Berit Rylander became member of the Africa Groups in the 1970’s involving herself mainly with the internal Swedish activities. She later moved to Botswana —her husband (Sten Rylander) was head of the Sida office at the Embassy of Sweden – and worked as a teacher at the Swedish school. Through her husband’s work, she got to know many people from ANC. Moving back to Sweden in 1981; she started working at Sida´s Training Centre in Uppsala. In 1985, she was asked to take up the post as desk officer for SWAPO and ANC at the Sida office in Luanda. Rylander held that job until the end of 1988. After that, she first became responsible for the assistance to ANC and SWAPO at the Education Division at Sida HQ in Stockholm and thereafter programme officer for SWAPO in the Regional Department for Southern Africa 1989-1990. That was during the period when the support to the liberation movement SWAPO was changed and became the first country programme for independent Namibia, i.e. for an interim period of one year 1990 – 1991. During 1990-1994 she worked as Adviser for Development Cooperation in the National Planning Commission (NPC) in Namibia, seconded by UNDP and assisted the newly independent government to establish a department for aid coordination in NPC.
Berit Rylander: I originally started my career as a high-school teacher. My international interest was awoken by my membership in the Vietnam movement in the 70s. I later became a member in the Africa Groups involving myself in their internal Swedish activities but not in meetings with people from the movements. I then went to Botswana where through my husband who was head of the Sida office, I met and learned to know many people from ANC. Then I came to the Sida’s Training Centre in Uppsala. In 1985 when my husband was stationed as ambassador in Angola I was approached by Birgitta Berggren asking me to take up the post as desk officer for Swapo and ANC at the Sida office in Luanda. After that I first became responsible for the aid to ANC and SWAPO at the Education Division at the Sida headquarters in Stockholm and later for Swapo in the Regional Department for Southern Africa 1988-1990. 1990-94 I worked in a UNDP programme in the Planning Commission in Namibia.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: I understand that although you did not work with the liberation movements in Botswana you became very close to a number of people those years?
Berit Rylander: Sten my husband was head of the Sida office in Botswana 1979-1981 and I worked most of the time as a teacher in the Swedish School. However, during that period I met many ANC representatives and came close to some of them. I particularly remember the young ANC cadres we met. It was not always clear for what reason they actually were in Botswana. I mostly met them socially, some of them were in hiding – underground – and some were official refugees. As a consequence of my husband’s work many of them came to our home and I met many of them. One person I particularly remember was Orelia Gqabi wife of the ANC representative Joe Gqabi. We became personal friends. We used to play tennis. She was not very political. I think she was fed up with all the politics that her husband was involved in and which led to all the problems for the family, culminating in the murder of Joe later in Zimbabwe. She worked as a nurse, but felt very uncomfortable. The ANC people were not liked very much by the Botswanans. This was partly due to the attitudes of the South Africans. They felt superior to the Botswanese in spite of the positive way they were accepted in Botswana. Orelia felt that the Botswanan staff did not like her and she kept very much to herself; had her lunch by herself, etc. At the same time she seemed to look down on the Botswanese and said that they could not do anything right.
I noted the same attitudes also from other South Africans. Botswana was seen as being in the countryside. I got to know many other ANC members over time, not so closely as Orelia. For example one of the Sida staff let their garage to a South African refugee artist whom we met with quite often.
The second major thing I remember was what I call the shoot-out against ANC members by South African Security Forces in Gaberone. This is well presented in the interview with Sten. One thing he did not mention however was that I was asked to drive Rolla and Joyce two of the people who came to us after the shoot-out asking for refuge – in our minibus with boxes of materials to be distributed to other members of the ANC. This was only one week after the shoot-out and I felt very scared.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Why did you do it?
Berit Rylander: I was asked and they had no other alternatives. I guess I could not refuse. I asked of course what I was supposed to transport, and was shown that it was papers to be circulated and no weapons or any other more dangerous materials.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Did you create any life-long relationships during that time?
Berit Rylander: Our house was open for all visitors from ANC and they very often had no other place to visit. So we had a lot of social contacts and visits. With Oralia I kept in contact over the years. We were on holiday when her husband was shot in Harare. When we came back I took care of her and met her often. She did not go out after that incident so I went to her with food and talked a lot with her. She lived in an ANC home close to one of the staff of the Embassy (Bo-Dan Bergman). Two ANC members and Billy stayed with her in her house. They had worked with Joe before. Later on I invited her to Sweden. We sent her money to buy a ticket and she stayed with us for two weeks in the middle of the summer 198x. We even took her to the West Coast of Sweden and she went by boat something she was very scared of due to earlier experiences in her life. I also remember how surprised she was that people in Sweden – we went to an island called Kärringön which had no electricity or any other convenience, we had to draw water from a well and carry it home.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: The next major experience you have of the liberation struggle is from Angola?
Berit Rylander: In Luanda I was not only an accompanying spouse of my husband but became desk officer at the Sida office for ANC and Swapo. Because the headquarters of Swapo was in Luanda (the ANC headquarters was in Lusaka) my work was mainly related to that organisation. Already before I left for Angola I encountered a Swapo group, which was under training in accountancy and administration at Sandö Course Centre. It was a group of fifteen youngsters and one older accountant who went as a group leader to check on the others but also learnt a lot. My visit to Sandö coincided with a visit by Pohamba who was then finance administrator of Swapo. I went there just to acquaint myself with the people and the project together with Astrid Dufborg and Inga-Lill Colbro. It was in the middle of the winter at the darkest period of the year. The students were very happy with the training but at the same time felt miserable as they suffered badly from the lack of sun. They were homesick but in particular sick of the lack of sun. That was the first opportunity I had to meet Pohamba. But I kept in the background, as there were other people who took care of the discussions on our side.
Then I went to Luanda. I was introduced to the people in Swapo by my predecessor Gunvor Garambe, who at that time was rather frustrated by the difficulties she had met in her work with Swapo. It was much easier to communicate with the ANC people. Most people I met told me that Swapo was difficult to work with. In November 1984 Sida had important meetings led by Johan Brisman in Luanda preparing for negotiations later on. It was just before I went to Luanda so I was not there. But I was told that the two sides could not agree so the planned agreed minutes which should have been the result of the meeting were never signed. The two delegation leaders Pohamba and Brisman could not agree. Also the money committed to Swapo, which at that time was fifty million SEK annually, could not be spent. When I arrived half of the money from the previous year was still unspent. So the situation was not very good and everyone told me that it would be a difficult time for me.
Because of all this I felt a strong challenge in particular to find better ways of communicating with Swapo. I knew that the Swapo people were not stupid so there must be some reasons for why things were so bad at that time. I concentrated on informing Swapo better about the procedures and what Sweden expected from them to reach a better system of communication. My approach was to have a dialogue with the Swapo people and to inform them about all activities well in advance and what the expectations were the Sida people had of every meeting so that they would know well in advance. I used my experience as a teacher. So came the first meeting with Pohamba, the then secretary of finance of Swapo and our main contact person. I prepared the meeting with coffee and cakes and buns to make him comfortable. We talked for a long time about almost nothing and then I told him that in spite of not having so much experience working with the liberation struggle in Southern Africa I would do my level best to develop a good relationship. His reply was “we will watch you”. I was taken aback by this remark, but then we started to talk about the programme and he gave his views on all the details. We became extremely good friends but it took two years to come so far. What he later told me was that before I came he had been told that I was an American and they were afraid that I was a spy and that they did not want me to go to the camps because of the risk of spying. Later they did an investigation on me in Sweden and found that I was a Swede for generations and that my father was a baker. And they realised that the rumour was false. So they actually watched me.
Over time I came close to most of the leadership and staff of the Swapo administration. I worked very hard and I realised quickly that the major reason for slow delivery and misunderstandings was lack of information on what exactly Sweden wanted from Swapo in form of preparation, and reporting. For the process to go forward I informed them before every mission. I had a meeting telling them exactly to the point what the mission wanted of them and I met with each and every person that was going to meet the Swedes. It was also a learning process for me discussing in detail with everyone involved. But this way they knew what they could expect and did not come unprepared to the meetings. I was the person responsible for all relations with Swapo and that I was the Ambassador’s wife did not mean very much in these relations. The Sida Office at that time was very much separated from the Embassy and my boss was not the Ambassador but the head of the Sida office Bo Westman. He was a very good boss. He let me alone and he helped me whenever I had a problem. He trusted me because he knew that I would always inform him if I had a problem. He also arranged most of the receptions and social meetings where we could meet and discuss informally. He was also ideologically a very good support. We worked as a Sida team.
I very much enjoyed going to the Villa List. Swapo had two offices one for the President and Vice President, information and labour secretariats and one for the remaining areas. Villa List was the second. It was a small house where four or five people shared a room. It was really efficient to go there, one could do a number of things at the same time. I remember when my successor, Georg Dreifeldt, came to visit that place and was introduced by me. He was screened by the metal detector and had to take of his shoes etc while to his astonishment I went through just like that. I had become a really good trusted friend of the house. I remember once when I was going to visit Pohamba and he was gone so I had to discuss with his deputy. But his deputy Aquenya did not dare to give the needed approvals. Pohamba was apparently quite authoritarian. He kept control over everything. Also the finances, and it was our firm opinion that he was absolutely non-corrupt. Roland Axelsson who did the accounts checks for Sida once wanted him to open his safe to see all the books he had there. And he became so upset thinking that he was mistrusted. He sat himself on the safe and said “No one will get into this safe so long as I am here”. But when I was going to leave Benedix from Sida came to audit the Swedish support to Swapo. And on that occasion Pohamba opened his safe with no problems. In the meantime between these two occasions the accounting courses for Swapo had taken place and I think that through these they now understood that auditing was part of all accounting. This I see as an important change within the period I worked in Luanda.
Another story worth telling is in regard to the water project in the large camp in Kwanza Zul.
This was a very complicated and difficult project. The system was quite sophisticated and required a lot of technical equipment. Many people were involved on so many different levels. To install the equipment the installers said they needed walky-talkies to communicate over vast distances. But for security reasons they were not allowed to use any of these due to restrictions set by the Angolans. The technical people did not believe that this restriction really was there but I did. Swapo had to follow the restrictions set by Angola – they were at the Angolan government’s mercy. There were so many Swedish missions to Kwanza Zul for project implementation for research and for pure interest and information. Most often these missions required participation by Swapo staff. Once Sida required that Pohamba should come along. But he had other plans (to go to Zambia where he also had his family). But Sida felt that his participation was necessary to iron out questions with regard to the water project –otherwise there was a risk that the project would be delayed another two to three months. I felt I had to go to the vice-president Nameroro and require that Pohamba should go with the mission to Kwanza Zul. Nameroro forced Pohamba to do so. Later when I was playing tennis Sten my husband came and told me that Pohamba was waiting for me on the terrace at my home. I finished my match and went home and met Pohamba who turned to me and said “Why did you do this to me? You knew that I wanted to go to Lusaka and now I have to go to the camp.” I explained again and we ended up as friends. This was a Saturday morning. Things like that happened all the time.
Another story was when we tested evacuation possibilities for our staff that lived in Kwanza Zul. This was shortly after the kidnapping of some Swedes by UNITA and the instruction from Sida headquarters was that we had to be extremely careful. UNITA was also ambushing the road to the camp something we knew but talked very little about. Swapo arranged convoys led by military to go from Luanda to Kwanza Zul and we always went with them. There were many incidents but to our knowledge Swapo seemed to be much better equipped and Unita never succeeded to take anyone or anything. At this particular time we had a visit from the Sida management and went by helicopter to a place close to the camp. It was a bit scary because there was so much mist. We came to the camp and stayed there for a day or two. When we went back we had to go to a place where the helicopter should come and pick us up at the house of the District Commissioner. But the helicopter did not arrive – we waited and waited and waited and in the end we had to return to the camp and stay overnight there. I actually do not remember why the helicopter never came if it was used for something else or if there was a misunderstanding. The experiment with alternative travel did not however turn out very well. So I continued to go by road in spite of the risks involved.
I went to Kwanza Zul many times and of course I also made friends there. The deputy secretary for education Mbumba lived in Luanda but his family (with three children) lived in the camp. I always went to see them, first at the request of the secretary but later I became better and better friends with the family. I always brought them something from Luanda. After some time I became one of the family. And we are still extremely close. The two girls who were three months and three years old the first time I met them very often came to Luanda and lived with me. I took them to the beach to swim and to all kinds of places. We continued our close relationship when we went to Namibia. Sten and I were invited to the eldest girl’s wedding three years ago and this girl still e-mails me now and again. Her husband was Iranian/Dutch and they now live in Amsterdam. She still calls me aunty Berit.
When I left Luanda (I stayed six months after my husband had gone home Nujuma arranged a farewell dinner for me. Axel Johannes made the arrangements and I was requested to bring a few persons with me, among others Bernt Calsson the UN Commissioner for Namibia in New York. At that meeting Nujuma gave a speech for me and gave me a diploma, which said thank you Berit who worked in the camps for the liberation of the Namibian people. After that Bernt Carlsson asked me if I wanted to become his personnel assistant. Sten said “Yes you must. It is good for you career.” But I decided I wanted to be with Sten and the kids and not to move alone to New York where I knew there was a lot of infighting. And then not long after (one and a half years) Bernt Carlsson died in the Lockerbie disaster and as a personal assistant I would probably have been with him.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Did you know anything about Swapo’s oppression of their own dissidents that has come into the open after the independence of Namibia?
Berit Rylander: Yes I already knew that there were accusations of that nature during our time in Luanda. So with my good contacts within Swapo I was asked to make an investigation. I went among others to meet Hidipo Hamutenya who was then the secretary and asked him face to face what really happened in the Lubango army camp where the dissidents were kept. I told him what had been reported on and asked him as a friend of Swapo what was the truth. I wrote down exactly what he said and I think I still have the notes today. He said that they had some 100 people detained in Lubango and they were well kept and fed. He insisted that these people were infiltrators sent across the boarder from Namibia to infiltrate and spy on Swapo. However you can feel very safe we treat them well he said. In retrospect we should have insisted on visits by the Red Cross to reassure us what he said was right. But we felt convinced at that time that the rumours were started by the South African Security as so often before. Some of the sources of the rumours we found out came actually from South Africa, which supported our conviction. All this I reported to the Ambassador and he sent a report to Sweden. What really had happened I first understood at a meeting in London in 1988.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: But did we not know more than that.? I recall years before the story with Jörgen Cristensen who was a predecessor of yours who talked about the oppression within Swapo.
Berit Rylander: Yes I met people who felt afraid. Sometimes someone you knew just disappeared and then you found out that this person had been accused of being a spy. But that was also the reason that we did the investigation I mentioned above.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: What about the support to ANC?
Berit Rylander: The ANC support was less complicated – mainly daily necessities. So the relationship with ANC was rather simple and straightforward. All the project support to ANC took place in Zambia and Tanzania. There was a transit camp in Viana and then there were the military training camps, which we never talked about. It turned out later that hey thad some 16, 000 fighters in these camps. We were feeding them but we did not really know whom we fed and exactly how many they were. I was so busy with Swapo. I took over the portfolio with ANC and never really questioned it. We had given support to them for so long. It was like a silent understanding. So I never questioned why they got so much food.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: So who would know more exactly?
Berit Rylander: Mainly the Sida people in Lusaka (Roland Axelsson) and the desk officer in Stockholm (Margareta Husen). The detailed negotiations and follow-up took place in Lusaka. I and the Sida office in Luanda had no reporting responsibility as regards ANC. However, I got to know more and more. At the negotiations in Lusaka in my third year with all the Sida desk officers for ANC from the surrounding countries participating, we reported from all our activities and I from Angola. A comment from someone that the food delivered to Angola seemed to be very expensive was retorted to by someone that “the fighters need the food”. It must be emphasised that we never gave them cash to buy the food. We bought it ourselves and sent it to Angola. Elisabeth Traore at the purchasing division of Sida bought food for and fed ANC and Swapo in Angola for between three and four years.
I also got good friends among the ANC cadre. Closest was Simone who was of Indian origin. But as we did not work so closely it never became as much as it was with Swapo. One very strong memory was related to my 40th birthday. The well-known South African music group Amandla under Jonas Guangwa had their practicing place in Luanda and lived a big part of the year there. Violet Gwangwa the wife of the conductor of Amandla who I already met in Botswana where she worked in a travel agency was a good friend of mine. Jonas was one of the most famous musicians of South Africa at that time and he trained the music group Amandla. I had asked a few persons from Amandla to come and play at my birthday. I had not heard anything from them so the morning of my birthday I went to ask if anyone was coming. They then said that they would not come as a small group but only if they could come with a sixteen person group which I of course appreciated very much. That was the birthday present I got from ANC and it was just fantastic.
Another incident I remember vividly concerning ANC was with regard to Transelectric, a Swedish firm providing support to Angola in the field of electricity. They had an assignment in north western Angola. To get there they had to fly with helicopters over one of the training camps of ANC. And once they were shot at. The head of Transelectric immediately came to us and requested us to complain to ANC and request that it should not happen again. As a result Sten and I from the Swedish embassy, the head of Transelectrec and the ANC military leadership went by helicopter to that camp. The representative of Transelectric and the military commander of ANC then had a long discussion on what had happened and about how to avoid similar incidents in the future. ANC said that they had contacted the helicopter to ask them to change route and not to fly over prohibited area but had not received any response and therefore they had shot to warn them off. Transelectric said that they had no idea about the camp, which was on no map, and they finally agreed how to avoid similar incidents in the future. This was the closest we ever came to the military struggle of ANC. Of course we knew that the ANC fighters were trained in Angola (most of them anyway some were also trained in Tanzania) but we never really came close to that part of their struggle.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Back in Sweden you continued working with the liberation movements?
Berit Rylander: Yes, I joined the education division at Sida headquarters and worked with ANC and Swapo education for the first year, after which I moved to the regional department to work with the preparations for an independent Namibia. At the end of 1988 the agreement was reached for the UN to take charge of the independence process of Namibia and during 1989 a major process of preparing for that change was under way. So in 1988 I worked with the education programmes, which consisted of regular projects in the camps and in training in Sweden for both ANC and Swapo. What was particularly complicated during this period were the many defections by ANC students who were trained in different subjects in the Norrköping area. From one group half of the group defected and the blame and counterblame made it very difficult for us. This never happened with the Swapo students – they all went back.
The really interesting period started with the decision that Namibia would became independent and I was asked to administer Swedish support to the preparation for that independence. As we were very close to the Swapo leadership we were entrusted with many important tasks. I headed an investigation team together with the economist Peter Magnusson and the central banker Erik Karlsson to London and Luanda. We met with Nujuma who asked us to help them prepare in the fields of central banking, transport and education. The other Nordic countries were asked in a similar manner to give support to other areas, so Swapo had already in early 1989 a clear idea on how to cooperate with the Nordic countries. Based on that we arranged a meeting at the course centre Vår Gård between the Swapo leadership and expertise in the areas in which Sweden had been requested to give support and where you Lennart acted as chairman. This was a highly interesting meeting and I believe meant a lot for the future developments in the different areas. For education the major preparatory meeting took place in Lusaka headed by Swapo’s secretary and deputy secretary for education Angula and Mbumba and to which some 100 Namibians had been invited half of them from exile and half from inside Namibia. Some of the latter represented the ministry at that time and met for the first time the ministers-to-be. The meeting had been prepared by two Swedish professors/consultants (Callewert and Carlos) who had been travelling unofficially in Namibia and presented an education sector analysis to the conference which was the basis for the discussion on the future education development of the country. To that meeting I carried ten thousand dollars in cash in my rucksack to pay out as per diem to all the participants. This was one of the risks we took in our cooperation. I had already started the preparation from Sida’s side when I was at the education division for example commissioning the two consultants. My personal relations from my time in Luanda came in very handy in this new work. I remember very vividly 1 April 1989 when we had Angula on a visit at Sida. That was when Swapo fighters from Angola went into Namibia “unprovoked” during the period of the ceasefire. Angula visited the Swapo students in Umeå and when he came back the media hunted him. Everybody wanted to understand what had happened and its consequences. I was also extremely close to the Swapo representative in Stockholm at that time. We met every week often more than once and talked about everything of importance and lesser importance on these occasions.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: In 1991 you went with Sten to independent Namibia. In a few words what did you feel then? What came out of your personal relationships when you came to Namibia?
Berit Rylander: My relations deepened even further. The Swapo people always felt that I was part of them – a Namibian – and not a foreigner. I worked in the Planning Commission and they treated me there as a Namibian. And it is true even today. The Namibian ambassador to Zimbabwe where I am now stationed and who was a former personal assistant to Nujuma often says “I forget that you are not a Namibian”. When I left Namibia in 1995 I tried to summaries what this relationship has meant to me in a speech to some hundred friends that we had invited to our farewell party: that I feel I have been part of history having been able to follow the full chain, the liberation struggle, the independence process and the work of the independent Namibia. This was a privilege to have been part of that process. And emotionally I feel I have grown as a person to see how people can live under very difficult conditions and how small things can be of such importance. I have also been very upset when the new politicians went into the shoes of their predecessors. I have many times said to the former liberation fighters that than increasing their own salaries they rather should redistribute the money to the ones who need it much more. Some times I have even felt deceived by the comrades who did not act in their new positions in the way that they had promoted in the struggle.