The Nordic Africa Institute

Gestur Svavarsson

Bank IT Technician

The interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd in Reykjavik on the 22nd of February, 2009.

Gestur Svavarsson

Proscovia Svärd: You were one of the participants at the seminar that the Nordic Africa Institute Africa co-organised with the NGO Africa 20:20 and the University of Iceland on the Icelandic people’s involvement in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa. What were your reflections?

Gestur Svavarsson: Well, I was there to tell my point of view of my and other Icelanders’ involvement in the fight against apartheid. I was born in 1972, so I was only 15 – 16 years old when I got involved in the anti-apartheid movement.

Proscovia Svärd: What was the name of the organisation that you were a member of?

Gestur Svavarsson: The South Africa Committee Against Apartheid, (SAGA).

Proscovia Svärd: I am here to try and localise documentation on these activities that took place on Iceland, in an effort to capture this history and important memory of the Icelandic peoples’ involvement. What do you think about it?

Gestur Svavarsson: I think it is really nice. When I got your email I felt a little bit of happiness inside me, because it reminded me about that time when I was more active and enthusiastic and just doing my best to bring more justice to the world.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you have any documents in your possession?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, I have just been to the library and there are two books that are in almost every library on Iceland; both in primary school libraries and the national library. One of them was published by SAGA, the anti-apartheid Committee that I earlier referred to and it documents a bit what was going on here during that time. I had some documents some years ago but I have just lost them, it is quite sad. But the national archives do have some, I know that.

Proscovia Svärd: You know for sure? Because they were the people I contacted first when I set out on this journey, to try and identify documents and they said, “no, we do not have documents on the liberation struggles.”

Gestur Svavarsson: That is true, because perhaps they have not indexed them as materials on the anti-apartheid struggle. One can for example find the paper “Iðnneminn”, which wrote on the visits from South Africa to Iceland, intended to try and organise an operation called “Operation Dagsverke” here in Iceland. They have some copies of that, I know that for sure. They might not have a clue that these copies hold information on apartheid – but that is quite another thing.

Proscovia Svärd: How were you involved in these struggles?

Gestur Svavarsson: Well, when I got involved, I was 15 years old and I went to the founding meeting of the anti-apartheid movement (SAGA). There were approximately 200 people who were founding members of the organisation and I was one of them. My father was there as well but, he was an active politician here in Iceland.

Proscovia Svärd: So this was on the 26th of May 1988?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes. There were several familiar faces since it was the same people that I saw at similar meetings - campaigns against different issues of course. At that meeting, it was announced that it was possible to work for the organisation and to join the meeting the following Thursday. I remember that I was very shy and just did what I was told and tried to participate. I wrote some three or four articles in the newspapers and these were informative articles about the Soweto killings in 1976. You see nothing had been said about it before and I at least had never heard about the killings before I wrote the articles. Nothing about what had happened and was happening in South Africa was being told in schools, nowhere.

Proscovia Svärd: That is surprising, not even in schools?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, but I was just fifteen, so maybe it was just not part of the school curriculum.

Proscovia Svärd: But what inspired you as a young boy of 15years to get involved in this far away region? Did it have to do with your father’s political career?

Gestur Svavarsson: Of course it did. Both my father and mother were human rights oriented people. My father was the editor of “Þjóðviljinn” before he went into politics and joined the parliament.

Proscovia Svärd: Was “Þjóðviljinn” the left-wing newspaper that published most of the activities against apartheid?

Gestur Svavarsson: True.

Proscovia Svärd: I have heard that your father was at one time a Minster of Education. Is that true?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, for some time but now he is at the embassy of Denmark. He is an Ambassador there.

Proscovia Svärd: For how long were you involved?

Gestur Svavarsson: It was from 1988 and that is from the founding meeting until maybe 1990.

Proscovia Svärd: 1990? That was until the release of Nelson Mandela.

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, of course, but the struggle went on and of course Nelson Mandela was free but what happened then? Was everything alright? Of course it was not, and the trade ban still existed - it was still needed as far as we understood. You see, the freedom of one person, even though it was an important person, was of course not enough.

Proscovia Svärd: But did you ever through your organisation, get in touch with any youth organisations in Southern Africa?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, not any youth organisations but I met some people at the concert that was here in Iceland. I was involved in setting up the stage and in fixed instruments, like pianos, and guitars. I still remember that I forgot to get a piano for one of the musicians because I was so tired, so he had to play the guitar and just performed two songs instead of ten! I am still a bit ashamed of that. But then there was a visitor called Aaron Mnisi, and I remember meeting him shy as I was. There was me and a girl called Halfridur and some other people. We met him at the office of “Pathfinders”, where SAGA, had its offices, at Klapparstigur. It was a bit funny because he was there to address us but I just sat there and did not say a word, I was just listening.

Proscovia Svärd: Fascinated?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, of course. I was fascinated by him and what he was doing. I had never seen a black person before. And I remember that Kristinn said “Can you maybe make him a coffee”, and I said “Yes, sure!” But I did not drink coffee at fifteen, so I asked the girl, Halfridur, “Can you make the coffee?”, and she thought it was a bit chauvinist and she replied in her feminist voice, “No, you do it!”.

Proscovia Svärd: Prof. Jonnina Einarsdóttir of Iceland University was quite captured by your presentation at the seminar which we held at the Nordic house on Saturday the 21st of February. She said, that you were very humble and this is the first time she heard this kind of presentation.

Gestur Svavarsson: You see, I had half an hour and I thought that I had to make the presentation funny. I wanted to make people feel the same enthusiasm that I remembered existed back then.

Proscovia Svärd: I think you managed well. It is a pity it was not in English. But anyway, what were some of the actions that you were involved in order to make your voice heard?

Gestur Svavarsson: Well, we wrote articles in newspapers.

Proscovia Svärd: Was that a very effective tool? Most people that I have interviewed say the writing of articles was very instrumental.

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, it was and then of course there was the concert. Later on, we were also introduced give-away materials on the struggle in South Africa, pamphlets etc. There was also the trade ban, but it was not respected here in Iceland. Of course, the portion of Icelandic imports/exports from/to South Africa was not that large, it did not really matter, but it was mainly about the support itself. The exports at least were at a minimum, the imports consisted of some canned fruits and Benson & Hedges tobacco (which nobody that I knew used). So, we went into supermarkets for example, and made some small stickers that we glued to groceries from South Africa that were banned. We put stickers on each and every item that originated from South Africa.

Proscovia Svärd: And what did the owners say? Did they chase you out of the supermarkets?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes of course and they took the stickers off. We were afraid that they would call the police etc. but of course they did not – they just took the stickers off and sold the groceries. We also sang South African songs downtown in Rejkjavik. It was not really a choir but a small singing group. It was something that Sigþrúður Gunnarsdóttir had emulated from London, England, from the group to which she belonged.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you also participate in the action at the airport that prevented tourists from boarding the plane to South Africa?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, but I heard about it. I do not think that I would have dared, I would have been too frightened because I was too young.

Proscovia Svärd: What do you think about your government’s conservatism and why was it so conservative during this time?

Gestur Svavarsson: That was something that I just found out now because, in 1986, we had a sort of parliamentary hearing (in Iceland we have oral questions to ministers, from the members of parliament) with questions to which the response have to be given orally, not in written form. These hearings were more or less on two things, 1) if we were going to participate in the UN way of taking action against apartheid, for the struggle in South Africa and Namibia, (as the two were usually kept close together as a political issue). And 2) if we were going to implement a trade ban on South African imports and exports. In the beginning the answers sounded like “No, we do not think that we should do it, because it is important to support free trade.” This was in 1985 or 1986 and one or two years later, there was another minister who responded “Yes, but it is better if it is decided by the people to simply not buy the groceries”, and this was also because freedom of trade was important, and “Blah bla bla”. And it is the same today because I think that the power of the so-called free trade is just a myth. And then there was also the same old tune about, “Well, we are so small that it will just be symbolic”, or “Then they will just export it to the next country”.

Proscovia Svärd: Which also happened?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, of course, but that was not an excuse not to implement the trade ban! But maybe the politicians were also afraid to make moves, afraid to lead the way, to be first. It is always easier to jump on the bandwagon if it is already there.

Proscovia Svärd: But there was a bandwagon that is the rest of Nordic countries that Iceland could have joined?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, of course, it is strange and we cannot find any explanation why we were not following the Nordic countries as far as the trade ban was concerned. We should have.

Proscovia Svärd: Some of the people that I have interviewed say that Iceland was under the armpits of the US, and this prevented it from taking a strong stand against apartheid.

Gestur Svavarsson: It is possible, but it is not something that you can prove.

Proscovia Svärd: As a young person participating in these actions, did your participation have an influence on the rest of the young people around you?

Gestur Svavarsson: I do not know. As a young person one only tries to understand life by participating in some parts of the lives of grown-ups. One decides to study or just to work or to find a partner for life and to make friends. So I am just not sure because the decision of who one’s friends is based on what opinions they have and vice versa, so I am not so sure.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you hear about the micro groups that supported different ideologies and actions at the University of Iceland?

Gestur Svavarsson: I was too young. I was not at the university until 1991.

Proscovia Svärd: What do you think your contribution meant for the people of Southern Africa?

Gestur Svavarsson: Much and nothing, of course! I think it is the same as asking - as we are now looking at this lake here - how important each drop in it is? It is important, because without it, it would not be the same lake, but alone it is nothing.

Proscovia Svärd: But nevertheless, I think that your contributions as a young boy of 15 years meant much.

Gestur Svavarsson: I hope it did.

Proscovia Svärd: Your contribution together with the other international solidarity groups that were working in the Nordic countries and in other countries effected change.

Gestur Svavarsson: It was very nice to feel the same enthusiasm, not just in other individuals, but also in other countries. And it is always nice for people to be a part of something.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you ever get a chance of interacting with other international solidarity groups like the ones in Sweden or Denmark?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, I did not, but when I was at school here in Iceland, I had a course in journalism where we were supposed to make a radio show. Me and a girl called Lóa Bjarnardóttir made a show on apartheid for half an hour or so. It was mainly on something that we had just found out from newspaper articles and then reported on and an interview with Sigþrúður Gunnardóttir who was then in London, so that was quite nice.

Proscovia Svärd: What does solidarity mean today?

Gestur Svavarsson: Well, here in Iceland, the mentality at least it is that peoples’ or a nation’s success is measured in gross per capita. Not in solidarity, not in humanity and not in people. You know, if you have a school, you are always measuring if you can use low budget and still make good schools instead of thinking about how the children are feeling or if they are comfortable at school to be able to learn. It is always about how much you get out of things.

Proscovia Svärd: But you now need solidarity more than ever given the current state of affairs?

Gestur Svavarsson: Yes, of course, in some way. But the opposite of solidarity is thinking about oneself, and that is something that we have seen here on Iceland. It is more important for the individual to grab each and every opportunity and the focus is on the individual instead of the common good and solidarity - helping each other and having a good society for everyone instead of just one. I think now, because of the Icelandic crisis, at least the national solidarity will grow. But maybe the international solidarity will decrease, I am not sure. But I do not think so, I hope it will grow as well.

Proscovia Svärd: Have you been to Africa yourself?

Gestur Svavarsson: No, I should. Both my mother- and father-in-law have been there two or three times.

Proscovia Svärd: Which countries?

Gestur Svavarsson: Once to South Africa, Kenya and the Eastern parts.

Proscovia Svärd: Will you be able to pass on your interest in international issues to your children?

Gestur Svavarsson: Maybe. It is hard to do that with one’s children.

Proscovia Svärd: Thank you Gestur, thank you so much.