ANC—Student and Chief Representative to Sweden High Commissioner of South Africa to Canada
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Johannesburg 15 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: What circumstances led you to Sweden?
Billy Modise: I had joined ANC in 1955 and I became a student leader at Fort Hare University. The main fight as far as the students were concerned was against the introduction of the Extension of the University Education Bill, which was to legalize apartheid at the universities. Until 1959, the universities could theoretically, accept students of all colours, but in practice they did not. Now they wanted to legalize apartheid through that act and we fought it. At the end of the day, I was a wanted man. I was also elected to the National Executive of NUSAS, the National Union of South African Students. In 1960, they asked me to attend an international student conference in Switzerland, which I declined. I knew that I would be arrested if I went to apply for a passport. But both ANC and my family said: ‘Look, it is a matter of time before the police will pick you up, so leave the country. Try to see if you can get a scholarship.’
The Lund University Students Union in Sweden offered me a scholarship for medicine and the British Students Union paid for my ticket from Accra, Ghana, to London. ANC arranged that I would be on their only chartered flight to lift South African ANC refugees from the then Bechuanaland to Accra. But when I got to Bechuanaland my contact had gone, and I missed that lift. So I hitchhiked to Tanzania and later got on a plane to London.
Tor Sellström: In Tanzania you met the Swedish missionary Barbro Johansson?
Billy Modise: I met Barbro Johansson and she was very helpful, because the ticket from the British Students Union was still lying in Ghana and I was in Tanzania, Tanganyika at that time. I was not going to West Africa, so I had the ticket transferred to Dar es Salaam.
Tor Sellström: This was in 1960?
Billy Modise: Yes. At that time Barbro was a member of parliament for TANU. A very strong and dynamic woman. She said: ‘I can top up your ticket to allow you to get to Sweden. I will lend you the money. One day you will repay me.’ I am still in the process of paying her... She will not tell me how much it is.
I then came to Sweden and got to Lund. Anna Wieslander was in charge of the foreign students. She met me in Copenhagen. But I never settled down to medicine. I was with two Liberian girls who are now doctors, and every time I was supposed to go to class I was busy politicizing Sweden. In the end, the student union and the professor said: ‘Look, you have got a choice. If you want to do medicine, you stay here and study. If you want to do politics for South Africa, look for another subject area.’ I thought, well, I cannot give up South Africa for medicine, so I gave up medicine and ended up in sociology.
Tor Sellström: If you had continued with medicine you would perhaps not have represented President Mandela as High Commissioner to Canada today?
Billy Modise: I do not know. You never know what happens in life.
Tor Sellström: Among the students in Lund there was also a group of Namibians. I am thinking of those who came very early, such as Uatja Kaukuetu.
Billy Modise: Yes, they were SWANU. Their leader, Kozonguizi, who lived in London, was a colleague of mine at Fort Hare. That is where he really was politicized. He became a member of the ANC Youth League. In Lund at the time, we had SWANU and ZAPU. We coordinated and we supported one another. We planned together. With SWANU there was a common enemy, South Africa, so we had quite a lot in common.
Tor Sellström: When you came to Sweden in 1960, how did the Swedish people look upon South Africa and the struggle against apartheid?
Billy Modise: When I got to Sweden, the problem of South Africa was distant in a sense. People did not understand what was happening, except for a few politicians and perhaps a few scholars and businessmen. For the ordinary man it was just a distant problem. That made it very difficult. Some of the things that we were asking the Swedes to do they would not contemplate, because they had not done it in the past.
We asked for sanctions. I remember when the former Prime Minister Tage Erlander used to come down to Lund for his annual visit to his alma mater. He said that according to Swedish law and practice you could not declare economic sanctions against a country unless you were at war with that country. Sweden was not at war with South Africa in the legal sense, so they could not apply sanctions by the government. But if we were able to persuade the ordinary Swedish consumer not to buy South African products, there was no problem. Hence, that was a big challenge to us. We must talk to almost every Swede and say ‘Don’t buy! Don’t buy from South Africa! Don’t export! Don’t export to South Africa!’ But we could not stop the goods from entering Sweden. I addressed the students. My base was in the student structures. I travelled to Gothenburg, Stockholm, Lund, talking to high schools. All over Skåne, informing them about the situation in South Africa.
Tor Sellström: Did you also visit the other Nordic countries?
Billy Modise: Yes. I went to Denmark, because Denmark was my neighbour. It was easier there. Iwent to Århus and to Copenhagen. I also went to Norway. I attended the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the late Chief Luthuli. We had a few South African ANC students in Oslo and we worked with them. Finland is the only country that I did not go to until very late.
In 1961, I was almost the only South African who was active in Sweden. The other students were really not into politics. I do not blame them, because they paid attention to their studies. I was irresponsible and paid attention to politics. It was clear that I could not do the work alone, so I started working on the Swedes, proposing to form a committee that would spread among the Swedes themselves. That is how we started the South Africa Committee in Lund, with people like Lars-Erik Johansson and Ulf Agrell. We also started a publication and addressed meetings.
I remember addressing the Social Democratic women in Malmö. Johansson was translating for me. I kept referring to Jesus Christ, thinking that I was talking to elderly women. But he did not translate the Jesus Christ part and when we went back to Lund he said: ‘Look, do not waste your time referring to Jesus Christ. Some of these people probably do not go to church. Just make your point, but do not refer to any religion.’ Also, many of these women had not really met a black person. After I finished speaking they asked me to sign autographs. I could feel the pressure as I was signing and the next thing was that they pushed their hands onto me to feel me and to touch this funny hair.
The committee developed to cover the whole of Southern Africa. We had SWAPO, SWANU, ZANU, ZAPU, FRELIMO etc. and it picked up very strongly throughout Sweden. There were demonstrations all over. We would write pamphlets and posters. We lobbied the parliament very strongly. Also the trade unions and separate members of LO. Although I was a student, I was more of a foot soldier in politics.
Tor Sellström: There were a number of personalities in the liberal camp that raised the issue of apartheid. I am thinking of Herbert Tingsten and Gunnar Helander. Could it explain the broadness of the solidarity movement?
Billy Modise: I think that no one person can claim to have politicized Sweden regarding South Africa. One could single out myself and a few others, but on the ground there were the students in the South Africa Committee. Then you had Per Wästberg, who had just been kicked out of South Africa, and Helander, the church minister. In fact, those two gave stature to what the students were doing, because they were accepted Swedish personalities in their own right. They added weight to what we were doing against apartheid. It added dignity, if you can say so. There was also Sara Lidman, a very powerful lady.
Without what you call the liberal centre I think that our work would have been more difficult, perhaps even slower. They came in when we needed muscle on television. One of them would be there when we needed a good, powerful speaker. When we needed a lobbyist who could reach the echelons of power in the Swedish government they were there. They were very helpful, subsequently joined by people like Pierre Schori, who brought in the Social Democratic youth.
There was a receptiveness on the part of a number of structures. It was not a one person performance. It could never have been. Apart from us from outside, you already had, I think, a democratic basis in Sweden that could understand what we were saying. Much more than in the United States, for example. The wind of change, as somebody called it, had not yet properly hit the United States in spite of the fact that they had done away with slavery on paper. But Sweden was ready to understand, because, I think, of the social mindset of the society.
Tor Sellström: There was a strong egalitarian credo in the Nordic countries?
Billy Modise: Right. I think that that was it. The other possible explanation is that, in fact, they had not been a colonial power in the traditional sense of the word and, hence, had not created this seemingly insoluble problem of the colonial master always remaining the colonial master, even in his mindset. They were able to relate much easier and much more readily to people from developing countries, almost without any active racism or negative prejudice. That made relations much easier. That made them a little more receptive to what we were saying. They could empathize much easier than the former colonial powers. The fight in Sweden was not as tough as the fight in Britain or France, even if in the end the heart of the anti-apartheid movement in the world was in London. But still, it was a real fight.
What could have been a problem was racism. I made a distinction between negative racism and positive racism. Negative racism is when I am denied an opportunity on the basis of race. In Sweden the problem was not that. The problem was that I was treated preferentially because of race. At the end of the day that is still racism, because they are not treating me as an equal. They are treating me as a pampered little child. You saw it on the ground. I would go and bash at whites and everybody would agree with me. Then you would have the Swedes saying exactly the same thing and you had a heated argument: ‘Va’ fan! Det kan inte vara sant!’ (‘What the hell! It cannot be true!’)
When I got to Sweden that was the problem. The reason was that there were no black people in the country. People did not know how to behave to blacks. Many times in the small towns I would walk around and the children would be asking me: ‘Varför är du så smutsig?’ (‘Why are you so dirty?’). They did not know a human being who naturally was like this. If hands were like these, in their eyes it meant that the father had been working with oil. He was dirty. It was not racialistic. It was just that I was dirty.
Tor Sellström: I guess that in those days the only contacts with blacks were with American jazz and gospel singers?
Billy Modise: Yes, and sailors. Places like Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö had seen blacks, but, if you went inland very few blacks had walked there. Let me also say that there were institutions that took the question of racism and apartheid into their fold. You had schools that started to bring in teachers that were taking up the topic of racism. I guess that some of those teachers probably might have seen some of the problems that were to confront Sweden with regard to migrant workers from the South, gypsies and Lapps. But this question had not yet become too problematic in the society. Now, South Africa was a good example of where things can go wrong along the racial line. ‘So why don't we discuss that to sensitize the children? If we look closely at home, we might find that we also do have some phenomena that are related to the problem that South Africa has got.’
You had schools like Nässjö Folkhögskola, where I went to learn my Swedish and which Yolisa, my wife, also attended later. It became very involved. The folk high school movement was very helpful because it was composed of mature students. They had been out on the ground and suffered, perhaps not racially, but they knew what class discrimination was. They could not understand why people were kept out only because they were black or did not have education and so forth. So they were amenable to thinking about the problems that we raised.
Tor Sellström: The churches, I suppose, also came in to support you?
Billy Modise: Definitely, yes. Very much so. In Uppsala, particularly. In Stockholm and then in Lund and Malmö the churches were also very active. As in Jönköping. Anders Johansson, who later became editor at Dagens Nyheter, joined this work whilst he was at the Jönköping high school. He was the student leader there and he brought me there several times. It is a very, very religious area.
Tor Sellström: You lived in Sweden until 1976, when you took up a post as Assistant Director of the United Nations Institute for Namibia in Lusaka, Zambia. You returned as the ANC Chief Representative towards the end of the 1980s. How did you then find Sweden compared to what you had experienced some twenty-five years earlier?
Billy Modise: Sweden refined my politics. I probably imbibed some of the philosophical positions that Sweden as a society took, because I lived there for sixteen years. Sweden is a nonviolent country and that probably rubbed off onto me even if I supported the armed liberation struggle. I never apologized for supporting that, but, basically, at the bottom of me there was that non-violent position. Sweden had taken the position of supporting ANC. ANC was in the armed struggle and Sweden as a country was non-violent. Many people never understood that and found it contradictory. Yet, I do not think that it was.
Sweden also contributed to my professional career. I did a lot of work as a sociologist there. I did research with people and started the development studies programme at Lund University. I took students, including Jaya Appalraju, to East Africa for research purposes and so forth. Sweden also gave me a chance—even before SIDA was established—to talk to the so-called experts when they were sent abroad for technical aid work or for the United Nations on the issues of developing countries, racism, etc. The fact that they would ask me—a black student—to come and discuss with them meant that Sweden recognized that they needed a certain experience which they did not have. They wanted to listen to outsiders. That attitude internationalized the Swedish political vision of the world. They never said: ‘We know.’ The trouble with colonial powers is that they always know better than other people. Sweden, on the other hand, was always ready to say: ‘Can we learn from you?’. You could see on environmental issues, on human rights’ issues, all around, that Sweden always was interacting with the world in order to do certain things.
By and large, the receptiveness of the Swedish political system and mindset was a plus and a strength. Sweden was very engaged and involved in world issues, which was unique. Already at the end of the 1960s, Sweden had made its mark internationally on Third World issues. Sweden did not just support any developing country. The selection was politically motivated. They were able to look for social democracy. The Swedish philosophy was social democracy and, hence, support to Vietnam, Cuba, TANU in Tanganyika, ZAPU or UNIP in Zambia was not a problem for Sweden, whereas it was a problem in other donor countries.
Now, when I went back in 1988 as the ANC representative, I was frankly shocked to find that Sweden had become an ordinary developed country, whose youth and people were just focusing on a better house, a better car and better clothing. The political activity was really very much lower than when I left in 1976. I do not know what happened in the meantime. It could have been the state of the economy. In the 1980s, Sweden was struggling. It was feeling the pinch of the worldwide recession and inflation and people were saying: ’Hey, first my job before I can engage in correcting the wrongs of the society.’ The university system had also changed somewhat. I think that it was in the late 1960s that the debate came that you should stop studying for the sake of studying. There were people who were studying for ten years, one course a year. They became unemployable. I do not remember the exact period when industry was brought closer to the universities, but at the time we fought that, because we feared that capital wanted to take over and run the universities. I think that this influence led people to focus more on their careers at a time when they should be philosophical dreamers.
The last time you can afford to dream and almost live your dreams is when you are still a student. Once you start working that is the end, because your hours, your positions and your behaviour are controlled by your employer, directly or indirectly. As a student you can afford to dream and think beyond reality. Every society wants dreamers who can try to project what that society is going to be beyond the present. The only people who can do that in a society are the students. When you lose the students and they start to behave like adults while they are still at the university— already calculating that ‘I am going to have two children and a Volvo; I cannot risk or do that etc.’—it means that you are not getting that necessary injection into the thinking of the society. For me, that was a very drastic change. I spent almost two years in Sweden as ANC Chief Representative without getting an invitation from the universities.
Tor Sellström: Perhaps you could say that Sweden had been normalized and that the whole relationship with ANC to a large extent had become bureaucratized?
Billy Modise: More bureaucratic, that is true. Very much so. However, in spite of that bureaucracy, Sweden continued to support the liberation struggle and ANC. The Social Democrats had become weaker as a political structure and they now had to be seen to handle public funds in a responsible manner. I am not saying that they were irresponsible before, but people were now questioning ANC because the Americans and the British were regarding ANC as terrorists and all that. So you would get the opposition to the Social Democrats saying ‘We want to know how we support ANC.’
Let me be fair to everybody. On balance, you can say that all in Sweden supported the liberation struggle. Where the parties might have been differing was on how the support should be channelled and on the accounting of that support. The government of the Social Democrats used to give straightforward support and understood why receipts in a township perhaps had not been kept. The controls that normally any lender of money exercises were not set that strongly. But they controlled. However, as time went on the whole process became bureaucratized. They had to check how every Krona was used. At times this interfered with the political work, because it was in fact true that many of the activities were funded in a manner where there were no receipts. It just had to be based on trust.
The bottom line is that the struggle was ours, as ANC, but Sweden was very central in that struggle. They took it onto themselves much more than a normal government would do. Secondly, because its leadership at all levels spent time discussing the struggle with our leaders, the Tambos of this world, Sweden was in its own way able to influence them how they should handle things. In the minds of our leaders, Sweden helped to confirm that the basis of the struggle was to create democracy. The interaction between Sweden and ANC strengthened the democratic urge of the ANC leadership. Finally, Sweden played a significant role in terms of racism in South Africa, because by totally identifying with ANC and the struggle, it enabled ANC to say that ‘not all whites are racists. We have this country which is lily white and it has supported us up to the hilt, so do not generalize and say that all whites are racists.’ I think that it helped to mellow whatever racism we might have had. That is the argument we also used with the Slovos of this world. It is important that we had whites who were seen alongside us in the struggle, because today we are able to say that there is no need to take revenge.