Kristinn Halldór Einarsson
Chairman of the Icelandic organisation for the blind and partly sighted
This interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd on 24 February 2009.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you do for a living?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I am the chairman for the Icelandic organisation of the blind and partly sighted.
Proscovia Svärd: Tell me about your involvement in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well it all started possibly back in 1983. During that time I was the Chairman for a student organisation which is the Apprentice Organisation of Iceland (INSI). That was an organisation where you would find those who are studying to be carpenters, hairdressers, electricians, etc and was pretty much vocational training. These organisations were founded in 1944, and used to have a radical reputation. In 1983 we got into a co-operation with the Nordic student organisations on a secondary school level. These were not university organisations, but secondary level or high schools as you might call them. During that time they were planning a Nordic Operation Day’s work or “Operation Dagsverke”, which was something that had been carried out in Norway, Sweden and Denmark for many years. And there was a specific philosophy behind it and I am sure you know that there is a lot of documentation on it that you can find in Sweden.
But, this project had never been carried out in Iceland. So, the organisation which I was Chairman for at that time, that is the Apprentice Organisation, decided along with another Icelandic organisation for high schools, to join this project. This was aimed at educating especially the youth in the Nordic countries about the situation in South Africa and about the effects of the apartheid regime - as well as collecting money by leaving the school for one day and taking up a paid job or doing other projects that the students got money for. All the money was supposed build up educational opportunities for refugees in the ANC refugee camps in Tanzania. When the Icelandic organisation joined this project, all the big decisions had pretty much been made about what kind of project it was to support.
But when we came back to Iceland, during the first meetings, (which I believe was in 1983 or at the beginning of 1984, I am not quite sure) we soon found out that there was no basis for us to carry out this project by supporting the ANC because, the ANC had a reputation at that time in Iceland of being a terrorist organisation. This was the picture that had been painted by the mass media; they saw ANC as a terrorist organisation, not as a liberation organisation. So, we found out rather soon, that if we were to be successful in this project, we needed to find another way and route. So, in cooperation with a church aid organisation here in Iceland and also with our friends from the Faroe Islands, we decided to support projects within South Africa which would be carried out by the South African Council of Churches (I believe it was called that, which Desmond Tutu was the Bishop for). We actually needed to build up a special project because of the reputation that the ANC had in Iceland. So, this was my first involvement.
We were working on the preparations for this project throughout the year of 1984, and in 1985 (I believe it was on the 17th of March or 21st of March) this specific week when the “Operation Dagsverke” was supposed to take place. For the whole year of 1984, we made preparations for this. We toured around to schools, and we established committees in each and every high school around Iceland which were responsible for the distribution of educational materials in schools on the situation in South Africa. We had a young girl who came from South Africa (I believe she was from Durban, from the South African Council of Churches) and we visited all the high schools and apprentice schools in Iceland where she also attended meetings.
Proscovia Svärd: You do not remember her name?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No, unfortunately but I can probably find it out for you through the Church Aid Organisation because they were in contact with the South African partners about this, and maybe somewhere in their documents they might have it. We also published a paper which was printed in 20-25 000 copies and distributed to all the schools. This was just educational materials about apartheid and the apartheid regime and the effect it had, and also of course about the project we were working on promoting the concept and the idea behind “Operation Dagsverke”, because it was quite new in Iceland. But then, when we were getting closer and closer to this week where the focus point was on “operation Dagsverke” the educational minister of the government of Iceland at that time refused us to execute it! She refused to grant the days off that the students would have required and the Ministry of Education opposed the project. So suddenly, all the school masters around the country experienced that their hands were pretty tied. They were not allowed to do what they wanted and the project pretty much collapsed as a result of that. We were not able to collect any serious money at all. But when that happened, then we threw up a concert in the University Cinema and that was the first South Africa concert that was held on Iceland. It was on a Saturday before Easter, at 2 o’clock, and we got a silent treatment by all the media in Iceland, they were not willing to publish or report about the concert or anything.
Proscovia Svärd: Even the left-wing paper?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well they of course published it but there were just so few people who really read it.
Proscovia Svärd: And the television?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: What we did actually when we organised this concert, in the lobby of the cinema, is that we built up a small replica of a shanty town, and we had a tent and we had people who were working in police uniforms. We took people out of the concert and into interrogations. There were two entrances, one was narrow and uncomfortable and all the tickets for the concerts were like passports. Everyone was classified as either white or dark – the whites had to go to the uncomfortable entrance while the others who were not white had this red carpet entrance, but they were very few who were allowed to go there. So we harassed people and tried a lot to get the message across by making people experience apartheid a little bit on a physical level.
Proscovia Svärd: Did the people agree to get subjected to this kind of treatment just to see the concert?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, well there were very few that we actually took out, and we selected people that we knew.
Proscovia Svärd: So it was like a drama?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, maybe more like a symbolic thing to show what one could expect if you would for example be in South Africa . So this was pretty much the first experience. And then later on, when I quit as the Chairman of the Apprentice Organisation, I became a Manager for another student organisation which was a bit more at a university level. Through my work there, I managed to get organisations to participate in getting people from ANC to visit Iceland, I organised meetings, and so on. And then the cooperation started with Gylfi Páll Hersir and Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir. There were few organisations in Iceland who were always willing to pay for ANC representatives to visit Iceland , and put up and organise meetings.
Proscovia Svärd: What about SAGA?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No, you know SAGA did not exist at that time. A lot of things happened before SAGA was founded. SAGA to me is just a final chapter.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok, so the Apprentice Union was the first organisation that participated in the liberation struggles?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, and also the trade unions. A workers trade union which was called “Dagsbrún” at that time, which has now been merged with another one, and also the Icelandic Federation of Labour and the Workers Federation. These organisations paid the fares for the ANC representatives to come here and visit Iceland. And when they arrived, we organised meetings with the trade unions, within the student organisations; we organised meetings with members of parliament, with ministers, for example the Minister for Foreign Affairs. These were meetings where the ANC representatives could actually argue their cause - for the liberation struggle against apartheid. And we also got them to the media, which was getting easier and easier with time. Because we were constantly bringing people over, like Aaron Mnisi who was here on several occasions, Pritz Dullay was another one I remember and with whom we became very good friends. He stayed at my home during the time he was in Iceland. Slowly and slowly, the media was taking more interest, they were giving them more room and interviewed them.
In 1988, I had been working for this student organisation called BISN for around 2 years, which is another organisation than the one I started with and had been hired as a General Secretary but I was not elected as I had been in the Apprentice Organisation (INSÍ). BISN during my time had been pretty active in supporting the visits of the ANC representatives, but then, we had a new board which came into the organisation and they decided that it was not appropriate for the organisation to be supporting the struggle against apartheid. So, I ended up losing my job because they decided that they wanted to have a new profile for the organisation and I did not suite that profile. I was too much on the left-wing of politics at that time, and these were just centre to right-wing moderates so to speak. This happened at the end of 1987 and at the beginning of 1988. And then we had Pritz Dullay here and I was out of a job.
Proscovia Svärd: Did that mean that you could fully in the struggles?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, and that was a visit that was very successful. So we decided that we needed to build some organisation against apartheid. It was getting bigger, there were more and more people who were beginning to be supportive for the cause - so for two or three months, I just did nothing else than organise this. We called upon a lot of people together for preparatory meetings and we discussed and debated the policy of this new organisation, how it should be structured, if it should be an ANC supportive organisation or not - we actually had that debated. And then on the 28th of May we had a meeting, and around 200 individuals and organisations had listed themselves as founding members of the organisation. Later on, during the summer, we organised a concert.
Proscovia Svärd: What was the name of this organisation?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: SAGA.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok, this was how SAGA was born were you one of the founding members or even the founder of SAGA?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well, I along with some colleagues and friends, because of course I was not alone in this, but it was really not a big group. It was me, Gylfi Páll Hersir and Sigurlaug Gunnlaugdóttir and two or three more – seven or eight people in total.
Proscovia Svärd: Ottó Másson told me that he was also a founding member.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well, as I said, there were two hundred founding members, people who signed the charter that they were going to be founding members – but the ones who took the initiative to start the work, were less than ten people. And that was me, Gylfi Páll Hersir, Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir, Sigurdur Gunnarsson, and Gunnar Gunnarsson, who were brothers and friends of mine. And then there were others who joined in later on, but to begin with it was a rather small group that decided that we needed to start this organisation.
Proscovia Svärd: We missed out on the time when the Apprentice Union (INSÍ) started and ended, what was the period of time?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well the Apprentice Organisation never ended their interest in the liberation struggles. They were supportive even after I had left – that was just in the culture of the organisation to be supportive of a cause like this. So all the time when ANC representatives came over to Iceland and there was a need to raise some money to pay for their fare and accommodation and such, the Apprentice Organisation always put their weight to that; they were supportive all the time. The Apprentice Organisation was one of the founding members of SAGA, one of the first organisations to say “Yes, we want to join in!” So even after I had stopped working for them as chairman or not having any connection to them and not even being a member anymore – they always remained very supportive - they never quit. But then we had the university organisation here at the University of Iceland, which was never supportive of us. The university students of Iceland were not politically active.
Proscovia Svärd: But I do not understand, because the first group of people that I interviewed were university students, who said that within the university they had micro groups that fought for different causes. And that whenever there were demonstrations on Iceland , they went out to demonstrate against low wages, against the US base in Keflavik and against South Africa , so in other words they had their way of supporting the struggles.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: That is very possible, because of course there were some radical groups within the university. But still, the student union of the University of Iceland, did not not participate or take an active political stand.
Proscovia Svärd: Why was this?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Because this was just the philosophy of the union back then, it was a cultural thing.
Proscovia Svärd: To embrace neutrality?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I really cannot say, and to be honest, I really do not care.
Proscovia Svärd: For how long were you involved?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I was involved from 1983 when I started.
Proscovia Svärd: How old were you then?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I was 23. And then I was heavily involved until 1989, when I had to move away from Reykjavik to the Eastern part of the country because I was constantly out of a job.
Proscovia Svärd: Because of your philosophy?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Partly maybe in one or two cases, but that was not the main reason, the situation was difficult at that time. I had a very young family; our son was born in 1985 amidst of all this. So it was 1983 to 1989, so it was for six years, and it was pretty much every day that I was active in the liberation struggles.
Proscovia Svärd: Until the fall of the apartheid?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson; Yes, pretty much.
Proscovia Svärd: And what happened after its fall, did the organisation continue working?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well when I left Reykjavik in 1989 after the concert we had organised in July 1988 - this big outdoor concert to celebrate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela. This was the first major project that SAGA decided to organise, and it was done in just a few weeks. At that time there was an Icelandic pop group that was pretty much world famous - “The Sugar Cubes” - and their lead singer was Björk. And they were the first group that we asked if they were willing to perform, and that was an easy yes. All the artists and musicians in Iceland were always very positive and supportive of the cause – so you could always get them to join. We organised this huge concert and it was televised all over Iceland , the schedule was running from one o’clock in the afternoon until midnight . To begin with it we were supposed to be a children’s program from one o’clock until five o’clock, but unfortunately it rained during that time so not many people showed up. But then when the concert started, a lot of people came, but because the concert took place in an open area and it was very easy to stand by the side and not pay but still enjoy the concert - and we were so innocent and blue eyed, we thought that because of the cause everyone would pay! But there were too many who did not and we therefore did not collect much money that time.
Proscovia Svärd: It put you in a financial crisis, right?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, but it was a massive advertisement for the cause and for the struggle against apartheid – this was the biggest thing that had happened on Iceland in advertising what apartheid was about, because that was what the artists talked about on the stage. And at the same time we published the SAGA booklet, I do not know if you have seen it?
Proscovia Svärd: Yes I have, it is on our website.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, 72 pages, and I along with a friend worked on it day and night to get it printed before the concert took place, because you got this booklet when you bought a ticket for the concert! We printed it in 15 000 copies and it contained some great interviews and articles. It was very educative and it had nice pictures – and I am very proud at having been part of the process that led to its publication. I have a financial statement after this project that showed that it was supposed to break even. But then there were some disagreements about how it should have been followed up. What happened was that in the week after the concert, I had arranged for a holiday with my wife to Barcelona, so I went there for two or three weeks. And when I came back, everything was on fire! People were arguing about minor details and stupid things and there was a lot of effort that people put into this instead of finalising all the details, tying all the loose ends and sorting things out. Because of the structure of the organisation when it was first founded was an open structure, there was no board, no one was elected chairman or anything like that. All interested parties could come and attend the meetings and those who attended the meetings, they were the ones who were in charge - so it was very open and democratic. But after that experience, a lot of voices came up that said “We need to have a firm structure, we need to establish support and who chairman is etc.” So, at the next general meeting we had a new constitution where we established a board and a chairman and I was elected the first Chairman of SAGA. And then four or five months later I was on the East Coast and I moved away from Reykjavik and then I dropped out of the organisation. And this is in 1989, and it is at this time that Sigþrúður Gunnarsdsóttir came into the organisation with Drifa Snaedal and Sunna Snaedal, the younger generation took over and the activities of the organisation changed a bit.
Proscovia Svärd: Were you involved in other actions other than the concert like working for the maintenance of the trade embargo?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: My work on that was focused on lobbying against MPs, and getting the ANC representatives who visited Iceland to meet up with ministers and MPs in order to lobby for the law on the trade ban to be passed. The demonstrations were taking place at later stages, when I had moved away from Reykjavik and was not involved in the organization. Our focus during my time was to fight for the trade ban to be passed by the parliament and go for the MP’s and get coverage in the media on Apartheid.
Proscovia Svärd: You worked high up on the ladder?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, you could say that.
Proscovia Svärd: But did you have any contact with other international solidarity groups, like those that existed in Sweden ?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No, very little.
Proscovia Svärd: How did you get your visitors here?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: We got them mainly through the ANC office in Copenhagen and sometimes through the ANC office in London.
Proscovia Svärd: You never had any direct contact with a South African ANC-based organisation?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Most of these contacts were handled by Gylfi Páll Hersir and Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir. They were the responsible parties that figured out whom to get to Iceland each time. But then I have tried to look up Pritz Dullay who was one of the visitors that came here and the two of us became good friends, but I have not been able to find him, but I gave him my promise to visit him in South Africa when South Africa was free.
Proscovia Svärd: Have you been to Africa?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No.
Proscovia Svärd: And not South Africa itself either?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No, I have never been to South Africa.
Proscovia Svärd: A person who was so devoted to its freedom?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: No, but I have one wish, which is stronger than anything else – and that is to meet with Mandela. I am doing some courses at the University now, and in December 2008, we did a course on leadership and management and we were supposed to submit an essay about leaders whom we admired – and one of those that I picked was of course Mandela. And it was fantastic when I went through the materials again, because I got the opportunity to review the history and the situation he was in. First before he was sentenced to prison and the message he spoke and his devotion to the cause – and later on when he is released unconditionally. It is just fantastic; I think Mandela will be remembered as one of the greatest men who have ever lived. And of course he sits there alongside Gandhi and Jesus Christ; those are the only two that I can compare him with!
Proscovia Svärd: Gandhi and Jesus Christ, that is great! Do you know whether the Icelandic government cooperated with the rest of the Nordic countries in support of the liberation struggles?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Very little really because at that time, we had a right-wing government. But we followed a little bit what was happening in Sweden and we saw the hard stand that the Swedish authorities took against apartheid. And we were always a little bit ashamed about the stand that the Icelandic government took because the difference was so huge. Because in a way one had to keep in mind that a right-wing government here, had to be opposed to all sanctions and followed the line of for example the British government, and Margaret Thatcher who was in control at that time. The British government was one of the governments that I believed were more responsible - along with that of the US, led by Ronald Reagan at the time – for having kept apartheid alive may be ten or fifteen years longer than was necessary! Because these governments were not willing to support international sanctions againt South Africa .
Proscovia Svärd: Did you collaborate with any other youth organisations in South Africa or were there other organisations that worked together with other countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: We never got into any direct contact with any youth organisations in South Africa but, we knew about them through the ANC representatives who came here. And of course during that time, all direct contacts inside South Africa were dangerous for those who were at the receiving end in South Africa – so most of the time we were advised against trying to establish such contacts because if I remember correctly, the ANC wanted this to go through their international offices within each region, and in our case this was the Copenhagen one that was responsible for Iceland.
Proscovia Svärd: You focused a lot on South Africa , were countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe also included?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Much more Namibia than Zimbabwe. I remember that we promoted and introduced the struggle in Namibia; SWAPO for example was an organisation that we linked with the ANC. So we were very much aware of Namibia, and also of Mozambique, but the main focus was on South Africa.
Proscovia Svärd: What were the highlights of your engagement?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: That would be the booklet that we published, because it still lives. And then of course the concert, but I would also say the concert we had at the University Cinema in 1985 where 150 people turned up. Because all these things – it is a path that you are tread, and those concerts in 1988 would never have been as successful and the booklet would never have been as grand as it was – if it had not been for those things that we started up in 1983.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think this support meant for Southern Africa ?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well I would like to think that we contributed to the struggles. It is like an hour glass. Each and every grain of sand going through the glass matters, the drop that carves a hole in the stone – all things matter. We met people from South Africa, we met ANC representatives, we met this girl that came here; hopefully they were able to carry the message that there were people up in Iceland, you know this island far up in the North Atlantic, who spent one week publishing newspapers about what they were going through. So hopefully that brought courage and optimism to some of the individuals that got these messages.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think solidarity means today?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well I think solidarity is very different from sympathy, and I feel a lot of people confuse these two things. Solidarity for me is to be able to put yourself in the shoes of one who is living a completely different life, who is not having the same opportunities as we do here in the rich part of the world and to be willing to share the wealth and the position of the world with each and every one. It is also about compassion.
Proscovia Svärd: What has Africa meant to the people of Iceland ?
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I do not know if there is a right answer to that.
Proscovia Svärd: But you have just told me that you have done a leadership and management course and you elevated Nelson Mandela to the level of Jesus – this must be big!
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes but for me Nelson Mandela is just as important as Jesus because I am not a Christian. It is no problem for me to say that! This was not a religious statement.
Proscovia Svärd: Well, you know I am a Christian and therefore I was thinking “Oh, Nelson Mandela is almost Jesus in the eyes of Kristinn”.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well of course there are people who might look at Africa and try to stereotype it a little bit. But when I look at Africa , you know Africa is a continent, with a lot of different things and different cultures. And just as you cannot say that everything is the same within Europe , you cannot say that everything is the same within Africa . But I believe that to a lot of people Africa does represent a lot of positive things, for example if you just look at nature and the wild animal life. I remember as a young child seeing tv-programs about the wild animals in Africa – and that is something that sticks in one’s childhood memory.
Proscovia Svärd: That is why everybody thinks Africa is about wild animals and nature.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, but that is the image that has been presented strongly in the media.
Proscovia Svärd: Plus the other negative things to go with it.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, and then of course you have the Northern part of Africa, and all the aid projects which have been going on and then the hunger crises that have been going on, a lot of people might also associate Africa with AIDS nowadays. So unfortunately there are more negative things that are associated with Africa.
Proscovia Svärd: Of course, that is what the media is focusing on.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Yes, exactly. And I have been pretty puzzled about the AIDS discussion going on in the context of South Africa , and about the present regime in South Africa . There seems to be some confusion there about the right thing to do, and some mixed messages coming out of South Africa .
Proscovia Svärd: Well, we hope that your media will strive to give you the right background, because I have heard earlier from the people I interviewed, complaints that whenever Africa is being reported on, the issues are briefly presented to people who might not have background information. So, I hope that the Icelandic media will take their social responsibility and inform the Icelandic public in an educative way. But I wanted to take you back to the issue of why I am here and why I am carrying out these interviews. This is an effort to try and capture all this information that you have shared with me. I have just made presentation to the students of Development Studies, at the University of Iceland, and they were so fascinated – one of them said “This is news to me, I did not know that the left-wing party was involved in this and that”. And unfortunately, all these activities have not collectively been assembled or documented. My question to you is, do you think there might be a possibility to bring together the former activists who were involved then and to make them aware of the importance of collecting these documents in one place? They could be handed over to the National Archives because now I have just gathered information that one of the activists had lots of documents that she threw away only a couple of months ago.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Well I am pretty sure most of the people would be willing to contribute to this. I have some documents in my private collection which I have kept. There are two things there, you know the posters I showed at the seminar, those might be the only two posters left.
Proscovia Svärd: But what about the rest of your activities; do you have documents on them? You could try and write an index or at least a general description of what can be found in your archives. I hope you have a look at the Nordic Documentation Project website and have a look at what we have done, or even look at the other Nordic countries, and hopefully someday those archives will end up at the Icelandic National Archives.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: Of course the documents should be collected in one place and preserved there instead of being in personal collections and then being thrown away.
Proscovia Svärd: This is one of the longest interviews that I have carried out, and it has been very informative, I think it will be a big contribution to the website. Thank you so much.
Kristinn Halldór Einarsson: I am just happy to do it!