Student in Sweden Executive Director of Matla Trust
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Johannesburg 14 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: When and how did you come to Sweden? Jaya Appalraju: I came to Lund in April or May 1968. I had made an initial visit in December 1967 on the recommendation and suggestion of the ANC office in London. I had come to London two years before that, in 1966. I finished my university entrance in England with the intention of going to university there. The ANC Chief Representative at the time was Reg September and he and people like MP Naicker, Aziz Pahad and Thabo Mbeki recommended ANC students to look at the Scandinavian countries as a possible place for further study. Since London was just as new to me—although it was English-speaking—I decided to investigate it further and went to Sweden in December 1967, where I decided that I was going to apply for a grant. I got the response in March 1968 and left. It was a small student grant, which paid for my initial travel and the first three months. I was then told that I could apply for various student support grants, which I did. That is how I got to Sweden.
Tor Sellström: Was this through the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS)?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes. That is right.
Tor Sellström: At that time, were there other ANC students in Lund?
Jaya Appalraju: There were other South African students— some of them were ANC—whom I had gone to see. One of them was Billy Modise. Raymond Mokoena from South Africa and Sydney Sekeramayi from Zimbabwe were also there. Rupiah Banda from Zambia had just left. And, of course, there were quite a few Namibians from both SWANU and SWAPO.
It was only when I had gone there to discuss with them that they recommended that I should come. None of the other South Africans who were also recommended to come actually ended up in Scandinavia. They had gone to other countries.
Tor Sellström: You came to Sweden at a time when the student movement was very active. There was a strong anti-imperialist solidarity movement with Vietnam and Southern Africa. How did you view this?
Jaya Appalraju: I think that it was one of the major aspects that convinced me that I should go to Scandinavia, actually. When I initially arrived there—before deciding to apply –, I found that the political climate of support was positive. While that existed in England as well, it tended to be much more complex. The South African issue seemed to be buried amongst everything else and the task of organization was much more difficult there. In Sweden, I found that even though the scales were smaller and you were talking to a much smaller group of people, the possibilities of actually operating and working in that political climate were much more exciting, much more positive. I therefore decided to go there.
Tor Sellström: Did you find it strange that the Nordic countries, being Western countries and in two cases even NATO members, were involved in struggles that otherwise mainly were supported by the Soviet bloc?
Jaya Appalraju: That was extremely strange and, again, a major motivating factor. There was this situation—which was not prevalent in other parts of Europe—where NATO members would openly criticize the position of the United States vis-à-vis Vietnam and there was very little open opposition to our cause. There were hurdles, there were obstacles, but there was no real opposition to the Southern African struggle, given the backdrop of the political climate of the time. Yes, big power politics entered as well, but in spite of that we found that the room for manoeuvre, the room for operating, on the issues of Southern Africa was much greater both at the information and at the political level.
We always raised the issue of Southern Africa, not just South Africa. In fact, it was ANC’s position to always raise the issue in the context of Namibia, FRELIMO’s struggle in Mozambique, MPLA’s struggle in Angola and of ZAPU-ZANU in Zimbabwe. We always raised it in that context. One of the issues that we debated very strongly within the solidarity organizations was, firstly, whether that was the best strategy and whether one could define the Southern African region as subject to sub-imperialism. Secondly, whether one should actually project the image of Southern Africa at that time as a weaker link of imperialism and look at Mozambique and Angola in that light. Our position was always that we should do that and that the struggles were intimately linked. I found the atmosphere very exciting. We also had to compete with other issues around the world very strongly. But in the Scandinavian countries there was a sense of general camaraderie and support.
Tor Sellström: Did you also visit the other Nordic countries?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, I went to Denmark, Norway and Finland. And, of course, to various parts of Sweden. At the time, there was not an organized ANC presence in Sweden. There were individuals who were doing ANC work with the solidarity movements.
Tor Sellström: Was Sweden covered under the London office?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, people used to come over from London from time to time, but there was no really serious representation. That was a problem.
Tor Sellström: Were there ANC students in the other Nordic countries?
Jaya Appalraju: There were a few, like Freddy Reddy in Norway. I cannot recall all the names, but there were a few people. In Denmark as well. But in all these countries there was no officially recognized ANC representation as such. That was an internal issue that we had to face by organizing ourselves and by bringing in leaders from London and elsewhere. We reported as much as we could on the projects and the support that we had and argued that more attention ought to be paid to the Nordic countries. A lot of intensive work was done at that stage.
Tor Sellström: I guess that you mainly worked with the Africa Group in Lund?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, the Africa Group was the most consistent support group. They had very little resources to assist the various campaigns, but would advise us on what to do, where to go etc. They would arrange meetings at various places, in clubs, schools, organizations of various types, trade union groups and so forth. It was very rewarding when I look back at it now. But we were also craving for some kind of recognition from the state and the government and had great difficulty in carving out an identity for ourselves at the same time as we were working under the umbrella of the existing Swedish solidarity organizations, which had a very clear identity. Sometimes this worked against us and sometimes it was in our favour. So, while the Africa Groups were very supportive, at times we had to distance ourselves from their positions.
Tor Sellström: That could not have been easy. The Africa Groups were critical about the government and at the same time the government was more progressive than other governments?
Jaya Appalraju: Precisely! The Social Democrats were just as supportive, but perhaps they were not as informed as the Africa Groups on the Southern African situation.
Tor Sellström: Thabo Mbeki has said that the crucial element in the Nordic involvement with the liberation movements in Southern Africa was that they in the 1970s recognized the liberation movements as governments-in-waiting, so to speak. Until then they had rather been seen as resistance movements.
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, I agree. Things happened very quickly from 1968 in terms of ANC recognition and support. It was surprising. We did not get that kind of recognition anywhere else. Elsewhere we worked only with the support groups, in the United States, Europe and so forth.
Tor Sellström: When did you leave Sweden?
Jaya Appalraju: Well, I left Sweden at different points and came back. I finished my studies in 1973/74 and went for further training in England. I came back to Sweden and finally left in 1980 for Tanzania. That was on the suggestion and organization of the late Thomas Nkobi, who used to come to Sweden at the time. He was developing various projects and was closely involved with the Scandinavian countries in Tanzania. Nkobi found my skills relevant to project planning, but, again, we were very restrained with resources and he quite simply asked me to apply for jobs in Tanzania from where I could also assist with the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College and later with the Dakawa project. I did so and went to Tanzania under a UN hat.
Tor Sellström: The planning of the ANC settlements was to a large extent done in cooperation with Norway?
Jaya Appalraju: That is right. I worked mainly with Dennis Oswald and a little bit with Spencer Hodgson. Dennis was the first ANC Director of Construction and Projects. Later on I was involved with the planning of Dakawa, while working with the Tanzanian government in the Ministry of Planning, Housing and Urban Development.
Tor Sellström: I know that O.R. Tambo requested that you should be transferred to Zimbabwe and work in the Ministry of Local Government there. In Harare you became very involved with what was called the PASA project— planning for a post-apartheid South Africa— with a number of activities taking place between the home front and the exiled leadership.
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, the move from Tanzania after three and a half years was instigated, as you say, by Oliver Tambo. The intensity, the content and the style of the liberation movement were rapidly changing. We had now moved into Zimbabwe, which in 1980 had gained independence. However, there were serious constraints in the support of the Frontline States to the liberation movement, so Oliver Tambo considered my function and role as a technical person ideal. I could operate in a supportive role for ANC and also be a fully-fledged civil servant in my own right, rather than—as was suggested by another department of ANC— joining the Treasury. He opposed that and suggested that I move to Zimbabwe, which I did. We had a very slim and very small outfit there in the beginning. It reminded me of my first years in Sweden. There were so few of us to undertake such a big task. It was a very intensive period.
Tor Sellström: Which year did you arrive?
Jaya Appalraju: In July 1984. Zimbabwe was then going through its own period of adjustment. The lessons I learnt in Zimbabwe were very useful when the discussions on the PASA project were taking some concrete form from 1987. I was always behind various ANC departments. There were a few of us in different fields pushing ANC for resources and to put some manpower behind the planning and thinking about a post-apartheid situation now that Zimbabwe had changed. Although the objective circumstances did not allow us to rationalize when this would take place, the momentum put pressure on ANC to start to think about what should be done—assuming there was a change in South Africa—,given the scale and complexity of the issues the Southern African states had faced up to that time.
Tambo raised this issue very strongly in various informal gatherings and when we learnt that support had been obtained from the Scandinavian governments towards this project we were all very excited. As I had worked very closely with the host government in Zimbabwe they obviously depended on me for quite a lot of inputs in terms of formulating some aspects of it. I spent a lot of resources and time on the PASA project. We insisted that it had to be done not by ANC alone, but in collaboration with groups inside the country. They were in the front-line, facing the issues from a day-to-day basis, fighting for rents, water etc., and we had to translate this into some sort of long-term demands. We worked under very difficult circumstances with activists on the ground from all over the country. I was very much involved in the logistics of getting key people out to advise us on what was going on in various sectors. For us outside South Africa this was an important learning period.
Tor Sellström: This was to a large extent done with Nordic, mainly Swedish, funding, but the Zimbabwean contribution was also very important?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, it was broadly supported by the Zimbabwe government. They sanctioned the project. For example, we had to get people into Zimbabwe on bantustan passports and so forth. We had to explain to them what it was all about and that we had to get so-and-so into the country over a weekend or a couple of days to hold intensive workshops or all-night sessions. The Zimbabwe government was very supportive in that respect. The University of Zimbabwe, the Cold Comfort Farm Trust and various institutions assisted us in making that possible.
There were also difficulties, because one needed consultations with all kinds of people, such as legal groups, medical groups, groups on rural and urban development, health, education, land etc. Often people would come from some remote part of South Africa, speaking different languages that we had not heard of. That was, I think, the foundation of the democratic process in this country. In some respects, the post-apartheid discussion that we are in at the moment was started in that consultative process. No policy goes through parliament without being pretty well canvassed and ANC has established this consultative policy-making process as a principle for its political work.
Tor Sellström: Zimbabwe was then an important meeting point between the ANC leadership that to a large extent had been outside South Africa for perhaps twenty years and a new upsurge of democratic movements inside the country?
Jaya Appalraju: Oh, yes. Zimbabwe was crucial and whenever possible we involved and interacted with the Zimbabweans. For them it was quite an interesting dynamic as well, because, largely, their policy-making did not involve this kind of process. There was political consultation through the party and the development committees and so forth, but such large-scale, broad and horizontal consultation did actually not take place. So it was a learning experience also for them and they acknowledged that. Given the structure of government in Zimbabwe and their own political process towards independence, it was different, but they interacted tremendously with us, assisted us and facilitated the process.
Tor Sellström: It was not until 1985 or so that the ANC was allowed to have an office in Harare and only two years later Zimbabwe was already an important meeting-ground for the future of South Africa?
Jaya Appalraju: Yes, but we always had a very slim and low-profile office. We worked in terms of committees. There were groups of people outside the formal ANC representation who were doing a lot of the work, whether it was in education or health or keeping the various departments afloat, as well as working on the PASA project, which was a major initiative.
The Harare Declaration, which this thinking sort of led up to, was a landmark for the way in which the process unfolded after that. We did not really know where the process was leading to ourselves, but it was intensive and it grew. It was a groundswell and after a while it was not clandestine any more. Businessmen would come out and declare that they were consulting with ANC. We would agree on a lot of issues and disagree on others, and for the first time the media were giving us a lot of legitimate coverage.
In these consultative discussions on the post-apartheid project, Swedish involvement and Swedish thinking was always sought after, whether it was on the question of constitutional development or in education. We always made sure that somebody had actually researched what was Swedish policy, or Scandinavian policy, towards the various issues of women, welfare, macro-economic growth and so forth. Besides financial resources, I think that inputs from the Scandinavian governments in terms of their own historical experience always featured in our discussions.
Tor Sellström: Do you then think that Nordic policies have had any influence on the thinking of ANC regarding the future of South Africa?
Jaya Appalraju: I was very much involved in the economic strategy meetings. From the Bommersvik PASA meeting in 1987, our economists really started to look much more closely at the history of Swedish policy-making, comparing and critically assessing the impact on both the economy and the politics of Sweden. It definitely had and still has a major influence, I think. We hope that this is reinforced, because now the field has been opened so considerably and there are so many other views that have come in and to some extent have diverted us from our initial ideas of where we should be going. I think that we are now going through a moment of resignation from this tremendous amount of input, discussion and debate about what should be done, for instance with the South African economy.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that there was a political hidden agenda behind the Swedish or Nordic support to ANC?
Jaya Appalraju: Even if there was I do not think that we ever felt it. There were no strings attached to the support which we received. In fact, we were extremely free in the way we used the support and we understood very well that we were to deal with an extremely complex capitalist economy in South Africa. Nobody was going to convince us that we were going to have to prepare for an essentially planned economy. We had to deal with the realities of that complex and monopolized situation. Even if there had been an agenda, it would not have been relevant under our circumstances, because we had to look very carefully at the objective realities. It would have been totally unrealistic to think that we could have intervened in a drastic way to change things in South Africa without the danger of the economy really reacting negatively against our own objectives. No, we did not feel either then or now that there was a hidden agenda. It is true that the issue was raised very much by the left in Sweden at the time, but we were also very naive about this kind of thing. However, with the hindsight of experience you can now say that we did not feel it. It did not show itself at all, which was very different from a lot of other countries.