Social Democratic Party—Minister of Education and of International Development Cooperation Minister for Foreign Affairs
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 14 January 1997.
Tor Sellström: When did you come into contact with Africa for the first time?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: It was during my years in Uppsala, between 1962 and 1965, when I studied social sciences at the university. Through the Social Democratic student association Laboremus I met a lot of people with a big commitment for Africa and the end of colonialism. In Uppsala, I also met people from Africa for the first time. In Sala, the small town where I was born, there were not many Africans.
Tor Sellström: Did you meet Eduardo and Janet Mondlane then? They visited Uppsala in 1964.
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: Many people came to Uppsala and I think that the Mondlanes were among them. After my years in Uppsala, I was active in the Social Democratic Youth League (SSU), and in 1967 I went to Tanzania on a study visit with twelve others from SSU.
Tor Sellström: Did you go there with Ingvar Carlsson?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: No, he had been there before. It was not just the leadership of SSU, but people from different districts and the head office.
Tor Sellström: Were you then a SSU leader in the province of Västmanland?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: No, I was a rather ordinary member. During the visit to Tanzania we met Julius Nyerere. It was something special to go to the rural areas, meet the people in the villages and also the Tanzanian leaders, not least Nyerere.
We went to Tanzania as a follow-up of SSU’s Tanganyika Action. We had collected money for the TANU Youth League. I will never forget the meetings in the rural areas, where the people thanked us. I remember an old man. Of course, he spoke Swahili so I had to ask what he said. He said that ‘these young people from up there somewhere have collected money, but they are rather poor, so they had to find other means. They therefore went to hospitals to give blood’. In his rhetoric, he said: ‘They gave their blood for us’. That, of course, received a lot of applause.
I was also involved in the solidarity movement with Mozambique. When I was nominated to become a member of parliament in 1968, I was very young and not well known. I was then attacked by the trade unions in Västmanland for wanting to stop ASEA from the Cabora Bassa project. It came to a vote and I won, but I could have lost my parliamentary seat due to my involvement with Africa. It was an interesting start.
Tor Sellström: In the early days of the Swedish antiapartheid movement, many liberal intellectuals and church people were actively involved. Some say that the anti-apartheid opinion really started in the liberal centre and not in the wider labour movement. Do you think that it is a correct description?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: To describe it correctly, I would say that it did not start in any particular movement at all, but with individuals. Some of them were members of the churches or established organizations and there were many who can be described as liberals. But rather early you also had people such as Ernst Michanek, so it would not be correct to say that there were just Liberals or church people. There were also Social Democrats and people from the trade unions. But it started with individuals much more than organizations. They came later, in the 1960s. However, debate is one thing and how you form an opinion another. In the 1950s, we had boycott actions. My mother, for example, was a member of the Social Democratic women’s organization which participated in consumer boycotts. That was a broader concept. There you had the Social Democratic Party and the wider labour movement involved.
Tor Sellström: How would you assess Olof Palme’s early role in connection with the liberation process in Southern Africa?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: I think that he enlightened a lot of people as he at a very early stage saw what was important. He saw the future. In the middle of the 1950s, he was study secretary of SSU and in that capacity he met a lot of people. He went to different meetings, trying to get people interested in not just our own history and future, but also international matters, so, of course, he meant a lot. Within SSU, he gave much inspiration.
Tor Sellström: Sweden supported liberation movements that waged an armed struggle and were also assisted by the Soviet Union or China. How would you explain that there was a broad parliamentary majority for such a policy?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: In the first place, we wanted to live up to one of the goals of Sweden’s development policy, namely the principle of national self-determination. It was based on a unanimous decision in the Swedish parliament and the liberation struggle was about that. Secondly, we never gave direct support to the armed struggle. As we were so clear about that, we were never asked by the liberation movements to do so. In addition, it was easy for them to get weapons from others.
Sometimes you have to avoid relations with organizations or persons that have contacts with, or are allied to, forces that you do not like, but that was not a major problem in this connection. We were a neutral country and could cooperate with both sides. Of course, at times there were discussions in Sweden. We were now and then accused of coming too close to what the Communists wanted, but that was rather an internal Swedish debate and never very big. The support for the liberation movements in Southern Africa was much broader than the Social Democratic Party. We had support for this policy deep within the non-socialist parties and in the solidarity movement.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the early contacts established with visiting Southern African leaders like Mondlane, Tambo and others made it easier to see their nationalist visions?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: In general, I think that all personal contacts are very important, not least when you have to work across such big geographical distances and you do not know so much about the countries and the areas. It then becomes very important to be able to trust the leaders of the organizations involved. It has really been fantastic to see how the liberation movements in Southern Africa fostered outstanding leaders all the time. They were tremendous people and it made it easier for us to trust them and their organizations.
There were many moments when we had a special closeness to ANC and SWAPO. One example which I personally remember very well is when we had Oliver Tambo at the Ersta clinic outside Stockholm during his illness. I remember what it was like to be there, just sitting with him, holding his hand. He was lonely at Ersta and we tried to visit him as much as possible. Not many governments were so close to a leader of a liberation movement. To see Mandela and Tambo meet in Sweden after Mandela’s release is, of course, also a beautiful and fantastic memory.
Tor Sellström: When the Social Democratic Party lost the elections in 1976, many expected a great change in Sweden’s policies towards the Southern African liberation movements. But it did not take place. The humanitarian support was maintained or increased and a first Swedish sanctions’ law against South Africa was introduced. How can this be explained?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: The Swedish solidarity movement with Southern Africa was much bigger than the Social Democratic Party. We welcomed that. Among the bourgeois parties, the Moderate Party opposed our policy now and then, but there was not much opposition from the Liberal and the Centre parties. When the Liberal and the Centre parties heard about the fears from our African friends, they were very eager to show that there should be no change. I think that they did a good job. They knew that if they had changed the policy, they would have had a real problem with the public opinion and, of course, in parliament. So, they continued our policy and the Moderate Party had to give up their plans to change it.
Another thing that played a role here was the way the Swedish support was administered. It was, of course, done by the government, but also by SIDA. You could argue whether such political matters should be handled by an official board, but in Sweden we did that and in the long run I think that it was very good. The change of government, for example, did not therefore play such an important role. We also had the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, where all the time different parties were represented and informed, as well as experts and a lot of people who were engaged in Southern African issues. They strengthened each other and when the Liberal and Centre parties entered into the government, they already knew a lot about the Swedish support and it was easy for them to continue our policy, which was also the strategy we had from the beginning.
Tor Sellström: Did you experience any strong domestic Swedish opposition to the support to the liberation movements in Southern Africa?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: There were some journalists and conservative people that brought it up now and then. In parliament, there were also discussions with the Moderate Party from time to time, but it was not really a problem, because the public opinion was so solid.
Tor Sellström: Sweden gave direct support to ANC from as early as 1973, but it took quite some time before sanctions were imposed against South Africa. Was it external factors—such as the position taken by the UN Security Council—or domestic factors—such as opposition by Swedish export interests and sometimes also the trade unions—that were the most important here?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: We were very formal and strict on this point. It was the Security Council decision that we waited for. When it was taken, it was rather easy for us to take the same decision, although at that time we also had a debate. A lot of business people and also trade unionists were not positive to our action.
Tor Sellström: You mentioned the advantages of delegating the administration of the humanitarian support to SIDA. Did you also experience problems with it? It was a highly political support, often carried out by junior aid officials.
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: The administration was carried out by SIDA, but there was always a lot of political guidance from the government. The SIDA leadership knew exactly what our policies were. In the field, we furthermore always had a lot of experienced diplomats together with the younger SIDA staff. I think that it was a good combination of experienced diplomats and those with a keen commitment. A good mix, I would say. When we worked with organizations such as IDAF, we knew that Per Wästberg was involved. Ernst Michanek was, of course, there all the time. They were people who we believed in and trusted totally. There was a network of people who trusted each other. I think that that was the most important. We tried to avoid making party politics out of the support.
Tor Sellström: Were you also satisfied that the administrative routines regarding reporting and accounting of funds were appropriate and that SIDA had sufficient control over the funds?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: We knew that the support must be kept secret. As we could not be open about it— there could not be an open discussion in the media about the channels and so forth—it was very important that the administration was based on trust. It was not just that SIDA handled the money in a correct way, but our partners had also to be trusted. It was a question of mutual interest. The liberation movements knew that even small doubts could destroy very much. Against this background, our partners were very strict, doing all that they could to satisfy our need to know who handled what. I think that there was mutual trust and interest between the donor and the recipients. But, of course, there were also problems as we know from the Craig Williamson affair in IUEF.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the Williamson affair affected Sweden’s relationship with ANC?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: No, not so much. It was a rather isolated incident, but I must confess that I did not know much about it at the time.
Tor Sellström: There are always internal problems and divisions in any liberation movement and in the 1980s, for example, there was the so-called detainee issue in the SWAPO camps in Angola. Did you raise this issue with SWAPO or with the Angolan government?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: Yes, in the late 1980s I raised it directly with SWAPO. I remember a discussion I had with Sam Nujoma. But we never discussed it with the Angolan government.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish support to the liberation movements was often viewed with suspicion by the Western powers. Apart from general criticism, do you recall any pressures against Sweden in this connection?
Lena Hjelm-Wallén: They were questioning and perhaps now and then, but we did not suffer from that. suspicious, but not directly critical. Indirectly now and then, but we did not suffer from that.