Africa Groups in Sweden
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 4 february 1997.
Tor Sellström: Did your involvement with Africa start with Angola?
Hillevi Nilsson: No, it did not. The first time that I became involved with Africa was when I was thirteen. I lived in Nyköping and was a candidate for confirmation. The Swedish missionary Barbro Johansson came there to tell us about Tanzania. We then formed a small group which tried to collect clothes and other things for her work in Tanzania. That was in the 1950s.
My next contact was with South Africa at the beginning of the 1960s. I then lived in Stockholm during the first Swedish boycott of South African goods. I participated but not in an organized way. When I later went to university, I became involved with the FNL Groups and the Vietnam movement. Had there been an organization working for Africa, I would perhaps have been involved with that. I was a member of the Baptist Church and my husband and I conducted Sunday school classes where we also talked about the missions. Discovering the bad things the missionaries had done, we started to read a lot about Africa. It was mainly about Kenya and South Africa, and a bit about what was then called Rhodesia. However, when we became involved with the FNL Groups, the doors to the Baptist Church were more or less closed.
At the end of the 1960s, I got into contact with the journal Kommentar. They had formed a study group on Africa in which I participated. In the beginning, we were mainly dealing with Rhodesia, Kenya and Ethiopia. At that time—between 1969 and 1971—I met quite a few representatives of different liberation movements who came to Kommentar. We interviewed them and published their stories. That is also how I for the first time got into contact with MPLA. It was when Daniel Chipenda visited Stockholm in 1970. He came to introduce the representative of MPLA to Sweden, António Alberto Neto. Soon thereafter, Agostinho Neto also came to Sweden, after the Rome conference. I met them and interviewed them.
In early 1971, a group called Verdandi was planning a trip to Zambia to write a book about the country. They had done something similar on Tanzania before. They contacted Kommentar’s study group on Africa and asked if there was anybody who wanted to go with them and take care of the chapters on foreign policy and mass media. The foreign policy chapter should include Zambia’s relations with the different liberation movements that were represented there at that time. Elisabeth Hedborg and I—both members of the study group—decided to go with them. At that time, I already had contacts with the Stockholm Africa Group. That was my first visit to Africa.
Tor Sellström: Was it during this trip in 1971 that you first visited the MPLA camps in western Zambia?
Hillevi Nilsson: Yes. We went around interviewing people from the liberation movements at the Liberation Centre in Lusaka. Chipenda then asked us if we wanted to go with MPLA to the border. It caused a discussion within the Verdandi group, because they did not want us to be away for ten or fourteen days out of the four weeks that we had. That was a lot. But we solemnly promised that we were going to do our part of the book and could thus join MPLA.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament agreed to direct Swedish official humanitarian support to the national liberation movements in Southern Africa. How did you at Kommentar look upon that?
Hillevi Nilsson: I would say that the position of both Kommentar and the different Africa Groups in Sweden was that Sweden had two faces, a hard one and a soft one. We very much thought that it was a decision by the Social Democratic Party and not by the other parties. That is how we interpreted it.
Tor Sellström: Did your background in the church not indicate that a strong solidarity opinion—at least on South Africa—was expressed by the liberal centre in Sweden?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, of course I knew that and many others did as well. But with regard to the church, I think that it mainly had to do with very special persons like Gunnar Helander, who had an African experience and had written good pieces on Africa. My own experience from the church was that I was excluded because I advocated ideas similar to his. So, I did not really trust the church in these matters.
It should also be said, I think, that the left at that time took action from the basis of a general feeling of security in the Swedish Social Democratic welfare state. Even if we were attacking the Social Democrats, we were a bit proud of being Swedes in relation to the Third World. More than anything else, the criticism was made in order to make the Social Democrats go further. To push them, although we at the time did not really see it like that.
Tor Sellström: Following upon Agostinho Neto’s visit to Sweden in 1970, the Swedish government decided to grant humanitarian assistance to MPLA. Did you notice any reaction to this decision during your travels with MPLA in 1971 and 1972? Was it known to the MPLA cadres that they received government support from Sweden?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, in 1971 we did not notice it, although the very invitation made to us by Chipenda perhaps was because of the Swedish support. As I see it afterwards, it could have been. But, of course, we did not understand that at the time.
However, in 1972, we did notice the support. Some things had already been delivered. They were also aware that it was purely humanitarian aid. For example, MPLA had asked for boots, but they could not get that, because boots were considered to be military. They got sandals instead. Things like that. They talked about it. At the level of group commanders they would know about the Swedish support and also laugh a bit about the sandals.
There was also an interesting episode regarding tinned herring from Sweden. It came to Dar es Salaam in great quantities and then it was transported—as all MPLA’s supplies—all the way to Zambia’s border with Angola and from there on people’s heads into the country. Anyway, there were quite a lot of thefts in the harbour of Dar es Salaam and MPLA became suspicious about the tinned fish from Sweden because the harbour workers who had eaten it got sick. They had eaten it all! They did not take the herring out of the sauce, and got diarrhoea. So, MPLA tried the fish on us all the way from Dar es Salaam into Angola to see if we were going to get sick also. And then we had to show the people inside Angola that we were eating the fish without getting sick.
Tor Sellström: In your view, what factors could explain that the Swedish government decided to give humanitarian support to MPLA at that stage?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, if I had been asked that question in the early 1970s, I would have said that it was because of the good work by the Africa Groups. Today, I am not so sure that it was the only reason. But we had made a study on the different movements in Angola and I think that some people in the Social Democratic Party read it. I also think that the Swedish government perhaps was influenced by Julius Nyerere. I think Agostinho Neto had really good contacts with Nyerere and Nyerere had good contacts with Olof Palme and the Swedish Social Democratic Party on the whole.
Tor Sellström: It was probably also influenced by Amílcar Cabral and—before his death—Eduardo Mondlane?
Hillevi Nilsson: Yes, of course. I do not know so much about Eduardo Mondlane, but Amílcar Cabral definitely.
Tor Sellström: At that time, there were quite important representatives in the Liberal Party who supported FNLA. Why, do you think, did the Swedish government never give assistance to FNLA?
Hillevi Nilsson: One factor was, of course, that it was the Liberal Party that advocated that, while the Social Democratic Party had its own way. There was some party politics involved, I think. But not only that. Around that time, there was also an investigation made by the OAU Liberation Committee, which drew the conclusion that FNLA was not very active inside Angola.
Tor Sellström: The Liberal Party also demanded the expulsion of Portugal from EFTA. Do you remember if this demand was high on MPLA’s agenda?
Hillevi Nilsson: Their point was that the Swedish companies should withdraw from Portugal. That was the point they made to us and other solidarity groups in Europe. For example, there was a big boycott campaign against coffee from Angola which MPLA supported. That campaign started in Holland, but it never grew strong in Sweden. We imported very little coffee from Angola, almost nothing. It was difficult to get the campaign going here. It was very strong in Holland and in Canada.
Tor Sellström: A third movement in Angola was UNITA. The Swedish Social Democratic Party initiated relations with UNITA and Jonas Savimbi vis ited Sweden in 1967. After that, the relations seem to have died completely. What could have happened?
Hillevi Nilsson: I do not think that it was because of difficulties to contact UNITA here in Sweden. There was a UNITA representative in Sweden, Stella Makunga. It rather had to do with what happened to UNITA itself, both inside Angola and in relation to Zambia. When UNITA attacked the Benguela railway, they got into problems with Zambia. It was also, I think, difficult to contact them in Angola. As far as I have understood, they were not very successful in the 1960s.
Tor Sellström: The Maoist influence in the Swedish extra-parliamentary left was very strong at the end of the 1960s. That would have presented a fertile ground for UNITA. Which political organizations in Sweden were the strongest supporters of UNITA?
Hillevi Nilsson: It was the Communist League Marxist-Leninists (KFML) and the Clarté Association. They were really strong advocates of UNITA and it was with them that Stella Makunga had most of her contacts. But when KFML split, the ‘revolutionaries’ in KFML(r) supported MPLA. At that time, the Africa Groups did not see themselves as a kind of mass movement, but rather as study and information groups. We lobbied a lot among the left groups and at one stage—I think that it was in 1971—we also got the KFML to take part in demonstrations for MPLA. But it was only on one occasion.
Tor Sellström: You visited Lusaka at the beginning of 1974 and had the opportunity to discuss the Chipenda rebellion directly with Agostinho Neto. In this connection, how did you experience the position of the Swedish embassy in Lusaka?
Hillevi Nilsson: I was in Lusaka at the beginning of January 1974. I did not meet many people from the Swedish embassy. A group from the Stockholm Africa Group was in Dar es Salaam for a holiday. I met Neto and he asked me if I would go with him to Lusaka for a meeting. There were problems and he wanted—as he said—the MPLA cadres to explain the situation to the Africa Groups through me. When I came to Lusaka, there was a rather big meeting in the MPLA camp. Dilolwa was the main person explaining the situation to me. It was complicated. Chipenda and the so-called Eastern Revolt had attempted a coup in 1973. They tried to murder Neto, as a matter of fact. The problems escalated when the Zambians supported Chipenda. He had a lot of support in Zambia. He had been based there and he was their main contact in MPLA.
Kurt Kristiansson was the SIDA representative in the Swedish embassy in Lusaka. Chipenda’s wife was a very good friend of Kristiansson’s wife. They met every week. MPLA told me that Chipenda through Kristiansson had managed to cut off the Swedish government’s support from October or November 1973. MPLA wondered if this was done on instructions from the Swedish government, asking me to meet either Kristiansson or the Swedish ambassador, Iwo Dölling. But they were not there. It was Christmas time and they were on holiday. I met somebody at the embassy, who just said: ‘I do not want to talk about this. You have to talk to the ambassador’. I was rather nervous, because I had never been dealing in the diplomatic corridors. Anyway, I then proposed that I would take the matter to Sweden and that Saydi Mingas and I would go to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and talk to Bengt Säve-Söderbergh. Returning to Sweden, we did so. At the Ministry for Foreign Affairs they said that the aid had not been cut off from Sweden. It had been done in Lusaka. Still, it was a difficult situation. If the Zambian government did not allow goods to MPLA through the border, what could they do?
By the way, the reason why Neto called on me to go to Zambia was that the Africa Groups in around October 1973—when we found out about the difficulties with the Eastern Revolt and Zambia’s support to Chipenda—wrote an open letter to Kaunda and also sent it to the newspapers in Zambia and Tanzania.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish solidarity movement with MPLA was very strong, also involving material support to the liberation struggle. You sent, for example, radio communication equipment to MPLA, which was requested by Agostinho Neto and played a very important part. How did you organize that?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, some things of this kind were done, but it was not anything big. There was a materials group in the Stockholm Africa Group, with two or three engineers. They bought some components, and built things. However, in 1975 I think that they perhaps made a more important contribution. This small group then built an alarm for the National Bank in Luanda. The situation was very fluid in 1975, with attacks from FNLA, and MPLA was worried that they would take over the bank. MPLA wanted an alarm connected directly to the police and to MPLA. It was built by the Stockholm Africa Group, and transported to Luanda. It still functioned some years afterwards.
Tor Sellström: At that time, you and your husband, Lars Nilsson, went to Angola to work for MPLA?
Hillevi Nilsson: Yes, in 1975, before independence. We stayed there for nine years.
Tor Sellström: Before going to Angola, you worked at the MPLA office in Stockholm, which covered all the Nordic countries. In your view, how did the Nordic governments differ in their policies vis-à-vis MPLA and Angola?
Hillevi Nilsson: Sweden was the best, followed by Denmark, Norway and Finland. Finland was worst. Iceland did not do much, but what they said was not so bad.
Tor Sellström: How about the solidarity movement?
Hillevi Nilsson: I would say that the strongest solidarity movement was in Sweden. In Denmark and Norway it was more or less the same. The Norwegian Council for Southern Africa had a good part, but there were also those who were very influenced by the Maoists. In Denmark, it was mainly the World University Service. And in Finland there was a good group called the Africa Committee, although it was a bit particular because it formed part of the Soviet-influenced World Peace Council. Nevertheless, the Africa Committee also had activists.
Tor Sellström: In February 1976, Olof Palme published an article in Dagens Nyheter in which he strongly supported MPLA. Later that year, Palme served as a middleman between Neto and Castro on the one hand and Kissinger on the other regarding the conflict in Angola. Do you think that there was a close relationship between Palme and Neto?
Hillevi Nilsson: No, not really. I think that their contacts rather resulted from the close relationship between Neto and Nyerere and the close relations between Palme and Nyerere. I think that Nyerere was the middleman. But it is very difficult to say if Palme and Neto were close or not. I do not really know.
Tor Sellström: You have been actively involved in Swedish solidarity work with Southern Africa in general and Angola in particular for more than twenty-five years. Looking back, which initiatives were the most important for MPLA and Angola?
Hillevi Nilsson: I think that we perhaps did the most important things at the beginning of the 1970s. Information was an important part of this. The fact that we tried to analyze the different organizations in Angola. Lobbying in favour of MPLA was another important part.
Tor Sellström: How did you obtain your information?
Hillevi Nilsson: We got some from Portugal and from people in West Germany, Canada and the United States. We also got information from Tanzania. From people who were studying at the university of Dar es Salaam and others who had close contacts with MPLA and the OAU Liberation Committee.
Tor Sellström: It seems that Kommentar played an important role in this context. Would you agree with that?
Hillevi Nilsson: Yes, I agree completely. In the case of Angola, the South Africa Committee in Lund had, however, already started this kind of assessment around 1967. It was mainly Dick Urban Vestbro and Rolf Gustavsson who worked on this. They also had contacts with Anders Johansson, although that was more on Mozambique.
Tor Sellström: In your view, how did MPLA look upon the Swedish solidarity movement?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, I did not really understand its importance for MPLA until Neto came to Sweden in April 1974. He was really worried at that time. We had a meeting with the Africa Groups at our place in Vällingby. Rolf Gustavsson was present, as well as people from the different Africa Groups in Sweden and from Kommentar. Neto then asked us straight out: ‘What are we going to do? You are the only ones that we can trust in this situation. We cannot trust the Soviet Union, the Swedish government or anyone. What are we going to do? Can you as a solidarity movement tell us?’ But, of course, we could not answer. He was foreseeing what would happen later, when they tried to isolate MPLA from the independence discussions. But those who eventually resolved the problem were not the solidarity organizations. It was the people in Luanda.
Anyway, I think that one important contribution by the Africa Groups and other international solidarity organizations was that MPLA could rely on us and discuss with us.
Tor Sellström: What could the Swedish solidarity movement have done better?
Hillevi Nilsson: We could have done much better around and after Angola’s independence. Until then, we had been very flexible, but somewhere in 1976-77 the flexibility withered away. I take a lot of the blame for this. My husband and I were perhaps at the wrong place at the time. We should have stayed in Sweden if we wanted better work done by the Africa Groups for Angola. We were simply consumed by the situation in Luanda. For example, in 1976 there was a delegation from the Africa Groups coming to Angola from Mozambique. They had made an agreement with Mozambique and they wanted to make it a blueprint for Angola. It did not work, of course. The situation was very different. Lasse and I should have been much more active, telling them so. MPLA became a bit irritated. I think that it was natural. You cannot just come from FRELIMO and say: ‘We want the same agreement with you.’
We could also have done much better during later years. Nevertheless, we did something important for MPLA before the elections in 1992. That was a difficult situation. Many in MPLA thought that they would lose the elections. But I think that it was of some importance that we had our old funds for MPLA, which were then used to buy MPLA flags. The real importance of this, however, was that somebody outside Angola still had the guts to believe in MPLA.
Tor Sellström: How would you, finally, characterize the relations between the solidarity movement and the Swedish government?
Hillevi Nilsson: Well, a lot of things have changed over the years, but there is something that has not and that is that the mainstream in the Africa Groups always wanted to be a kind of lobby group towards SIDA and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. We believed—and still do—that there are many good people who know a lot at both SIDA and the ministry. So I would say our main task has always been and still is to provide solidly reliable studies and information on Southern Africa as a basis for lobbying.