Director of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa—South African Council of Churches. Director of the Ecumenical Advice Bureau
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Johannesburg 15 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: When did you first come into contact with the Nordic countries?
Beyers Naudé: Well, you will be surprised at my answer. The first time that I came into contact with the Nordic countries and churches was in 1953, when I was still on the other side of the struggle for liberation, a devoted Nationalist.
Tor Sellström: And a member of the Afrikaner Broederbond?
Beyers Naudé: Yes, a member of the Broederbond. I was a young minister of the white Dutch Reformed Church, sent on a study tour for church youth work. There were two of us, Dr. Willem Strauss and myself. The World Council Churches organized our study tour. It included visits to Denmark, Norway and Sweden on forms of church youth work, to which we were introduced and on which we had discussions. The first time that I returned was after I had accepted to work in the Christian Institute.
Tor Sellström: Which was in 1963?
Beyers Naudé: It started in 1963. I cannot recollect exactly what year my first visit was, but through the work in the Christian Institute I became more and more acquainted with the Church of Sweden Mission. I was constantly visiting Uppsala and I also attended the World Council Conference there in 1968. I also visited Norway and Denmark. That is the basic background. In the course of my work in the Christian Institute I had several visits undertaken to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Once also to Finland, a number of years ago.
Tor Sellström: The World Council of Churches’ synod in Uppsala in 1968 led to the launch of the Programme to Combat Racism the year after?
Beyers Naudé: Yes, it was launched in 1969, but the decision was taken in 1968.
Tor Sellström: 1969 was an interesting year. It was also the year when Henry Kissinger concluded that there would be no black rule in Southern Africa. It was the year of the Lusaka Manifesto and it was the year when the Swedish parliament paved the way for direct official humanitarian assistance to national liberation movements, which led to the support to ANC from 1973. In those days, how did you in this context view the Nordic countries?
Beyers Naudé: Well, let me start by saying that as far as support to the liberation movements was concerned, I had in principle no problem with that. In the Christian Institute and through a growing and more meaningful contact with the black community in South Africa— especially the black Christian community, but also the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko, and many others—it became more and more clear to me personally, and to a number of us, that, firstly, we had to legitimize the liberation movement in South Africa. Secondly, although we might disagree with the armed struggle, we had to approve in principle that they had the right to liberate themselves. There was no problem with that. My problem was the question of the armed struggle. Not with the decision of individuals to participate in armed struggle if they believed that they had done all other things to prevent that. My problem was to what degree the church had the right to support the armed struggle.
Throughout history, the churches in the world have always held two main views in this regard. The pacifist view and the view of those who would say that you must first try all the peaceful means and only if they fail are you allowed to participate. To me it was a very difficult decision, because in my heart I am basically a pacifist. I seek solutions by peaceful means. It was a very deep and painful struggle for me. Also to eventually say to myself: I have no problem in supporting the goals, the aims and the objectives of ANC, including the Freedom Charter. As a Christian, I believed that the Freedom Charter reflected the values of justice and peace of the gospel much clearer than any other document that we had in South Africa. My problem was whether I had the right to support the armed struggle as such. I could not bring myself to that. I could understand why many others did, but for myself I made a distinction. I said that blacks in South Africa with so much less opportunity for being involved in peaceful protests would certainly be entitled to give themselves to the armed struggle, but I, as a white, still had the opportunity to present pressures and viewpoints, for instance on sanctions and other actions, much better than by joining the armed struggle.
Tor Sellström: On this point, your position coincided with the position of the Nordic countries. For example, when resolutions came up in the United Nations calling for support to the liberation movements, the Nordic countries would vote for these resolutions as long as they were not advocating armed struggle as a means of solving the conflict. If so, they would abstain.
Beyers Naudé: Yes, that is correct. Let me say that the principled approach of the Nordic countries helped me very much. I had to consider, for instance, the example of somebody like Bonhoeffer, who eventually came to the point where he said: ‘I know that I am participating in sin if I try to kill Hitler, but it is the lesser of two evils. Therefore, knowing that I am guilty, I am still committed to do that, because I have no other option.’
In my case, I always asked myself: Is there no way in which—through the application of all other peaceful means—the countries of the world who are really committed to non-violent change can more effectively bring about a transformation? Through those means, rather than with weapons, nuclear bombs and everything else? Looking back today, I would say that the world eventually will be forced to come to the conclusion that there is no way in which we in the long run can solve problems through armed struggles, because the more you take them up, the more vicious, devastating and eventually suicidal they become. But it needs, I would say, the wisdom of experience to hopefully bring us to that view.
Tor Sellström: In a recently published book on the World Council of Churches there is a description on how the different ecumenical movements embraced the Programme to Combat Racism. I was a bit surprised to read that the Nordic churches were quite slow in the implementation of the programme. Is that also your view?
Beyers Naudé: That is true. I think that it relates to the fact that in the Nordic churches the pietistic, evangelistic movement has always played, and is still playing, a very strong role. The danger of pietism is always to be non-political, noncontroversial and to withdraw from any political debate and discussion. I think that it needed a whole transformation in the thinking, a new set of mind, on the part of the Nordic churches and their members to realize that social justice based on the gospel may need a much more active participation in politics. Not necessarily in party politics, but in the whole political struggle of a nation for liberation. To me it seems to be one of the major reasons why there was this hesitancy. I would not say unwillingness, but confusion and over-caution. Is it not also true that the propaganda which came from the West—from South Africa and from the United States and others—in a certain sense always presented the liberation movement as Communist, terrorist and anti-Christ? It was on the basis of that totally distorted conception and impression that many of the sincere, devout pietistic Christians in the Nordic countries felt that they dared not give any support of any kind, not even humanitarian support, to the liberation movement.
Tor Sellström: Does that mean that you were mainly receiving support through the government structures in the Nordic countries? I am thinking of the support to the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute?
Beyers Naudé: No, that was forthcoming through the churches. As far as that was concerned, it was not seen to be part of the support for the liberation movement as such. It was seen as humanitarian support for the victims of apartheid. That distinction is basic and very important.
Tor Sellström: You could perhaps say that the churches in the Nordic countries would view the liberation movements as resistance movements, while the political structures would see them as liberation movements?
Beyers Naudé: Yes, that is a very important point to be made.
Tor Sellström: You were probably the most central person inside South Africa when it came to the channelling of Nordic humanitarian support to a number of structures and organizations. How did you view the cooperation with the Nordic countries? How did you liaise with them?
Beyers Naudé: Well, I could not meet the Nordic governments. My passport had already been withdrawn in 1972, long before my banning. I could not leave South Africa. I simply had to learn how to regularly communicate the needs of the people and the organizations. Secondly, how to respond to requests coming from them and convey them to the Nordic governments. And, thirdly, how to set up contacts from the other side.
This was done in various ways. Firstly, through constant letters which were written confidentially and sent out. Naturally, never by mail. And we never talked over the phone, because I knew that my telephone was tapped. I knew that anything that I would send probably would be intercepted. So you simply had to use your wisdom to find ways and means to convey the messages and do it as confidentially as possible. Secondly, by arranging visits which had to be undertaken by representatives from the other side and also set aside adequate time for in-depth discussions of their needs.
The way in which I did that was that I constantly gathered as much information as I could. I could never meet socially with more than one person at a time. I therefore had to break my banning order from time to time to meet secretly with more than one person, because in the African culture—and that is a very good principle—anyone with an order to corroborate his or her statement would insist that somebody else should be present. I had no problem with that. In this way it was possible to, first of all, gather the information—I deliberately went out of my way in order to seek and find such information—secondly, to communicate it confidentially and, thirdly, to make myself available at any moment. Sometimes it was in the middle of the night. Sometimes it was early in the morning. At a moment’s notice, in order to meet somebody somewhere.
Tor Sellström: You also met with representatives from the Nordic legations in South Africa?
Beyers Naudé: Oh, yes! For instance, for a long period I regularly met with Birgitta Karlström Dorph from the Swedish legation. I had long and meaningful discussions with her. I reported to her in full about what was happening. I heard which information she and the legation needed, gathered the information and then, at a given point, reported back to her. Apart from many other qualifications, Birgitta had the gift of winning the trust of the black community through her person and through her commitment. She was the kind of person who blacks, intuitively, after a certain period would know that they could trust and open their hearts and minds to. Whenever Birgitta promised anything she kept her word. When she could not, she was very clear to say: ‘I cannot promise anything, but I will see what I can do.’ Among those who came to know her personally in South Africa there is a deep and lasting respect for her person and her commitment.
Tor Sellström: Would you say that the Swedish and Nordic officials were personally more involved or committed than other diplomatic representatives?
Beyers Naudé: Yes, I would immediately say that as far as the Swedish representatives were concerned. I am thinking of Birgitta, Cecilia Höglund and others. There was no doubt that they were deeply committed. As far as certain of the other countries were concerned, I think that the general feeling was that they did this because it was their professional responsibility. But they did not always emanate the spirit of commitment which came from the Nordic countries. I am here thinking of Sweden, but I also want to refer to Denmark and Norway. For instance, somebody like Trond Bakkevig from the Norwegian church and the real, intimate trust which he developed. I think that they gave a very clear impression to the community that here you had representatives of governments of three countries which were committed in a deeper sense than may have been the case with others. Without my knowledge, there may have been one or two other embassies who also had that commitment. But I think that the black community in South Africa—struggling for liberation—had the impression that the deepest commitment came from the representatives of the Nordic countries.
Tor Sellström: At the same time, I understand that those who were knowledgeable about the Nordic support were the direct recipients and not so much the broader community of beneficiaries?
Beyers Naudé: I think that the reason for that was the tremendous repression. It was not unwillingness to convey the information, but the fear that the security police, the phone-tapping and everything else would jeopardize the support. But now it should be brought much more into the open.
Tor Sellström: In your opinion, was the Nordic support to the liberation process in South Africa given without strings attached or was it extended with a view to influencing the future South Africa in a particular political direction?
Beyers Naudé: I personally believe that it was done to influence South Africa. Not in a specificpolitical direction, but to realize that the values of democracy, peace and justice which the Nordic countries had experienced—and which had given them so much of both freedom and commitment—for the sake of countries such as South and Southern Africa should be discussed and debated. But I never saw that as political manipulation with a view, for instance, to financial gain or anything of that kind.
Tor Sellström: Nor to prepare the terrain for investments?
Beyers Naudé: No, I never saw it as such. I personally also do not believe that it was the motivation. I think that it was different, for instance, with the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, where our impression was that this was not done from a political view, but specifically with the view to further influence financial developments which would benefit the economy, the trade and the finances of those countries. But I do not believe that it was the impression with any of us regarding the Nordic countries.
Tor Sellström: This week, Chancellor Kohl addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town. He said that the German companies stayed in this country—even during the darkest period—to give employment to the most downtrodden.
Beyers Naudé: Well, first of all, his statement is not correct. If you ask any of the black communities who were involved with the majority of the German companies, including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and others, that was never the impression that the workers had about the motivation of the German companies’ staying and operating here. In fact, in many respects it was seen to be the opposite. Whoever informed Chancellor Kohl about that did not give him the full information.
Tor Sellström: You channelled great amounts of solidarity funds from the Nordic countries. Did you experience any problems with accountability and financial controls?
Beyers Naudé: I cannot speak for any of the other parties and organizations which were supported. I can only reply to what I myself experienced and the way I saw it. Perhaps I should emphasize that for the sake of accountability—I should say, for the sake of always being able to account to myself that what I was doing could reflect integrity—I always tried my very best, even when it was not requested, to report on the way in which support was given to individual persons in different parts of the country.
There were instances where for the sake of security and the safety of the persons concerned I could not give their names, but I always explained that. For me it was taken for granted that whenever I could I should report as fully as possible. Not because it was required—there was a large measure of flexibility—but because I felt that it was important that I should never at any stage create the impression that either I, or a few friends or others, were benefiting from those grants. There was never any pressure, but, certainly, a flexible, regular reporting was required in so far as it was possible. I tried to do that to the best of my ability and I never felt that it was not supported in that way.
Tor Sellström: Is there anything you would like to add to characterize the relationship with the Nordic countries?
Beyers Naudé: Yes, I would. It is of vital importance that the human communication at all levels of our societies—our thoughts on the building of a responsible, free and democratic movement in South Africa—should be maintained and strengthened. I believe that there are historical values of democracy, justice and peaceful resolution of conflicts which the Nordic countries have developed in the course of a number of years and which we desperately need. So, for the sake of South Africa, my plea is: Please maintain and strengthen those contacts. Secondly, I would wish to say that there is to my mind a very substantial contribution which also South Africa can make to the insight and the understanding of the liberation struggle in general, of the human struggle for freedom and democracy, to the Nordic countries. think that both societies should be open to that regular communication. Thirdly, I would wish to say that, if unattended, the tremendous gap between wealth and affluence in the Northern countries and the poverty and destitution in the Southern world will create major problems. For the sake of the world, the global economy and economic justice it is of vital importance that countries like the Nordic countries and South and Southern Africa remain in constant contact to communicate, discuss, debate and dialogue on these issues. Not in the first place for the sake of South Africa or for the sake of the Nordic countries, but for the sake of the global community. This seems to be the task that lies ahead of all of us.
Tor Sellström: That is a much more difficult task.
Beyers Naudé: True, in the past it was easy to clearly indicate that apartheid was the enemy. We all
opposed apartheid, regardless of our political affiliation. The task ahead is much more difficult, no doubt about it. But in the long run it is going to be much more meaningful and productive, if we have the wisdom to understand how to do it.
May I end by saying that I personally wish to express my deep and lasting gratitude for the enrichment of my own life through my personal friendship with the Nordic countries, through the commitment that they made to justice and peace and through the way in which they helped me to understand much more what it meant to make that contribution.