The Nordic Africa Institute

Howard Varney

Student Activist, End Conscription Campaign, Legal Resources Centre

The interview was held by Madi Gray on 26 November 2005.

At the University of Natal in Durban, 1980, Varney met with friends involved in the Students Representative Council, the SRC. In the early parts of 1980 coloured school children began an education boycott and Varney got actively involved through the SRC together with the Natal University and the NUSAS, National Union of South African Students. The following year he became a member of SRC and sat on its Executive Committee as the Uplifting Officer, which interpreted to mean the Propaganda Officer. He was involved in several important campaigns such as the Tricameral Parliament in 1983 collaborating with the Natal Indian Congress and the End Conscription Campaign. Varney left Durban for Port Elisabeth and the PE Action Committee, PEAC, who started collaboration with the Mass Democratic Movement; one mayor achievement being the March for Hope. Varney returned to Durban in the beginning of 1990 and joined the Legal Resources Centre, which was involved in a great deal of litigation against the state and the KwaZulu Bantustan. Sweden became a close allied through Magnus Walan and ISAK.

Madi Gray: This interview is with Howard Varney in his home in Johannesburg and it’s 26 November, 2005. Howard, tell me how you first got involved in the struggle for liberation in South Africa.

Howard Varney: My involvement began in earnest when I started at the University of Natal in Durban, in 1980. I had friends who were involved in the Students Representative Council, the SRC, and I began talking with them. In the early 1980s the situation in South Africa was quite stark, to see what was going on was obvious and I was quite offended by a number of things. The discrimination against people of colour I found quite disgusting and of course the repression that was being meted out against those opposed to apartheid also offended me deeply.
My first action related to the education campaigns of 1980. In the early parts of 1980 coloured school children began an education boycott and through the SRC at Natal University and the NUSAS, National Union of South African Students, Projects Committee I supported that particular campaign. I suppose what really prompted me was looking at the figures that had been published in one of NUSAS' leaflets that set out how much money was spent per child in South Africa. If I recall correctly R2 000 was spent on a white child and then it progressively declined as one went down to a black child. An Indian child got less than a white child, about R700, a Coloured child got R500 per year and a Black child perhaps R300 a year. Those are not the exact figures but that kind of basic discrimination in the level of education prompted me to get involved in that particular campaign, and after that during the apartheid years I was active in one form or another.
My involvement in that campaign led me to join the NUSAS Projects Committee more formally. The following year I myself became a member of the Students Representative Council. I sat on its Executive Committee as the Uplifting Officer, which I interpreted to mean Propaganda Officer in the way ‘propaganda’ is used in the Netherlands in a good way, because I used the facilities of the university to mount campaigns against various forms of apartheid. One example was the Anti-Republic Day campaigns of 1981, when we flooded the campus and even part of the city with Anti-Republic Day campaign leaflets.
Of course we made our printing presses available to members of the Mass Democratic Movement and to members of the underground, on a secret basis. We even set up an off-site printing shop in the underground basement of somebody’s house, and made that available to organisations that weren’t able to print on a more public basis.
Throughout my university years I was involved in those kinds of actions, also the big campaign against the Tricameral Parliament in 1983. It was an important campaign, and myself and others that were at university collaborated with the Natal Indian Congress and other movements to oppose the apartheid government. In the mid-1980s I was part of a movement to oppose the increasing militarization of South Africa.

Madi Gray: Was that the End Conscription Campaign?

Howard Varney: Yes, the ECC. We ultimately established the ECC and for many years I was very active in that organisation. When I left University I spent a year working for the ECC as its regional organiser in Durban. We were unpopular with the regime and had some interactions with the State, but I think we made something of an impact amongst young white people, particularly at the universities and among young white working people as well. We had a lot of contact with conscripts going into the army, young men facing the army. Ultimately for that reason, the inroads we were making with conscripts, the state felt very threatened and banned the organisation in 1988.
In 1988 I’d left Durban to spend two years in Port Elizabeth. My primary aim was to help strengthen the ECC in that region, but shortly after my arrival the organisation was prohibited. We then set up a new organisation called the PE Action Committee, PEAC. It was really a little anti-apartheid group and we would go in for quite interesting anti-apartheid activities, for example, we opposed an initiative by conservatives in that town to keep facilities and amenities like swimming pools reserved for white people. Amazingly we actually won that referendum even though the official opposition didn't take part in the referendum because they felt it wasn't winnable. We decided to campaign, with the support of the MDM, the Mass Democratic Movement, down there and to the surprise of everybody we won that referendum. As part and parcel of the movement at that time, which was mass action on the streets, we assisted the Mass Democratic Movement down there to organise protests on the beaches and on the streets.
One significant event we organised was a march of progressive whites into the township of New Brighton. We billed it as the March for Hope and a thousand white people from Port Elizabeth marched from the middle of PE to New Brighton and it was a very important day for Port Elizabeth. What was particularly astonishing was how many township residents came out to greet us and at that time it was seen as one of the biggest outpourings of humanity in PE, where something in the order of 150,000 township residents came out to welcome us, so it was quite an important day.
In the early 1990s I returned to Durban and joined the Legal Resources Centre which was involved in a great deal of litigation against organs of the apartheid State and the KwaZulu bantustan, particularly the KwaZulu police force that was involved in illegal actions against members of the United Democratic Front and the recently unbanned ANC, because there was a lot of conflict and death and destruction in KwaZulu Natal in those days.

Madi Gray: So true. You became a lawyer and finished your studies in Durban before moving to Port Elizabeth?

Howard Varney: That's right, yes. To qualify, I had to do a thing called articles, an apprenticeship, so I spent two years doing my articles in Port Elizabeth and on completion of that, in 1990, I became an attorney.

Madi Gray: You’ve given me a good overview of your involvement over a ten to twelve year period. When did you first make contact with Sweden and the other Nordic countries?

Howard Varney: I'm sure I must have come across the odd Swede or two in the late 1980s, but my first formal contact with Swedish anti-apartheid individuals would have taken place around 1990, 1991, when I was at the Legal Resources Centre. The Legal Resources Centre is a public interest litigation organisation, where I was working as an attorney. It represents innocent people, it brings test cases in order to alleviate hard situations. In those days much of our work was of an anti-apartheid nature and in the greater Durban/Kwa-Zulu Natal area we also had to deal with this terrible conflict on the level of a low-intensity civil war.
We were very fortunate that among our strongest backers were various organisations in Sweden that gave us unflinching support over many years. These organisations include Sida, the Swedish Council of Churches, Diakonia, and probably other organisations. For moral support and raising the profile of South Africa we counted on the organisation ISAK, the Isolate South Africa Committee in Sweden. Members of these organisations would occasionally visit South Africa, so I had endless contact with persons who visited South Africa in those days, the early 1990s. At the LRC we would from time to time go to Sweden ourselves to report on our activities in order to ensure continued support and continued financing. So I went to Sweden at least three times to speak with people in these organisations and I think on one of those occasions I was actually invited by ISAK to speak to its members and also to engage in a great deal of lobbying with interest groups within Sweden. I had quite a lot of contact with Swedes between 1990 and the mid-1990s, over a four to five year period.

Madi Gray: I met some of the people who came over from the End Conscription Campaign. Did you ever meet any Swedish people when you were still working with them?

Howard Varney: I never went abroad on behalf of the ECC in the 1980s, but it is entirely possible that I did meet people who were visiting South Africa. Sadly the mists of time cloud my recollection and I can't remember any specific individuals that I may have met in the late 1980s.

Madi Gray: Do you remember having any contact officially on behalf of the ECC with Sweden?

Howard Varney: When I was speaking to members of ISAK and engaging in lobbying I would always talk about the End Conscription Campaign, which was still in existence at that time, so in that sense yes. ISAK and its constituent organisations were supporters of the End Conscription Campaign, so though I wasn't there officially as an ECC representative, but as one of the founding members and one of its activists, I certainly reported on our activities in South Africa to ISAK.

Madi Gray: I’d like you to talk a bit more about the kind of things you did when you were in Sweden.

Howard Varney: Well perhaps I can talk about some of the interactions I had with Swedish activists in South Africa and also in Sweden.

Madi Gray: Absolutely.

Howard Varney: One of the first Swedish anti-apartheid activists I met was Magnus Walan who was a frequent visitor to South Africa. I first met Magnus in Durban, it could have been as early as 1990. I describe Magnus as something of a kindred spirit. He had a deep understanding of South Africa and the context it was in at that time. I and many of my colleagues regarded him as one of us, one of the activists against apartheid, and the fact that he happened to be Swedish wasn't that material. I’ve maintained contact with him on a fairly regular basis ever since then. Only last year when I was talking at a human rights event in Stockholm I met up with Magnus again and for many years Magnus would either be in South Africa or I might be visiting Sweden. My colleagues and I collaborated with him on a range of issues.
I was sent to Sweden quite early in 1991 in order to report on the activities of the Durban LRC, Legal Resources Centre, and to secure continued financial support from organisations such as Sida, the Swedish Council of Churches and Diakonia, and I met up again with Magnus then.
He introduced me to a number of activists from the Isolate South Africa Committee and it was the following year that ISAK invited me to come back to Sweden to be part of an awareness-raising campaign that ISAK was running at the time. It was to focus on the role the South African state was playing in fuelling violence and conflict in various parts of the country, particularly in KwaZulu Natal and on the Reef, in the townships around Johannesburg, to expose the myth of Black on Black violence, and to show the hidden hand of the State in fuelling this violence.
Magnus was appointed by ISAK as the person who would take me around to politicians, student organisations and to address public gatherings. For a period of some ten days every single day we were out engaging in some lobbying activity, for example an event held at the Foreign Policy Institute, which I understand in Sweden is a well-known established body.

Madi Gray: It’s in the old town, a very pretty, almost palace-like building, broad steps going up into a boardroom with a lovely ceiling.

Howard Varney: That’s right, I do recall that it was really ornate and elegant, and the people attending were obviously influential persons in policy and decision-making. I understand that Gorbachev had sat there the week before, so I felt really honoured to be the person who followed him. It was an exhausting but very fruitful three weeks, I didn't only speak in Stockholm, I spoke in Uppsala, I spoke in Gothenburg and I even spoke in a town called Falun in central Sweden, where they had a South African display including a small mock township with shacks, it was most impressive. That particular tour went a long way in disabusing certain Swedes of the notion they had held of the South African situation, particularly the South African conflict happening at the time. Through that tour we were able to get some well-reasoned articles into the Swedish media, so I thought it was a very successful programme.
As the elections approached in 1993, 1994, Sweden sent a large number of activists and supporters to South Africa. I had helped to set up an organisation called the Network of Independent Monitors, NIM, and NIM played a very crucial role. It was there to monitor the ongoing violence, to report on it, to expose who was behind it, and to send out monitors to specifically be at the scenes of events, because we felt correctly that if there were visible monitors it might have a restraining influence on aggressive parties and of course on the police and the army.

Madi Gray: NIM were the ones dressed in turquoise vests weren't they?

Howard Varney: That’s right, I recall a bit about greenish, bluish caps and vests. I'm happy to say that we were able to count on the support of a large number of Swedish volunteers who would come out, we would give them a short training course, and then send them off with local people to various areas and they played an important role in restraining violence. Particularly up to the elections, there were a large number of Swedes on the ground, so I worked closely with them.

Madi Gray: Were there other countries that sent monitors to participate in NIM?

Howard Varney: There were, but I think it's safe to say that the largest number of people involved in supporting NIM were actually Swedes.

Madi Gray: The other Nordic countries, Finland, Denmark, Norway, were you aware of them sending monitors?

Howard Varney: Yes, I am aware that there were some Danes, some Norwegians. I can't recall if there was anybody from Finland, but there were definitely people from Denmark and Norway.

Madi Gray: I saw some NIM people in Cape Town, deflecting violence. The Nationalist Party had bussed in thousands of people to the Good Hope Centre, and there was a counter-demonstration which had been given a permit. Between the two groups were 20, possibly 30, of these NIM monitors, managing to keep the peace. The ANC made their statement to the ANC supporters and the guys on the other side hurled their abuse, but there was actually no physical fighting, despite the level of tension shortly before the elections.

Howard Varney: I think that's a good example of the kind of people involved at NIM and there are lots of examples of that kind of very brave action.

Madi Gray: Do you remember people from ISAK who made a particular impression on you? As you say, ISAK was a tremendously committed organisation, everyone working there, but besides Magnus was there anyone else that you recall?

Howard Varney: There were several, but it does go back many years now, though I can see them in my memory. There was a couple called Per and Anna, I can't remember their surnames now, he was a family man. There were many others as well but I will have to go back to my correspondence to remember their names, all very special people, all very committed people. Even today I understand Per is still working with Diakonia and I'm not entirely sure what Anna is doing but whatever it is, I know they are doing good things.

Madi Gray: Were there problems that arose in your relationships with Swedes? Were there times that you felt they were being naïve or didn't understand the situation or tried to force you into doing something?

Howard Varney: No, I didn't experience such things, and I think that’s testimony to the calibre of the people involved in those organisations and testimony to their understanding of the situation here. I don't recall at any time being embarrassed or being forced into any kind of situation. These activists understood that while they were in South Africa they were in another country, they were here to assist and support and that is really what they did, certainly I didn't experience anything of that nature.

Madi Gray: Do you recall any highlights?

Howard Varney: I should mention that in the early 1990s, to my great surprise and honour, ISAK awarded me the Amandla prize, and we held a little ceremony down in the boardroom of the Legal Resources Centre in Durban. As always there was a large number of Swedes around so we had staff members of the LRC and the Swedish delegation, we had a packed boardroom and we all went out and had a party afterwards.

Madi Gray: What was the prize awarded for? Do you remember?

Howard Varney: Yes, it was to recognise the work I had been doing in the conflict in the early 1990s.

Madi Gray: You literally put your body on the line, didn't you?

Howard Varney: Well yes, as had other people, and I pointed that out to ISAK that I accepted the prize on behalf of the organisation, Legal Resources Centre, because it was a team effort. The volunteers in NIM as well, they were putting themselves in harm’s way all the time.
My last interaction with ISAK was in 1995 at the final event of the organisation. I believe it was in May or June of 1995 when ISAK had a week-long festival to wrap up the activities of the organisation. I was invited to participate in that festival and speak at one of the events, a very moving event. I think that organisation was very well known as an active, effective anti-apartheid organisation. I think South Africans are very grateful for the work that Sweden and ISAK did in those years in keeping the struggle alive and providing the support they did.

Madi Gray: Do you recall any other highlights? What happened to your relationships with Swedes? You mentioned you still have contact with Magnus, were there others?

Howard Varney: Yes, small highlights. I remember, say, monitoring a rally with members of NIM and Swedish observers and it could be that we had a good day and we managed to prevent violence. Those small things are very special, very memorable. Then going back and having a beer and exchanging stories, that solidarity was very important to us. There are small things that I think are as important as the big things. Talking at the big events, and the Amandla prize, obviously those do stand out, but I really did treasure those days with activists from Sweden and I can truly say that I count many as my friends and I will always be returning to Sweden at one point or another and making contact with them again.

Madi Gray: Were you involved in the actual monitoring of the elections? I presume it’s a different organisation from NIM.

Howard Varney: With reference to the elections I was wearing a couple of different hats at the time. I was an attorney with the LRC, I was working with NIM, and I was also the director of something called the Policing Directorate. It was monitoring the conduct of the police over the elections and I was also investigating on behalf of the Transitional Executive Council allegations of hit squad activity. Wearing those different hats, I would definitely give reports to Swedish observers. That was an exceptionally busy period and we certainly counted on the support of our friends, Swedes and others, and by and large the elections were enormously successful and one of the reasons they were so enormously successful was the level of monitoring. We could never have carried out the level of monitoring without foreign assistance from countries such as Sweden.

Madi Gray: Both in terms of people and finance I guess?

Howard Varney: Absolutely, yes.

Madi Gray: What are you doing now and is Sweden playing a role in that?

Howard Varney: I'm a practising advocate or a barrister at the Bar here in Johannesburg, though much of my work is locally based.

Madi Gray: When did you move here?

Howard Varney: I moved to Johannesburg in 1999. For the past few years I've been involved in an area of work called Transitional Justice, which is to assist countries that have experienced conflict to deal with the past in one form or another, by way of setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or a special court to prosecute war criminals, or institutional reform and things like that. I spent close to a year in Sierra Leone, the first six months of this year I was in East Timor, and I’ve also worked in countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Morocco and a few others.
I haven't had any direct contact with Swedes in the course of that work, although I do intend to seek out potential Swedish partners. The one contact I did have was when I was invited to speak at a Human Rights festival in Stockholm last October. I was asked to speak on the experiences of the Truth Commission in Sierra Leone, but that's the only contact I've had with Sweden in that area of work, but hopefully I will be doing more work with Swedes in that.

Madi Gray: That was in 2004?

Howard Varney: October 2004. I shared the platform with a commissioner from the Peruvian Truth Commission and we explained our different experiences, obviously from the conditions we have experienced. In Sierra Leone things were dramatically different and we had to adopt different approaches and strategies.

Madi Gray: Were you involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa?

Howard Varney: I was. I helped to conceptualise and set up aspects of the Truth Commission here, I had to recruit the members of the investigation team and I gave further assistance to both the investigation teams and the research teams. At that time I was the head of a small independent criminal investigation into hit squads and once we had closed our investigation I gave all our information to the Truth Commission. As a result of that we held a week long hearing into hit squads, where I testified as an expert. Of course I wrote a great number of reports and memoranda for the Commission. I drafted questions that were put to senior generals and politicians, I drafted the questions that were put to De Klerk and others, and so I did some work as a consultant with the TRC in South Africa. I was the Chief Investigator for that Commission.

Madi Gray: So what happened with all the material on the hit squads? I guess it was based on your experiences in KwaZulu Natal?

Howard Varney: Yes. When I was running this investigation we attempted to bring criminal cases, although that proved to be a very difficult exercise because even though we had full control over the investigation, which was independent and under our supervision, we had no control over the prosecution, which was still in the hands of the old order. We did end up bringing a case against the former Minister of Defence, Magnus Malan, and several generals and members of the hit squads, but that case failed largely because we had no control over the prosecution and because we came before a very conservative court.
All that information went to the Truth Commission and the Truth Commission made the correct finding. Essentially they found that the military together with the State Security Council had colluded with Inkhata to set up a hit squad, which was then deployed against the enemies of the apartheid regime, namely the UDF and the ANC. The TRC published these findings, so Inkhata was nearly sued, but before the matter went to court they settled. We refused to alter the findings of the TRC on the question of whether Buthelezi and Inkhata were part and parcel of sponsoring the hit squads and at the end of the day those findings remained undisturbed.

Madi Gray: Was there Swedish support for the TRC, as far as you're aware of?

Howard Varney: I wasn't involved in the fund raising and the management of the TRC itself but to the best of my recollection I think there were Swedish police monitors on the TRC, and I do believe that we did also get some kind of support for the TRC, but you will have to double-check on that, because as I say I wasn't involved in the raising of funds.

Madi Gray: Getting back to what you're doing now, aside from this, you mentioned that you had also been working at the Constitutional Court?

Howard Varney: Yes, I spent six months as a senior researcher with the then Chief Justice Arthur Chaskelson, helping him to prepare a judgement on various cases. Incidentally, Arthur Chaskelson was formerly the National Director of the Legal Resources Centre and I had the privilege of doing a few cases with him as well.

Madi Gray: Who is the new Chief Justice?

Howard Varney: His name is Pius Langa, from Durban. I had a lot of contact with him in those days because he was also an anti-apartheid lawyer and I worked with him on several cases. In those days he was head of NADEL, the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, of which I was also a member.

Madi Gray: And what are you doing right now?

Howard Varney: Next week Monday I'm going to Burundi. Burundi has been through many years of terrible conflict and they are about to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and are going to set up a Special Court to prosecute war criminals. So I'll be talking to government and union people about that, and about ways and means of ensuring a harmonious relationship between the Truth Commission and the Special Court.

Madi Gray: Don't you ever feel that the Chinese curse applies to you: May you live in interesting times?

Howard Varney: I suspect it does, but then it applies to everybody I suppose living in these times.

Madi Gray: I think you are one of the people who go further than many.

Howard Varney: Maybe, but in this work I'll be able to establish future contacts and relationships, particularly working relationships with Swedish organisations that are active in this area as well.

Madi Gray: I think it's highly likely.

Howard Varney: I just want to know, how many people are you interviewing?

Madi Gray: We are only interviewing ten in South Africa. You are number two on my list. The interviews are of different lengths, partly because people have different ways of speaking about things and partly because some have very different types of experiences. This afternoon, I don't know if you've ever met him, I'm going to be interviewing somebody who used to be called David Kgabang, now he’s Nkutu Moalisi in the Foreign Ministry. He lived in Sweden for several years and has two children in Sweden. He worked at the ANC office and so he has a completely different angle. Another is Denis Goldberg, who toured Sweden several times after he was released from prison. We are trying to get as broad a picture as possible of the work both in South Africa and in Sweden during the struggle years. I would like to thank you very much, Howard. It's been a very interesting interview and will be available on the Nordic Africa Institute website in due course. Thank you for your time.