The former ANC cabinet minister and Trinity law professor, who died earlier this year, reveals in his memoirs published this week how volunteers recruited from Ireland carried out reconnaissance on one of the country’s most strategic installations – the Sasol oil refinery in Sasolburg, near Johannesburg, before it was bombed on June 1st, 1980.
The attack was carried out by Umkhonto we Sizwe, better known as MK, the military wing of the ANC, and struck a major blow against the apartheid state at the time.
In his book, Politics in my Blood , Asmal, founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM), also claims Gerry Adams provided the IRA volunteers to carry out the mission after he contacted go-between Michael O’Riordan, then general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland.
Asmal, who died in June this year aged 76, recounts how he was approached in the late 1970s to help arrange training for MK cadres in Ireland.
“I was very keen, but it was a delicate task because it would of necessity involve the IRA. None of us wished to place the ANC office in London in jeopardy or fuel the allegations of connivance between the ANC and IRA,” he writes.
“I went to see the general secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, Michael O’Riordan, who was a man of great integrity and whom I trusted to keep a secret. He in turn contacted Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin and it was arranged that two military experts would come to Dublin to meet two MK personnel and take them to a safe place for two weeks of intensive training. I believe the expertise the MK cadres obtained was duly imparted to others in the ANC camps in Angola.”
Asmal says he was later approached again by the MK high command who wanted two people to conduct a reconnaissance operation on the feasibility of attacking Sasol, South Africa’s major oil refinery, vital to the maintenance of the apartheid state.
“Once again, I arranged the task with Adams of Sinn Féin, through the mediation of O’Riordan. Though I no longer recall the names of the persons who volunteered, if indeed I ever knew them, they laid the ground for one of the most dramatic operations carried out by MK personnel.”
Recalling the 1980 attack as one the most daring acts of military insurgency in the struggle against apartheid, he writes: “. . . while the damage to the refinery was, according to the apartheid regime, relatively superficial, the propaganda value and its effect on the morale of the liberation movement were inestimable. Yet only Louise (my wife) and I knew the attack on Sasolburg was the result of reconnaissance carried out by members of the IRA.”
He adds: “At the time of the Sasolburg attack, I was very much in tune with Ireland and with Irish needs and aspirations. I was a strong believer in Irish independence and in a united Ireland. But I never supported the IRA.”
He added: “The attack on Sasolburg had nothing to do with the IAAM, and nobody knew about the story behind it except Louise and me.
“When the plant blew up, we were so excited I suppose some of the other IAAM people must have wondered if we had any connection or involvement.”
A law professor at Trinity College Dublin for 27 years, Asmal returned to South Africa in 1990, and became Minister of Education after elections in 1999.