Chairman of the Student Development Fund—Secretary to the 1977 Swedish committee on sanctions against South Africa Executive Director of the International Council of Swedish Industry
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 27 January 1997.
Tor Sellström: How did your involvement with South and Southern Africa begin?
Åke Magnusson: As many others, my first contact was really at the beginning of the 1960s, when the anti-apartheid movement began the consumer boycotts. In the Gothenburg harbour you could watch people with different banners, asking us not to buy South African fruit as a contribution to the struggle against apartheid. I think that this really was my first contact, besides the fact that my grandfather was a missionary. The mission society of which he later became the director operated in Zululand. I remember some of the books he wrote.
Tor Sellström: Was that with the Church of Sweden Mission?
Åke Magnusson: No, it was with the Swedish Alliance Mission, based in Jönköping. But my first involvement—at least when it comes to contacts and awareness—was with the consumer boycott movement, which was fairly strong at the beginning of the 1960s.
Tor Sellström: Then you got involved in the student movement at Gothenburg university?
Åke Magnusson: Yes. That was in the second half of the 1960s. However, I think that it is correct to say that the South African issue was not very dominant in the student movement. It was rather the issues of Vietnam and to some extent Eastern Europe that dominated.
Tor Sellström: What about Mozambique and the question of Cabora Bassa?
Åke Magnusson: Yes, Cabora Bassa was a big issue around 1968. Also Rhodesia was to some extent an issue, with the sanctions and the different activities that ZANU and ZAPU developed in Sweden. In those days, we probably had a greater knowledge of Rhodesia and Mozambique than of South Africa, although you may argue that the South African apartheid question was very dominant for the Cabora Bassa debate, as was the question of distribution of electricity to Rhodesia.
Tor Sellström: Having been involved with South Africa in various capacities, which factors do you think explain both the strong and politically broad Swedish solidarity opinion over the years?
Åke Magnusson: I think that there are many contributing factors. One—and a very important one, indeed—is simply that some key journalists and publishers developed an early interest and also a fairly good knowledge about the prob lems. Not only Per Wästberg, but a few others as well. I think that their commitment—due to the importance of the media—created and maintained a public opinion. It was really critical. Mainly liberal newspapers and individual journalists and editors played a key role in maintaining that interest.
Secondly, apartheid was a symbol of those social and political systems in the world that most of us strongly dislike and feel distaste for. South Africa was extreme, because there were absolute, clear-cut colour lines. I think that it made the conflict enormously obvious and easy to describe, at least in a simplistic way. Therefore, it easily caught the attention of people. It was, literally speaking, a black and white issue. Simplistic as it was, and still is, it was easier to describe than, let’s say, the Indian or the Malaysian caste systems or the feudal pressures in China.
Thirdly, I think that in this country we are American-inspired. It played a significant role that the South African issue—being a colour issue—was dominant in the United States in the 1960s and the 1970s. We were also influenced by the fact that colour is an important issue in the world in general. The US news coverage and political attention to those issues had an influence.
Fourthly, rightly or wrongly, some people argue that Sweden needed a very obvious Third World solidarity example. It fitted in, so to speak, with the general mood of many Swedes in those days. The Third World was important, but we had to make it obvious. The internal, very tragic conflict in South Africa— of which we have not yet seen the final outcome—could fill a gap, or a vacuum.
Fifthly, I think that the political parties in Sweden without doubt needed to find issues in foreign affairs. In those days, there were many big domestic issues that were discussed, but in the international field there was also a need to raise a conflict to create a profile. There again, the Liberal Party belonged without doubt to those forces that at a really early stage—at the beginning of the 1960s—called for economic sanctions. The Social Democratic Party did not give up their opposition to sanctions until the second half of the 1970s. Their view was that binding sanctions should be decided by the UN Security Council, rather than introduced unilaterally.
Tor Sellström: How would you explain the relatively late involvement by the organized Swedish labour movement? Was it because of the UN factor or was it due to concerns regarding job security?
Åke Magnusson: My view would be that it is very much explained by the UN factor. Being fairly close to government circles and government thinking, the trade unions realized that there was chaos in many countries in the world. In order to avoid chaos in the international order, the road set up by the UN had to be obeyed. I think that it really played a significant role. That is not to say that they were as legalistic as Östen Undén, but it was more of that than the Liberal viewpoint. The fact that the Liberals— mainly the Liberals and to some extent the Communists—criticized the co-operative movement played a negative role from a Social Democratic point of view when it came to sanctions. It tied up the positions. At an early stage, the Social Democrats defended the right to free trade.
Indeed, a certain type of conservatism in the labour movement could be explained by the job factor. In some cases it was quite obvious. But I also seriously think that in the labour movement—at least those parts of the movement that I have been attached to or worked for—there is a serious belief that sanctions, irrespective of the moral or symbolic element, constitute a bad and inefficient way to change social conditions and structures in a foreign country. There is an inherent scepticism towards sanctions and isolations.
There are different ways of looking at sanctions. You can look at them as a tactical weapon or as a strategic weapon. Seeing them as a tactical weapon is a way of saying that we use or demand sanctions in order to pressurize. We do not believe in isolation, but we use the threat. The strategic thinkers believe that isolating a country is a way of getting the system down on its knees. I seriously think that there was scepticism in the labour movement towards the strategic thinking.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament paved the way for direct, official humanitarian support to national liberation movements in Southern Africa. All the movements supported by Sweden waged armed struggles and were supported militarily and politically by the Communist camp. How would you explain that non-socialist parties in Sweden, like the Lib eral and the Centre Party, added their voices to this support?
Åke Magnusson: I have two comments. One line of ‘defence’ was to say: ‘This is nothing but humanitarian support. We do not provide weapons, nor ammunition. Only humanitarian goods, like food, first aid kits, trucks etc.’ Regarding trucks, the question would then come: ‘Could they be used for transporting military equipment?’ The Swedish attitude was that the trucks were used to transport foodstuffs, refugees and wounded people. There was a kind of humanitarian Red Cross labelling of the support. That was one way of defending it.
The other was to say: ‘Yes, we do support these movements. We know and recognize that they are supported by the Communists, but that is precisely the reason why we support them. We do not want these movements to be linked for ever to the Communist camp in the world. We support them because we do not want them to become traditional Eastern European Communists’. So, there were two lines of defence for this support. They have not often been made clear. A lot of the Swedish government’s aid was de facto very confidential and secret. In recent years, some people have criticized this, asking: ‘Why did you not tell us in public?’
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the Swedish support actually counterbalanced the Communist influence, for example in the case of ANC?
Åke Magnusson: In the case of ANC, it is my firm impression—which later has been substantiated— that the Swedish cash support in particular was very significant. Sweden supplied thirty to fifty per cent of the total cash that ANC received. I seriously believe that it had a great impact and influence.
Tor Sellström: When the Social Democratic Party lost the elections in 1976, it was succeeded by a non-socialist coalition government, including the conservative Moderate Party. Many people— also in the liberation movements—believed that it would put an end to a progressive Swedish policy towards the liberation movements. Instead, the assistance was increased and the first sanctions legislation was introduced by the Liberal Ullsten government in 1979. How do you look upon this?
Åke Magnusson: In part, the Social Democrats had given the impression to the liberation movements that they were the only ones in Sweden behind the policy of support, materially and politically. But the Social Democrats had informed their friends badly, because it was well known that the Liberal Party for years had demanded strong sanctions and increased support to the liberation movements. Their annual congresses had repeatedly, even without a vote, asked for such actions.
There were a couple of factors that came together in 1976. One was that the Social Democratic Party lost power, which I would argue gave the party a possibility—or at least made it easier—to turn around when it came to unilateral sanctions. For fairly obvious reasons, it is easier to do that in opposition than when you are in power. I am not saying that opposition parties are more irresponsible, but it is easier to make policy shifts when you are in opposition.
Secondly, the non-socialist coalition government consisted of the Centre, the Liberal and the Moderate Party. It was obvious that the Liberal Party—and to some extent the Centre Party—had sanctions and tougher measures on the agenda. In fact, you may argue that the Liberal Party had the sanctions issue as the international question. They did not say very much about Vietnam, Russia or Latin America. It was South Africa.
Thirdly, I would argue that the Moderate Party at a very early stage realized that there was a clear parliamentary majority in favour of sanctions. They did not find it worthwhile to try to fight this situation. They simply wanted to de-escalate the issue in order to keep the coalition together. It was a minor question for them, so, why not give the Liberals and the Centre Party a few things. In return, they could organize Sweden internally. This might sound like a cynical analysis, but I think that that is how politics operates.
In those days, I worked for the government, being the secretary of the parliamentary committee that prepared the sanctions legislation. I remember when we tabled our report to Staffan Burenstam-Linder, the Moderate Minister of Trade. His only question—if I recall it correctly—was: ‘Are you sure that this proposal has no legal loopholes?’ I was the one who firmly said: ‘No, Sir, there is no problem with this legislation’, which I am not sure was the correct answer.
Tor Sellström: Before that you served as assistant secretary to the LO/TCO mission that visited South Africa in 1975. The visit and the rec ommendations made by the mission were heavily criticized by ANC, sectors of LO/TCO and the Swedish solidarity movement as they went counter to the ‘isolation strategy’ and advocated support to existing trade unions in South Africa. Do you think that the recommendations based on the ‘new strategy’ were conducive to a strengthening of the labour movement in South Africa?
Åke Magnusson: Without any doubt. The most important factor for the change in South Africa was not overseas interventions, sanctions or other measures. Certainly, sanctions—particularly financial sanctions—played a role, but the important factor was that South African labour organized itself in close cooperation with ANC and to some extent with PAC and other political organizations. It would not only be unfair, but unintelligent to suggest that the liberation of South Africa would have come about without that. The great majority inside South Africa actually achieved the change by themselves.
I have never believed in strategic isolation of a country. I think that history shows that it does not work. If I am wrong, please show me the examples. Look at China, Iraq, Libya and a couple of other countries.
The liberation, or the political change, of South Africa was—although to some extent assisted by ANC in exile—really due to the rising of organized labour. That was evident in the 1970s and totally obvious in the 1980s. Politically, COSATU was ten times more productive and creative than—with all due respect—what was done in Stockholm.
However, I must admit that financial sanctions played a crucial role at a certain stage. They had a kind of trigger effect, but were not the general cause. Financial sanctions were mostly carried out by US banks. The South Africans could not get credit lines, but had to run the country on a cash basis. I truly believe that the white South Africans could have carried on, maintaining relative stability for another ten, maybe fifteen or twenty years. However, due to the financial sanctions they fell under pressure from big business.
Tor Sellström: When you went to South Africa with LO/TCO in 1975, you visited a number of Swedish-owned companies. Did they in any decisive way differ from comparable South African companies regarding working conditions, union rights, salaries and so forth? If so, did your visit have an impact in this regard?
Åke Magnusson: The first part of the question is very easy to answer, because we did not visit any comparable South African companies. However, my impression is that—generally speaking— the Swedish companies did not differ very much from the South African except with regard to the attitudes of management. When you talked to the management at the Swedish companies, they were very open. Some were scared, but still open. If you said: ‘This locker room looks dirty’, they would not argue, but immediately say ‘Yes, it is, and that will be changed’. I know for sure that the management at the company headquarters in Sweden—and I am pretty sure also the local management in South Africa—realized the importance of as good a working environment as possible. It implied—and this was the difference—negotiations with the employees.
Depending on how you look at change and how you believe that change in societies is coming about, you may argue that the fact that Swedish companies made a couple of progressive moves did not really change the system very much. But, step by step, it certainly changed the working environment. Not dramatically, but in a way that was noticeable for the employees, at least for a couple of thousand blacks. SKF—the second or third company in the metal sector—took a policy decision to negotiate, not via the central council system, but directly with the employees. I think that it contributed to the change that followed later on in the South African society and in the work places. In some cases, Swedish companies were actually in the forefront. I am not saying that it was key to the abolition of apartheid, but it certainly played a role in creating space.
To make it very clear, none of the trade unions that we came in contact with in those days—whether Communist, liberal or conservative—rejected us. There was a clear difference when you talked to ANC officials and when you talked to the COSATU base. The demands for sanctions and isolation were certainly not coming from organized labour. They wanted an active, dynamic presence rather than withdrawal. I know for sure that in most of the cases they did not want us to withdraw and that is the main reason why the five or six Swedish metal companies actually did not close. The metalworkers’ unions really wanted them to stay.
Tor Sellström: In exile, the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) was strongly represented. In your view, would it be fair to say that the support channelled by LO/TCO from 1977 onwards was given to strengthen the non-Communist unions in South Africa or was it given without ideological considerations?
Åke Magnusson: My very firm impression is that SACTU did not exist in South Africa. Of course, sections did, but SACTU was not anchored in the minds of the working population. It is true that SACTU played a role as an outside force—for instance, taking part at the UN—but inside SACTU did not have any significant role to play.
Whether the union movement in Sweden wanted to undermine SACTU by mainly giving assistance to other tendencies in the South African labour movement, I do not know. I would not be surprised if that was the case. LO/TCO had a lot of contacts with the European trade union movement and with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). Even if there was a bilateral assistance programme, the funds were partly channelled multilaterally via ICFTU and the attitudes towards SACTU were probably coloured by positions in Germany, Denmark and other NATO countries.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish industrialist Peter Wallenberg was interviewed in Svenska Dagbladet before Sweden lifted sanctions and then in a TV programme after the democratic elections in South Africa. On both occasions, he said that sanctions had hit harder against Swedish industry than against South Africa. Do you think that his opinion is representative of Swedish business interests?
Åke Magnusson: What I think that he meant was simply that we should not underestimate the fact— particularly after October 1987—that Swedish commercial interests were forbidden in South Africa and that they earlier had not invested there. Looking at it from a business perspective, it had a significant negative impact. For a mining equipment company like Atlas Copco, sanctions influenced the market very much. The Anglo-American company Boart got a chance to grow substantially. In fact, they got about fifty per cent of the total market for mining equipment, while before sanctions they only had some twenty-five per cent. I think that it is fair to say that from a purely business point of view, sanctions played a very negative role when it came to market positions. Lost market shares can, of course, be recaptured, but in the mining equipment sector this is not so easy. The competitors—Finnish, Canadian and South African—are very strong.
Tor Sellström: Another way of looking at it would be that this was an investment in the future. Do you think that the Swedish official position has created good-will for Swedish companies in the new South Africa, or would you say that it does not play a role and that Swedish business is treated as any other on the market?
Åke Magnusson: One must first recognize that South Africa at the business level is still dominated by the same establishment as before. The manager is still white. It may take a generation to change that situation.
I think that the solidarity factor has created good-will for Sweden in certain circles, but that is not to say that we win any particular favours. In a way, I do not think that we should ask for that either. When Nelson Mandela was here in 1992, we had a lunch meeting hosted by Peter Wallenberg. Mandela then said that Swedish industry would be rewarded for supporting the struggle and that he would love to do business with friends rather than with enemies. My very firm impression, however, is that there has not been a business payoff. That should not be the case either, because it would be bribery and corruption.
I remember a discussion a year ago when I reminded one of the South African telecommunication union leaders that Ericsson’s competitors Alcatel and Siemens had not supported the struggle, but that they had exploited the South African consumers to the extent that they paid three times more for telephone connections than the world average. He then said: ‘That is history’. A short answer to the question would thus be that we have not, in business terms, noticed any particular favours because Sweden supported the antiapartheid struggle. However, the doors seem to be open. We are fairly popular. That, I think, is a better basis than waiting for political payoffs as a result of what we did in the past.