SIDA—Secretary to the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance—Head of SIDA’s section for Southern Africa Secretary General of the Swedish NGO Foundation for Human Rights
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 27 March 1996.
Tor Sellström: You have been involved with Swedish humanitarian support to Southern Africa in various capacities—as programme officer with SIDA, as secretary to the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, as head of the Southern Africa section at SIDA and as head of the SIDA office in Zimbabwe. When did you first start to work directly with the national liberation movements?
Birgitta Berggren: That was in Dar es Salaam in 1976. It was at the time of the Soweto uprisings, when new life came into the South African struggle. It was very interesting to follow, since the information in Tanzania about events in Southern Africa was amazingly good. Of course, all the liberation movements were supported by the Tanzanians, so you could easily meet all the people there. People who later returned to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.
What I most clearly remember from Dar es Salaam is that each quarter we would have the local ANC representatives coming to leave reports and get new funds for the sustenance of their people in Tanzania. Thomas Nkobi and a fellow from SACTU, George Monare, would come to the Swedish embassy. Monare was a big fellow. They would be dressed up in suits, ties and be wearing South African hats, and the girl in the reception would call me and say: ‘The uncles have arrived’. I would go out to see the ‘uncles’ and we would sit down and talk. So, it was in Dar es Salaam that I had my first contacts with the liberation movements. Also with people like Eli Weinberg, for instance. He had just arrived together with his wife Violet. We listened to them, because they were of the older generation. They could tell the whole story of the struggle. It was very interesting to meet all these people. After Soweto—around 1978—people started to leave South Africa in big numbers. When they were released from jail, they were so restricted in their movements that they eventually opted for exile and often for military training. When you followed the struggle, you understood even more how important the camps in southern Tanzania were.
Tor Sellström: Before that you had already been involved with Swedish humanitarian support to the victims of apartheid in the form of legal aid, scholarships to students etc.?
Birgitta Berggren: Yes, with refugee students in Sweden. But I just knew that they were refugees. I was actually not involved in the party picture in the way that I became in Tanzania. That was a different thing, much closer to reality .
Tor Sellström: Going back, in 1969 the Swedish parliament cleared the way for direct official support to the liberation movements in Southern Africa. In your view, what would be the main motives behind the decision to give direct support to the liberation movements?
Birgitta Berggren: I think that it was a sign of confidence and trust. The Swedish government wanted to show that these were movements that they supported politically. There were several aspects to it, but the most important was, of course, the political one.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish support was prepared by a Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, where you served as secretary from 1978 to 1980. What were the main functions of the committee? How would you assess its role?
Birgitta Berggren: The committee had existed for quite some time when I came into the picture. Very clear routines had been established. There were representatives from the major parties in parliament, the trade unions and various nongovernmental groups. The important thing was that the issues discussed—which at times were quite sensitive from a political point of view—were properly anchored in a broad spectrum of the Swedish society. The main function of the committee was, I would say, to discuss in a forum that was knowledgeable. Many of the committee members had been involved in African and Latin American questions, matters of human rights abuse and political support to resistance groups or liberation movements. It was a very qualified forum for debate. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs was, of course, represented with qualified people. Since you had to find reliable channels for the Swedish support and you had to protect the recipients, it was very important that the deliberations were confidential, that people were loyal and that they felt that this was something that they should not go to the press with. Even if you did not agree—or maybe had objections to some of the decisions taken—you should be absolutely loyal, because we had to protect those who were receiving the support.
Tor Sellström: Were there dissenting voices in the committee regarding the support to the liberation movements?
Birgitta Berggren: No, not really. No one said: ‘I am not going along. I want the minutes to say that I was not part of the decision’. I cannot remember that that ever happened.
Tor Sellström: From the beginning of the 1970s, Swedish official support was channelled through SIDA to a number of Southern African liberation movements that later assumed power in their respective countries. However, direct assistance was never extended to competing movements, such as PAC and Inkatha of South Africa and UANC of Zimbabwe. Did the committee at any point discuss possible Swedish support to these movements?
Birgitta Berggren: Not all the time, but regularly there would be requests from PAC, Inkatha or UANC for support and at times it was discussed. As regards PAC, the main attitude was that they received or had the possibilities of receiving considerable support from the United Nations. Having worked in Dar es Salaam, I also knew that PAC was very torn by internal struggles and even killings. Already in Tanzania I knew that they could not make use of the funds which were available to them through the UN system. They were not organized enough. It was a rather tragic picture that PAC presented in Dar es Salaam.
As for Inkatha, they did receive Swedish support. The motive was that they wanted to increase their ethnic image and promote ethnic cohesion among the Zulus. So the support was actually given to strengthen Inkatha as a Zulu organization. It was channelled to the newspaper The Nation, but also to training programmes or education material on the Zulu culture and nation. I had a very strong feeling that this was to strengthen the position of Gatsha Buthelezi. That was very much the impression I got. I was very critical of the fact that a decision was taken to support Inkatha. Even then it was obvious that Buthelezi and the Inkatha movement were receiving support from CIA. I could not understand why we should be involved. At the secretariat, we were really harassed by people—especially in Holland—who insisted that we should support Inkatha. They just went on and on.
Tor Sellström: Whose initiative was it to support Inkatha?
Birgitta Berggren: I think that it was due to direct contacts between Buthelezi and the Swedish government and SIDA.
Tor Sellström: Was any Swedish support similarly extended in favour of UANC of Zimbabwe?
Birgitta Berggren: No. We got requests from UANC, but it was obvious that Muzorewa was not a real force. You cannot call him a quisling, but he was being used as a tool for Ian Smith. It was so obvious that there was no question of supporting him. Norway was very actively involved, but we never were. In 1977-78, when I was working in Dar es Salaam, Muzorewa once came to the embassy, but no one wanted to receive him. I remember meeting him while he just stood there waiting, hoping for an appointment. He was a rather pathetic figure even then.
Tor Sellström: Over the years, there were growing allocations to Swedish humanitarian support in Southern Africa. You must have faced a problem in identifying NGOs that were willing and able to channel funds to the different recipients, particularly as confidentiality was important. How did you select and involve such NGOs? Would it be fair to say that the official support through SIDA actively contributed to a broadening of the involvement of the Swedish society in the liberation process in Southern Africa?
Birgitta Berggren: Yes, very much so. One has to remember that regarding the question of apartheid and the situation in Southern Africa there was not much debate whether Sweden should support the struggle or not. People were generally supportive. When various requests were channelled to us—in very different ways, to say the least—we tried to look for the group, party, organization or institution that could take an interest in that very activity and identify itself with the project. For instance, if it concerned training of girls or women, we would look for a women’s group in Sweden which could be especially interested, either in a political party context or as an ordinary NGO. We tried to use our imagination. We worked very hard to find people who could take such an interest that they really would work with great solidarity. I would say that the absolute majority—maybe 98-99 per cent— of those who agreed to work with the various projects did so in a fantastic way. There were hardly any leaks to the media. Neither would you hear from someone that they knew about the activities. It was kept very confidential by such a great number of people that I am still surprised that it worked so well. It was like a collective secret.
Tor Sellström: Did SIDA have sufficient administrative resources for the rapidly growing Swedish humanitarian support to Southern Africa?
Birgitta Berggren: Well, I think that there was a lot of overtime, which was never acknowledged. As the workload grew—and it did so very rapidly in the 1980s—there were problems when it came to financial administration. I remember that I in the end refused to make any payments, because we did not have the structure to follow-up all the transactions. I felt that it was overstretched. At times, you had to make a lot of noise. It was mainly because the decision makers were not fully aware of the very rapid increase of the workload. As the support was confidential, the workload was made even heavier. It was at times cumbersome to handle the material. It was more time-consuming than SIDA’s ordinary assistance.
Tor Sellström: In Sweden, there was a very strong solidarity movement with Southern Africa around the Africa Groups in Sweden and later the Isolate South Africa Committee. The solidarity movement was often critical of the government. You were sitting in the middle, being a government official and cooperating with the solidarity movement. How did you experience this?
Birgitta Berggren: Returning from Tanzania in 1978 to work with the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, I found that there was no cooperation at all, or at least very little. The atmosphere was rather antagonistic, which I thought was unnecessary. We definitely needed to cooperate, because the work was growing very fast. All the good forces had to cooperate to do a good job.
Liberation in Southern Africa—Regional and Swedish Voices
I took several initiatives to improve our relations with the voluntary groups. We started to cooperate, making use of each other’s capacities in a complementary fashion. For instance, we would invite lecturers from the Catholic Institute for International Relations in London, which was the best source of information on Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. We would pay for the trip and the solidarity groups would then arrange a lecturing tour of Sweden. We did this on several occasions. When it came to the Swedish scene, the solidarity groups had network and SIDA could more easily raise the necessary funds. There were no big costs involved, but it was important that we had this cooperation. It had very good effects on the Swedish knowledge of what was going on. One example is the support from SIDA to the organizations that collected clothes which they sent to the refugees in Southern Africa. We increased that cooperation by paying for their freight costs. We really worked hard on that kind of practical cooperation. I think that it worked out very well in the end.
Tor Sellström: Many of the NGO channels SIDA used were non-Swedish, particularly UK-and Holland-based organizations. Was this a problem vis-à-vis their governments? Did they view this as interference by the Swedish government?
Birgitta Berggren: If you look at some of the organizations in London, for instance IDAF and Africa Educational Trust, they were rather international, but happened to be in Britain. In the case of IDAF, it was connected to a person, but it could as well have been a person in another country. It was not looked upon as a very British organization. But there were others, like Shirebu, the research organization in Holland that looked at the shipping of oil to South Africa. That affected the Dutch in a different way than the Africa Educational Trust would affect the British.
Our support to Shirebu started through phone call I had from the Swedish embassy in the Hague. Rolf Ekéus called and said: ‘I have such a good project here and I think it is very important. Do you happen to have 70,000 Swedish Kronor, which we could use to support a research organization which just has been established?’ It was a very small amount, but it had a tremendous impact. The facts which Shirebu presented and gave publicity to were absolutely devastating. The shipping companies contacted the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and parliamentarians in Sweden in order to stop the support from SIDA.
Tor Sellström: I guess that the Norwegian shipowners—a very strong lobby—were not very happy?
Birgitta Berggren: No, they were among those who tried to influence the decision, but we continued to support Shirebu for many years.
Tor Sellström: The British or Dutch government never presented any official complaint to the Swedish government?
I do not know. I do not remember hearing anything to that effect. They might have talked to people at the Swedish embassy in London or the Hague, but I never saw any such report. It was a different matter when Zimbabwe was about to become independent. Then, of course, the British were very difficult when it came to the support we were providing to ZAPU and ZANU. But that was quite another matter.
Tor Sellström: When it comes to the Africa Educational Trust, 95 per cent of the funds were from the Nordic countries. Sweden alone stood for about 60 per cent.
Birgitta Berggren: I am not surprised. They were good. They really assisted on a basic level when it comes to education.
Tor Sellström: The direct support to the liberation movements was administered by SIDA. while the political relations were the responsibility of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. You worked for SIDA, but you were also the secretary to the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance where you had a direct dialogue with the ministry. Did you experience the division between SIDA and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs as a problem?
Birgitta Berggren: No, I thought that the cooperation was excellent. Working at SIDA’s headquarters in Stockholm, I would always receive the latest reports and I would always be kept in the picture. It made the handling of these at times very difficult requests so much easier. We had a very good cooperation, full of confidence. We had to show that SIDA had the necessary security regulations in place and that we were in a position to keep everything confidential. I think that it worked very well. The only time that I felt that there was a collision was in the context of the independence of Zimbabwe, over the issue of Swedish support during the election process.
Tor Sellström: Many of the SIDA officials involved with the support to the liberation movements were women. As a woman yourself, how did you experience this?
Birgitta Berggren: As a donor representative, I never had any problems in that respect. However, when a Swedish delegation was sent to the independence celebrations in Zimbabwe it included twelve members, but not a single woman. I asked the Ministry for Foreign Affairs why this was so. Afterwards I also heard that when Mugabe met the delegation, he looked at them and said: ‘I thought that I was going to meet a delegation representing the Swedish society, but I cannot see a single woman’. I thought that it was ridiculous. When it came to the hard work and all the overtime, then it was alright with women. But when it came to sitting on a podium and receiving thanks, then there were only men. That was a poor show.
Tor Sellström: Over the years, the Swedish cooperation with the liberation movements changed. A wide spectrum of activities were included, such as education, health, agricultural projects, etc. What consequences did this broadening of the support have?
Birgitta Berggren: Yes, the Swedish support to the liberation movements eventually became very similar to SIDA’s regular country programmes. The content changed. There was much more of sectoral policies in the support to each movement. The fact that we changed the model in 1983-84 was important in the long run. The quality of the support improved. It also encouraged the liberation movements to appoint people who were knowledgeable in certain sectors. They had to start planning, discussing strategies and policy matters. I think that it was positive. I am very pleased when I think of how we discussed and pushed this idea.
Tor Sellström: Considerable amounts of money were channelled through SIDA to the liberation movements. In retrospect, are you satisfied with the accounting and reporting procedures? Were the funds used in accordance with the agreements?
Birgitta Berggren: On the whole, I would say that the procedures were satisfactory. It would have been desirable to have a more adequate reporting system, but it was difficult under the circumstances. We made the requirements concerning reporting and auditing as realistic as possible. It was not easy, especially in the refugee camps. I also think that in some cases—for instance, at the ANC office in London and the ZANU office in Stockholm—the resident representatives were not exactly cautious. Some of them did not care too much about accounting, but that was discovered very soon. When you saw them driving around in their Volvos, you knew that something was not really the way it should have been. We did what we could. We appointed people who looked into these matters. In the latter part of the 1980s, we took all kinds of precautions so as not to neglect these aspects. We had, for example, special missions going to Southern Africa to look at certain aspects of the programmes. I am sure that there were things that were not discovered, but I cannot see how that could have been avoided really. I think that we did our very best and that we can have a good conscience in that respect.
Tor Sellström: In the case of IUEF, there was both infiltration by South Africa and mismanagement of funds. You were one of those who very early raised a warning flag regarding both issues. What made the infiltration and mismanagement possible?
Birgitta Berggren: I think that there were a number of reasons why this could happen. It was mainly a question of an ‘old-boys-network’. Political decisions were not followed up by good management and there were certain personal weaknesses. The South Africans had been looking for a possibility to infiltrate somewhere. They looked for that all the time since the activities that were supported from outside were causing them great problems. In the case of IUEF, Craig Williamson was simply a very competent agent. He made use of people’s weaknesses and of the structure of management. It was easy for him to manipulate and since there was this loyalty between old friends and politicians, it was difficult to bring about a change. As a plain civil servant, they would accuse you of disloyalty to the cause or whatever, which, of course, was rubbish.
It was impossible to get any response from those who took the decisions. It took too long and then the damage was already done. It was terrible. I am convinced that it led to the death of a number of people.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that the Swedish government and SIDA made this possible by constantly increasing the allocations to an organization that could not handle that amount of funds?
Birgitta Berggren: I do not think that the amounts were enormous, but they were certainly too big for IUEF’s structure and competence.
Tor Sellström: SIDA officials in Southern Africa who handled Swedish support to the liberation movements were, of course, exposed to the interests of the regimes in Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa. Were there any threats against SIDA’s officials? Did you have to take any particular precautions in this respect?
Birgitta Berggren: There would be warnings now and then, coming through US security units or other channels. People would then change their habits and take another way to the office, for example. Working with these questions, you were generally on the alert. Of course, there were problems at times, but nothing really serious as far as I can remember. When SIDA people travelled via South Africa and the luggage passed through Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg it was very likely that it was checked. It also happened that letters in a suitcase were torn and put back. It was part of the situation. I do not think that one took it that seriously. You had to expect it and be very cautious, never leaving any documents in your hotelroom and always carrying what was important in your hand-luggage. That was a normal precaution. It was not all that dramatic, really.
Tor Sellström: In some cases, there were instances of human rights abuse and internal struggles within the liberation movements. In the case of SWAPO, there was the Shipanga affair in the 1970s and the so-called spy drama in Angola in the 1980s. There were similar developments in the ANC camps in Angola. As you recollect it, how did the Swedish government react? Was SIDA informed about these situations?
Birgitta Berggren: No, not really. It would also have been difficult to judge from outside what actually happened. In most cases you could not do that, because it might as well be a case of infiltration. If you look at the events in Zimbabwe after independence, only ten years later you could see how much of that actually was caused by deliberate actions by South Africa. At the time, some said that it could be the case, but no one had direct evidence to that effect. The same applies to the camps in Angola in the 1980s. How could you judge from outside?
We did discuss it. We raised some questions, but I do not remember that it influenced our attitude very much. It was a problem and we understood that such problems would appear. It was, however, very difficult even to ask pertinent questions to get better knowledge of the problems. We would at the same time more or less regularly get information from groups in Germany, accusing the liberation movements of being Marxists, Leninists, oppressors etc. You could not really say that it was all that true. It was difficult to know the true picture.