Gothenburg Africa Group, Gothenburg ISAK
The interview was held by Bertil Högberg in Gothenburg, May 2005.
Ann-Marie Kihlberg got involved in support of the struggle in southern Africa in the late 1986, early 1987 when she became an active member of the Africa groups. She was a local secretary in GAG (the local Africa group in Gothenburg) and therefore became some kind of informal secretary for ISAK, Isolera Sydafrika-Kommittén (Gothenburg). She started her work as an employee for the Africa groups in January 1987 and finished in 2003 but worked for the local group only until 1994. After that she became a part of central functions, such as fundraising.
Bertil Högberg: How did you become involved in support of the struggle in southern Africa?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: My very first memory of someone who talked with indignation of apartheid and what was going on in South Africa is from the midsixties. It was a classmate at school in Kalmar , where I grew up. Later on I got involved as a student around 1968. That was when I came to Gothenburg. I got in touch with the Africa Groups after a period with personal turning points, I was unemployed at the time, and wanted to engage in something – good friends gave me the information about what was going on in the local group.
Bertil Högberg: What did you and the organisation do?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I got involved in late 1986, early 1987. The Africa Groups and their political agenda, with support to the liberation movements and against apartheid, were radical. The conditions for membership at that time, with study circles and activism, tied the members together, and we were well informed. I think that was important, to create a solid base for the work.
Neither do I believe that it can be exaggerated, the basic work for lobbying everyman’s thinking and media in general, during the 70’s and 80’s. Agitation, demonstrations, leaflets, meetings and selling of the bulletin opened up for what was to come after.
I joined the Africa Groups in the aftermath of the big “ANC gala” – in Gothenburg, fall 1986. Many of the most popular musicians at time made their contributions to ANC, artists like Michael Wiehe, Björn Afzelius, Thomas Ledin and many others brought together people in numbers that hadn’t happened before, and didn’t happen again in Sweden until Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. About 20,000 people must have taken part in the event. I think at that time the issues got their theme music, the struggle was not to stop until apartheid was abolished.
Bertil Högberg: What drove you and the Africa Groups?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: The Africa Groups engaged academics and intellectuals with rank, especially within the realms of economics, politics and sociology. There was a good political frontline, a leadership. What drove the organization is a complex question which requires a complex answer – indignation over oppression and the belief that we could be part of a change. I also believe that each participating individual brings some of their private history into the process. The fact that so many people took part with different perspectives and in different positions in society, created a dynamic, people met, argued, provoked, got inspired, found a role to play. The anti-apartheid movement became a very broad popular movement – even before the use of computers and internet. I experienced rather soon, that the Africa Groups and myself as an employee, became catalysers in the happenings, fundraising concerts and seminars were asked for, and there was a profile and direction in our work. The presence of political refugees from Latin America and the fact that there were many faces of imperialism and oppression around the world also broadened the struggle.
Bertil Högberg: What was your role in the organisation?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I was local secretary. To start with there was a strong board, the members of which on a formal level were my bosses. I answered the telephone, wrote memos and made circulars with envelopes and stamps. The telephone started to ring rather frequently in the late 80’s. People wanted to join the Africa Groups and our work, pupils at school wrote about South Africa and apartheid, journalists wanted comments on things that had happened. The Africa Groups, and moreover ISAK, became a force to count with. As secretary in GAG I became some kind of informal secretary for ISAK (Gothenburg) that held its meetings in GAG's office. ISAK (Gothenburg) collected about 40 organizations, at least as paying members. Maybe ten of them took part through their presence in the meetings and discussions. It was a deep concern, and issues arose that went beyond the tasks within GAG. Above all the question of sanctions was run by ISAK, campaigns were launched, such as against companies like SKF with a factory in Gothenburg.
Bertil Högberg: During which period were you involved?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I started my work as an employee for the Africa Groups in January 1987 and finished in 2003. But for the local group I worked only until 1994, after that I became a part of central functions, such as fundraising.
Bertil Högberg: Can you mention a few highlights from that time?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: There are many highlights, many memories. These were extremely rich years, of course with deep tragedies in the countries we worked for, but when we strongly believed that every step brought us closer to victory. One of the arrangements I have contributed to that I remember with joy and pride, was the concert in the cathedral in Gothenburg, I think it was the very same day that the first elections in South Africa took place, in April 1994. The church was crowded; I think almost 1000 people were there. Many were Africans, immigrants, old people – my point is that it was so evident, the profound human commitment that the anti-apartheid movement was built upon, and how symbolic and important it was for us all that the disgusting racist system was thrown out. A musician from Gambia twisted rhythms from his djembe into a Swedish summer hymn – it was a great moment.
Another highlight was of course the gala for SWAPO at “Vågen” 1990 – a popular central dance venue in Gothenburg. In fall the year before, the battle at Quito Cuanavale was the starting point for what would become the fall of apartheid, but before that the independence of Namibia. When we realized what was about to happen we decided that the evening would be a celebration of SWAPO and a free Namibia. Every single ticket (maybe 1000) was sold in advance; this was a powerful celebration also on the road to democracy in South Africa.
The question can mislead you to only mention the big events, but the most important work I believe has been the day-to-day struggle, throughout the years. Sorting clothes with Emmaus Björkå, both in Gothenburg and in Småland, was nice and a political school for all of us, also the growing generation. Clothes were sent to liberation movements and the surplus from selling became monetary support. Selling at the flea market also gave meetings and talks with people that we didn’t meet elsewhere. I can remember the everyday philosophy talks around the sorting table. What was solidarity and what was charity? You could sometimes see from the gift who the donor was, neat and clean, with dignity and respect – older people who themselves had experienced suffering knew – it could have been me.
Bertil Högberg: Can you point to any particular turning points in your involvement?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: There are of course both positive and negative turning points. For media exposing the boycotts within sports and culture meant a lot, they were also run within the frame of UN and thus got an international approach. Positive was definitely the selective cultural boycott that was launched after a conference in Holland. South African musicians in opposition to apartheid and for democracy could be released on record, and so they were, by Swedish Amalthea. Later some of them got the possibility to tour in Sweden as well, and also started cooperation with Swedish musicians.
I experienced the attacks on Swedish refugee camps at the beginning of the 90ies as very negative, as it seemed not to affect our own work at all. But we had an anti-racist agenda, and ought to have been more aware of what was happening in our own neighbourhood. In Gothenburg we shared some campaigns with the organization Folkfest mot rasism. But it definitely gave us a reminder that global issues become local issues, sooner or later.
Bertil Högberg: What did the cooperation with other organisations mean?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: It meant a lot, everything, as I saw my role. Gothenburg might have a more vivid political life than many other cities, for social, historical and cultural reasons. A great number of activities have been valuable contributions. When I speak of visible events, activities and manifestations – I must say that the shared ideas, the given inspiration and created visions are as important. But events are meeting places, and perhaps the informal contacts between people have meant as much as the long speeches.
As I remember it the Peace Race in Gothenburg – Fredsloppet – gave our work an unlimited character, and collected people of all ages. Fredsloppet was organized by PFF – Proletären FF – an organization that worked with and for youth, in international cooperation and always with a political agenda. For many years the surplus from the race was directed to ANC. The race also became a meeting point for ANC members and representatives from all of the Nordic countries and from all of northern Europe. It was a real festival.
From our perspective cooperation also meant an economic guarantee to arrange big galas. Emmaus Björkå was a valuable and necessary support. All galas however, except for the last one that only managed to break even, gave a huge surplus. Musicians participated without fees, activists from a number of organizations made impressive efforts with all the practical arrangements. The presence of above all Latin Americans in organizations such as the Swedish-Cuban Association and Vänskapsförbundet Sverige-Nicaragua gave “solidarity” a personal content.
The oppression of the period sometimes made it impossible for people from South Africa to give themselves publicity, thus people from other parts of the world became representatives for those we fought for and together with.
The cooperation as it was featured in ISAK also meant problems, both locally within the organization and locally against the central (Stockholm) offices. ISAK Gothenburg raised the question to the Swedish government that the assassination of Olof Palme 1986, only two weeks after “Folkriksdag mot apartheid” might be connected to the situation in South Africa. The ANC offices in Europe at the time suffered from threats of different kinds, there were also assassinations of representatives. The question about the cooperation between Israel and South Africa was also a controversial question. With the decline of the Soviet Union our analyzing was highlighted in a new way, and some of the member organizations in ISAK became opposed to each other. I believe that it was important that a man of the church at that time became the chairman of ISAK, to bridge the arguing and bring the work forward till the dissolution of the organization in 1994.
I must add the cooperation with institutions – in Gothenburg the theatres have played a great role, Stadsteatern, Backa Teater, Blå Stället, later Musikens hus, I’m sure there have been more. Journalists with personal courage and dedication have also played an important role.
Bertil Högberg: In Sweden and among the other Nordic countries which were the most important partner-organizations?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: The first that comes into my mind is Folkparkerna, a personal perspective in my way of working.
But the tours that were launched by Folkparkerna in the late 80’s meant a lot, again – to create meeting points, inspire, manifest. In these tours that were sponsored by Sida, there were both an economy and professionalism that our own organizations weren’t capable of bringing forth.
The southern Africa festival – 1988 (?) became a fantastic event with artists, musicians and dancers from all of southern Africa , also South Africans in exile. In Gothenburg the event was held in Konserthuset.
When we speak about the Nordic countries I most of all remember individuals that of course were representatives for organizations and active within them. But no doubt those individual efforts have made a difference. The anti-apartheid movement in England meant a lot to me personally, as inspiration, being a teenager during the 60’s I love England and British culture.
They also had a very special role in the international anti-apartheid movement, both for the opposition to the Thatcher politics and because there were so many politically important persons there in exile. Important conferences were arranged, cultural workers brought initiatives. IDAF, that got (at that time secret) support from Sweden, produced books, exhibitions and reports about oppression and the devastating wars in the frontline states. The anti-apartheid movement was partly financed by Anti-Apartheid Enterprises, a separate commercial company that produced “souvenirs” – buttons, t-shirts and stickers. Of course that meant a lot, maybe things were made into myths, design is a magic simplifier, but I guess that is always part of the struggle. We were influenced by this and a great deal of the stuff was sold at our book desk – market stands have played an important role as meeting points at different events.
Bertil Högberg: What did the Nordic cooperation mean?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I can’t remember that it specially affected my work, but I know that it was going on.
Bertil Högberg: Who were the most important partners in southern Africa?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I think that GAG had earlier strong relations to Mozambique and Angola, members had worked there as volunteers. Emmaus Björkå in Gothenburg was also aiming their work at Mozambique, so there was cooperation in different ways. I made a more or less conscious choice to focus on South Africa, at that time the main obstacle to peaceful development in the region, and the issue that most engaged people.
Bertil Högberg: Which were the most important personal relations that were established?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: Not so much direct contact with South Africa or South Africans was possible from my point of view before 1994. At that time I got the opportunity to initiate meetings and contacts that later led to mainly cultural happenings. I see my work more like a job in Sweden, with lobbying and many cultural dimensions. South Africans that lived in Gothenburg gave my work a much more personal dimension, their contribution to our work has been of great value in different ways. Representatives from the liberation movements usually came via the offices in Stockholm and mainly participated in our seminars.
Bertil Högberg: What was the significance of visits from southern Africa to here and visits to southern Africa for you and your organisation?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I got the possibility to visit South Africa three times, one of which was before 1994. For me these meetings with people really made me think what my role in all this was. Today I’m still not sure. They say that you are blind for your own culture. There are some people I’ve met that I really count as my friends, but they are not belonging to any organizations. Sometimes it seems like the organizations with all their important work, create their own culture with special roles to play within their frame. I lie if I say that I “understood” better after my travels, I think that “understanding” can only be reached if you can’t “go home” again. But of course, to see the country was overwhelming, memories I will never forget.
Through different kinds of music events as a part of campaigning, we got contact with the music college in Gothenburg and some of the teachers there. Through music and culture new processes start, bring people together, thoughts and ideas will be formulated in a new context.
1994 was a great year. It was really a historic event with the first elections in South Africa, even if the release of Nelson Mandela and his visit to Stockholm for many of us was even more memorable. But I think that none of us really was aware of how we became “one” with the struggle. It was a huge commitment, for many a “belonging” and direction in life that was hard to replace. When the doors opened up for something new, other actors took over. That is how it is, and should be, everything has its season. But movements like this have a big social dimension that we might not see when we are in the middle of it. Friends from England and South Africa have described similar incidents and feelings. We had a goal, but we didn’t plan for “beyond”.
Bertil Högberg: What do you think that your support meant in southern Africa?
Ann-Marie Kihlberg: I think that we have partly taken, partly given. I believe that we were important as witnesses, that people in “our countries” could be faithful in their belief that there were people who didn’t accept what was going on. Someone said to me that we, from our part of the world, became some kind of mirror for them, in the meeting you become aware of yourself. I guess that the economic support actually had an importance, although for us fundraising was part of lobbying as well. The Swedish government later proved to have been the most important economic support for both ANC and SWAPO. I think that our work meant a lot in Sweden. Organizations and people that haven’t their position within the already given structures and institutions, play an important role in opening up for new truths and challenge structures of power. ANC was sometimes described as “terrorists” – also in Sweden, and it was controversial to be an activist. It is so important when you write history, to remember that there was no guarantee for the outcome, it was not a simple journey. But the issues brought people together, linked groups in networking that is the foundation in all democracies.
The Swedish government was influenced and was forced to it. Today I believe that South Africa and its people with their powerful experiences have a lot to say to us.