The Nordic Africa Institute

Gylfi Páll Hersir


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

Gylfi Páll Hersir

Proscovia Svärd: Thank you for taking the time to meet with me. What do you do for a living right now?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Right now I`m working with geophysical prospecting for geothermal energy.

Proscovia Svärd: At what institution?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: It’s called Iceland GeoSurvey and I am employed at the University of Iceland as well as a geophysicist.

Proscovia Svärd: Can you tell me what your reflection was yesterday as a participant at the seminar that we organized on the Nordic Documentation Project and the Icelandic people’s involvement in the liberation struggles of southern Africa?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I did not participate in the seminar yesterday.

Proscovia Svärd: Ok, we go to the next question then which is about your involvement in the liberation struggles. Can you tell me about it?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, I have been very active in politics for a long time and supporting and learning from the liberation struggles was a part of what I found important in political work. The first direct involvement was when I attended a conference in the United States in 1985 and met Neo Mnumzana who was Chief Representative of the African National Congress (ANC) at the United Nations. We were a couple of people from Iceland who invited him to come and talk about the situation in South Africa to workers and students in Iceland. Unfortunately, Neo Mnumzana was not able to come because of his duties at the United Nations but instead contacted Aaron Mnisi in Copenhagen came in the fall of 1985. Aaron Mnisi was the representative of the ANC for Denmark, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Greenland and I guess Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir has already gone through this with you so I will not go into the details. This was the most important visit. He met ministers, gave talks in schools and held press conferences but the most important meeting was with the dock workers at their working place. Encouraged by the chairman of the unskilled workers Union in Reykjavík (Dagsbrún; i.e. Dawn), the dock workers decided not to load or ship goods from South Africa into this country. This was in the fall 1985 and the employees took this to court, where the action was ruled illegal. This activity raised discussions amongst workers and in the society as a whole in support of a ban on goods from South Africa. This was like the first direct connection we had with the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa in this country. I am leaving aside the great work of the Apprentice Organisation (INSÍ) on the support during the same period which I am sure Kristinn Einarsson can tell you more about.

Proscovia Svärd: What was the government’s position on the strike bearing in mind its conservative position?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: They took no steps and the trade ban against South Africa was first established in December 1988, long time after it became a law in other Scandinavian countries. We used this as an argument that there should be a trade ban in Iceland, besides of course the direct appeal from the ANC.

Proscovia Svärd: Since you were not at the seminar that we held yesterday, the 21st of February, at the Nordic House here in Reykjavik, I will inform you about the Nordic Documentation Project’s efforts to find out if there are any archives on the Icelandic peoples’ involvement in the liberation struggles. My work has so far revealed that there are no assembled documents but rather, one has to understand the way things worked here during that time. My visit to the National Library and the earlier interviews I have conducted have shown, that newspaper articles were written on the activities but in order to get a true picture, one needs to understand which political alignment the media had. Where do you think the documentation on the activities against apartheid that took place could be localized?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, there is not much tradition for documentation in Iceland on this kind of activity compared to the other Scandinavian countries I guess; filing these documents in a systematic way, but I can imagine people did this privately. I keep many of these things privately as photocopies. We wrote extensively about the struggle in South Africa during this time and we were interviewed on the radio and television at times as well. There were interviews with the representatives of the ANC when they came to Iceland. We did have the law that had been passed in December 1988 and a big part of our work was to press the government of Iceland to reinforce it because, the importation of canned fruits and stuff from South Africa continued and supermarkets even used to change the labels on the product from there. Finally the South Africa Committee Against Apartheid (SAGA) together with the Federation of Labour, wrote a letter to the State Prosecutor and asked him to investigate the issue. Then they finally stopped.

Proscovia Svärd: So most of the documentation of the activities are with private people, is that true?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, these are in papers, articles that have been written, interviews that have been taken with both leaders of the ANC and the activists here and then of course we have the law that was passed, we have the letter to the State Prosecutor, correspondence with the ANC and a few other letters.

Proscovia Svärd: And all these documents are in private custody of the people?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I think so, yes because it has not been filed systematically as far as I know.

Proscovia Svärd: As an activist who was involved in the struggles, don’t you think that there is a need to try and organize these documents because I think in order for solidarity to continue, the lessons that can drawn from the past are very important. At the seminar which I mentioned earlier, we had a Representative of the Icelandic Palestine Association who made a presentation but also listened to other presentations that were made in order to see if there was anything they could learn from past experiences. I think that this documentation other than being a memory, is of great significance both for research but also for ordinary people to understand solidarity and to harness it.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I totally agree. It is a very important chapter in the history of the struggles and one we are proud of.

Proscovia Svärd: At the seminar yesterday, I displayed books that have been written under the auspices of a project that was conducted at the Nordic Africa Institute from 1994 – 2001 and that documented the Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish involvement in the liberation struggles but Iceland is not included. I don’t particularly know why it wasn’t part of the project but perhaps there was an assumption that nothing much happened on Iceland. That even makes it more important for Icelandic activists to try and gather the documents in order to write your official version of the story.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, I think if that is the assumption, then I think it is totally wrong.

Proscovia Svärd: I am not sure but I am just guessing because I don’t you know why there isn’t any official documentation. The Nordic Documentation Project is struggling to complete the Nordic profile by including Iceland and this is why I am here to conduct interviews but also to try as much as possible to find out where at different institutions this documentation could be accessed.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: There is a long history from 1985 to 1994 or 1995, almost 10 years of political activities in support of the liberation struggles which included one of the few instances, where the trade unions in Iceland took a stance in international politics in recent years. This was around the support of the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa. The dock workers, members of the unskilled workers union in Reykjavík voted on a loading and shipping ban, there were resolutions passed by many of the trade unions and trade union congresses and actually an active participation of some of the leaders of the trade unions in this fight. So, I don’t know why this is not a part of the Scandinavian documentation. It is not because not much was happening. Lots of activities took place during these 10 years.

Proscovia Svärd: I know that the rest of the Nordic countries have assembled documents on their involvement in the liberation struggles. We have for example within the Nordic Documentation Project received finding aids and some documents, from the national archives, NGOs and individuals from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark which we have included in our database. Since Iceland has not had the culture to systematically take care of its documentation as you mentioned, that could partly clarify why it was not part of the project that wrote the official versions of the other Nordic countries. I think that it would be an interesting question to take up with the person who co-ordinated the project. It is however never too late and perhaps there might be an interest for someone or a doctoral student or the NGO Africa 20:20 to get involved in these issues and see to it that the official version is written.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I think the work you are doing is important not only for research purposes or for historians who might be interested, it is also a part of the struggle that we can learn from. We should learn from this and ask ourselves what kind of lessons we can draw and how we can continue. That is the main thing around the history of documentation on the struggles. Not just for historical purposes but more to learn in order to keep fighting against injustice.

Proscovia Svärd: Can you tell me about the progress of the different organizations that were involved in these struggles?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, I can run through a little bit of the chronology. I just talked about the discussions with Mnumzana in 1985 the Chief Representative of the ANC at the United Nations and Aaron Mnisi the Representative of the ANC in Copenhagen who came to Iceland later the same year. That year there was quite a support within the trade unions, we wrote several articles in the newspapers and celebrated the 75th anniversary of the ANC in 1987. In 1988 we got a visit by Pritz Dullay who was a member of the ANC and lived in Denmark. He came to talk at a book-launch here, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, writings and speeches of Ernesto Che Guevara. He at the same time used the same opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister. We held a public meeting on South Africa and the freedom struggle there and the chairperson at that meeting was the president of the Federation of labour, Mr. Ásmundur Stefánsson. The chairman of the Federation of Labour expressed the ideas of the Federation on a total trade ban. This shows the involvement of the trade unions in the struggle. Soon after, we founded the South Africa Committee Against Apartheid (SAGA) at a big meeting. The Apprentice Students Organisation played a big role in it, people like Kristinn Einarsson and Gunnar Gunnarsson were in its leadership.

Proscovia Svärd: Is this the same Committee that is called SAGA?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes. We founded SAGA in May 1988.

Proscovia Svärd: I have already digitalized the publication on SAGA. It is available on the Icelandic website of the Nordic Documentation Project.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Shortly afterwards in July, there was an interview with the chairman of the unskilled workers’ union on the ban against loading and shipping of goods by the dockworkers. We also organized a concert on the 17th of July, on the 70th anniversary of Nelson Mandela and this was when we published the SAGA book. The concert had the participation of all the biggest artists in Iceland like the Sugar Cubes and Björk who many people know. Aaron Mnisi, came to this concert and addressed it. There were several thousand people that attended. All the musicians and artists gave their work and the entrance fee was sent to South Africa.

Proscovia Svärd: Which year was this?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: This was on the 17th of July 1988. It was an outdoor concert which was televised and broadcasted directly. Aaron Mnisi addressed the concert during the break but since not everybody in this country applauded the fact that we fought against the apartheid government of South Africa, the television transmission was turned off during the break and his speech was not televised. It was a very political thing and I remember this quite well because I translated his speech and clearly remember this as an incredible thing! It was however broadcast on the radio.

Around 1989 a group of students from one of the gymnasiums in Iceland came along, like Drífa and Sunna Snædal, Sigþrúður and Lóa and several others and joined SAGA. We fought even more because finally in December 1988, the parliament passed a law banning trade with South Africa. They however broke it all the time and when we discovered it, we took to the streets and stood in front of the shops where South African goods were being sold and discouraged people from buying them and wrote a letter to the State Prosecutor together with the Federation of labour asking him to carry out an investigation on this matter. Then this finally slowly terminated and the law was reinforced. There was also a flight going from Iceland to South Africa with tourists which we tried to stop and talked to them at the airport in Keflavík. Those were some of the activities that were going on in 1990. Pritz Dullay visited us again in 1990 and talked to the foreign Minister and encouraged them not to lift the trade ban until the date of the elections in South Africa had been settled. He attended different events. He addressed a meeting and the launching of the book, In Defence of Socialism. Four speeches on the 30th anniversary of the Cuban revolution by Fidel Castro. These speeches were in great part on the Cuban involvement in Southern Africa and the victory at Cuito Cuanavale in March 1988 which paved the way to the freedom of South Africa and Namibia.

He gave several press interviews and held a public meeting and we had a couple of other meetings afterwards. After that Tim Maseko who was the head of the ANC school in Lusaka in Zambia at some point became the representative of the ANC in Copenhagen and came here twice, 1990 and 1993. During his second visit he addressed the general meeting of the apprentice union, met the bishop and he also came to the congress of the unskilled workers union in Iceland and addressed the meeting. I was at the congress as a representative for my union, the unskilled workers’ union in Reykjavík and translated his speech.

Proscovia Svärd: So in other words SAGA is the South African Committee Against Apartheid that was founded in 1988?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, it was founded on 28th May 1988 at a big meeting and there were many founding members. There were founding organizations both political parties like the Social Democratic Party, the People’s Alliance and the youth organizations of these parties and several trade unions besides the Federation of labour, my trade union at the time, the unskilled workers union in Reykjavík. We also received many messages at the meeting.

Proscovia Svärd: Individuals who were active then?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: All kinds of individuals.

Proscovia Svärd: What motivated your engagement in the liberation struggles?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, I thought it was an important thing to be engaged in. Both to support the struggles that were going on in South Africa but also as a part of struggle of the workers who were fighting here in Iceland against the employers and the government. There was something to learn from the experience in South Africa. The government in Iceland supported the regime and imported goods from South Africa and thereby indirectly supported the minority regime in South Africa. Contrary to the appeal of the ANC and all major freedom organizations in South Africa, that encouraged a trade ban. This was the same government that was pressing our salaries down and cutting down our health care system and educational system and so on. That was a part of the political fights going on internationally at that time.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you ever engage with any international solidarity groups?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I lived in Denmark 1985-1982 when I moved back to Iceland. During these years I was involved in the support work of the struggle in Central America and also supported the revolution in Nicaragua. South Africa had just started to become a really big international issue at that time. Therefore I was not involved prior to 1982.

Proscovia Svärd: What was the role of the media during this time?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: In Iceland?

Proscovia Svärd: Yes, especially around these issues.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: The media were hesitant. I told you earlier how they turned off the television transmission during Aaron Mnisi’s address at the concert; they only wanted to televise the music, not his address! However, the media used to interview the ANC leaders because of course, it was something special. “Morgunbladid” was during these years very much to the right while at the same time, it was the biggest and the most important newspaper. They directly opposed the trade ban. I remember accompanying an ANC leader to an interview there, and the journalist who was talking to us left his office for a minute to calm down some younger, right wing journalists who were not happy with the fact that there was a black man visiting to talk about the ANC, labeled a terrorist organization. We heard some comments as we were leaving and so, yes, the conservative newspaper did not support this, nor did the youth wing of the conservative party.

Proscovia Svärd: But there was one particular newspaper which was left-wing and supported most of the anti-apartheid activities isn’t it?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, that is where most of our articles appeared “Þjóðviljinn”, the daily of the People’s Alliance. We should though remember that the paper never published the interview we conducted in US with Neo Mnumzana in 1985 on South Africa!

Proscovia Svärd: So you mean even the left wing newspapers were hesitant?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, they were hesitant.

Proscovia Svärd: But why were they hesitant? I thought that would be more obvious for the right wing newspapers?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, it was obvious with the right-wing newspapers but there was so much propaganda going on, like that the ANC being a terrorist organization. This propaganda came from the apartheid regime of South Africa and some imperialist countries and indeed it spread out. You might say the left wing press could not stand the pressure of the mainstream media opinion!

Proscovia Svärd: Did you have any direct contact with ANC during this time?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes. We exchanged letters with the ANC and I came to their office in Copenhagen. I think, though our mediation ANC leaders visited Iceland five or six times.

Proscovia Svärd: So, apart from the actions that you mentioned earlier like the shipban of the dock workers, the intervention by the youth at the airport and the actions taken against imported goods from the South Africa, what else was done to make your voices heard?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: We held meetings and a big part of our work was organizing visits of the representatives of ANC because they did not live here permanently. We organized the meetings with the ministers and put pressure on the parliamentarians to in the first place pass the law on the trade ban, and then to reinforce it and maintain it and not to back away from it. We talked to the public, wrote articles in the newspapers and magazines that explained the cause of the majority in South Africa and their fights and we took this up in the trade unions and other mass organizations. We used events like the showing of the film, Cry Freedom. We held public meetings and educational sessions for the members of our group and invited other people as well. We received representatives and we had a couple of concerts. We actually had two concerts i.e. one on Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988 and the second one in 1990 at Hotel Borg celebrating the release of Nelson Mandela and at the same time as Pritz Dullay came and met with the Foreign minister. There was a meeting at the Hotel Borg and a concert afterwards with the Cuban group called Los Novels which was here the same time. This meeting was addressed by the Minister of Education, Pritz Dullay the representative of the ANC and two activists.

Proscovia Svärd: So, do you know if the Icelandic government co-operated with the Nordic countries, in support of the liberation struggles?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: During this time the Icelandic foreign policy was very much US oriented on many international issues, the rulers regarded themselves as a US allies. They were not following the Nordic countries. For example I know that the trade ban was reinforced in the Scandinavian countries long before Iceland did. In Iceland it was in December 1988 and so they did not follow suit. This has changed a little bit because now the trade relations in Iceland are more towards European countries than with the US. During that time there was a US military base in Keflavík and the main trading partner was the US and so Iceland linked with them. However, I think that the support by the trade unions to this cause was partly because the trade unions in the Scandinavian countries were co-operating, and the issue of the struggles in South Africa was being discussed amongst the trade union leaders. So, the Icelandic trade unions thought that this was something they wanted to be engaged in.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you know if the youth organizations here on Iceland had any collaboration with the other organizations in Southern Africa or South Africa?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Not really. I once took part in organizing a visit for Andile Yawa who was a member of the ANC Youth League. He was also at that time the president of World Federation Democratic Youth (WFDY). He came to Iceland in 1992 and spoke at a public meeting. There was some kind of a co-operation with the ANC Youth League.

Proscovia Svärd: Were you particularly working with South Africa or did your work include other countries in the Southern African region?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, we took up the issues on the rest of the Southern African region as well since they were interconnected, as you might have seen in this white book that was published by the Militant Socialist Organization in 1987, a collection of articles on South Africa.

Proscovia Svärd: I got a copy of it from Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: There are several articles in it on South Africa but also a big article that I wrote, The struggle in Southern Africa the last decade. This included Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia. We took these issues up and in co-operation with different organizations and we showed a Cuban video on the victory at Cuito Cuanavale in March 1988 when they joined forces of SWAPO, Angola and the Cuban forces won a military victory at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which paved the way for the freedom of South Africa and Namibia and which was very important. We showed the video a couple times and we held meetings around it because it was not only on South Africa but it had to do with the defeat of the South African army in Angola. The South African forces were defeated for the first time. Then, we also discussed and took up the Namibian issue. But the liberation struggle in Namibia was of course behind the South African struggle, a different fight. In 1989 SAGA in co-operation with a magazine published the pamphlet, Namibia: Colonial exploitation for a whole century.

Proscovia Svärd: Ok, what do you believe your support has meant for the people in southern Africa?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, the main reason for the liberation of South Africa was of course the fight of the South Africans themselves and secondly the victory at Cuito Cuanavale. But the tiny support like the trade ban did make things more difficult for the regime of South Africa. I think it was important for the struggle to have the solidarity of other countries and the isolation of the South African government. But it was also a big lesson for us to learn from their struggle and to learn what you can achieve by fighting instead of just sitting and waiting for your fate, that is a big lesson for us all to learn from.

Proscovia Svärd: Sure.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: So it goes both ways.

Proscovia Svärd: It does. What do you think solidarity means today?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Well, we live in very different times today compared to say 20 years ago.

Proscovia Svärd: But we still see similar challenges today.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Of course, like the struggle of the Palestinians and the situation in Africa is also quite difficult. We have the trade blocks and consequently more and more unequal trade and we have the same system of exploitation.

Proscovia Svärd: A more modernized system of exploitation and discrimination?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, it is the same exploitation and discrimination by the big companies, the ruling classes and the imperialists but it has a different face. They also have a huge army to back them up. African countries have not quite been liberated partly because of the very unfavorable trade conditions, like the price of the products that are being produced in Africa compared to the technological products in the Western world. And you also have all kinds of tariffs and conditions that hinder their production and trade. The Western world protects its home market and this is a different face today. There has to be a big change in the systems in the way the world works.

Proscovia Svärd: Maybe that will require the same engagement that took place during the apartheid regime?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Education on these issues is important and the role of the mass media has to be heightened. The media is not critical. But, these struggles will change, in the 1980s and 1990s it was the Central America and Southern Africa struggles and now it is more Israel and Palestine.

Proscovia Svärd: The struggle continues.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes, absolutely.

Proscovia Svärd: It would be comforting to know if future generations will be equally motivated to engage in the current struggles.

Gylfi Páll Hersir: Yes and therefore, I think the work that you are doing is important. It is crucial to collect the experiences from this period of time and to document it by interviewing different people in order to get different views. You see, people try to view these things differently especially when they get older and move farther away from them and so; to learn from them is most important.

Proscovia Svärd: What has Africa meant to the people of Iceland?

Gylfi Páll Hersir: I think in the end, most people supported the struggle of the majority in South Africa. The lessons from South Africa can be used and we can draw a parallel to the struggle in Palestine. Palestinians have no rights and we still have the Israeli government which used to work with the minority regime in South Africa during the old days. I think we could learn from this so that people could look back and say this was terrible and what is happening today is just as bad. Perhaps people look back and wonder why they ever supported the minority government of South Africa. I think there are a lot of lessons that we can learn from the African people. They have fought heroically for years for their freedom.

Proscovia Svärd: Thank you so much.