Journalist and member of the Swedish South Africa Committee—Africa correspondent of Dagens Nyheter—Regional reporter of Dagens Nyheter
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Eskilstuna, 19 November 1996.
Tor Sellström: Why did you get involved with South and Southern Africa?
Anders Johansson: I believe that it has to do with my background and upbringing in an small Christian community in Västergötland. My parents belonged to the Free Baptist Union, a very small church with about 2,000 members. It was both an informal and a very strict church. All the men were pacifists, for example, so some of my relatives went to jail because they refused to do military service. This little church also sent missionaries to South Africa, Northern Rhodesia and Mozambique. Some of them were my relatives and they stayed quite a lot in my home. I got firsthand information from Africa from them. That, I believe, started my interest in Southern Africa.
Tor Sellström: The South Africa Committee that you started in 1963 was situated in Jönköping, often called the ‘Jerusalem of Sweden’. Do you think that your church connections facilitated the setting up of the committee?
Anders Johansson: No, not really. I had started to work as a journalist at Jönköpingsposten in 1960, when I was only about seventeen and a half. I was interested in international affairs in general and in Africa in particular. The South Africa Committee was set up in February 1963, just before the launch of the boycott campaign by the National Council of Swedish Youth (SUL). I had then done part of my non-armed civic service at the Arlanda International Airport in the spring of 1961. During my first ever visit to Stockholm, I attended a meeting on South Africa in May 1961. The speakers were Victor Vinde, Arvid Svärd, Gunnar Helander, Per Wästberg, Charles Kauraisa from Namibia and Herbert Tingsten. Tingsten received the biggest applause when he said that “it is not the negroes in South Africa who should thank us, but we who should thank them for the enthusiasm and anger that they inspire”.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that the antiapartheid opinion in Sweden started in the liberal camp?
Anders Johansson: Yes, I would agree with that. Several of these people were prominent Liberals. The Social Democrats ined later.
Tor Sellström: When you started the Jönköping South Africa Committee, which issues did you raise?
Anders Johansson: It was the apartheid system and the oppression in South Africa. The more ideological and political implications of that came later. This was also the era of non-violence. You had Albert Luthuli in South Africa, but also Martin Luther King in America. It was the spirit of the early 1960s.
Tor Sellström: But ANC took a decision to initiate armed struggle. Was that a problem in your solidarity work?
Anders Johansson: I remember that we had a lot of discussions about that. The different South Africa Committees in Sweden had several meetings where we discussed how we could prepare the public opinion for the forthcoming violence in South Africa. You had this background of nonviolence put forward by Luthuli. At the same time you had ANC speakers in Sweden who talked about a revolution. We discussed how we could prepare the public opinion for this change. In the Swedish South Africa Committee we discussed various statements—which we at that time did not make public—to the effect that we supported the liberation movements on their own conditions.
Tor Sellström: Being a pacifist yourself, was it not a problem for you?
Anders Johansson: It was a great problem, of course, both with my Christian background and being a pacifist. It created a lot of contradictory emotions.
Tor Sellström: At a very early stage, you and the different South Africa Committees established close relations with ANC. Did you not have contacts with PAC?
Anders Johansson: No, our contacts were mainly with ANC. The first ANC person that I remember—and who I met personally—was Duma Nokwe. Later there was Raymond Kunene from the ANC London office and, of course, Billy Modise, who was a very influential student in Lund and who participated in our public meetings and internal discussions. He was a major source of inspiration. We also had contacts with Abdul Minty, Ruth First and others. One contact led to another and it was not difficult to create a network. It was, however, mainly with ANC. Going through my files, I found that I had written a letter to PAC, asking for information about their struggle, but apparently I did not even get a reply.
Tor Sellström: Many of the early ANC visitors to Sweden, such as Duma Nokwe and Arthur Goldreich, were also prominent members of the South African Communist Party. Did they appear publicly as members of the Communist Party or only as ANC?
Anders Johansson: As I remember, only as ANC. However, I do not recall any conflict regarding membership of the South African Communist Party. Besides, the main organizer of solidarity activities on a national scale apart from the Swedish South Africa Committee was SUL, which included the Communist Youth so, in principle, you could not have anything against that. But, for us they were ANC.
Tor Sellström: So the question of Communism was not a divisive factor?
Anders Johansson: No, not among the local South Africa Committees. There were a lot of radical people, mainly in the Lund committee. In Jönköping, we mainly cooperated with the Lund committee, where there were some Communist members. But that was not the issue. We looked at what different individuals achieved in the solidarity work. For example, we had a conflict regarding the way the South Africa Committees should be organized in relation to SUL, which was a national organization including all kinds of people, from nonpolitical organizations to the Communist Youth League. In the South Africa Committees, we wanted to build a strong unity between individuals who wanted to participate in solidarity work. In Jönköping, I think that we managed that. We both had organizations and individuals, mainly young students at the local secondary school, as members.
Tor Sellström: You founded the Jönköping South Africa Committee just before the launch of the SUL campaign on 1 March 1963. The campaign was for a consumer boycott of South African goods. Did you not raise the issue of total sanctions against South Africa?
Anders Johansson: Yes, we did. We tried to hit at different Swedish companies, such as the Transatlantic shipping company in Gothenburg. The work developed from a consumer boycott to the demand for sanctions, but it is difficult to make a division between the two, because they were inter-connected. There was, for example, a close connection between the imports by different companies, how they were shipped to Sweden and sold to the consumers. However, what we described as our political enemies in Sweden were at that time often the trade unions, who sided with the companies against the South Africa Committees. There was a kind of unholy alliance between the trade unions and the export companies, and, of course, the trade unions also influenced the Social Democratic government in the beginning.
Tor Sellström: Does this also mean that you did not have Social Democratic activists in the local South Africa Committees?
Anders Johansson: Yes, we did, but they were in opposition to the party leadership, where you had people like Torsten Nilsson and Kaj Björk. They were the people that we mostly had to argue with about sanctions. They kept a very strict legal line, maintaining that sanctions had to be imposed by the UN Security Council and not by individual governments, which we demanded.
Tor Sellström: Did you find Olof Palme more receptive to your demands? Was he involved with South and Southern Africa?
Anders Johansson: Yes, he was. I think that he was the main force behind the change within the Social Democratic Party, for example, on the issue of Cabora Bassa later in the 1960s. We did not have many discussions with him, but he must have been quite influential for the change.
Quite early, we also saw the need of direct discussions between people coming from Southern Africa—not only South Africa, but also Rhodesia, for example—and we set up meetings between them and Social Democratic politicians such as Sten Andersson, Arne Geijer and Anders Thunborg, who was then the party secretary for international affairs and a member of the Swedish South Africa Committee.
Tor Sellström: So your strategy was that the visitors from Southern Africa should meet the political leadership in Sweden?
Anders Johansson: Yes, of course. That was necessary. They were the people in power and they had to be influenced.
Tor Sellström: At a very early stage, you corresponded with a number of ANC leaders and managed to have articles by them published in the Swedish newspapers. I am thinking of people such as Ronnie Kasrils, Ruth First and Joe Slovo. How did this come about?
Anders Johansson: It was through a network of contacts. I met Ruth First for the first time in January 1965 and I also came in contact with Kasrils. Apparently, they got to know that I not only had a platform on the South Africa Committee, but that I also was a journalist. They asked me for help to get the articles published and I did as much as I could. Sometimes we succeeded and sometimes not.
Tor Sellström: One of the articles, I understand, was by Joe Slovo on the joint ANC-ZAPU ‘Wankie campaign’?
Anders Johansson: That is right. It was published as quite a big feature in the Sunday edition of Dagens Nyheter. Actually, I managed to have articles by ANC people published in Aftonbladet in 1965, so it was not only in Dagens Nyheter.
Tor Sellström: So, leading South African Communists wrote in Swedish Social Democratic and Liberal newspapers?
Anders Johansson: Yes, but we never introduced them as Communists. I do not even think that they used their correct names, but Ruth First was, of course, an authority on South African affairs by herself, not as a member of the Communist Party.
Tor Sellström: During the first half of the 1960s, which were the forces in Sweden that were against the solidarity work?
Anders Johansson: The trade unions were quite a big force. Some of them were against us during the Cabora Bassa debate in the late 1960s. But the picture was not black or white. There were companies who cooperated with us and gave us information, for instance, in Jönköping. Among the trade unions, the Seamen’s Union and others also gave us information about ships coming and going.
A major issue in 1964 concerned the Swedish missions in South Africa. On behalf of the Swedish South Africa Committee, we tried to organize a conference between the churches and the local South Africa Committees to discuss the fact that they cooperated with the regime in South Africa to be allowed to stay there and that they received assistance from the South African government for their social work. But the initiative failed. The most conservative mission societies, like the Swedish Alliance Mission and the Holiness Union refused to participate. The Swedish Alliance Mission was the strongest mission society in the Jönköping area and quite a strong local force against us. For me personally, this process created a division between myself and the church of my childhood, the Free Baptist Union. I broke with them and that was it. I believed that they cooperated too closely with the South African regime.
Tor Sellström: Did you join another church?
Anders Johansson: No, I lost my faith, I guess, over South Africa.
Tor Sellström: In the late 1960s, the first generation of solidarity organizations, the South Africa Committees, withered and died. New organizations—the Africa Groups—were formed in the 1970s. Why did the South Africa Committees disappear?
Anders Johansson: In my own case, I decided in 1965-66 to leave the Swedish South Africa Committee. Not because of a lack of interest or enthusiasm, but as a journalist I wanted to be impartial. Officially, I resigned from the board of the South Africa Committee in 1967. Working at Dagens Nyheter’s foreign news desk, I believed that you could not be a journalist and at the same time be active in an organization. However, by then I had established quite a good network with Africa. The same year, I was sent to cover the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt. I stayed for a month in Cairo, where there were a lot of important Southern Africans, like Andreas Shipanga from SWAPO of Namibia. He put me in touch with other interesting people from Southern Africa.
People were dropping out for several different reasons. Many activists in the South Africa Committees were students. They later got jobs and families, or were involved in other organizations. However, the main reason was, of course, that Africa became overshadowed by the developments in Indochina.
Tor Sellström: Through the South Africa Committees, you had early contacts with Namibia. Do you recall your first contacts with SWAPO?
Anders Johansson: I think that it was in the mid-1960s. I do not remember exactly, but it must have been before meeting Andreas Shipanga in Cairo. I was quite influenced by some of the first members of the South Africa Committee in Lund. They were very clearsighted and saw at an early stage that SWAPO was a stronger force than SWANU. I wrote articles in that spirit in Dagens Nyheter and according to Shipanga I could be ‘SWAPO’s man in Sweden’. I do not know if that is true, but quite early we formed an opinion that SWAPO was a force to reckon with in Namibia.
Tor Sellström: Later in the 1960s you got very involved with Mozambique, becoming the first Western journalist to visit the liberated areas in 1968, together with Eduardo Mondlane. How did you get in contact with FRELIMO?
Anders Johansson: I had met Mondlane in Stockholm in September 1965. At that time, I worked for a short time at Aftonbladet. I approached him as a journalist and interviewed him. Eduardo Mondlane and his wife Janet came quite often to Sweden. They became good friends with the then chief editor of Dagens Nyheter, Olof Lagercrantz. We met, and in January 1968 I went to Dar es Salaam to cover the official visit by Prime Minister Tage Erlander to Tanzania. I got an interview with President Nyerere and his permission to cross the border into Mozambique with FRELIMO together with Mondlane on his first visit ever to the liberated areas. Samora Machel and several other important FRELIMO leaders went on this mission. I was the first journalist to go there. Before me there had only been a Yugoslavian film crew.
Tor Sellström: You published your impressions from that visit widely throughout the world?
Anders Johansson: Yes, Dagens Nyheter had a department which helped me with that. I also used my earlier contacts to distribute the information. I think that it was of particular interest at the time, because the view formed by the Portuguese propaganda was that FRELIMO was not a very important force and that they had no liberated areas in Mozambique. My articles had a news value. They turned the Portuguese propaganda upside down.
Tor Sellström: At the same time, the Swedish company ASEA was bidding for the Cabora Bassa hydro-electrical project?
Anders Johansson: That came somewhat later. The main issue there was to prove that the electricity from Cabora Bassa would not only go to South Africa, but also to Rhodesia, and I think that we were able to do that. Collecting different press cuttings and other information, I managed to put together a picture where it was apparent that Rhodesia was involved.
Together with some friends in the Lund South Africa Committee—Ulf Agrell and Lars-Erik Johansson—I had formed a ‘South African Information Service’, which we used as a cover to get information from official sources in Salisbury and Johannesburg. We wrote to different organizations and individuals in the name of the South African Information Service. That is how we managed to receive some interesting—and, as it turned out, important— information.
Tor Sellström: As you recollect, how did other international journalists view the official Swedish support to the liberation movements in Southern Africa?
Anders Johansson: I do not think that it was a big issue, because it was not public. They did not know about it. Of course, Sweden was regarded as a friend of the Southern African liberation movements. That was obvious, but the extent of the support was not apparent. They regarded us as sympathizers.
Tor Sellström: And the liberation movements, how did they look upon Sweden?
Anders Johansson: I think that some leaders could be critical, but, generally speaking, it was not the case. I remember many hot discussions where I—as an individual—criticized the Swedish government from a radical point of view, but was attacked for being critical of a friendly person like Olof Palme. I think that they in general were quite happy with what they received, but I sometimes wondered how close the relations really were. I recall, for example, that ANC during Olof Palme’s visit to Zambia in 1971 had difficulties in making contact with him. They asked me, a private journalist, to act as middleman to set up a meeting between Oliver Tambo and Palme. I do not think that Palme did not want to meet Tambo, but, somehow, the Swedish diplomats’ contacts were not what they should have been. It ended up with me contacting Pierre Schori, who organized a meeting between the two leaders.
Tor Sellström: In 1976, the Social Democratic Party lost the elections and a non-socialist coalition government was formed. It continued the Social Democratic policy of support to the liberation movements and introduced the first sanctions law against South Africa in 1979. Why did it take such a long time to introduce sanctions? How come that the investments ban was introduced by a non-socialist government?
Anders Johansson: At that time, it was already in the pipeline and there was a great consensus among the Swedish politicians. The movement had started with the Liberals. The Social Democrats became active later. It was perhaps a surprise to the Africans that the assistance did not stop or was not reduced under the new government, but there was such a great force behind it in Sweden. I do not think that it was ever in question. In addition, perhaps the non-socialist parties were keen not to be seen as lagging behind the Social Democrats regarding the liberation process in Southern Africa.
Yes, it took a long time to introduce sanctions. At some stage, there were strong forces, like the trade unions against it and there were also the legal arguments about what the United Nations should do and not do. That has always played an important role in Swedish foreign policy.
Tor Sellström: How would you describe the relationship between the NGO solidarity movement and the Swedish government?
Anders Johansson: I think that the early network was important. You had individual members of the South Africa Committees who later rose within the political establishment. It was mainly the case on the Social Democratic side, with people such as Birgitta Dahl and others. Quite early, they were active in these circles and later got important positions and responsibilities, and influenced the position taken by the Swedish government.
Tor Sellström: The only country where there was a debate regarding the Swedish support to the liberation movements was Angola. The Liberal party advocated support to both FNLA and MPLA. How would you explain that Sweden only supported MPLA, which was considered to be close to the Soviet Union?
Anders Johansson: I was never really involved in Angola and I do not think that I have a good answer. However, the picture was not black or white. Expressen—a liberal paper—collected at a very early stage medicines for MPLA and later Liberals like Olle Wästberg tried to get the same paper to support FNLA. I also think that the old network played a role here. For example, if our ANC friends told us that MPLA was an important force, we trusted that.
Tor Sellström: Finally, in the case of Zimbabwe you get the impression that ZAPU never really had a strong base in Sweden. It was less prominent than ZANU. Do you think that that is correct?
Anders Johansson: I think that it to a very great extent is correct and that it had to do with what they did on the ground. ZAPU had quite a strong leadership, but ZANU proved inside Zimbabwe that they were doing most of the fighting. Nobody could take that away from them. In exile, they also had strong representatives, while perhaps ZAPU’s spokesmen were not always that good.