Liberal Party, later Social Democratic Party—Director General of SIDA and Chairman of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance Minister of Higher Education
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 14 January 1997.
Tor Sellström: How would you explain the broad and active Swedish opinion against apartheid South Africa from the beginning of the 1960s?
Carl Tham: Well, I think that the broader antiapartheid mobilization did not really start in the 1960s, but more in the 1970s. In the 1960s, prominent leaders of Swedish industry, for example, not only said that South Africa was not our business, but also actively defended apartheid. Maybe we tend to forget that, but it was in fact the case.
In the early days, Dagens Nyheter, Herbert Tingsten and Per Wästberg played quite significant roles. Tingsten’s book about South Africa and his editorials should be mentioned. The missionary movements played, of course, important parts. That may be the reason why the Liberal Party became involved at an early stage. As always in politics, there was also a question of personalities. For example, in the Liberal Party, David Wirmark was for many years working as secretary general of WAY. Although it later turned out that WAY was financed by CIA, I must say that it was rather benevolent. Wirmark was engaged in almost all African matters and a very close friend of all the leaders in exile. Of course, he also brought that back to the Swedish youth movement. There were also others in the youth movement who were rather active. A towering person was, of course, Per Wästberg, whose many books and articles had an enormous impact. It was easy to mobilize the Swedes in favour of an anti-racist policy. Maybe it would have been more difficult today, but at that time it was not. I cannot really say why.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the early anti-apartheid opinion was a continuation of the anti-Nazi opinion or was it a new opinion?
Carl Tham: It was a new opinion. I have written somewhere that the whole Swedish mobilization regarding Third World issues—the intellectual part of it at least—partly was a reflection of bad conscience about the Swedish position during the Second World War and about the passive position that Sweden took on many international issues at that time. In a way, South Africa presented a possibility to show that Sweden was not just a small, insignificant country on the periphery, but that we had a moral force. In the Cold War climate, it also presented a possibility to demonstrate a policy which was not in accordance with either the NATO or the Soviet side. It was more of pure solidarity, so to speak, and I think that it expressed a feeling that we should not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Tor Sellström: How did your own involvement with Southern Africa begin?
Carl Tham: It started in 1963, when I became the secretary of the Liberal Party Youth League. Ola Ullsten, who was the chairman of the Liberal Youth at that time, and the former chairman, Per Ahlmark, were very close friends of mine and they were both very much engaged in Southern Africa. Also Björn Beckman, who at that time still was the chairman of the Liberal Students Association. He was the main force behind the Rhodesia campaign in favour of Kenneth Kaunda in 1962. David Wirmark was, of course, also active in the campaign. We got a lot of support from Dagens Nyheter—especially from Per Wästberg—and other sources. The campaign was very successful and we collected quite a lot of money. The Swedish youth also conducted campaigns against South African fruits and other commodities. We went into fruit shops, demonstrated and so on.
Tor Sellström: How were these demands looked upon by the leadership of the Liberal Party?
Carl Tham: As far as I remember the general situation, the party leaders were mildly positive. Later on in the 1960s, they became more actively involved, maybe not as a general reflection of enthusiasm, but perhaps because the liberal youth movement at that time was powerful and they had to accept that. The old leaders of the Liberal Party, Bertil Ohlin and Sven Wedén, had a very bad time in relation to Vietnam. They felt that the Swedish position was too critical towards the United States and were, of course, criticized because of that by the youth. To compensate, they became more active in the South African question. But they were genuinely involved. I worked for Sven Wedén for many years and he was honestly and seriously involved. He really looked upon apartheid as an evil policy.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that the Swedish anti-apartheid and anti-colonial opinion in the early 1960s mainly was formed around a liberal centre and not in the socialist left?
Carl Tham: I am not really in a position to answer that. My position at the time was rather modest, but in the Liberal Youth we felt that we were in the front line so to speak. Perhaps due to the involvement of people from the various churches, we were somewhat more active than, for example, the young Social Democrats. When we had debates with the Social Democratic Youth League, they had a bad time when it came to South Africa, because they supported our demands for total isolation, but the government did not. That was a problem for them. On the other hand, the Liberal Party was also on the side of the government on this issue.
Tor Sellström: At an early stage, the Liberal Party Youth League was also actively following the liberation struggle in the Portuguese colonies and Liberal politicians such as Per Ahlmark demanded Portugal’s expulsion from EFTA. How serious was this demand?
Carl Tham: It was not just a youth demand. It was a position which was supported by the party congress. I guess that Wedén was not too enthusiastic to press the demand very hard, rather arguing that ‘OK, the party has taken this position and of course we shall support it’. Portugal’s membership in EFTA was after all rather embarrassing for the government and it became even more so at the end of the 1960s, when Olof Palme had become Prime Minister. It was not an easy issue for the Social Democrats.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that Olof Palme played a major role for the radicalisation of the Social Democratic Party vis-à-vis Southern Africa?
Carl Tham: From my perspective—being an outsider at that time—I think that he played a very important role, not least because of his position on Vietnam and his political charisma. He was an outstanding political figure, not only in the Swedish context, but also internationally. His many critics rejected this view, but in the end I think that they recognized that it was true.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament paved the way for direct official Swedish humanitarian assistance to the liberation movements in Southern Africa. These movements waged an armed struggle and received support from the Soviet Union or China. How do you, in general terms, explain that Sweden assisted the same movements as the Communist countries?
Carl Tham: I think that the position we took really is something that we should be proud of. I guess that the people who took the decision understood that it was controversial in the Cold War context. The tragedy was that the whole process of de-colonization became part of the Cold War. The Soviet support was, of course, not only—or not at all—given for more moral reasons. It was for strategic reasons that they supported these movements. The US policy was, similarly, based on Cold War considerations. If the United States and the leading Western countries had taken another position in the beginning of the process, also defending the values of democracy in Africa, much would have been different. But they did not. They looked upon the liberation movements only as Communist movements. Because of that position, the movements became more and more dependent on the Soviet Union and China.
When the Swedish support was attacked— which was not that common, but it happened—our answer was: ‘Well, this is part of Sweden’s support for national liberation and de-colonization. It also constitutes a support for those groups within the liberation movements who are not Communist’. The movements were, of course, a kind of umbrella movements with various groups and fractions. I frankly think that the Swedish support to ANC during all these years was of crucial importance to the groups inside ANC who were not Communist, at least to reduce their relations with the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviet support was very important. After all, Sweden did not deliver any arms and they needed that, even if ANC never was a very strong armed force.
In the case of Angola, we supported the struggle for national liberation. Then we supported Angola as a nation which was invaded by South Africa and CIA-supported groups. Nowadays, when everything is blamed on the Soviet Union, the Swedish opinion tends to forget that Angola in fact was invaded by groups established in Zaire and supported by CIA. Everything was arranged by the Americans to attack the government in Luanda.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the close relations established between Swedish politicians and opinion makers and a number of Southern African leaders, such as Mondlane, Tambo, Kaunda and Nyerere, made it easier to see beyond the ideological discourse and understand the nationalist core of the struggle?
Carl Tham: Yes, I think that it played an important part. Kaunda was never a Communist and Nyerere was never a Communist. I think that
we clearly saw that they had national—and, as we thought, rather nationalistic—aspirations and demands for the development of their nations. Maybe we were a little naive. We did not always see the hard core groups and the reasons behind the Soviet support, but I still think that we played a certain role. Particularly in relation to South Africa. Perhaps less so in the case of Angola.
In Angola, the Liberal Party advocated support to FNLA. I think that it was a reflection of a more anti-Communist position within the party, specifically by Olle Wästberg. He was very much involved with FNLA. I guess that Olle Wästberg was the one who demanded assistance to FNLA and that the party supported him. But the broader liberal opinion was very divided on this point.
Tor Sellström: There were many—not least in the Southern African liberation movements—who thought that the Swedish policy would change when the non-socialist coalition government took over from the Social Democrats in 1976. Instead, the assistance to the liberation movements increased, and in 1979 the Liberal minority government under Ola Ullsten introduced an investment ban against South Africa. How would you explain this?
Carl Tham: I think that those who expected a decrease had not studied the Swedish political scene very closely. They had had contacts with the Social Democratic leaders and it was rather natural for them to think that if there was a non-socialist government there would be a change of policy. If they had studied what the Centre Party and the Liberal Party were saying, they would, however, have been much more confident. At that time, we looked upon the Social Democrats as not being active enough. That was our main position. Ola Ullsten of the Liberal Party and Thorbjörn Fälldin of the Centre Party were both very much engaged in these matters, so there was never a problem. Gösta Bohman of the Moderate Party understood that and accepted it. I do not remember any case where he at that time actually went against the Swedish support. The Moderate Party was mainly obsessed with two foreign policy and aid questions. One was Vietnam and the other was Cuba. Southern Africa was not really on their agenda until later. The whole political spectrum changed from the mid-1980s. If the 1976 government had been of the kind that we had in 1991, it would, of course, have been quite a different story.
Tor Sellström: You served as Director General of SIDA from 1985 to 1994. You also chaired the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance. During these years, did you experience any strong and consistent political opposition to the official policy of support to the Southern African liberation movements?
Carl Tham: No, not at all. We never had any political problems of that kind in the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance. The committee was from the beginning never supposed to be a kind of parliamentary board. The idea was rather that it should be composed by experts. The proposal to give the committee a more parliamentary representation was raised towards the end of the 1980s, but I was somewhat reluctant to that. I could not see why it was necessary. After all, we already had very close contacts with the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs. If we had opened the committee to a more parliamentary representation, we would also have had all the political parties involved and it would have become much bigger.
The Moderate Party had their representatives on the committee. The Left Party was, however, not represented. I think that it was a reflection of the old habit in Swedish politics not to accept the Communist Party, as it was still called, in foreign policy questions. It must be looked upon from that point of view. But I would like to stress that the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance from the beginning was not conceived as a parliamentary institution. It was the government and the parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs that took the responsibility. The Consultative Committee was a kind of board which looked upon the various issues involved. For each activity, the decisions were so well prepared that it appears as almost unbelievable today.
Tor Sellström: I guess that due to the confidentiality involved it was a very appropriate way of preparing the issues?
Carl Tham: Absolutely. I think that it was a very good system. As far as I know—of course, there can be hidden things which I do not know about— it worked very well. The only major setback was the spy story with Craig Williamson. I was in government at that time, but I was not involved in that question. However, Ola Ullsten and Hans Blix were furious. It must also be asked how Mats Hellström and others could be so deceived. It is impossible to imagine. A lot of people were after all suspicious and warned them, but they did not listen to the professionals.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish support to the liberation movements was in the field often administered by relatively junior SIDA officials, rather than by trained diplomats. In your experience, were there any problems—or advantages— connected with this? Was the delegation of this political support accepted at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs?
Carl Tham: Well, if you had put this money into the hands of the diplomatic corps, nothing would have happened. They had a totally different concept of what they should do. Even if the SIDA employees sometimes went too far—it happened that people were too enthusiastic— by and large the system was good. For diplomatic reasons I also think that it would have been next to impossible to manage the support from the Foreign Ministry side of the embassies. Nevertheless, if you look at South Africa, Birgitta Karlström Dorph was there for many years and she was after all at the Swedish embassy. The South Africans must, of course, have known that she was active with all this money all over the country. However, she acted on behalf of SIDA. If the support had been more formally linked to the Foreign Ministry—with decisions by the Minister—that would have been very difficult.
Tor Sellström: You did not receive any complaints from Swedish ambassadors in Southern Africa regarding SIDA and the support to the liberation movements?
Carl Tham: There were conflicts sometimes, but not on a general scale.
Tor Sellström: Were you satisfied that the administrative routines regarding reporting and accounting of the humanitarian support were appropriate and that SIDA exercised sufficient control over the funds disbursed?
Carl Tham: Well, during my period we had some administrative problems here and there. You can always improve on administrative routines, but the system in itself was sound and healthy. As far as I remember, we did not even have the suspicion of any misuse of funds. Sometimes a project could not be accomplished because of the overall situation and the money had to be re-allocated for another activity.
After all, there was a kind of war-like situation, particularly in the 1980s. We were happy if the money came to the support of the people that we wanted to assist.
We had no indication of any misuse, that is, that money came into private pockets. I am not saying that it did not happen. Maybe it did, but we never received any indication to that effect. The only question discussed in this context is, of course, the Boesak affair, but SIDA never made any claims that Boesak put SIDA money into his own pockets. We were dissatisfied with his project, but never said that he used the funds for his personal benefit.
Tor Sellström: Inside the liberation movements, there were struggles within the struggle. Particularly well known are the internal divisions in SWAPO in Zambia in the 1970s and the tensions and abuse in both ANC and SWAPO camps in Angola in the 1980s. Do you recollect if these problems were raised by the Swedish government or SIDA with SWAPO, ANC or the host countries?
Carl Tham: We did not know much about that. We knew, of course, that there were divisions, but we did not know about abuse of power in the camps. After all, we did not stay so much in contact with the camps and we had no reasons to be there either. The camps in Angola were rather dangerous places and due to the warlike situation we did not want to have our personnel there.
SIDA was mainly a financing institution. We tried to follow events, but the implementing agents were the people involved in the churches and other NGOs. We were very much dependent on them. If they had raised the issue with SIDA, we would certainly have acted, but as far as I remember that was never the case.
Tor Sellström: Apart from general criticism, are you aware of any pressures on Sweden by the Western powers against the support to the liberation movements?
Carl Tham: Of course, in the early days Portugal complained a lot. When I was at SIDA, I never experienced any complaint, except on one occasion. In 1993, there was a big antiapartheid meeting organized by the Olof Palme International Center here in Stockholm. Sten Andersson was supposed to speak, but he fell ill and asked me to appear instead. I made a rather powerful speech in Swedish. The idea of the meeting was to start a campaign to raise
money for the ANC election campaign in South Africa. I later heard that the South African government complained to the Swedish Foreign Ministry about my speech. It was obvious to me that de Klerk supported the forces which were against ANC and that the whole process from 1991 with all the killings was part of a political struggle to weaken ANC. I said so in my speech. They did not like that and complained to the Foreign Ministry. When Lars-Åke Nilsson, who at that time was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, subsequently visited South Africa there were again complaints from the South African government.
That was the only reaction I ever got from any government during my period at SIDA, but I guess that there were questions and pressures earlier, specifically by the United States during the Reagan administration. However, the point we made—maybe more bluntly from SIDA than from the Foreign Ministry—was that outside interference started with the Western powers. South Africa would never have been in a position to keep the apartheid system for so many years without the support from the Western countries. That was our position, but I guess that the Foreign Ministry gave more diplomatic answers.
Tor Sellström: Is there anything you would like to add?
Carl Tham: There was a rather particular situation during these years when we had so much money allocated to secret operations. It was a unique situation which never will be repeated. We also gave support to humanitarian activities in Palestine and other places, but there was never any support similar to the kind we extended to South Africa. South Africa was really unique and it is interesting to reflect on the reasons for this. It started with a few people, developed and was then established. If you want to be cynical, you could say that it was rather easy. You did not take any risks if you were against apartheid. Of course, we could be criticized by the United States and others, but not that much. In the mid-1980s, the United States also changed their mind about South Africa. There could be some criticism here and there in Europe, but it was of no crucial importance to Sweden.
However, Swedish industry made a lot of resistance towards that policy, which was the main reason why the Swedish sanctions laws were adopted so late. One should therefore not exaggerate our benevolence. I am quite sure that if the policy had been more dangerous to Sweden, it would have been much more controversial. When the critics say that we pursued a particular policy when it was rather easy to do so—without any risks—there is, of course, some truth in that. On the other hand, it is always better to do something than nothing. It is also important to remember that the moral engagement of the people in the NGOs really was pure and that it was a strong force. It was, I would say, a genuine, democratic solidarity movement and a very important part of the Swedish political landscape towards South and Southern Africa.