The Nordic Africa Institute

Andreas Shipanga

SWAPO—President of SWAPO-Democrats Former Minister of Economic Affairs, Mining and Sea Fisheries in South West Africa/Namibia

The interview was held by Tor Sellström on 20 March 1995.

Tor Sellström: How did you first come into contact with the Nordic countries?

Andreas Shipanga: I think that I will start by saying that the first Swede that I knew of was Charles John Andersson. I read his book about South West Africa. He was right when it comes to the Ovambo traditions and culture. I am a product of the Finnish missionary schools. There were Finns, but there were also—what do you call them: Swedish-Finnish?—Lindström, Eriksson and so on. They were the ones that I came to know during my school years and also during the three years when I was teaching.

After teaching, I ended up in Cape Town in 1958. There we got into the political struggle. One thing that always gave us strength was the Nordic countries’ opposition to apartheid. The Nordic countries were really vocal in their condemnation of the evils of apartheid. The only other country in Europe to do this was Holland.

In 1963, I was sent to Congo-Léopoldville as a representative of SWAPO. There I met the Swedish ambassador, a very good gentleman. We had problems in Léopoldville. I had several Namibians under my care, one woman and some young chaps, and there was a civil war going on. I met the Swedish ambassador at an Egyptian embassy reception. He came up to me and said: ‘Where are you from?’ I said: ‘From South West Africa.’ From then on he not only provided us with food. He also provided us with accommodation. When Tshombe got back in power a lot of mercenaries returned to Léopoldville. The ambassador then arranged tickets to fly us to Dar es Salaam because of the dangers. That was in September 1964. That is when I came to appreciate the support and sympathy of the Swedish people and government.

I went back to Accra and Cairo. In March 1966, there was a conference on South West Africa in Oxford, England. That is where I met the late Olof Palme and Pierre Schori. They invited me to Sweden. I went to Sweden late that year, in 1966.

Tor Sellström: It would appear that it was after the Oxford conference that the Swedish Social Democrats shifted their support from SWANU to SWAPO?

Andreas Shipanga: I think that it was the first time that they really came across Namibians other than SWANU. I also think that in a sense that was a break-through. When I went to Sweden, I stayed with Zedekia Ngavirue of SWANU. Later I moved to the apartment of Bernt Carlsson. It was not easy. The Social Democratic Party had not really moved away from SWANU. It took some time. I think that it started at that time when the Social Democratic Party through the newspaper Aftonbladet campaigned to collect money for SWAPO and SWANU. It was a first concrete break-through for SWAPO in Sweden. Then, of course, followed the Uppsala student conference. It brought a lot of people from SWAPO to Sweden. It was one of the things that we had worked on. SWAPO and SWANU students came from the East and from the West. It was very interesting.

After that I travelled to Norway, Finland and Denmark and visited the anti-apartheid groups there. For many of them it was the first time that they heard somebody from SWAPO. The result was very positive.

Tor Sellström: Was it positive in all the Nordic countries?

Andreas Shipanga: Because of the missionaries, the Finns were not openly supportive of SWAPO. But especially the Finnish Seamen’s Union gave us open support. The Finnish missionaries who went to Namibia first came to South Africa, where they attended a Calvinist college in Wellington, near Cape Town. They were supposed to be taught Afrikaans, but they were also introduced to ‘the wild man’s life’ in Africa. With a few exceptions, they were highly conservative, paternalistic and anti-Communist.

Anyway, the Seamen’s Union was very good. In Norway it was all systems go. In Denmark there were not too many. They were not very strong.

Tor Sellström: 1966 was also the year of the first armed confrontation between SWAPO and the South African security forces at Omgulumbashe. Was it not difficult to campaign for support to SWAPO in an environment where there was principled opposition against armed struggle as a means to solve conflicts?

Andreas Shipanga: I did not come across anybody who was critical about why we took that decision. I addressed many meetings. In fact, at a meeting in Uppsala I was admonished by some Swedish students who said: ‘Shipanga, your people are fighting in Namibia now. You must go and join them! Leave the United Nations!’ No, we really did not have any problem, but, of course, we had to explain. The sympathy was with us, because of the verdict of the International Court of Justice which went against Ethiopia and Liberia. People understood. At least those who we could talk to.

Tor Sellström: Later Sweden started to give official humanitarian support to SWAPO. Do you feel that this really was humanitarian support?

Andreas Shipanga: Yes, it was and it really helped, first in Tanzania and then in Zambia. But I must say that some of the aid was abused by the SWAPO leadership. There is no doubt about that. I remember that I talked to the Swedish ambassador in Lusaka about it in 1975. He told me that some leaders wanted to buy Range Rovers with Swedish aid. I said: ‘Mr. Ambassador, if you go to the refugee centres there are people who cannot even get bread every day. A Range Rover is too expensive and unnecessary. Why not Landcruisers?’ I do not know what happened, but the leaders were fighting to get Range Rovers.

Tor Sellström: Sweden was the first country to give SWAPO direct support. But Norway also did so at an early stage?

Andreas Shipanga: Yes, but with Sweden it was on a much larger scale. No other country gave us that kind of support. There were the Eastern countries, of course. They were supporters, but it was different. Sweden was followed by Norway and Finland, to a lesser extent.

Tor Sellström: Then—in 1976—your association with SWAPO came to an abrupt and tragic end. You were detained in Zambia. You had worked very closely with the Nordic countries. Did they intervene on your behalf? Did they put pressure on SWAPO, Zambia and Tanzania by diplomatic or other means?

Andreas Shipanga: When we were arrested in Zambia— where there was a law on habeas corpus —my wife went to the Swedish embassy to ask for political asylum. The ambassador said that it was possible. But, on the whole, people were saying that if you campaign for the release of Shipanga you are giving absolution to South Africa. Then there were other events. Immediately when we were put in prison, SWAPO approached, for example, the Finnish government to appoint Martti Ahtisaari to become the UN Commissioner for Namibia.

At least, Sweden and Norway agreed to receive the colleagues that were in prison with me. Sweden took three or four, Norway about three. That is how we eventually came to Sweden. There were already those colleagues of mine, as well as Kenneth and Ottilie Abrahams and other Namibians.

Tor Sellström: Upon your release in 1978, you founded SWAPO-Democrats in the Abrahams’ house in Spånga outside Stockholm. Did you then have any support base in Sweden?

Andreas Shipanga: No, none at all.

Tor Sellström: Finally, do you think that there was a hidden political agenda behind the Nordic involvement in Namibia and Southern Africa or was it purely humanitarian?

Andreas Shipanga: I must emphatically say that is was purely humanitarian. What hidden agenda did Sweden have for Vietnam? It was simple, moral sympathy for the suffering people. That is humanitarian. They were never into colonies in Africa or anything like that. What was there for Sweden? A few Volvos? What else? Nothing! I honestly believe that it was out of simple and pure humanitarian consideration. I am convinced of that.