Director General of SIDA and Chairman of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance—Vice Chairman of the International Defence and Aid Fund
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 19 May 1996.
Tor Sellström: As Director General of SIDA from 1965 until 1979, you have probably more than any other Swede been assisting the process of national liberation in Southern Africa. When and how did your personal contacts with Southern Africa begin?
Ernst Michanek: I do not remember exactly, but it could have been in 1951, when I had one of my first international contacts as a Swedish delegate to a meeting of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council in Santiago de Chile. What had happened in South Africa in 1948 with the establishment of the apartheid regime was, of course, of such great international consequence that it must have been brought up at that meeting.
At that time, I was already connected to the beginnings of Swedish aid, because in 1948, I think, I had become a member of the board of the Swedish Institute, where the Department of Technical Assistance under Sixten Heppling had begun its work in 1946. In 1954, I became the chairman—a royal chancellor, as it was then called—of the department at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs that dealt with multilateral assistance through the United Nations.
Tor Sellström: In retrospect, would you say that it was difficult to mobilize the Swedish opinion around the issue of South and Southern Africa?
Ernst Michanek: No, on the contrary. In my opinion, it was not the government that took the political initiative in these matters. Even less so in the case of matters of a controversial nature. The whole build-up of the Swedish public opinion on Southern Africa came from below. The thinking that developed in the student movement was, for example, very important in this regard. I had experience of this, not least in Uppsala during the war. I was the first Nordic ombudsman of the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) in the 1940s and the international relations of SFS were more or less conducted by that office together with the international ombudsman, who at that time was Curt-Steffan Giesecke. The idea of assisting foreign students was, of course, both very important and inspiring.
Tor Sellström: Some prominent Swedish intellectuals were at an early stage also actively involved?
Ernst Michanek: Absolutely. People like Ivar Harrie, Herbert Tingsten and others.
Tor Sellström: In your central positions in the Ministry of Labour and in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, were you also in contact with these early opinion makers on South and Southern Africa?
Ernst Michanek: I entered the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour on 1 January 1948 and during the first year I was really orientating myself, looking around, reading and trying to prepare my business. I did not have much time for other matters. In 1949, I published the first issue of Socialboken, which almost became general reading for all students of social and labour policies. Thus, at a very early stage I became somewhat of a teacher and it was in that capacity that I established my best contacts with the opinion makers.
Tor Sellström: If we jump to 1965, when SIDA was established and you became its first Director General, would you say that that was the time when the official Swedish involvement in Southern Africa began?
Ernst Michanek: Well, it really began earlier. There was perhaps not much in terms of money, but what was later referred to as the Committee on Humanitarian Assistance already existed. It was established in 1964—one year before SIDA—under the Agency for International Assistance (NIB), but I think that it already by then had existed in some form or the other. The Central Committee for Swedish Technical
Liberation in Southern Africa—Regional and Swedish Voices
Assistance to Less Developed Areas (CK)—the predecessor to NIB and SIDA—certainly had many contacts that led to the future programme of humanitarian assistance. It had several beginnings. The public opinion in these matters had been built up by nongovernmental forces and by the press.
During the years immediately after the Second World War, or rather, during the latter part of the war, there was so much that pointed in this direction, so I think that there are roots further down in history. In fact, I have discussed the background of the Swedish involvement in Africa in some articles and speeches over the years. Not infrequently have I said that our concern as a nation for the developing countries had a high degree of concretisation in what took place in Ethiopia in 1936, when a Swedish Red Cross ambulance was bombarded by Mussolini’s air force. My own memory starts at that time. I was then a young boy of seventeen, a pupil at the Fjellstedt School in Uppsala, and I think that we very well understood what was going on in certain parts of the world. There are many factors like that which should be taken into consideration when we talk about the background to Sweden’s involvement against apartheid.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that there was a strong liberal current, as well as influence by the churches, in this early Swedish opinion?
Ernst Michanek: Yes, indeed. The whole Christian community and—in general—the liberal forces were very active. Particularly the churches, because they had much more experience than anybody else when it came to developments in the Southern parts of the world. Ethiopia was particularly important in this regard.
Tor Sellström: You mentioned the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which, I understand, was established to advise both NIB/SIDA and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. How was the committee set up?
Ernst Michanek: Ulla Lindström was the Minister of Development Cooperation when I was appointed Director General and she felt that the chairman of the committee should be the head of SIDA. Within its own ranks, the government administration had very little experience of this kind of activity. On some occasions, I got the impression that officials in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs understood ‘aid’ as helping helpless Swedes in far away countries to get home.
Speaking about aid, they thought of Swedes coming to the embassies to look for assistance...
The members of the Committee on Humanitarian Assistance had already been appointed when I became the chairman. Ulla Lindström had appointed them in 1964, or perhaps in 1963. The composition of the committee was carefully thought out. Since we were dealing with matters that were not necessarily well looked upon by the governments in the countries concerned, she wanted almost all the so-called grassroot organizations in Sweden to be involved. The committee should represent a cross-section of the Swedish society. A good deal of the work had to be undertaken under different degrees of secrecy. Against this background, it was important that the leaders of, in particular, the youth movements were knowledgeable about the work, without at the same time having the right to publicly speak about it.
In the committee, we had an absolutely wonderful cooperation and very open discussions on all kinds of matters. For example, when we were to recommend which liberation movements to support, it was a prerequisite that we had an open discussion. We had to come to conclusions on very difficult political issues and I remember only very few situations where there were real differences of opinion. The committee was well composed and served an enormously important purpose all the time. All the major political forces were represented, including the conservatives. I do not remember if they ever opposed a decision. I do not think that they did, because my personal conviction was that we as far as possible should avoid disagreements. The normal situation was that we reached agreement by consensus.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament—through a statement by the Appropriations’ Committee—paved the way for Swedish humanitarian assistance to the Southern African liberation movements. Such assistance was subsequently extended through SIDA. Why was the assistance given directly to the liberation movements and not via the OAU, for example?
Ernst Michanek: One reason was, of course, that our contacts primarily were with people in the field and not with any official body. We had to try to avoid being involved in administrative red tape and, in fact, I do not know if the OAU at that time—or later—would have been capable of doing anything that would not have implied more administration than aid. We also had to be very strict with the aspects of reporting and accounting.
To be of any importance in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid, it was absolutely necessary to work with revolutionaries and warriors and you could not do that without being rather radical in your own thinking. We had long discussions about this, not least with the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Swedish parliament. The conclusion was that Swedish political decisions in these matters needed the backing of a position taken by important bodies of the United Nations. At the same time, that also motivated our actions against the regimes in question. It took many years to convince the international community that national liberation was a question referred to in the Charter of the United Nations and, thus, that both national governments and the United Nations should act accordingly. However, at the time there were sufficiently big majorities on very clear resolutions passed by different bodies of the United Nations for us to take action. Perhaps not by the Security Council, but often by the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council and others. In my opinion, that was the key. But Sweden took the conclusions much further than most others did.
Tor Sellström: In this connection, do you think that the early personal relations between many Swedish political leaders and leaders of the Southern African liberation movements made it easier for Sweden to take this stand?
Ernst Michanek: Yes, that was, of course, very important. For example, the position of a person like Olof Palme was—in addition to his own international family background—very much formed by his work within the international student movement in favour of victims of war and the like. We were, probably, early because we had people with this kind of experience in central positions, both in non-governmental organizations and in the government. For me, my own experiences were important. When I was a school-boy in the late 1930s and as a student in Uppsala during the Second World War, Sweden had, in fact, received thousands of refugee students from the neighbouring countries and many of us were closely connected to them. At an early stage, it was therefore easy for us to draw the conclusion that in order to be efficient in what we set out to do, we had to move beyond what ordinary diplomacy was ready to achieve.
Tor Sellström: The Southern African liberation movements supported by Sweden also received support from the Soviet Union and/or China. How did you look upon this?
Ernst Michanek: Well, when it comes to my own personal convictions regarding what to do and whom to work with, it is of relevance that I had my experiences from the war years. We had to take a rather heart-breaking decision on the question of what kind of allies the government of the Soviet Union or the Communist Party were. Towards the end of 1939 or at the beginning of 1940, I had lined up at the recruitment office for the Swedish voluntary force in Finland, but I was too young and was not accepted. However, I was totally ready to join the war against the Soviet Union in whatever capacity. At that time, I had two friends from my school who fell in Finland, as soldiers on the side of the Finnish army. However, only a year later we had to widen our thinking when the Soviet Union became an ally. We therefore had to be pragmatic in these matters.
Tor Sellström: With the exception of Zimbabwe—where Sweden supported both ZANU and ZAPU— SIDA channelled assistance to only one movement in each country in Southern Africa. However, in the case of Angola this was questioned in some political milieus which advocated Swedish support to both MPLA and FNLA. Was this a difficult case to settle?
Ernst Michanek: The Liberal Party and other parts of the liberal movement supported FNLA. We assessed the situation in Angola very carefully and had all kinds of connections to find out whom we should support. We had sympathies with the final objective of both MPLA and FNLA, but as they were fighting each other we had to discuss whether to support both movements or only one of them. Together, at the table, we came to the conclusion that the arguments in favour of MPLA were much stronger than the arguments for FNLA. There were counter-arguments against FNLA. We had to take a hard political decision.
There was a similar situation in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, where there also were contradictions between the different parts of the liberation movement. In that case, I was myself active, talking to Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe on several occasions. That went on for years until we—after some trial and error— told each of them that ‘unless you find a way of working together, we cannot support either of you’. That was more or less the beginning of the Patriotic Front between ZAPU and ZANU. I think that we almost demanded that the front should be created. Of course, within the front the infighting continued and SIDA’s board of directors met with Joshua Nkomo—waving his stick like a marshal; very grandiose in his appearance—in Lusaka and with Robert Mugabe in Maputo. Their way of talking about each other—particularly about each other’s lack of efficiency—was tremendous. However, the situation was very, very delicate, so we had to take a position. Outside the military field, Sweden was by far the largest and most important financial supporter of both ZAPU and ZANU.
Stockholm was a very important meeting point between the Zimbabwean liberation movements and international actors. I think that we played a prominent role in this connection and whatever decisions we took had been considered very thoroughly. In the case of Zimbabwe, we came to the conclusion that we had to steer in a way that we otherwise did not like to do. It was sometimes rather unpleasant, but necessary.
Tor Sellström: In the case of Zimbabwe, did you also consult with African leaders such as Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda?
Ernst Michanek: Of course. David Wirmark and I had more than one important meeting with President Kaunda on how to deal with this matter. We also wanted to inform him about our thinking and keep him in the picture.
Tor Sellström: If we return to Angola, you find that UNITA had quite good relations with Sweden in the latter part of the 1960s. Was the question of Swedish humanitarian support to UNITA ever discussed at that time?
Ernst Michanek: The position of Zambia was important in this connection. Whatever we might have thought about UNITA at that time, we simply could not support an organization that was impossible from the point of view of some of our co-operating partners.
Tor Sellström: How about PAC? Why did they not receive bilateral Swedish humanitarian support?
Ernst Michanek: Well, I do not remember to what extent we had friendly feelings about PAC in the beginning. My memory is probably influenced by later events. PAC was, after all, a breakaway group from ANC. During my close relations with IDAF over so many years I understood what it meant to uphold principles of the kind that John Collins had made his at an early stage, namely that you must support whoever is under the burden of apartheid and not take positions of a political character. However, in my position as a member of the board of IDAF I personally had to act against PAC. Of course, I had entered the IDAF board only after I had left SIDA. In any case, we had to put an end to the support of PAC, which had developed into something rather bad, with people murdering each other even in the circles that we were dealing with. If an organization was disrupting the struggle against apartheid in the way that PAC did, then I had to be very firm.
One of the results of my position was that some of the leaders of the PAC at the beginning of the 1980s produced a booklet in London of around a hundred stencilled pages, called something like The curve in the South African spy ring. It was particularly dealing with two people, namely, primarily, Horst Kleinschmidt, the Director of IDAF, and Ernst Michanek, as his main supporter, or the other way around if you like. Both of us were, in fact, depicted as supporters of the South African police. It was quite incredible, but it was also unpleasant to know that such a publication was being circulated in many quarters. Of course, the PAC leaders hated us enormously, because in the past they had had their opportunities at the expense of IDAF and therefore also of the Swedish government. This was cut off. I should not use any derogatory words about them, because I pitied them a great deal. But what they could do with the money that they received had nothing at all to do with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It was far too much to be accepted.
Tor Sellström: However, PAC was recognized by the OAU and also received support from some governments, like Norway?
Ernst Michanek: Yes, but we could not understand why the OAU held that position, although we could understand why Nyerere found it reasonable, or acceptable, to give PAC a place and support the organization in Tanzania. However, to give another example of our trials in this matter: When I was the chairman of two important UN institutions, namely the Technical Assistance Committee of the United Nations and of the governing body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the ILO initiated support of a project in Tanzania for the training of PAC freedom fighters. But as far as I could understand from my different viewpoints and positions, what PAC did was not in any way worth the money. I thought that it was totally wrong to support such a project. If it ever existed in practice, it was so far from the blueprints that it would have been completely out of order to support it.
Tor Sellström: In addition to ANC and PAC, there was also in South Africa Gatsha Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement. Did Inkatha ever receive Swedish official assistance through SIDA?
Ernst Michanek: Yes, we supported Inkatha, for example through assistance via Ravan Press in South Africa, which on behalf of Buthelezi had particular pages published in South African newspapers as instruction and training material for the illiterate part of the population, particularly in Soweto. That started very early and I was later closely connected to this activity. I know Gatsha Buthelezi very well. He was often in Sweden. He came to my office and to my home and I had secret meetings with him in several places. There is a long history between Sweden, Inkatha and ANC. Inkatha and ANC also held bilateral meetings between themselves here in Sweden that were never given any publicity.
Tor Sellström: The break between Inkatha and ANC only occurred in 1979, after a meeting in London?
Ernst Michanek: Yes. I had a very important role to play in the setting up of that meeting in London. On the basis of earlier discussions—including meetings in Stockholm—Oliver Tambo and Gatsha Buthelezi reached an agreement and also laid down how to treat the different parts of the agreement. However, for reasons that I could discuss for a long time without coming to a conclusion, the tragedy was that Buthelezi in the plane from London to Johannesburg openly and clearly broke the fundamentals of the agreement by talking to journalists about what had taken place in London. That created a lot of bitterness in ANC.
Like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo knew Gatsha Buthelezi very well from his younger days, but he could never understand why Buthelezi did what he did. For long years and on many occasions, Inkatha had tried to become clean through different missions to Stockholm and many meetings all over the place. It was very painful to me personally, as well as to the Church of Sweden and others who had been involved, to come to the conclusion after some time that we could not continue our cooperation with Buthelezi. Oliver Tambo told me several times: ‘I cannot understand Gatsha. How can he do a thing like that?’. But he did not say: ‘I cannot see the man’ or ‘I hate the man’. Not at all. Instead, he said: ‘How can we get together again?’. That was important. However, the racial position that PAC had taken had a parallel within Inkatha and that was, of course, impossible for ANC to accept. Non-racialism is one of the main backbones of ANC’s ideology.
Tor Sellström: You have mentioned the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF). The activities of IDAF and some other important British-based organizations—such as the Africa Educational Trust (AET)—were almost exclusively financed by Sweden and the other Nordic countries. Did the Swedish government not approach the British government to share the financial burden?
Ernst Michanek: Of course. I had a central position in our relations with the British, but I think that we probably did not talk to them in sufficiently hard terms. We only showed them what we thought that they should do. However, they knew exactly, at least during the times of Labour governments. In spite of that, they contributed absolutely nothing. Well, I remember that John Collins once said that the British government had given IDAF five thousand or five hundred pounds or something like that. It was tragic all through. The same goes for AET. However, because these organizations were based in London, it is probably so that even many beneficiaries believe that they were supported by the British, when in actual fact the support came from Sweden and the other Nordic countries.
Tor Sellström: Were the British or other Western governments embarrassed about the fact that they did not play a more honourable role? Or did they criticize Sweden?
Ernst Michanek: I think that we did not have the time to waste on meaningless discussions with the British or others, for example, the US government. We had many friends in these administrations and we rather enjoyed having a nice relationship with them, using their premises—their territory, as it were—without asking for anything more than just that. I do not remember any criticism against us and I think that it probably was based on certain feelings of shame or envy on their part. We also had the support of the United Nations in a wonderful way. When it comes to IDAF, I counted each year the number of governments that gave it financial contributions through the United Nations and at the peak of the activities they were not less than fifty. However, many of them strongly emphasized that they did not want to be mentioned by name. They wanted to support, but not officially.
Tor Sellström: Is there anything that you would like to add?
Ernst Michanek: I would like to underline that the struggle was not ours. The struggle in Southern Africa was waged by the oppressed and colonized peoples through their liberation movements. What we could do was to strengthen them. That was the aim of our assistance and that was in itself based on a great deal of discretion. For example, if we were to be embarrassed by indirectly being connected with the Soviet Union, should our Western partners not have been ashamed of being connected to all kinds of oppressors and colonialists? We were in a position to create connections that otherwise would not have been created and we had to try all possible means to do that, assisting behind the scenes to bring adversaries together for the building of peace.