SWAPO—Chief Representative to Scandinavia, West Germany and Austria— Secretary of Economic Affairs Minister of Information and Broadcasting
The interview was held by Tor Sällström in Stockholm, 19 May 1995.
Tor Sellström: You were the first official SWAPO representative to the Nordic countries, based in Sweden? What was teh background to the decision to open a SWAPO office there?
Ben Amathila: When I got my instructions to SWAPO representative to the Nordic coun-go to Sweden, they were not very clear. I had tries, based in Sweden? What was the back-to set up a SWAPO office in Sweden shortly ground to the decision to open a SWAPO of-after the Tanga consultative congress at the fice there? beginning of 1970. The congress was very important and crucial to the effectuation of the liberation struggle. Some of our people had been arrested and their appearance in court raised a number of questions. Our constitution did not make reference to armed struggle. Those who were arrested in Pretoria could not benefit from the Geneva convention on prisoners of war. And whilst the struggle was going on, one of the most important things that we had to tackle was, obviously, to answer the question: ‘After liberation: What?’ There was nothing before Tanga that indicated that we were preparing ourselves to take the reins of power after liberation. These were the things which were addressed at Tanga. An administration was set up which made people believe that SWAPO was preparing to declare itself unilaterally as a government in exile.
My coming to Sweden was partly to highlight those issues and the direction in which we wanted to go. Certainly, one has to take note of the fact that Namibia was isolated, cut off from the rest of the world. The only place that Namibians used to know was South Africa, and through South Africa some other countries. To me it was a new experience to come to Sweden. My personal contacts only started through correspondence from Dar es Salaam and with the Swedes that I met there, like Anne-Marie Sundbom in 1969.
My instruction was very vague. It was left to me to devise means of creating the Stockholm office and to make it work. To open the office, I was only given 15 US Dollars as pocket money. The ticket was provided by the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organization in Moscow, which gave it to me to attend a student conference in Helsinki in 1971. It was believed that it would be easier to get a visa to Sweden through Helsinki. But it did not work. After two weeks I had to return to Moscow to await the visa there, which again did not work. I was then obliged to join my wife, who was studying in London, because I simply could not make ends meet any more. I stayed with her for two or three months, living on her stipend until I finally got a visa. I then took the ferry to Gothenburg and the train to Stockholm. While in Helsinki, I had met somebody called Mattias Berg, who was a student leader. He put me up in a hotel for two nights. Thereafter they could not manage, so I had to establish contact with some individuals.
There was a small flat which was used as an office for SWAPO by a Namibian called Paul Helmuth. He had left SWAPO some months before I arrived. However, I got this place. It was just one room. I spent my nights there, cooked my food there and also did my political work in that room at Regeringsgatan No. 5 in Stockholm. The building does not exist any more.
One has to appreciate that SWAPO had to formalize the liberation struggle. One should also take note of the contrast and the sharpness of the conflict between the super powers and the Cold War. The Soviet Union on the one hand and the West on the other. Also China, which was not necessarily in line with the Soviet Union. In its quest for identity, SWAPO was treated with suspicion by the West because of the contacts we had with the Soviet Union. As Namibia did not offer a viable political alternative to SWAPO, both the Chinese and the Soviets agreed that SWAPO was a force to be supported. SWAPO was possibly one of the few movements that had access to both Beijing and Moscow, without offending either one.
Tor Sellström: This was after the demise of SWANU?
Ben Amathila: Well, on my arrival, SWANU was still very active in Sweden. Sometimes I found that at the meetings that I organized there were more SWANU people than Swedes. The conflict between the East and the West was so intense that whoever you chose it cost you a label. The problem was more with the West. I think that my coming to the Nordic countries, especially to Sweden, provided a cushion to absorb the suspicion and hard criticism of where we belonged. I came to realize that the Swedish government already at this time did not really need the public to push it into a certain direction. Most of the people I dealt with were internationalists who understood what was taking place and they formulated a policy in line with SWAPO’s expectations. They accepted the Liberation Committee of the OAU. The Swedish government used it as a guide to inform themselves of what was happening in Africa and what position to take.
Within OAU were obviously the countries that hosted the liberation movements in the early 1960s. Tanzania and Zambia were the ones who mainly shared the burden. They were under much pressure from the Portuguese, because of their presence in Mozambique and Angola, as well as from Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia and from South Africa. The threat of attack, the intimidation and sabotage of the infrastructure in those countries was so severe that it almost made their nationals turn against the liberation movements. It is amazing how these countries stood by their decision to support the liberation movements against the great powers and how they guided their nationals to accept the price of facilitating the liberation struggle.
There was another element of pressure and that was the work of the enemy intelligence. The enemy started to train their agents to get information from the liberation movements and the host governments, which increased tension and suspicion. The most dramatic event was the death of Eduardo Mondlane in February 1969 and the rifts that ensued in FRELIMO, which actually changed the whole political atmosphere and also the political attitude of the governments of Zambia and Tanzania. They did not abandon the liberation movement, but became more cautious.
In 1973, OAU and the Norwegian government held a conference in Oslo on liberation movements, which came up with a resolution that movements with liberated territories should get priority assistance from the Nordic governments. The trust the Nordic governments had in OAU was strong.
Tor Sellström: All the Nordic countries had close relations with Tanzania and Zambia. It probably explains that trust?
Ben Amathila: Yes, that is very true. I think that Tanzania was particularly accepted as the soul of the progressive African countries at the time. They were authoritative. Whatever position they took was respected. Nyerere, in particular, became a spokesperson for the liberation movements and for Africa in general. The same goes for Kaunda. These were the few countries who actually stuck their necks out for the liberation movements, also because of their early contacts with Nkrumah in Ghana. That put them in a special light and made them respected by the Nordic countries. On my arrival in Sweden I had to start from scratch to define what the SWAPO office was supposed to be. I really did not have any briefing on what I was meant to be doing. I had to seek the necessary tools to do my work, because I did not have a budget. It was a very difficult situation. I was told that Olof Palme had attended a conference on South West Africa in Oxford in 1966 and that it possibly might have brought him to terms with the political situation in Southern Africa, Namibia in particular. You had internationalists like Olof Palme and his colleagues, who stood up against the Americans in areas like Vietnam and by so doing carved out a special place for Sweden in the hearts of the oppressed the world over. By the time I arrived in Sweden, the Vietnamese issue was well embraced by the Swedish public and government, which led to political tensions between the United States and Sweden. It culminated in the threat by the Americans to boycott Swedish products, including Volvo.
By 1973 all political parties in Sweden embraced the question of Vietnam to the extent that while we all supported it, it posed a problem to a newcomer like Namibia. It became a problem of penetration, a problem of getting the necessary contacts to mobilize a group to support Namibia. The issues of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau were well embraced as well. And South Africa. People had read about apartheid, but Namibia was unknown. Whilst in the late 1960s, apartheid was definitely a political issue in Sweden, it was overtaken by the events in Vietnam and the OAU criteria of supporting movements with liberated territories. It was generally felt that Sweden was too small to effectively embrace all the issues in Africa and Asia. This was not the attitude of the government, but definitely that of some of the support groups that I came across.
My first experience with something which came close to an official Swedish government policy towards the liberation movements— verging on recognition—was the policy by Krister Wickman, who succeeded Torsten Nilsson as Foreign Minister. After the conference which was held in Oslo, Krister Wick-man held a reception for all the liberation movements’ representatives at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm. After that, Sweden almost recognized the liberation movements as official representatives of their peoples. That was a very significant development towards recognition and support for the liberation movements. By 1969, the only financial contribution that I know existed between SWAPO and Sweden, for instance, was a donation of 30,000 Swedish Kronor, which was given to SWAPO in Dar es Salaam and in Lusaka to buy office equipment. At that time, there was already an attempt on the part of the Swedish government to alleviate the problems of the liberation movement.
On my arrival in Sweden, I did not have any source of income. My approach to SIDA resulted in a scholarship to study the Swedish language. I started by attending classes for foreign students at Wennergren Center in Stockholm. Later I transferred to the university. That gave me a bit of income, but it was not enough. My wife had completed her studies in London and joined me in 1972. I think that my income then was 900 Swedish Kronor per month.
Immediately upon my arrival I realized that I must develop relations with the people at the Foreign Ministry. I also had a very close relationship with the Social Democratic Party, which to a large extent came to my assistance. Tor Sellström: How about the solidarity movement? The Africa Groups in Sweden, for example? Ben Amathila: What we concluded at Tanga was that our struggle was one of liberation and identity. To be recognized in our own right and to stand up for what we believed was correct. Sweden and the Nordic countries were to be approached in order to help us establish that we wanted to be seen as Namibians. Our right to self-determination should be recognized.
Sweden was not a newcomer to the question of self-determination. Way back in the mid1960s we had read about people like Alva Myrdal and her work at the UN, where she stood firm for the right to self-determination. There were also colleagues of mine who had visited Sweden before me, like Peter Mueshihange, Andreas Shipanga and Paul Helmuth. And the President of SWAPO had met Olof Palme. However, there was a strong presence of Namibians in Sweden through the SWANU students. They were accepted as legitimate representatives of their country, but their recognition suffered a blow because of the serious work of SWAPO and the OAU criteria of who should be supported or not. Most of the time when I called information meetings on behalf of SWAPO, the SWANU people came in big numbers to distract me from what I was doing, trying to maintain their identity as spokespersons for the people of South West Africa.
OAU was very forceful that liberation movements with a liberated territory should be given priority. The case of Vietnam was well established in Sweden. Now, where do I come in with SWAPO? It would have been easy for me to tell a story and state that we had liberated areas, but I thought that it was not correct and I refrained from it. It became an issue. Most of the support groups, especially the Africa Groups, were very lukewarm on Namibia, because of earlier problems I did not know of. Some people believed that we did not have the seriousness of movements like Guinea-Bissau’s PAIGC, Angola’s MPLA and Mozambique’s FRELIMO, because we did not have liberated territories. They were seen not only as ‘ideologically clear’ between Moscow and Beijing, but they also met the OAU criteria. I was a ‘newcomer’ to the politics of the outside world, who ‘understood very little about the ideological differences of the Soviet Union and the Chinese and the imperialistic policies of the West. Marxism-Leninism was new to me’. So, it was very difficult. I always found it very difficult to pretend what I was not. The active solidarity groups had a network and in order to work through that network you had to prove you were Marxist-Leninist. Tor Sellström: At the beginning of the 1970s, I guess that SWAPO’s relations with UNITA were controversial within the solidarity movement? Ben Amathila: It is possible. Before my arrival in Zambia in 1967 I was told that there had to be some contact between SWAPO and UNITA. You are right. That is the price we paid. The reaction from the Africa Groups.
However, my strategy was to use the Namibian legal position at the UN and take the resolutions of the United Nations as a way of presenting the legitimacy of the SWAPO struggle to the Swedish public. In order to do that I had to rely on the Swedish UN Association. There were also the people at the Foreign Ministry, like Jan Romare, who had just returned from the United Nations, and Torsten Örn, who later became ambassador to Moscow. They knew the legal aspects of the Namibian case. I thought that by playing the Namibian legal card I could establish credibility and acceptance by those who felt that they were overcrowded with other issues. It worked, because with the UN Association we developed a booklet on Namibia. And with Per Sandén we did a film strip on Namibia. We actually tapped not the mainstream, but the off-stream of the support groups. Those who looked at the UN as an authority, just as OAU was seen as an authority.
I think that SWAPO’s position gradually became clear to quite a number of people who had an option between supporting what they saw as ‘direct blood-letting activities’ and the UN endorsement of the right of the Namibian people to self-determination. It possibly also became clearer to the support groups like the Africa Groups. Gradually, they began to ignore some of the things that were not acceptable to them and started to embrace SWAPO. Well, I should not say that they had rejected SWAPO. They did not. It was only that I, as a person, did not say the things that they expected to hear and then, of course, the UNITA question.
Tor Sellström: So, the fundamental issue that you raised was the question of the right of small nations to self-determination?
Ben Amathila: I was convinced that within the context of the ideological tension between the superpowers, Namibia had a legitimate right as stated by the UN. I thought that it was a very strong tool to make a distinction between Namibia and the liberation movements who did not have that kind of qualification. I exploited it to the full and by 1974 SWAPO was receiving close to ten million Swedish Kronor from SIDA. The urgency to supply shelter and food to thousands of Namibians arriving in Zambia and Angola became a priority. That was part of a testimony of our seriousness towards the cause of nationhood. We took responsibility for our people. I persuaded SIDA and the Foreign Ministry to look into the need of not only supplying food, but also means of transport. There were also the Emmaus groups in Björkå and Stockholm, who were collecting used clothes and useful items for refugees under our care. If they did not have the money for the transportation, SIDA would make it available. The legitimacy of SWAPO’s struggle for liberation benefited from the UN resolutions and made my task easy.
Tor Sellström: Was that also the case in the other Nordic countries?
Ben Amathila: Yes. In Denmark it was slightly different and slightly difficult. The Paul Hartling government did not want direct contacts with the liberation movements. They distanced themselves by making money available through non-governmental organizations for particular projects. Norway was slightly poorer than Sweden at that time and there was a limitation in terms of their material assistance. The first serious effort by the Norwegians towards the liberation movements was the OAU conference in 1973. There were active anti-apartheid groups in Norway. We also obtained some financial assistance to pay for legal costs for people who were prosecuted in Namibia and did not have the means to defend themselves. I think that the amount was 200,000 US dollars, which was channelled through Mr. Hell-berg at the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. Politically, Norway was not different from Sweden, but they did not have the resources Sweden had in those days. Regarding Finland, there had been a long relationship with Namibia via the churches. The influence of the churches on the Finnish government as to what was good for Namibia was still very strong. But it changed when Kalevi Sorsa became Foreign Minister and, especially, through the work done by the NGOs. Others, like Basil Davidson, were also accepted as authorities on the liberation movements. I think that the option developed for the Finnish government to have advisers not only from the churches, but also from people who had a different message altogether and, of course, OAU. Finland was regarded in those days as less strong financially. Most of their money was channelled through the churches. They gave quite a lot to education. Some Namibians went to study in Finland via the churches. Policywise, they became in time very clear on where to stand. In 1976, I went with a delegation to ask the Finnish government to make Ahtisaari available as UN Commissioner for Namibia. He was ambassador to Tanzania at the time. Kalevi Sorsa assured us that he would talk to Ahtisaari and agreed at once to make him available.
I was also covering Germany and Austria. The Germans were not very easy. Occasionally, they were very forthcoming, but one got the impression that they were swapping resources for influence. It was not very pleasant. I remember a number of times when I had to turn down their assistance.
From the Swedish government’s side, I did not get the feeling of any conditionality. Most of the people that I dealt with at the government level were internationalists. They were committed. They stood up against apartheid, participating and formulating the international community’s policy against apartheid. Sweden was targeting the 1 per cent of GDP goal of solidarity or assistance to developing countries, which they achieved later. In 1974, Sweden took a decision that of the money received from Sweden at least 40 per cent or so was expected to be spent in Sweden. But this did not apply to the liberation movements. They were exempted from that ruling. With other nations there was always an ocean of conditions. Some countries were even going as far as 90-95 per cent. With Sweden there was no conditionality that I remember. I think that it was based on their experience ‘från fattig-Sverige till välfärdsstat’ (‘from poverty-Sweden to the welfare state’). That guided Sweden’s assistance to the liberation movements and the developing countries.
Tor Sellström: How about political conditionality? For example, all the Nordic countries were against armed struggle as a means of solving conflicts and would abstain from voting in the UN if such a dimension was involved. Do you feel that they respected your struggle on your conditions?
Ben Amathila: I did not base our strategy for Namibia on the liberation struggle as such, because I realized that there were some difficulties of acceptability by the opinion makers and the NGOs. My effort was to establish the legitimacy of the Namibian people to use whatever means at their disposal to dislodge the South African illegal occupation. That is why I used the various resolutions of the UN. There were some cases where the Nordic countries abstained from voting for these resolutions, but I got the impression that the right of the Namibians to use whatever means at their disposal was really recognized. Hence they did not see the contradiction of sometimes abstaining from what they were otherwise supporting. They did not use any persuasion to try and say: ‘Look here: Armed struggle is not acceptable to us. It is not good. We are giving you this in order to desist from it.’ No! All the support given, both at the political and at the diplomatic level, as well as material assistance, was unconditional.