The Nordic Africa Institute

Garth Strachan

ANC—Umkhonto we Sizwe—South African Communist Party—Director of the Education, Resource and Information Project / Voter Education and Election Training Unit Responsible for fundraising at the South African Communist Party

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Cape Town on 10 September 1995.

Tor Sellström: You went into exile around 1975. What made you leave South Africa?

Garth Strachan: I ran away from the army. I had been politically involved in the student movement, but in 1974 I was called up to go to Angola. I had been on the run from the army for about a year, but in June 1974 the military police caught up with me. I served a four week refresher course and then I was due to go to Namibia and Angola. However, since I had a passport I just left the country. It was more of a self-imposed exile, plus the fact that Brigid, who later was to become my wife, had left South Africa. So, it was two things, to run away from the army and to join her. It was only at that point that I became involved with ANC.

Tor Sellström: Before leaving South Africa, did you not have any contacts with Nordic support to the liberation struggle?

Garth Strachan: No, none whatsoever.

Tor Sellström: In exile, you started to work with the International Defence and Aid Fund (IDAF) in London?

Garth Strachan: Yes, I got a job at IDAF’s research and publications department. That was in 1976-77. At the end of 1977 and in 1978 I worked for the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain. In both places I came into contact with Nordic support. Obviously, at IDAF there was a whole host of programmes, such as support for legal fees of people who were detained and charged as well as support for publications. As far as I know, that was supported by the Nordic countries.

Tor Sellström: IDAF was, of course, one of the main sources of information on the situation in Southern Africa.

Garth Strachan: Yes, but also AAM got Nordic support. I remember that it was very difficult, because it was support for an organization in another country. I very much recall that the Anti-Apartheid Movement through some sophisticated methods was given money for international campaigns against apartheid.

Tor Sellström: How did the South Africans in AAM and IDAF view the support by the Nordic governments to the national liberation movements in Southern Africa?

Garth Strachan: Although it has become popular not to admit this now, at the time—at least in the circles where I moved and up to the mid or late 1980s—the reality was that in ANC—well, there was a much more sophisticated political analysis on the part of some individuals— there was a kind of pro-Soviet hysteria. Although the support from the Nordic countries was obviously gratefully received, at an ideological level I think that there is no doubt that there was a strong sense—a kind of analysis, if you like—that the Social Democratic movement (a) was homogeneous, (b) that there was no common left within the Social Democratic movement, and (c) that the support for the liberation movements from the Nordic countries and from the Social Democratic movement as a whole very often was characterized as imperialist and sometimes even as American support, channelled through those countries which were most amenable to give support to ANC and other liberation movements. It was characterized as imperialism, keeping the door open here, if you like.
I think that there was a very unsophisticated, undialectic and unidimensional understanding of the Nordic support for the liberation movements. For me, it says a lot about the Nordic countries—and it says a lot about the Social Democratic parties in those countries who in a sense drove that support—that despite that unnuanced, unsophisticated characterization of their support within the liberation movements, they (a) continued to support them and (b) that the support was genuinely disinterested. To the best of my knowledge, there was never any effort, either in the form of literature or in the form of personal contacts or interventions, which aimed at turning around the misconception in the ranks of the liberation movement. And that characterization was not just in ANC. Certainly, in ZAPU I know that it was there and also in SWAPO, although I do not know about it in detail. I think that the analysis was very unsophisticated and incorrect.

Tor Sellström: That view was to a large extent also held by the non-governmental left in the Nordic countries. The criticism mainly boiled down to the fact that the Nordic governments would not support the armed struggle.

Garth Strachan: I did not realize it then, but by the late 1980s we began to look at the situation in a slightly more nuanced way. The reality was that the Nordic support was for prisoners, their dependants, the trials and the mass movements inside the country and therefore, as we well know, very often also for the internal underground structures. They were very closely linked to the mass movements— which in a sense provided a fertile environment for the underground structures to operate—and to the external movement in so many, many different ways. The only form of support that to the best of my knowledge was not given was literally the military hardware itself. But without all these other elements, the armed struggle would not have been possible anyway. As ANC itself always said, the political and the mass struggle as well as the international struggle—especially the mass struggle—was more important, and in some ways— as ANC also often said—the armed struggle was really to mobilize mass support. So, looking back one does not see any problem.

Tor Sellström: SIDA also supported ANC in Angola. In the camps, were you aware that part of the support was coming from SIDA?

Garth Strachan: Yes, we were. I was in Angola in 1979-80, part of 1981 and part of 1983. The conditions were not as bad as they had been, let us say in 1977, but there were very long periods of time when the conditions were extremely bad. I remember someone saying that even Robben Island had been easier than the camps. So, the conditions were very bad and I think that it was well known, at least in my experience, that the support was coming from friendly countries. The food was from the Soviet Union and some of the East bloc countries. But we were always told that the financial support for the food that was being purchased, as well as for the clothes and the soap and all those things was from Holland and Sweden.

Tor Sellström: I think that you got meat and other products from ANC’s agricultural farms in Zambia, which in turn were supported by SIDA?

Garth Strachan: I remember that from time to time, probably from bad management, but also from a host of other factors, there would be very bad crises in the camps in Angola. On at least three occasions I remember that big Boeing 707s were chartered to take food from Harare to Angola. On two of the occasions, I was working in Zambia and I was involved in the arrangements. On the third occasion I was in Angola. We got relief food from Harare which was particularly poor in quality and became known as ‘Mugabe’.
Another observation that I would like to make here is that the fact that the MK people very often did not know where the money was coming from had a negative component to it, but it also had a positive side. The ANC Treasurer General’s office was remarkably good at keeping quiet about the lines of supply, especially on Rands, and we had millions of Rands passing through our hands for the struggle inside the country, for example, for MK soldiers moving into South Africa. It was an incredibly tightly kept secret. I am simply saying that there was a negative, but also a positive element: keeping quiet about the exact sources of some of the funds in those particular circumstances.

Tor Sellström: Later on you went for training in the Soviet Union. How was the Swedish or Nordic support seen from that perspective?

Garth Strachan: Well, I was on record as far back as in 1985 saying that although ANC suggested and put out in all its propaganda material and communications that the political struggle was more important than the military struggle, in reality it paid lip service to that. Notwithstanding the need for armed propaganda, my own view is that very serious strategic errors were made with regard to the underground struggle because of an overemphasis of the armed struggle.
Obviously, one can go into a great deal of debate and detail on that matter. The reason why I think that it is important is that it played itself out at the political level. What was seen to be—and what was said to be—most important was the military training and the supply of military weapons. What was also said was: ‘Yes, Swedish, or Nordic, support is in general terms important, but at the end of the day they do not want to see the complete defeat of apartheid. Otherwise they would have supported the armed struggle.’ I came to the conclusion as far back as in 1985 that this was a fundamental error. There was an error in the strategy of ANC, which led, in a sense, to a fundamental error of understanding the relationship between ANC and other countries.
I am not saying that everybody in ANC had that position. I am sure that there might have been some who did not. But that was a general understanding and it was profoundly incorrect. Given the particular historical moment, it was also part and parcel of a very profound failure to understand the dynamics within the international Social Democratic movement. ANC’s and SACP’s understanding and analysis of that was very much that of the Soviet Communist Party. It was more or less the same, which was very wrong. I think that it was particularly damaging to ANC, because it failed to see that the anti-imperialist struggle went beyond the Cold War dynamic. And that, I think, was a very poor understanding of the need to develop close political ties with Social Democracy, especially the left Social Democracy. Not just in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. I think that it was a very unfortunate product of a very close relationship between, in particular, SACP and the Soviet Union. As much as people say that this was not the case, I think that my experience in ANC suggests that it was very strong and entrenched.

Tor Sellström: When Thabo Mbeki characterized the contribution by the Nordic countries to the liberation process in Southern Africa, he emphasized that Sweden particularly—and he singled out Olof Palme’s contribution— recognized the liberation movements not as resistance movements, but as governments-inwaiting.

Garth Strachan: Absolutely. There is not much one can add to that other than possibly to make one very obvious point: I suppose that one can take nothing away from the contributions made by the Soviet Union, Nigeria or any of the East bloc countries. They were massive contributions. However, in a sense, they were contributions from the governments and the ruling parties, which did not necessarily have either the blessing or the knowledge of the populations of those countries. I was personally often very surprised. Maybe it is not a good yardstick, but when you came across ordinary people in the then Soviet Union they were not necessarily in agreement with the support for the liberation movements. And— sometimes quite alarmingly—there were massive problems with racism directed to ANC and black people in the Soviet Union.
I think that the Nordic support to the liberation movements in a sense was something that one can hold up almost as a model of solidarity. It was disinterested, because of the reasons that I have already given. Secondly, it appeared to have the voluntary agreement and support of large sections of the population. Perhaps it is being too wise, with the benefit of hindsight, but, as people say, it is better to be wise too late than never to be wise at all. I think that that support really was a model of disinterested international solidarity. Its weakness, though, was that perhaps precisely because of the nature of the struggle—that is, armed, underground, etc—a corresponding popular knowledge and linkage between the people in Sweden and the other countries and those who were the recipients of the support was not possible.
The challenge for me as a South African is to be able to say to other South Africans that we received XYZ during this period. It is not that we owe a debt, because I do not believe in that kind of relationship. The money was not given in order to secure a debt. But we should learn from those experiences and extend a hand of friendship to the people of the Nordic countries, especially given our history. That is for me real international solidarity. It would be a great pity if the tremendous support from the people of the Nordic countries ended now. Not that it is ending, but the challenge to make it more popular and deeper should be taken up.

Tor Sellström: You were also involved with the channelling of funds to the forward areas in Southern Africa and to the Home Front. Lots of funds allocated by SIDA to ANC were destined for the Home Front. Were they channelled to South Africa with your knowledge?

Garth Strachan: Many of the internal non-governmental organizations and mass movements very often had a link to the underground or to the external ANC. A lot of the project proposals—a very large amount of them; I would not know the precise proportion which were destined to receive funding from the Nordic countries or Holland—passed through our hands. I was the administrative secretary to, first, the ANC Revolutionary Council and later to the Politico-Military Council in Zambia.
ANC did not jettison or sabotage project proposals or support applications from organizations which did not hold the same ideological or political view as ANC. There was a line of communication, to the best of my knowledge, between ANC and the Nordic representatives. Information was exchanged. When an NGO was being set up as a front, it was possible for ANC to say: ‘We cannot interfere with your support for the internal mass struggle and the democratic movement, but this information might assist you in taking an informed decision.’ There was that kind of dynamic. Certainly, in my position—and I am not saying that it was a widely held view; in fact, it was not a widely held view because of the nature of the struggle itself and the nature of secrecy—I was very much aware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the internal organizations simply would not have been able to survive were it not for the external support from governments and NGOs, specifically from the Nordic countries.

Tor Sellström: During the 1980s, millions of Rands were allocated by SIDA to the Home Front. The reporting requirements on this part of the cooperation were based on trust. In a sense, ANC was here on the same side as the donor. Do you think that there were problems with the accounting of the funds for the Home Front to ANC and then by ANC to SIDA?

Garth Strachan: I think that there were, but I think that it will be very difficult to say how much corruption there was. I also think that a culture of dependency probably was engendered. But one has to ask the question: Was there any alternative? I do not think that there was. The only alternative was not to supply the money. Of course, you take all the steps you can to negate and stop corruption. In a way, it took a great deal of courage to provide money and support, knowing full well that the lines of accountability were not strong and therefore open to abuse. It meant that Sweden was supporting the struggle while knowing that there would be some corruption.

Tor Sellström: There was the case of the infiltration of the South African agent Craig Williamson into the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF), which was strongly supported by the Nordic countries. The IUEF affair must have had an impact on ANC’s trust and confidence when it comes to Nordic support?

Garth Strachan: I do not think that it had any impact. The South African government made a big song-and-dance act out of it and it was in the headlines of the South African newspapers for a few days. To the best of my knowledge, not a single arrest followed upon the return of Craig Williamson to Pretoria and I think that I would have known. Of course, he came across sensitive information about money and lines of supply and he probably gave a lot of political intelligence on ANC, but my impression was that the damage was not altogether that serious.
I am not saying this with the benefit of hindsight. It was certainly the understanding of the people who worked with him on a very close basis. The key people were Mac Maharaj and to some extent Aziz Pahad and Jacob Zuma. Maharaj was my immediate boss at exactly that time and he did not trust Williamson as far as I could see. I personally feel that serious damage was not done. Neither did it in my view have a serious impact on the perception of the people of the Nordic countries. Williamson was seen as a South African who had gone to work for IUEF with the blessing of ANC. Maybe I am wrong, but this is how I see it.

Tor Sellström: Before the 1994 elections, you became the director of an important organization for voter education in South Africa. What was the background to VEETU, the Voter Education and Election Training Unit?

Garth Strachan: I was the director of ERIP, the Education, Resource and Information Project, which had been established by Murray Michell, Trevor Manuel and Cheryl Carolus in about 1984. In those days, it did a host of semi-clandestine, sometimes clandestine, support activities for the struggle in the form of research, training and provision of free services for media, such as videos etc. When I became director of ERIP in 1992, we were asked by the Centre for Development Studies to do voter education for the forthcoming elections. We agreed to do it, but in meetings with people from the Swedish Olof Palme International Center—specifically delegations led by Bo Toresson—we put forward the idea that as much as voter education was important, unless you provided elections training support you would never level the playing field in South Africa. Because you were asking a sector of the democratic movement with no experience of elections whatsoever to compete on an equal footing with the National Party, which at that time had the monopoly of the media, both electronic and printed, and a huge, highly sophisticated and experienced election machine. Toresson and his colleagues not only quickly came to see the logic of what we were saying, but also very swiftly linked up with ANC.
To cut a long story short, VEETU was then established as a subsection of ERIP. It was a consortium of four big training NGOs in Cape Town, Durban, East London and Johannesburg. ERIP was the recipient of the funding support from Sweden and managed the national process, both in terms of financial management and in terms of design of the training, specifically together with ANC. It was a very big project. I think that forty thousand people were trained for the elections. They were trained in elections management, media, security, communications, canvassing and speech making, public relations, fund-raising, financial management, administration etc.

Tor Sellström: The trainees were not only from the ANC?

Garth Strachan: No, there was an agreement with the Swedes that we would train all the political parties which hitherto had not participated in an election. That meant ANC, PAC and the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) which only joined the process three or four weeks before the elections took place. However, in spite of repeated written and face to face requests to provide IFP with training, they never agreed to that. But we also trained the trade unions, NACTU and COSATU, the civics—not just SANCO, but even small civic organizations— CONTRALESA and fifty different women’s organisations.
It was a massive project. It would never have been possible without the Olof Palme International Center. It was not just the financial support. During the seven months before the elections, I cannot recall a period longer than two weeks when somebody from the Olof Palme International Center was not here to give advice, support and, in a sense, knowledge and experience of elections in Sweden and other countries. In a way, I think that the massive effort of some twelve million Rands was seen by the Swedish people as a sort of natural culmination of a long process of support for the coming to fruition of democracy. It was the final contribution that should be made, although there was obviously a good understanding that the struggle for development was only just beginning with the coming into existence of formal democracy.
It also had a massive international impact. People from VEETU travelled to Russia, Ukraine, Tanzania, Vietnam, Palestine and other countries, basically to provide people in those countries with an understanding and a framework of what VEETU did to prepare for the South African elections. So, it had a much wider impact than South Africa itself. Two books have already been published on the subject of VEETU.

Tor Sellström: Was the Olof Palme International Center the main funder of VEETU?

Garth Strachan: There was also support from Denmark, Holland and from NGOs in the USA, such as the Mott Foundation. The Italians had promised money, but it was not forthcoming. There were governments that categorically refused to give money. The British, the Americans and the Germans. I met their ambassadors on a number of occasions. What was remarkable for me was that it in a sense characterized the Swedish and the Nordic ability to come to terms with the real issues of the liberation struggle in a way that other countries were not able to do. They were able to see that just doing voters’ education did not level the playing fields at all. You had to provide elections’ management training. You had to train people to be able to contest an election in order to be able to fight it on an equal footing.
I left VEETU four months before the elections. I then worked with ANC for the campaign in the Western Cape. Here there was Swedish Social Democratic Party support. That was invaluable in terms of advice, guidance and for gaining a strategic understanding of an election process. It was absolutely invaluable. What I recall as being most important was the meetings with the ANC leadership—Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others—but also with the regional leadership. The biggest problem for ANC before the election was a lack of understanding of what an election is. The politicians thought that they could lead the election, but there was no understanding of the management component. I think that the Swedish Social Democrats went a very long way in assisting ANC to reach a proper understanding of what an election is, of its com-serious mistakes, but the potential for those ponent parts, its political parts, its man-mistakes was very much minimized by the agement parts. ANC could have made very support from Sweden.