The Nordic Africa Institute

Holden Roberto

President of FNLA

Tor Sellström: When did you enter into contact with the Nordic countries?

Holden Roberto: It was in the 1960s through David Wirmark, who is very well-known in African circles. He was General Secretary of the World Assembly of Youth and, later, Swedish ambassador to Tanzania. He knows Africa very well. He had contacts with several political parties and with the liberation movements in all of Southern Africa. Wirmark is well known and also my personal friend.

Tor Sellström: He represented the Swedish Liberal Party and later defended official support to both MPLA and FNLA.

Holden Roberto: Absolutely. At that time we looked for democracy. All the democrats in the world wanted to see the Portuguese colonies liberated.

Tor Sellström: Considering that you are from a country which from cultural, historical and political points of view is very different from the Nordic countries, how did you interpret the Nordic stand on Southern Africa?

Holden Roberto: I have the impression that the Nordic countries really practise true democracy. In our contacts with Denmark, Norway and Sweden, we noted during our liberation struggle that they also strongly supported our struggle for democracy. The Nordic countries helped a lot through international organizations and NGOs. We in FNLA had friends in Sweden. In 1972—at the head of a large delegation—I participated in the Liberal Party congress in Gothenburg. It was an important occasion for us and we increased our contacts. The Nordic countries know Africa very well, especially the liberation struggle by the African liberation groups.

Tor Sellström: They are, however, Western countries. How would you explain their involvement in the struggle in Southern Africa?

Holden Roberto: At the time of our struggle, the Western countries did not assist us. The Nordic countries are based on democracy and that is why they helped us. It may be part of their culture. They also fought to liberate themselves. They took a very positive and important position towards our liberation struggle. They had, in addition, no involvement in commercial or economic interests.

Tor Sellström: No colonial heritage?

Holden Roberto: No, there was no colonial heritage. Their major concern was to help the countries to liberate themselves from colonialism.

Tor Sellström: Did FNLA also have contacts in Denmark, Finland and Norway?

Holden Roberto: Yes, we did. But not as deep as in Sweden. Because in Sweden we had a friend, a woman journalist by the name of Brundin, who was very active. Unfortunately, she died in 1979 or 1980.

Tor Sellström: Did she visit your bases?

Holden Roberto: Many times. She was well informed about our activities and tried to get the Swedish government of the time to support us. But the politics of Prime Minister Olof Palme was more to the left. He had many links to MPLA. I remember when we came to Sweden with a big delegation in 1971. We had great difficulties in contacting the government. At the same time, there was a delegation from MPLA, led by Lúcio Lara. Whenever we tried to contact the authorities, the MPLA delegation was already there. The Secretary of State at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs was very pro-MPLA. All our explanations were in vain. The Swedish government was at that time very committed to MPLA.

Tor Sellström: How would you explain that the Swedish Social Democratic Party supported movements which were aligned with Moscow?

Holden Roberto: It is very strange. There was also the case of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. It was more inclined to MPLA than to the parties that did not follow a Marxist line. We once received support from WCC and were told that MPLA had received more money than we had. At that time, MPLA was not at war. It was not fighting and had no front. We had 300,000 to 400,000 refugees and MPLA had no activity at all. But they received more money than we did!

I went personally to Geneva to talk with the World Council of Churches. Being a Protestant, I expected a warm welcome. The General Secretary was the Reverend Black, an American. I asked why MPLA had received more money than us. I wanted to know the criteria upon which they based their decision to give more money to MPLA. They said that it was WCC’s policy. They received the money from Sweden and the Communist countries and could not do anything else. Later, Reverend Black called me and said that he wanted to have a word with me alone. I went to his house and he said: ‘Look, we have a problem at the World Council of Churches. It is that the biggest part of the money that we receive comes from the Communist countries through the Orthodox churches. But that money comes with pre-established conditions. For instance, it must be given to FRELIMO, SWAPO, ANC, MPLA, ZAPU, PAIGC or MLSTP from São Tomé.’

Tor Sellström: The so-called ‘authentics’?

Holden Roberto: Exactly. He also said ‘we do not have much money for the other parties. NGOs from the Nordic countries give us some, but we receive specific orders not to give any money to FNLA. Only to the parties that are revolutionary’.

I then told Dr. Black: ‘Under those circumstances, I am not prepared to accept your cheque. I do not believe that the church should be used as a vehicle for Communism in Africa. If the Communist countries give money with conditions attached, it is because they want to impose a certain ideology. We are struggling to liberate our country and, above all, to give our people the possibility to choose the future democratically. I do not agree to our having to commit ourselves ideologically when we are still colonized. I am going to return your cheque and I really regret that the World Council of Churches is a vehicle for Communism in Africa’. He said: ‘I understand, but we cannot act in any other way. Otherwise, we will not be able to maintain unity in the World Council of Churches, because the Orthodox churches belong to the Communist countries’. This was a case that I experienced personally and, furthermore a case which had serious consequences. The infiltration of the Communists, of the Soviets, within the World Council of Churches. I returned the cheque and left Switzerland.

Tor Sellström: In the case of Sweden, did you get an explanation from the Social Democratic Party?

Holden Roberto: No, we did not get any explanation. They did not want to listen to us.

Tor Sellström: The Social Democratic Party was a member of the Socialist International, which as a principle defended multi-party systems. In the case of Angola, the support from the Swedish government was, however, to one movement only. How did you look upon that?

Holden Roberto: In democratic terms, we considered that a big mistake. At that time, we did not struggle for an ideology, but to liberate the Angolan people. To let the Angolan people freely choose their own way and not impose a direction at once. We did not understand the stand taken by the late Prime Minister Olof Palme’s government. It was very strange.

Did you have a representative in Sweden?

Holden Roberto: Yes, we had Mateus Neto. But he did not get any support whatsoever. He had many problems. The support he had was from friends. He worked in order to be able to maintain our representation. We did not receive any government support.

Did FNLA receive any support from the Liberal Party?

Holden Roberto: Yes, but the Liberal Party was not in power. We had support, especially through Olle Wästberg. He had been to Angola and seen our activities. He wrote in the Swedish newspapers. But it had no effect.

Tor Sellström: Did Wästberg and Brundin visit the FNLA base at Kinkuzu in Zaire?

Holden Roberto: Yes, they were at the base. They saw the humanitarian activities, the hospitals and the aid to the refugees. It was very interesting. They took photographs. But there was no response from the Swedish government.

Tor Sellström: When you visited Sweden in 1971, you spoke to the students at Stockholm University. How were you received by them?

Holden Roberto: I was met very hospitably. I was very well received. Mrs. Brundin, who was a great friend and supported us a lot by making Angola’s problems known in Sweden, was there. Unfortunately, the government had a very different attitude.

Tor Sellström: In 1976, the Liberal Party formed part of a non-socialist coalition government in Sweden. At that point, was there no support for FNLA?

Holden Roberto: Unfortunately, this was during the Cold War. The Soviet Union had already intervened in Angola, imposing a government. The Communist regime ruled with Cuban troops and with the presence of all the Warsaw Pact countries.

Tor Sellström: Were there any Nordic organizations that sent material assistance to FNLA?

Holden Roberto: We received some assistance—but it was not very important—from Norway. A small gift of medicines. We did not receive anything from Denmark. But I remember very well that we received assistance from Norway.

Tor Sellström: At the diplomatic level, I understand that you frequently visited the Swedish ambassador in Kinshasa?

Holden Roberto: Yes, we had contacts with the ambassador in Kinshasa, above all with the help of Mateus Neto, who came to Kinshasa. He talked to the ambassador, who was very impressed as Mateus Neto spoke in Swedish. He was very interested, but maybe the government did not follow up on his work.

Tor Sellström: How would you describe your relations with the Swedish embassy in Kinshasa?

Holden Roberto: Very good!

Tor Sellström: And at the United Nations?

Holden Roberto: Sweden supported us. In that case, the liberation struggle was well supported. The Nordic delegations were always in favour of self-determination for the African countries, especially in Southern Africa.

Tor Sellström: But they could never vote in favour of resolutions with a reference to the armed struggle?

Holden Roberto: Well, that was difficult. I understood that it was very difficult.

Tor Sellström: Could you co-ordinate your positions then regarding Portugal?

Holden Roberto: Yes. For the condemnation of Portuguese colonialism in general we always had the support of the Nordic countries. That was clear.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that there were any conditions attached to the Swedish support to MPLA?

Holden Roberto: Frankly, I cannot tell. Seeing the commitment by the Swedish government and Olof Palme, I get the impression that there was a ‘particular’ involvement. We tried to explain that the Swedish government should not ally itself with MPLA only, because we were fighting to liberate Angola. The struggle was to democratize the country, and Sweden—by tradition a democratic country—should support the struggle for liberation and not adopt any special orientation. This was not implemented. It was not understood. There was in fact a very strong involvement for MPLA. Even a certain aggressiveness towards FNLA when we came to Sweden. I personally saw this at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. There was aggressiveness by the Secretary of State at the time. He was deeply committed to MPLA. Really committed! Mrs. Brundin made all possible efforts, but she said: ‘The man has a very open leftist tendency. Therefore, we cannot do anything’.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that Olof Palme’s position influenced the other Nordic countries?

Holden Roberto: Absolutely. He influenced a lot.

Tor Sellström: Was the entire Nordic area then closed to you?

Holden Roberto: Absolutely.

Tor Sellström: Did the same happen to UNITA?

Holden Roberto: I do not know. At that time UNITA did not play any role. There were only two parties, FNLA and MPLA. UNITA’s connection with South Africa made the Nordic countries avoid close contacts with the movement.

Tor Sellström: Did FNLA maintain good relations with other liberation movements from Southern Africa?

Holden Roberto: Yes. For example, the first fighters from SWAPO and the first from Mozambique trained at our base. Nujoma brought the soldiers there. We had good relations with all the parties, but later they sided with MPLA and moved away from us.

Tor Sellström: In the early 1960s, I think that you shared offices in Algeria with Robert Resha from ANC?

Holden Roberto: That is true. We had good relations, but only as long as the Soviet Union’s influence was not felt through OAU.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that the 1969 Khartoum conference was a turning point, after which the movements called ‘authentic’ began to receive support from the Soviet Union as well as from the Nordic countries?

Holden Roberto: Yes. That was a big mistake. We were not invited, because, obviously, there was an agenda. I do not know what they meant by ‘authentic’ and ‘not authentic’ movements. We were conducting an armed struggle. We were against colonialism and we were fighting. But, we were not ideologically part of the group of the so-called ‘authentics’. We were not invited. MPLA was present. At that time, MPLA did not have any strength. It did not fight. It did not have a base and no front in Angola. The only movement that was fighting was FNLA. But ideologically, MPLA had more external support. In that way, we did not receive any help from several countries.

Tor Sellström: For some time from late 1972 FNLA had an alliance with MPLA. Did you not receive any support from the Nordic countries at that point?

Holden Roberto: No. As I said, MPLA had no front. Then they decided that they should join the movements to accelerate the struggle. But the obstacle was always the ideology. We wanted to be free from all ideologies, but MPLA came with preconditions. They wanted to influence us and talk about imperialism. We understood, but believed that there should be no ideological aspects involved, nor aspects in favour of the Soviet Union. They used a concept—‘positive neutrality’—in favour of Communism. We did not accept that. That was always the cause of the failures. We wanted to be completely independent. We were fighting for freedom and democracy. We knew that it formed part of the Cold War—the conflict between the East and the West blocs—but we did not want to be a part of that. It created many problems for us. We could not receive assistance from the Western countries, because of NATO and the relations with Portugal. We had no support. The little support that we could count upon was from African and Arab countries, such as Tunisia. And Israel, which was very important for us. The Israeli government helped us at that time.

Tor Sellström: With weapons?

Holden Roberto: With weapons. It was with the help by Golda Meir. I understood why she did that. The Arab countries already had a strong influence over us and she wanted to counteract that. It helped our struggle. It was very interesting.

Tor Sellström: Do you believe that the Swedish assistance to MPLA was similarly intended to counteract the support by the Soviet Union?

Holden Roberto: I do not know. I think that the social democratic policy perhaps diminished the influence of the Soviets within MPLA. But that should not have prevented support to us too. They could help MPLA, but as a non-aligned country Sweden should have also helped us. But they did not. They only assisted MPLA. They gave a lot of assistance to MPLA. A lot of money. Financial and humanitarian support. Really a lot. We tried to explain, but there was no opening at all. Total rejection, especially at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, where we met real opposition.