Liberal Party—General Secretary of the World Assembly of Youth—Member of the 1977 committee on sanctions against South Africa—Ambassador of Sweden to Tanzania Board member of the Swedish International Liberal Center
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm 22 February 1996.
Tor Sellström: How did your involvement with Southern Africa begin?
David Wirmark: I was a young student in Uppsala and elected to participate as a representative of the Swedish youth in the first general assembly of WAY, the World Assembly of Youth, which took place at Cornell University, Ithaca, USA, in 1951. The theme was ‘Youth and Human Rights’ and I was participating in a commission that dealt with racial discrimination. There was a fellow delegate from Cameroon. His name was Etienne Noafu and he represented the Protestant youth, I recall. He made a very interesting plaidoyer for solidarity of youth the world over with the cause of equality and justice in South Africa. He also made a description of the South African situation in a document that was very detailed about the educational and the political system. It showed how things had gone backwards and that discrimination had become harder. There was a system which only allowed the white population to attain full citizenship. Of course, we were very shocked. I already knew from newspapers and articles that there was racial discrimination in South Africa and that the situation was getting worse, but I did not know the details. That made me struggle later in support of South Africa and against racial discrimination.
Of course, we were also shocked by the racial discrimination in the United States. We met many black American youngsters who worked for various youth organizations. They told us that they hoped that the system would cease, but that it would take a long time. At that time, we also discussed technical assistance and development aid, because President Truman had presented his Point Four plan. This struck me very much and determined more or less what I was going to devote my life to.
Tor Sellström: Were you then chairman of the National Council of Swedish Youth?
David Wirmark: No, that was a couple of years later, but when I came back to Sweden I was internationally concerned. At that time, a students’ association at Uppsala University devoted to international affairs invited a Swedish diplomat, Paul Mohn. He had an idea of inviting a thousand young people from the poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America to Sweden to learn how the Swedish society and democracy functioned.
Tor Sellström: Was that the famous Mohn Plan?
David Wirmark: Yes. Mohn was already rather old, but had wide international experience. He had been in Korea to supervise the armistice and before that—immediately after or during the war—he was responsible for administration in Greece. Particularly, I think that his period in Korea and Asia had made him interested in how we could make the youth of the developing world understand how a modern society functions and become aware of the rules and the values of the democratic system, local democracy etc.
Mohn wrote a pamphlet about this and one of the first speeches he gave in Uppsala—it must have been at the Foreign Policy Association—aroused a lot of enthusiasm. We took over the idea and the National Council of Swedish Youth proposed it to the Central Committee for Swedish Technical Assistance (CK), but I think that the older generation did not know exactly how to handle the proposal. They thought that it was interesting, but they also saw difficulties in implementing it. We never got full support from them. The interesting thing is that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs at that time, Arne Lund-berg, made a speech on the First of May 1952 where he also took up the idea. That made us advance, but what happened in the end was that some youth organizations themselves raised money and brought a few people to Sweden.
We in the Liberal Youth League had one or two people here. I recall that we had a Korean who studied economy. Of course, the idea was that they should go back to their own countries and work for them, but he married a Swedish girl and stayed here. He became a good economist at Konjunkturinstitutet (The National Institute of Economic Research). But there were others who went back. The Centre Party Youth League (SLU) invited several people from Ethiopia and I think that the Social Democratic youth had young people from East Africa here. Paul Mohn spoke of one thousand young people, but we could never implement such a huge programme. There was a debate in Expressen. One article was against the plan, stating that the idea of learning democracy by coming to Sweden was a little bit naive. We replied that we did not want them to only study democracy, but also to practise and do some further training within their professional field, so that they could develop their knowledge while they were here. We thought that both things were important.
It is interesting to see that the questions of democracy and human rights later came much more to the forefront than they were at that time. It was only the youth that brought them forward and wanted to have this programme implemented. It might be because of the fact that WAY had made the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the basis for our work. We were accustomed to these questions.
Tor Sellström: Among the students who came to Sweden through the Liberal, Centre or Socialist youth, were there any from Southern Africa?
David Wirmark: Yes, in the Liberal youth we had one or two people from Zambia. The National Union of Students also invited foreign students to Sweden. They had, I think, six or eight medical students from Indonesia. Olof Palme was involved in that undertaking and I was involved from the Uppsala side, so we had some contact already then.
Tor Sellström: As chairman of the National Council of Swedish Youth and, from 1958, as general secretary of WAY, you had contacts at a very early stage with some of the future leaders of Southern Africa. You met Joshua Nkomo from Rhodesia as early as 1958 and also Kenneth Kaunda around that time. Just after he went into exile you met Oliver Tambo and you also met Nelson Mandela at a conference during his African tour in 1962. Could you comment on the relations that you established with the leaders of Southern Africa?
David Wirmark: Yes, we became very friendly. I met Joshua Nkomo several times. Kenneth Kaunda as well. When Kenneth Kaunda became President, he always received me when I came to Lusaka. I came rather often to Zambia in those years, because when I worked for WAY I travelled widely in Africa. Those were the years of liberation and I went to Africa on various occasions, for instance, every independence celebration. When Tanzania, Nigeria and Zambia became independent I was there and, of course, I met a number of leaders at the same time. Kenneth Kaunda is really a very close friend of mine. I met him in South Africa during the elections in 1994. We happened to stay at the same hotel. I did not know that he was there, but when I came down to the breakfast room I heard his familiar voice ‘Oh David, are you here?’
When Oliver Tambo was smuggled out of South Africa, I immediately—in April 1960— sent him a ticket through Seretse Khama in Bechuanaland. Seretse Khama replied that he had taken care of Oliver Tambo and that he had given him the ticket. Oliver Tambo then came to the first Pan African Youth Seminar in Tunis, where he gave a fantastic speech about the struggle for freedom in South Africa. It was on the basis of non-violence, which was the ANC policy at that time. Luthuli’s old policy. That laid the foundation for a friendship that went on for a very, very long time. Until the end. I saw him about one month before he died. I saw that his health was not as it should be. Of course, I knew that he had been in hospital in Sweden. I had met him there.
Tor Sellström: You were a leading representative of the Liberal youth. Later on you were a Liberal member of parliament. Many of those who were active in the formulation of an opinion on South and Southern Africa in Sweden— people like Herbert Tingsten, Ivar Harrie etc.—came from the liberal camp. Would it be fair to say that liberals were the first to articulate an anti-apartheid and pro-liberation opinion in Sweden from the late 1950s?
David Wirmark: Yes, I think so. In the church, there were individual missionaries, in particular those who went to South and Southern Africa and saw the discrimination on the spot. Some of them—not all of them—became horrified and decided to devote themselves to efforts and programmes to struggle against this. On the liberal side it was natural, because liberalism is about freedom, and colonialism and racial discrimination are negations of freedom.
I was very much influenced by Julius Nyerere. He came to a seminar that we had in Dar es Salaam. Kenneth Kaunda was also there. Julius Nyerere addressed the seminar, arguing against the British thesis that you need to be prepared to become independent. He quoted Nehru, saying that he did not accept that you first needed a certain standard of education. Education is important for every individual, but independence is something more than just the technical standard you have in terms of education. It concerns an important political element, namely political human rights. He was refusing the argument that you need a period of preparation before democracy. He said that the best preparation for democracy and freedom is freedom itself. I thought that it was very well put, because it went very well with my liberal belief.
In the case of Zambia, it was a Liberal group in Sweden that made the collection of funds for Kaunda’s first election campaign in 1962, preceding independence. In that, for example, the Liberal Party chairman Bertil Ohlin and other personalities, both older and younger, participated. Among them was also Gunnar Myrdal from the Social Democratic Party, if I recall correctly. There was a mixture of political beliefs among those who supported the fund.
The Liberal Party Youth League was certainly the first political organization to take a clear stand on the Algerian struggle and freedom for the Algerian people. This we did in concordance with liberals in France, for instance, the group around Mendès-France and the journal L’Express. Of course, in Britain you also had important liberal newspapers, like The Guardian and The Observer, which played important roles in the debate and continue to do so, as also liberal politicians have done in Britain. I think that we in Sweden have been more or less part of the British progressive liberal tradition for the liberation struggles.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish Parliament paved the way for direct government support to liberation movements in Southern Africa. All of these movements waged an armed struggle and some of them had a formal alliance with a Communist party. Most of them were considered to be in the ‘Soviet camp’. How did you in the Liberal Party look upon this?
David Wirmark: Of course, we knew that there were links between members of the liberation movements and the Communist parties or the Communist camp. But we were also convinced that they were not true Communists. They did not act like Communist party organizations. They were true national liberation movements. We never had any hesitation about ANC, for instance. All the time we also wanted that ZAPU of Zimbabwe should have some support. We were not guided by the question of whether they cooperated with the Communists. The important thing was that we were convinced that they wanted a free society and respect for human rights. They did not want a racial society. ANC had taken a very clear stand. They did not want the blacks to have more rights than the whites. They did not want to reverse the system, but a society where all citizens were equal.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the very early and close personal relations between leading opinion makers—like yourself—and the leaders of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa, like Mondlane, Tambo, Nkomo, Nujoma etc., played a role regarding the understanding of the ideological orientation of the struggle?
David Wirmark: Yes, I believe so. Definitely. It had repercussions in two directions. It was important for the understanding in Sweden of the national liberation movements and their significance, but it also, I think, had the effect that the leaders of the liberation movements saw that they could get real, and perhaps even more efficient, support from the non-Communist world. This was an argument when they later on negotiated for political liberation. The fact that they got support from true democrats in the Nordic countries had an importance, both for ANC and the other liberation movements. Many of the leaders have said so to me. Nujoma, Nkomo and Kaunda have said so, and, of course, the Tanzanian leaders. I was ambassador to Tanzania between 1979 and 1985, but even before that time I knew Julius Nyerere and his colleagues very well. In particular, Rachidi Kawawa, who was Vice President but also others in the Tanzanian government, like Salim Salim and Oscar Kambona, who was at the time Foreign Minister, but then fell out with the party and with Julius Nyerere. They were very close to me.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the Nordic countries were able to broaden the diplomatic space for the liberation movements in the polarized East-West divide?
David Wirmark: Yes. There was a time when the Soviet Union was very active in Africa and that created difficulties for the liberation movements. We were not in favour of the various Communist initiatives, for instance in Ethiopia and Angola, although most of us had to accept that MPLA had essential support from the Soviet Union. My line—and also that of the Liberal Party—was that it was not really up to the donor countries to decide which political inclination the liberation movements should have, other than in a broader sense. It should be democratic and respect human rights, but whether it should have a more socialist or another leaning was not for us to decide. That is why we advocated that in certain cases one should support several liberation movements. For instance, in Zimbabwe we thought that both ZANU and ZAPU should get support and they also got that when the non-socialist parties came into government. In Angola, we advocated that in accordance with what had been agreed between the African leaders, both MPLA and FNLA should get support. But Sweden went on with exclusive support to MPLA and did not change its stand. South Africa was a different case. There I became convinced from reports by, among others, Kenneth Kaunda that ANC was the main representative and that we did not need to extend support to PAC.
Tor Sellström: Was the difference that the Social Democratic Party tended to support only socialist liberation movements, while the Liberal Party supported nationalist movements independent of their ideological outlook?
David Wirmark: Well, I would not go as far as to say that they only supported liberation movements with a socialist outlook, but they did not want to support more than one movement in each country. I think that they argued in favour of that. As I said, in principle we argued for letting the Africans themselves decide within a rather liberal framework. In the case of Zimbabwe, Angola and South Africa we would at an early stage probably have advocated support to the two movements that we have been speaking about, but in the end it was only in Zimbabwe that it was implemented.
I think that political reality was part of the decision in the other two cases. In the case of Angola, UNITA was impossible according to my and others’ belief by the fact that they had so openly welcomed South African support. But we argued for FNLA for a long time. Olle Wästberg went there and wrote a book about the struggle. There were quite a few Swedes who had contacts with the FNLA side. Of course, in all camps one could see that some rather harsh methods were used, but I think that there was no major difference between, for instance, MPLA and FNLA in terms of the methods.
I would also say that if you had taken the liberal viewpoint you might have had a freer trade of opinions, which would have been positive. On the other hand, many of those that I thought were the best among the Africans advocated the one party system. So did Nyerere, Kawawa and others in Tanzania and so did Tom Mboya in Kenya. He wrote a very famous article in the American journal Foreign Affairs, defending the one party system. His main argument was that the tribal differences made it very difficult to make a multi-party system work.
I never bought that argument. I had various articles published by SIDA on this question. I have also written other things on the question of whether the developing world can have full democracy in our sense. My argument was that it is possible. It is not easy, but it is possible. One should strive for that. I was always against those who said that these were bourgeois or Western freedoms, because according to me human rights and fundamental freedoms are the same all over the world. They are universal and, therefore, if people want them, they should be allowed to. I found in Africa— also in the one party states—that many of my friends came to me and complained about the lack of freedom at a personal level. They either wanted to go to a country in Europe to have a period of greater freedom of expression or to change the system. I am also convinced that the British electoral system—the single constituency principle, where the winner takes all—is not very conducive to a fully fledged interplay of opinions and full democracy. I think that a proportional system could have helped to form a greater understanding of the need for an opposition and how to deal with an opposition.
Tor Sellström: So you think that there is something in the statement that support to one ‘sole and authentic’ liberation movement was partly detrimental to a well functioning parliamentary democracy upon independence?
David Wirmark: One has to emphasize that it may be one cause, but I would say that in the case of South Africa I had no grudges about only supporting ANC. I think that they had such a solid base in the struggle for human rights that they will not be averse to the opposition or to other parties. In fact, I think that South Africa might well be the case that paves the way for a more open system in other countries in Africa. Even Nyerere has recognized that the one party system had its drawbacks. Well, I think that it would not have harmed to support several liberation movements in one country, but one should not invent a movement in order to get a better democracy. It is the people who decide which their movements are. In the case of Mozambique, for example, FRELIMO was the only liberation movement, so why should one worry? It was up to them to decide the movements and also about the future democratic system, but what one has to attack is the philosophy of making a virtue of the one party state, because I do not think that it has a virtue.
Tor Sellström: Was the question of armed struggle in your view a difficult issue when it came to the anchoring of support in the Swedish public opinion and in parliament?
David Wirmark: Within the Liberal Party, we had a discussion on this. Of course, there were those who said that we could not support movements that used violence. In the case of ANC of South Africa, they changed their policy and entered into a period of armed struggle. The majority line within the Liberal Party was that it was up to them to decide which method they wanted to use. We knew that the apartheid government used violence to a great degree and it was in our view difficult to criticize ANC’s stand. But we made it clear that we could not support the military struggle. We could not give aid to arms and military equipment.
Tor Sellström: When the non-socialist coalition succeeded the Social Democratic government in 1976, it not only continued the support to the liberation movements, but increased the assistance. It also introduced the first sanctions’ legislation against South Africa. Was the Swedish government ever the object of international pressure from the West—the United States and Great Britain, particularly—to end the support?
David Wirmark: I have no recollection of any pressure from the West on Sweden to change the policy with regard to the liberation movements. I think that the other Western countries simply knew that we were right and that we had a case.
When I was ambassador to Tanzania, there was nobody who tried to get us less involved with the liberation movements. Instead, what was important was that the various major powers—the United States, the UK etc.—in the Tanzanian context were very interested in the Swedish viewpoints and what we understood to be the viewpoints of the Tanzanians, because they knew that we had very good contacts with them. We had a close cooperation between the Nordic countries, but also with the Dutch and the Canadians, although they were not so outspoken as we were. I recall that we had a celebration for both ANC and SWAPO every year in Dar es Salaam. The Swedish ambassador was always invited to speak. I still have my speeches from that time. Once I also represented all the ambassadors to the President of Tanzania at a diplomat gathering at State House. I spoke about South Africa and I could go quite far. The pressure was not on us. It was rather the other way around, that the others were pressurised.
Tor Sellström: As ambassador to Tanzania, you were the head of a Swedish mission that was responsible for a lot of support to ANC. Do you think that there was a sound distribution of responsibilities between the political and the aid offices in the Swedish embassy?
David Wirmark: Yes, I have no complaints. I thought that it worked well and that the SIDA personnel was competent. Of course, the major cause was that in a country like Tanzania we had very good SIDA representatives. The heads of SIDA were always selected with great care and we were consulting regularly. They knew of my interest in the liberation movements and they knew that I had been a member of the board of SIDA for a long time. There was no attempt to play one side against the other. I would say that it worked well. The decisions about the support were also mainly taken in Sweden.
Tor Sellström: Is it your understanding that there was a satisfactory system in place when it comes to financial control of the funds disbursed to the liberation movements?
David Wirmark: Yes, I believe so. As far as I know, we had no complaints during my time.
Tor Sellström: SIDA used a flexible system of quarterly payments in advance. Do you think that it worked well?
David Wirmark: I think that it was necessary to have a flexible system in order to make things work well. At the same time, it was necessary to check that the money really was used for the purpose that it was said to be used for. In most cases, this could be done satisfactorily afterwards, but, we were, of course, also involved in the planning of various programmes. It was not only that money was paid out at an early stage. We were also involved with the planning side and the liberation movements were open to us. I was often invited by ANC to Morogoro for discussions. They also received SIDA missions and various other people.
Tor Sellström: One important issue is the question of liberation and liberty. We know of crises within the liberation movements, such as the Shipanga crisis in SWAPO, abuse in ANC and SWAPO camps in Angola, human rights violations in MPLA etc. Did you discuss these matters with the leaders of the liberation movements?
David Wirmark: Yes, I discussed them with those persons that I was most involved with. For instance, I took up delicate questions with Oliver Tambo, but I did not take up the issue of the Angolan camps, because it happened after my time.
Tor Sellström: The so-called Shipanga affair involved three friendly actors from the point of view of Sweden, namely SWAPO, Zambia and Tanzania. Shipanga was never sentenced, but kept in jail in Zambia and in Tanzania for a long period. Did Sweden or the Nordic countries put any pressure on SWAPO or the host governments to have him tried in a court of law?
David Wirmark: I was not involved in that and I am not sure that it was the case. If there were things that I thought were not correct during my time in Tanzania, what would happen was that I first took them up with somebody among the Tanzanians that I knew was involved with the liberation struggle and then with the movement itself. But I had never any orders from home to do so. If they were taken up at the official negotiations, it must have been by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or SIDA.
Tor Sellström: Internationally, and perhaps particularly in Southern Africa, Olof Palme has to a large extent come to personify Sweden, the Nordic countries and a commitment to liberation. Did Palme earlier than others in the Social Democratic Party support the liberation process in Southern Africa?
David Wirmark: That I really do not know, but he had contacts with the liberation movements and when he committed himself to the liberation cause, he did so with all his mind and all his force. I recall when he came to Tanzania. That was when the Socialist International had a conference in Arusha in 1984. He invited me to participate. He knew my views since a very long time back. He also made a state visit to Tanzania at the same time and I helped to prepare his official speech. But he really came to life when he made his intervention in Arusha. That was his life, but, of course, he was limited by his social democratic policy.
We liberals had argued for more funds to the various countries in Southern Africa. More than the Social Democratic government, and Palme knew this. When I was in parliament, he visited Zambia where he made a famous speech about the border of decency with Rhodesia. I put a question to him in parliament and said: ‘If this is the border of decency, should you not increase the support to Zambia?’ He had some difficulty in giving a reply to this question, because he knew that we had argued for more aid to Zambia than his own government. I also see from the memoirs of Ulla Lindström that she at a certain time had to argue against him regarding the level of aid. She advocated more aid than he, so I am not sure that he always was heading the movement for more support. But it was clear that he was convinced and that he found this very important.
Tor Sellström: Is there anything you would like to add?
David Wirmark: I would say that Southern Africa is a region where Swedish politics has played a role. We have made our impact and the Nordic countries have made an impact. We should be proud of that, because we really have had a significance and everybody has respected that. The British have respected it and the Americans have respected it. The Americans were never in Africa and American politicians were never very loyal to the colonial system. They wanted freedom for Africa, because they also thought that freedom was the best way of combatting Communism. As far as I know, we never had any criticism from the US because of our policy of support to Southern Africa. In individual cases, like in Angola, they might have thought that we landed wrong with our exclusive support to MPLA, but that is how it was. I think that our support to ANC in South Africa was well understood because of the political realities. Some of my best friends in the United States were very convinced that ANC was the organization to support and that it was the most representative. However, the most important thing is that we made a difference in terms of South Africa. We should play those cards well. We should not forget that role.