, my torturer brought his son, who was four or five years old, to meet me in the cells. It was a Sunday. He was such a sweet little boy. I will feel sorry for him and his kids if and when his father stands trial and they come to know who he really is.
There were some decent people around the isolation cells of the security police in John Vorster Square in Johannesburg. The district surgeon, Dr Jacobson, saved me twice by refusing to comply with pernicious SB orders and succeeded in getting me hospitalised. The young, kind women constables who had to keep watch over us in our dark cells on their video screens, began to imagine what solitary detention in those cells meant for us. During my eight months there, all of them, except for one sadist, disappeared after a while because of nervous breakdowns. There was a coloured warrant officer in charge of the cell section who asked me if I could recommend a good sangoma for his terminally ill wife. He tried to help when I had a full-blown psychotic crisis in the cell during the last weeks of detention after my return from hospital.
On the bad side, there was a white dentist in his private practice they once took me to. The man drilled extensively on the nerve of a tooth that didn’t need treatment, while spewing insults against the ANC. Strangely, no escort came with me into the dentist’s surgery. Apparently, the dentist was part of an “outsourced” physical torture programme.
In contrast, there were the doctors of Johannesburg Hospital. I landed there in the psychiatric ward after more than six months in solitary confinement, and probably following poisoning by a neurological substance. By the time I saw a doctor after collapsing, it was untraceable in my blood. The Johannesburg Hospital psychiatrists complained and managed to ban my torturer from visiting me when they noticed him continuing with his manipulation efforts at my bedside.
These doctors had to treat a constant flow of detainees. They said that they couldn’t bear to see perfectly healthy, militant people having been deliberately made seriously ill by the likes of my torturer. I saw young black comrades there who were aphasic and didn’t respond to treatment.
As far as I know, none of the comrades who passed through this man’s hands has felt a need to make peace with him.
The war is over, but there is still a big backlog of justice. The TRC promised otherwise. The Ahmed Timol and Neil Aggett inquests bring a ray of hope, even if it is late in the day.
Kroonstad prison and the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo
While Hélène was in the Kroonstad prison in 1988, the European Woman of the Year Award was bestowed upon Hélène. At that stage, she was being held in isolation and was hardly able to walk because of frostbite in her hands and feet. In 2011, Hélène received the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo from former president Jacob Zuma. Listen to how she perceives the accolades:
“Belgian surrealism at its best!”
“Remember also, being caught usually meant you had made mistakes, and I surely had.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Hélène was granted amnesty by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission for her role in the Church Street bombing. She reflects on the idea of amnesty and the Commission’s activities:
The TRC certainly set an international benchmark because of the public nature of its hearings. In Chile, there were two truth commissions – 1990 and 2003 – with the recognition of victim status and reparations as main objectives. The first commission initially recognised approximately 3 000 victims, but by 2010 the total number was fixed at 28 000.
When I arrived in Chile as a journalist in 1992, there were almost daily discoveries of secret places of torture, mass graves, anonymous graves of slain militants in cemeteries, and witness evidence of all sorts. Yet, despite that, as well as the report of the first truth commission, Chilean society remained as divided and fearful as during the military coup in 1973.
I found it very hard to stomach the idea that people just didn’t want to believe what had really happened. In my understanding, the main reason for these apprehensions was that the Chilean truth commission had been held behind closed doors.
I was prepared to look the victims of the Church Street bombing in the eye – the only object of my amnesty application, as I had stood trial for my involvement in other MK actions in 1986. I was hoping that it would bring closure, first of all, for the victims, and hopefully also emotional closure for me.
But it was not meant to be.
I was living in a little mountain valley in Chile when the letter from the TRC reached me, too late for me to make it back to South Africa for the hearing in May 1998. Subsequently, it took desperately long, till early 2002, before I received the document granting me amnesty.
For me, the most important thing was the judgement by the TRC’s legal team who investigated the Church Street attack within the context of international law. They concluded that Church Street was a military attack against a legitimate target, the SAAF headquarters, with proportional means. And therefore it was not an act of terrorism against civilians.
Amnesty also meant that I could finally return to South Africa in 2003 for the first time.
The TRC is the subject of many studies, mainly for its novel principle of amnesty in exchange for the truth; also for its success in getting members of the ANC and PAC to apply for amnesty, and for conducting a thorough examination of their acts. But the TRC is also known for its shortcomings, such as reparations and, most of all, the lack of follow-up by the justice system.
All those who didn’t qualify for amnesty or didn’t apply for it, were supposed to be subject to police investigation and charged in court. We are still waiting. Meanwhile, many apartheid criminals die in peace. The recent inquest into the death in detention of Ahmed Timol, and the not yet completed inquest into the Neil Aggett case, only reached the stage of charges and trial as a result of citizens’ efforts.
Another shortcoming that is widely remarked upon is the TRC’s failure to get the highest leadership of the apartheid system to admit to their responsibility – notably both last state presidents, PW Botha and FW de Klerk. In general, critics ask how much reconciliation really took place, and what the long-term effects of the TRC will have in society and for democracy.
Overall, though, it was an international milestone that inspired many others.
South Africa and the ANC today
In this audio clip, Hélène shares her views on the performance of the ANC since becoming South Africa’s ruling party.
“Remember, we won. Apartheid as a system was defeated lock, stock and barrel.”
“There is a lot more truth to uncover, and more Saartjie Baartmans and Lumumbas’ teeth to find and repatriate.”
“Global apartheid is not all about the economy; it is about continued subjugation of hearts and minds.”
“Don’t forget, corruption needs two actors: the facilitator with the funds, and the greedy one with the power.”
Land – South Africa’s burning issue
Having lived in Chile for many years, Hélène observed the fallout of land reform and redistribution. In this sound clip, she draws parallels with the situation in South Africa.
“Land reform stalled, and who knows where this promising plan is collecting dust now.”
“Each time I come to South Africa, I feel disconcerted about the ever-increasing number of fences and gates. I ask my comrades: where will you stop? At the Zimbabwe border?”
The dichotomy of labels
“The apartheid regime called all of us ‘terros’.”
As a freedom fighter, Hélène constantly had to deal with the dichotomy of being regarded as a hero by many, and being described as a “terrorist” by others:
It is unpleasant, of course. But I came to understand that such labels belong to those who apply them, not to me.
People like to label others and are free to do so. But one can’t change the labellers’ minds with reasoning. It only makes things worse. The more arguments you offer, the more doggedly the other side will stick to their conviction that you are a terrorist.
The apartheid regime called all of us “terros”. All that it meant was that we were opponents who operated in an organised manner, with access to weapons. We challenged their state monopoly on armed forces, but we were not a regular army, and that made it difficult for them to beat us.
When people label you as a hero, it is alienating. After my release from prison in 1989, I experienced this when I addressed numerous anti-apartheid gatherings. It felt as if people projected an idealised image of their making onto me, and I often felt like crying out: Please, see me as me!
But even if you did that, it would become worse. People would think, see how humble she is; she really is a hero!
I prefer to leave the dichotomy issue to those it belongs to.