THE IRA played a central role in the 1980 bombing of the apartheid South African regime’s Sasol oil refinery, according to the soon-to-be-published memoir of the late Kader Asmal, African National Congress minister and founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.
The attack was a huge psychological blow to the Pretoria regime, a boost to the resistance movement, and made headline news across the world.
Asmal left South Africa in 1959 to study law and graduated from the London School of Economics before teaching at Trinity College Dublin, specialising in human rights, labour and international law. He served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts from 1980 to 1986.
Professor Asmal was the founder of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement and became a minister in ANC governments in post-apartheid South Africa.
In his memoir to be published next month, ‘Politics in My Blood’, he claims that while he was in political exile in Ireland he was involved in arranging contacts between the IRA and the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (better known as ‘MK’) in the late 1970s.
He says that IRA military experts arrived in Dublin to take two MK operatives off on “two weeks of intensive training”.
Later, on the night of 31st May 1980, a massive bomb attack hit the Sasol Oil Refinery at Sasolburg, near Johannesburg in South Africa. The operation, timed to coincide with the apartheid state’s ‘Republic Day’, was carried out by the Solomon Mahlangu Detachment of the MK’s Special Operations Unit and struck a major blow against the racist regime.
The MK originally claimed that the special units which took part in the operation were trained in Angola in July 1979 before arriving in South Africa to carry out reconaissance on the plant. MK said:
“The teams were infiltrated into the country and a final reconnaissance was carried out the night before the attacks. Special limpet mines with thermite were then placed on fuel tanks and the teams withdrew undetected. The limpet mines exploded and eight fuel tanks in all were destroyed, causing damage estimated at £45million.”
The fires caused by the explosion could be seen for miles around and blazed for almost a week before they were completely brought under control. Nobody was killed in the attacks although a security guard was injured.
An MK operative who was part of the unit that carried out the operation said the bombing was hailed as “a great success by MK commanders and Chief of Staff Joe Slovo”.
Kader Asmal, recalling the attack, 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.”
• Asmal died of a heart attack in June of this year, aged 76. His book, ‘Politics in my Blood’, will be released in Ireland next month and will be available from the Sinn Féin Bookshop.
Miliband’s admiration for attack
IN 2009, the then British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, David Miliband MP, was asked by BBC Radio 4’s ‘Great Lives’ presenter Matthew Parris whether there were “circumstances in which violent reaction, terrorism, is the right response?”
“The most famous ANC military attack was on the Sasol oil refinery in 1980. That was perceived to be remarkable blow at the heart of the South African regime. But I think the answer has to be yes — there are circumstances in which it is justifiable, and, yes, there are circumstances in which it is effective — but it is never effective on its own.
“The importance for me is that the South African example proved something remarkable: the apartheid regime looked like a regime that would last forever, and it was blown down.
“It is hard to argue that, on its own, a political struggle would have delivered. The striking at the heart of a regime’s claim on a monopoly of power, which the ANC’s armed wing represented, was very significant.”
By Mark Moloney. This article first appeared in the September edition of the An Phoblacht newspaper.