Asssistant Director General
The interview was held by Lennart Wohlgemuth on 16 March 2006.
Johan is a civil engineer by training and started his career in development cooperation in 1965 in the first group of the Swedish Peace Corps in Ethiopia working in the well-known school building project. Following that he worked with infrastructure projects within Swedish development cooperation first through an architectural firm and later from 1971 at Sida among other things as regional advisor on matters pertaining to support to the construction of buildings and infrastructure in East Africa based in Dar es Salaam. During the period 1980-82 he headed the development cooperation office at the Embassy in Maputo after which he became Director for the Division of Infrastructure at Sida. In 1990 he was promoted to head of the Asia Department and 1991-94 he headed the Southern Africa Department. From mid-1994 until 1998 he served as a minister at the Swedish Embassy in Pretoria in charge of the development cooperation with the new South Africa. After that he has served as project coordinator and special advisor for Sida's support to integrated development in the Lake Victoria Basin, for infrastructure programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories based in Jerusalem and for Sweden’s support to post-tsunami reconstruction in South-East Asia.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: During all the years you worked as an advisor on infrastructure programmes for Sida did you ever come in contact with the liberation movements?
Johan Brisman: Not very much. During my years in Tanzania I did come in contact with some of the movements but only very marginally. One such contact I do however vividly remember. It must have been in 1977 when I was asked by Jan Cedergren who was then in Maputo during the period just after independence to come and take part in a discussion on NGO participation in the education sector in the new Mozambique. It originated from a request by the Swedish Methodist Church to get support from Sida for establishing community schools on village level, schools with a practical orientation. One of my duties was to find out how Frelimo in their new role looked upon Swedish NGO participation in the education sector in the new Mozambique. The person I contacted in the Education Department was Graça Simbine (later Graça Machel). I was surprised to hear how very categorical she was in stating that there would be no room for any NGO participation in any future Mozambican endeavours in the education sector. She could see no other actors involved in education than the state and strongly advised against Sida providing support to the proposed project. When I later on, in early 1980, moved to Mozambique I observed the effects of not having allowed any other actors into the field of education. The capacity of the state had been quite insufficient in meeting all the demands. It was also apparent that many people were unhappy with the Frelimo government restricting church services. This experience made an impact on me even if I also understood that the experiences from NGOs and private investors had been very negative for Frelimo in the past. Frelimo was at that time searching for approaches to the transition. But I felt that they had to some extent “thrown out the baby with the bath water”. Most of all I was surprised that there was not even room for a discussion with Sweden, only a categorical refusal. I was perhaps naive in expecting that the long and good relations between Sweden and Frelimo could help to overcome suspicions of hidden agendas.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: What memories do you have from working with the liberation movements from your time in Mozambique?
Johan Brisman: I came to Maputo in January 1980. It was an important period in the liberation struggle in Southern Africa. Rhodesia was just about to become Zimbabwe. One of the first persons I met after taking up my duties in Maputo was Robert Mugabe. I visited him in his home in Sommershield. Our meeting took place just before Mugabe went to Rhodesia to participate in the election campaign. We had discussions on the political situation in Rhodesia and on the risks for him going back home. We also discussed with him and his colleagues possible Swedish support to the election campaign and to the move of ZANU from Mozambique to Rhodesia. There was for example the question of cars. ZANU had just bought some cars with funding from Sida in Swaziland, which they wished to transfer to Rhodesia to use in the election campaign. With the vast differences between the different electoral groups when it came to available resources we could well understand the need for these vehicles and we accepted that they moved these cars into Rhodesia. This was of course a sensitive issue, but in practice we had no choice. The cars had already been given to ZANU for their use. We had very little discussions with Stockholm on this or similar issues. When it came to the day-to-day operations we had to take the decisions locally. I took these decisions jointly with the desk officer at the Embassy.
Mugabe came back to Mozambique after the elections had taken place to wait for the outcome in a secure place. While waiting for the election results to be announced I met him again. He told us what he expected the outcome to be from the elections, a picture I summarised and reported back to Stockholm. What he told us did almost exactly tally with the final outcome. The result came as a surprise to everybody who had not followed ZANU as closely as we had. The World Press believed very much in a substantial share of the votes would go to Abel Muzorewa and in UK ZAPU was the favourite. Mugabe’s count based itself very much on the numbers of Shonas and Ndebeles in each district and gave ZANU and ZAPU all the mandates and hardly any to Muzorewa. The outcome was basically based on ethnic belonging. For me, who had changed career from engineer to administrator of economic and political matters within development cooperation, this was an eye-opener giving a new dimension to the politics of liberation and on how elections in this phase of development could look.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Did you have any personal relationships with anyone from ZANU during your stay in Maputo?
Johan Brisman: Not really. First of all it was the very capable desk officer, Bo Westman, who was responsible for most of the contacts with ZANU and secondly ZANU left Maputo as soon as the election results were announced and the new Government was to be formed. I did meet a number of ZANU-representatives in particular Kangai responsible for transports within the leadership of ZANU, but they left before our relationships developed.
Other questions from my time in Mozambique only partially touch the liberation struggle and mainly concern the way the new Frelimo leadership acted in their new role as leaders of a country. They acted very hands-on and in a revolutionary way fighting the very old and complex Portuguese bureaucratic system they had inherited. I remember vividly situations in which ministers such as Marcelino Dos Santos raided the port at midnight to get donor funded equipment released. The equipment had been stuck for months waiting for the right paper to be signed and stamped by a non-existent bureaucracy.
My office at our Embassy in Maputo was also responsible for handling Sweden’s support to the ANC and to SACTU in both Mozambique and Swaziland. During the years I served in Maputo the South African government launched several brutal attacks against the ANC in Mozambique. The Matola raid was a case in point. Experiencing such things at close range and discussing consequences etc with South Africans in exile including people like Ruth First and Joe Slovo and to some extent also with Albie Sachs created relationships and an understanding, which was an important asset in my later work with our support to the liberation of South Africa.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: After coming back to Sida headquarters and again working with infrastructure issues as head of the Infrastructure Division did you then have contacts with the liberation movements?
Johan Brisman: We did a lot of work in the region mainly within the framework of SADCC. But we were also heavily involved with the liberation movements where Sida supported the construction and maintenance of infrastructure within the liberation movement camps in Zambia, Tanzania and Angola. Personally I participated in one more “hands on” visit to the SWAPO-camp in Kwanza Zul. I was then surprised by some aspects of projects we had supported and brought some of those up with among others Pohamba who was then the coordinator of foreign assistance to SWAPO. Some of the answers really bothered me. I found for example that there was a great number of unused WC’s lying around in the camp. Kwanza Zul was a rather primitive camp with major water supply problems. Water-borne sewage was the last thing you would expect to find. And it was obvious that there was no capacity to have them installed. Although it was too late to change what was already a fact I did ask what the idea behind this purchase was. The answer Pohamba gave me was that they were procured with the aim to prepare the people in the camp for their new and modern life after independence. The idea was to train the cadres to live a modern life in Windhoek in the future.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: And then you became head of the Southern Africa Department.
Johan Brisman: Now came the time when I worked directly with the support to the liberation movements and in particular with ANC. Most detailed work was done within the Embassies in the region and by the desk officers, but many questions were politically sensitive and policy related. Here I had a direct responsibility to give guidance to our work and to take decisions. During my three years with the department the negotiations for a democratic South Africa between the different parties (mainly the Nationalist Party and the ANC) took place along with the transition towards democracy. This involved many difficult and delicate questions also for a donor as involved as we were at the time. We had a good and close cooperation with the ANC and met them formally in negotiations twice yearly. Those negotiations took place from 1992 in South Africa with participation both from the Swedish Foreign Ministry, the Embassy and Sida headquarters. The responsibility for these negotiations was delegated to Sida and the bi-annual negotiations were on most occasions led by me. The questions dealt with during the negotiations concerned both ANC in exile and the repatriation back to South Africa and the support to the administrative as well as the political process running up towards the elections and change of power inside South Africa. We dealt with ANC in the same way as we dealt with a regular recipient country with bi-annual negotiations, agreed minutes, annual budgets and the possibility to reallocate from one item in the budget to another.
During this period Sweden also supported the preparations within ANC for a future take-over of power. This included substantial support to their work in developing approaches and strategies on issues such as a new constitution, education policies and other political instruments. Sida funded and administered meetings between people from inside South Africa and in exile mostly in Zimbabwe but also sometimes in Sweden (Bommersvik). Our support did not only involve supporting the general repatriation of refugees but also how to take home work that South African intellectuals had been preparing in exile and to find ways and means for them to continue such work from within. Albie Sachs’ work on a new constitution was one of several high profile issues we provided support for. Our negotiations also covered continued support to institutions inside South Africa, which had already been supported for a long time, and which now obtained a new role and focus. It all circulated around the question of finding new forms for developing ideas and positions on how to deal with key issues for the new South Africa. Questions were which positions ANC should take in the internal negotiations that continued at that time - CODESA I and CODESA II etc.
What was special in our relationship with ANC was the closeness and mutual confidence that had developed over the years between us and the people in the ANC. We had direct access to the top people in ANC. Thomas Nkobi the Treasurer of ANC normally led the ANC team during our negotiations but almost every time Cyril Ramaphosa also came to the meetings and gave us political briefings and sent messages back to Sweden. A couple of times Nelson Mandela also sent for us to give his picture on the process towards peace in South Africa. And to communicate his message of the importance of Sweden giving continued support to the different activities in South Africa. It was something very special to listen to him in a limited group and take note of his already at that time strong emphasis on reconciliation. He gave very strong messages on the importance of reconciliation and at the same time had a strong conviction of where this process would lead. In spite of all the weapons in circulation and threats from extremists on both sides he never doubted that the process would go in the right direction and be peaceful. The question was whether it would take one or two years - the outcome was never in doubt.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Sweden had become a very large funder of ANC and did finance a major part of ANC’s administrative budget also within South Africa. Did this become a problem when the election came ever closer?
Johan Brisman: As I said earlier we had very close relations with ANC but they never wanted to reveal how dependent they were on Swedish funding. They never gave us a full picture on their total funding situation. But there is no doubt from the way they treated us and the political openness that they showed that we were extremely important to them. For the government of Sweden the problem of being a large funder of ANC became increasingly difficult the closer we came to the elections. There was an unease in our new conservative government towards ANC, which came into the fore from late 1993 onwards. While most other countries tried to repair the bad relations they had with the ANC from the apartheid era the Swedish government became more and more restrictive in its policies on providing support to ANC-related activities. A concrete example of this was a project we supported through the Olof Palme Centre for training of voters and election functionaries through the local organisation Education Training Unit. The people that really needed to be trained were the very poor and neglected. Surprisingly enough our government insisted that all groups of voters, also the ones mainly representing the middle-class whites, should be included in the project. As elections came closer Sida was asked not to support activities targeting primarily previously disadvantaged groups (normally potential ANC-voters). Organisations close to the ANC insisted that they also provided training to election officials of the PAC and Inkhata. But this was not good enough for our government and we had a few embarrassing situations we had to sort out. The training programmes did become formally open and invitations were sent to different groups but in practice it did not make much difference. Most of the training that took place reached ANC election functionaries and it was also our understanding that those were the ones that needed it most. ANC along with Inkhata and PAC had never participated in an election before.
I personally think that it mattered that the Swedish government at that time was a conservative one. We often received very rough instructions from the government, which we who worked on the ground had to translate into practical action. Of course we followed the instructions we got, but there was always some room for interpretation. We used our common sense. At a certain time the Director General of Sida, Carl Tham, wrote a special letter to the Prime Minister, Carl Bildt, giving him some background on the situation in South Africa and the role Sweden played. This helped to ease the situation somewhat.
Four months before the elections we received instructions from the government to discontinue our support to ANC. We did this, but in a cautious way. We could not stop everything from one day to the next and we had an understanding with the ANC in the form of Agreed Minutes to follow. But we had to take much tougher control of operational details of the support. We placed a person in the ANC office to check every bill that we were asked to pay. But it was a difficult situation and difficult instructions to follow. All the way through this difficult process ANC’s confidence in Sweden remained high. Again and again they emphasised how important the support from Sweden was for ANC and the process towards peace. And they emphasised that it was not only or not even primarily the money but also the political recognition that Sweden gave ANC that mattered.
I had at that time to make many decisions on how to interpret the government instructions. I always had the full support of Carl Tham – he was always well informed but did not go into the details of the questions, which we had to deal with. But there were difficult and sensitive decisions to take. I felt secure in my organisation but also felt that my head was sometimes close to being “on the block”.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Did you ever feel at risk during this period in South Africa?
Johan Brisman: In the back of our minds we were always prepared for something to happen. But again the confidence of the leadership of ANC that things were on track towards a peaceful agreement made us feel secure. We trusted that they could assess what was dangerous and what was not so. The tensest situation was in KwaZulu-Natal at that time. We travelled there during the negotiations a number of times and came close to open conflicts between representatives of Inkhata and ANC. Lena Johansson at the Swedish Embassy was important for us. Her many contacts and her knowledge of the situation were indispensable to our work.
The situation at the Embassy was at that time a bit complicated. With the signals from our government our ambassador sometimes acted irrationally. Once during the bi-annual negotiations when we were invited to meet with Mandela we contacted the ambassador and asked him to come along. But he decided not to. I assumed that his decision was based on his interpretation of general instructions from Stockholm on acting in a neutral manner. In my opinion it was a remarkable gesture from a Swedish ambassador to turn down an invitation to meet with Mandela. But ANC’s confidence in us was never affected by such incidents. Not even when the South African newspapers during one of our negotiations made big headlines of the news that Sweden was going to cease its support for ANC.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: What can you tell us from your years as head of development cooperation at the Embassy in Pretoria?
Johan Brisman: Just before I took up my post went to Pretoria during the elections with the then Minister for Development, Alf Svensson. There we met Sweden’s long time partner Allan Boesak at a dinner party arranged for us by Lena Johansson. The scandal around Boesak had not erupted at the time and he was a key figure in the ANC campaign for the Western Cape. I was impressed by what he had done during the struggle and looked forward to working with him in his new role (see further below).
When I had moved to South Africa I was struck by the closeness we had to the people with whom we had worked for so long. Many of our old counterparts had now become ministers etc. And of course our earlier close contacts made work easy for us. There were however two issues that I felt frustrated about. The first was the large number of delegations that came to visit South Africa from Sweden. Government officials including many ministers, parliament committees, government institutions, NGOs, the private sector, labour unions and so on and so on came. His Majesty the King came twice, although in different capacities. A major ambition of most delegations was to meet with people at the top, preferably with President Mandela or at least with Vice President Thabo Mbeki. Unfortunately not all delegations had something to say, no dialogue points – they seemed to want to meet top people just for the sake of it.
The other frustrating issue was related to the fact that we gradually became less interesting to the new government of South Africa and the ANC as funders and political partners. The South Africans were eager to discuss subject matters and wished to receive new ideas and solutions to questions they encountered – often to counter other advice they received from all the new actors on the scene such as the World Bank, IMF etc. But to my great disappointment and regret Sida and Sweden had limited resources to meet those demands in traditional sectors like education. To find people in Sweden who really could help the new administration to find solutions to the many problems they encountered in restructuring the society to one of more equality was difficult.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: Why did we not manage to live up to the expectations in a traditional development cooperation sector like education?
Johan Brisman: Sweden is a small country and our experience of such a kind of transition that South Africa went through in the 1990s was just not there. We were good funders of what South Africans did, but in my view we had little subject knowledge to contribute with. Where we after some time succeeded in starting a good cooperation was in the area of twinning between specific governmental institutions with their counterparts in South Africa such as in the fields of tax administration, statistics, police training and provincial and municipal administration.
Unfortunately there were a few sad cases of important actors during the struggle against apartheid that later did not live up to expectations. Such was the case of Allan Boesak and the financial irregularities he had been involved in. I felt his fate was unfair compared to that of the big offenders of the apartheid era. Boesak was sent to prison while the apartheid crooks received amnesty after having confessed to the Truth Commission. Boesak’s crime was small compared to the apartheid crimes. Still it was not acceptable to us, the Danes and other funders who had entrusted him with public and private funds.
Lennart Wohlgemuth: A final question. Is there any special incident you wish to highlight that has particularly affected you from this period of your life?
Johan Brisman: ANC’s armed wing was called Umkhonto we Siswe (the spear of the nation). Some ANC-activists used to jokingly refer to Sida as the “armed wing of the Swedish government”. The reason for this, I think, was the strong commitment and empathy so many of our people in the field showed during the difficult years of the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa. This helped to build hope and confidence and it built relations for the future. There are many who did much more than what could have been expected from them in the difficult and partly dangerous situation that prevailed in the area from the mid 1970s until 1994. In saying this, it is also important to state that I know of no examples of colleagues who forgot their role or overstepped their mandates as Swedish civil servants.