ISAK. Welfare worker within the Church
The interview was held by Bertil Högberg on 12 September 2005.
Gunnarsson got involved in the solidarity movement for the liberation struggle through her church. As she put it “it was very much in the air in the 1980’s. Through the church, she soon became active within the Isolate South Africa Committee (ISAK), and was eventually elected as a board member and chairperson. Gunnarsson was involved in organising youth camps, bringing in the chorus Pula Coral and eventually took the decision to dissolve ISAK after the free elections in South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: It is 12 September 2005 and I'm sitting in Stockholm at Stora Sköndal, the Dioconical Centre of the Church of Sweden with Margareta Gunnarsson. Can you explain what this institution is and what are you doing here?
Margareta Gunnarsson: It is a foundation that has been here for about 100 years and we work with diacocical work. Today it’s mostly towards elderly people, so we have a department for about 300 senior citizens and then we have frail care units, a neurological rehabilitation centre and a university college for social workers, that’s our main focus today.
Bertil Högberg: And your role is?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I work with new projects in the social field mainly.
Bertil Högberg: And you were once a student here at this college?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, I was, from 1986 till 1990.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, and I think we will come back to that and to you then. So how did you become involved in the support for the struggle for the liberation of Southern Africa?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I've been thinking about that and it’s not very easy to say how it started. I think it was in the environment where I was in the church youth, it was kind of “there” so to speak. And it was a very big topic in the middle of the 80's. So I think it was quite natural, it just happened. We met people and we had all these groups coming, travelling and you met people.
Bertil Högberg: What kind of groups?
Margareta Gunnarsson: There was a choir in 1986 and I met someone and before that there were other individuals coming out from South Africa and then you can see people's work and see these people's involvement.
Bertil Högberg: So you were involved with the Church of Sweden Youth at the time?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Where?
Margareta Gunnarsson: First in Växjö which is my original home town which is in the south of Sweden, and then I was on the national level for some years, five or something like that I think.
Bertil Högberg: This was also the time of the so-called comrade projects, or the comrade in Southern Africa projects?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, so quite a few of my friends went on those projects, you influence each other I think in many ways.
Bertil Högberg: And what did you do in relation to Southern Africa in the church youth?
Margareta Gunnarsson: It was a long time ago. We, I know there were these kinds of boycott things and still have a problem going to a Shell station for petrol and I think that you are aware of where some products come from, I think you still carry that with you today, and also these different campaigns that we did, I think both in the church youth but also together, other kinds of organizations in Sweden.
Bertil Högberg: Was there an ISAK committee in Växjö?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Not that I remember. But I think it was more on a national level and I was involved there. We did things but we did those by ourselves mostly, not so organized.
Bertil Högberg: The South African freedom songs, were they important for you in those years?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think on a national level we had big camps every fourth year and I remember in 1986 there was, some of that singing going on and one of my dear friends today, he came to Sweden at that time, I was involved in that, but after that, that was when I came here to the school, that was bigger in a way.
Bertil Högberg: So when you became involved on a national level that was when you were already studying here.
Margareta Gunnarsson: It was at about the same time, 1985--86.
Bertil Högberg: So what was your role on the national level?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I was on the board of the organization. So of course we discussed those topics there as well, since we had the comrade projects with Southern Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe and so on.
Bertil Högberg: You mentioned this youth camp, are there any other events that you remember from this time?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think it was "Save the Children" or something, with young children that I went to, and there were these kids actually that told about all kinds of different projects around Sweden, you know very small projects. They made their own candy and sold it for something, and I remember there was a strong meeting in that sense, to see it, I mean it’s not big things, it’s the really small things that make a difference I think.
Bertil Högberg: Was it this conference “Children against Apartheid”?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Maybe, I don't remember, what I remember is that it was a strong meeting and also the compassion.
Bertil Högberg: And then you started to study here at this college, your social work, when was that?
Margareta Gunnarsson: That was in the autumn of 86, and then I think already in, during 1985, maybe earlier, the youth, the school student board, had been having a discussion with the Board of our Foundation here about the shares they had in companies that invested in South Africa, that they should get rid of them and when I started here, they had done that and turned back to the students saying well then, now you have to do something. And they went out and got that message and that is when I came to the school.
Bertil Högberg: And you decided to do what?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I started to meet some other people like those from the Church of Sweden Mission. Some other people that we knew had contacts and were involved and talking about what we should do. I think there was quite a lot of money from our perspective and it ended up that we had 18 young people, an ecumenical group from Orange Free State coming up for ten weeks and they stayed here at Stora Sköndal but they also went out to different places in Sweden where they had to work together, no town could have a visit from this group if they didn't work together with different kinds of organisations, and find a way so the entire society was involved in making it a good week when they were there, so I know they were in Pärstorp and Orsa, you know good size towns in Sweden that you could work with like that. We would try to study, drive people and fix things at the same time.
Bertil Högberg: So you were one of the leaders for that project?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Well we were six students here, and I think there were a lot of other people involved in the committee working for it, but then when they actually were here it was the six of us that did everything practical, working around them, we had one Swede and one man from South Africa who were travelling with the group.
Bertil Högberg: Sekopi?
Margareta Gunnarsson: He was the leader but he didn't come till three weeks into the programme. But we had Gerald Jood, he was travelling with them.
Bertil Högberg: Gerald had come on another tour the year before. Sekopi is also interviewed in this series.
Margareta Gunnarsson: Okay, well he came three weeks later, because I don't think he got a passport or something. Most of the group came on 4 April 1987 but I think there were like three or four that came later on.
Bertil Högberg: So what was the aim of that project?
Margareta Gunnarsson: To spread knowledge and to let people meet each other, because I think it’s the meetings between people that bring changes to the world, if you want to use big words, and for us to meet South Africans that were living under apartheid and to see what it was like and to learn from it and the other way round too.
Bertil Högberg: What was the name of the group?
Margareta Gunnarsson: PULA.
Bertil Högberg: Meaning?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Rain I think. I still meet people today, they say oh Stora Sköndal wasn't that some group? They made a big impact on a lot of people.
Bertil Högberg: Did it also make a difference here at the school?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, I mean they were here and they were here when we had programmes for old people, and we had things in the church and we also had seminars of different kinds at the school, and then they lived here in the dorms with the other ones so we had the ordinary kind of good and bad experiences with that.
Bertil Högberg: Was there any lasting impact you see from this visit?
Margareta Gunnarsson: For us that were involved one of the impacts was that you learned that you can do things, you can actually change things, and that whatever you do makes a difference. And for us it was a big project, and it was something we did in our spare time and it worked, because if you are enthusiastic and if you believe in something you can actually make it work. And it creates friendships through many years.
Bertil Högberg: Do you still have any contacts?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes with one I have regular contact and then you know you hear and you talk and you send briefings, we have one from the group who still lives in South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: Have there been any follow ups to those projects from your side or contacts with the communities here in Sweden or with the group down there?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I do believe that we did something, about a year after or something like that. But not after that, no.
Bertil Högberg: Any special memories and highlights from that exchange that you remember?
Margareta Gunnarsson: We were picking them up at the airport, the first meetings so to speak, and then we were going to go to Uppsala because they had made a musical called Crossroads there and we were going on the highway, and they were looking at the fences you know that we have for the big animals and some of them laughed at them and then they started talking about them, and then someone finally asked if they were electrified and were they there to keep people off the road. When we replied no, it’s for animals, and no there is no electricity, then you knew, you could feel the difference, the different kinds of worlds we came from with just one question, and there were many highlights. It was a very important time for me.
Bertil Högberg: But then you also became involved on the national level with the Church of Sweden Youth, and from there how did you become involved with ISAK, when was that?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Well the Church of Sweden Youth had been involved in ISAK almost from the beginning, so I mean it was always there on the agenda so to speak, and they just found people to be on the board or to do some special project or something, and then in the end, I can't remember how it happened, but someone asked me I guess and I said yes.
Bertil Högberg: To come onto the board?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: When was that, do you remember?
Margareta Gunnarsson: It must have been 1992, 1993, maybe, towards the end. I am terrible at remembering how many years.
Bertil Högberg: The time between this project here which was 1987 and now did you, were you involved in any other Southern Africa stuff?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Well we did some, we did one of those, we had another project, we were, we have a sister organization called Earsta, it’s also a foundation, and they, we thought they should do something too. So we did a very very much smaller project, they sponsored a lady from Cape Town, Crossroads, who came here for a few weeks or something, but we did most of the work, but she stayed there and they sponsored her with some money. That was one thing we did, just following this other project. And then we had a lot of, I mean we had a lot of contact through the years with the group. We were down visiting them and then they are I mean 18 people and we were 6, and we got rather close, you know there were all these kinds of things we tried to help each other with.
Bertil Högberg: So when you came to ISAK it was very much towards the end?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Things were really changing in South Africa.
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: So what was the organization like when you came to it, how would you describe it? What was ISAK doing then?
Margareta Gunnarsson: It’s very, it’s not easy to be, I don't know what to call it in English a “soul of fire”, to be so filled up with something and really passionate like the people working for ISAK. Then you come towards the end of apartheid and then it seems like it’s going to happen. What do you do with your enthusiasm then? Because it’s there and what I am supposed to do with it? I mean, it was a big transition, both on a personal level and for the organization. There were many activities and actions towards the election process and things like that. Then, we thought, “should assess our future? Should we close down or not, and what should come instead?” So it was a mixture of those things.
Bertil Högberg: You became Chairperson, was it the last two years?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, I believe so.
Bertil Högberg: So it was basically a winding up of the organization, and what were the discussions that were taking place within ISAK?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Should ISAK continue under a new name or should we end the organization and maybe start something new.
Bertil Högberg: And ISAK was the abbreviation for?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Isolate South Africa Committee.
Bertil Högberg: So it obviously couldn't exist under that name.
Margareta Gunnarsson: No, and it’s also good, I think it’s a good thing to end organizations sometimes, because it’s a clear message that you can start something or you work towards something and you reach that goal and then you can start something new. We are usually not very good at ending things, we need to do that.
Bertil Högberg: Was everyone agreeing on that or were there different opinions?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I don’t think everyone agreed from the start but as I remember it now everyone felt it was good when we took the decision. The isolation part was over so this organization should be over. So I think when the decision was taken everyone agreed on that.
Bertil Högberg: What were the discussions about?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Well the southern part of Africa still needed our support and friendship and things like that, now maybe more than ever when going into a new era and a new transition period. But we said that could continue. That doesn't have to do with the organization itself. And I think that was a good decision to end ISAK, because ISAK was for many people very much connected with boycotting and isolation and demonstrating and things like that, and we should leave that behind when we started the next phase.
Bertil Högberg: There was something else created?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, it was called Network for Southern Africa . I was not that much involved in that, I was cleaning up you could say.
Bertil Högberg: But they took over the assets I think from ISAK.
Margareta Gunnarsson: Some of them, because there were also some local groups in Sweden that got some of the assets.
Bertil Högberg: What happened to the local groups?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think most active local groups stopped working and some of them were very involved in starting this new Network organization.
Bertil Högberg: Twinning and so on.
Margareta Gunnarsson: To make that kind of transition locally is easier I think than on a national level.
Bertil Högberg: Were there a lot of problems around the winding up of the organization?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Well I don't think we should have done that, you're not supposed to. There were a lot of problems with the Tax Department for example. I think mostly it’s what I mentioned before, that people that are passionate about something, and we had a group of people that were working passionately about ISAK and they all reached their goal. When something like that happens you get, I think quite a few got, other questions in their head, what should I do with my life? What should I do now? What's the next step? And they’re not easy questions, and one of the things I learnt is that you should clean up your own mess, which means that when you do a project of any kind within an organization you should have a good ending period and clean up, because if you don't it kind of lives its own life and skeletons come out from the cupboards, but that's a big lesson for me, that you should really finish things.
Bertil Högberg: Are there any highlights that you remember from that period with ISAK?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think we had a good ending conference, that was about closure but it also involved looking forward, what's coming up, what's coming next.
Bertil Högberg: Is that the conference at Hasseludden?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes. It was like a good ending but also like a start. And also the project we did with the election monitoring. That was a good project I think, and it’s interesting to work with people from different kinds of NGOs and you always learn things in the process.
Bertil Högberg: Which were the organizations that were active in the ending of ISAK?
Margareta Gunnarsson: As I remember it, it was the Africa Groups of course and then there were some of the church related youth groups, that was towards the end, and a lot of people went to build up the new organization. So we also divided it that way amongst us on the board, I was not involved in that so much.
Bertil Högberg: You mentioned the Africa Groups, what was the relationship, how did you see the relationship between ISAK and Africa Groups in those days?
Margareta Gunnarsson: As a good working companionship in a way, because members of both wanted an organization that was big and towards that same area, and towards the end they helped us a lot, so that was a good relationship I think, as far as I know.
Bertil Högberg: Were there any conflicts in the organization during the last years?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes, there were, I mean I believe so, because it is a sensitive thing to end something and it’s very easy to step on someone's toes. But I don't remember much about it, because that's the way I am. I think some people felt that when you end something, it is because it hasn't been good enough. But others thought that, this has been good, but now it’s time for something else, and that's not a contradiction, but it very easily becomes one.
Bertil Högberg: Were you involved in any of the Nordic cooperation?
Margareta Gunnarsson: No, not really.
Bertil Högberg: You didn't hear about how they discussed the future in any of the other countries?
Margareta Gunnarsson: No, not that I remember. I think that was part of dividing the work, I mean we did this in our spare time and I was working full time as a social worker, working a lot, so I was very focused on trying to close the organization and closing the office and very down to earth things like cleaning out all the extra rooms with things in them, papers and candles and I don't know what, all these different things.
Bertil Högberg: Did you as a Chairperson have any relations with ANC or other South African organizations or was that dealt with on the office level?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think mostly on the office level. I did meet some and I had met some before, when we had the Pula Coral, I remember we met ANC people then, I did that more outside my role as a Chairperson.
Bertil Högberg: Did you ever go to South Africa?
Margareta Gunnarsson: Yes the first time I was there was in 1987, four of us from the school here, went down to visit the group and then I was there in 1989 from the church youth organization for a conference in Lesotho . And then I was there in 1994.
Bertil Högberg: That's 1989, that's the one I missed when I fell sick in Harare on my way there and I had to turn back.
Margareta Gunnarsson: Okay, and I was there, that was in 1989/90, so I was in Cape Town 1990 right before Mandela was released there, and then I was there at the inauguration in 1994, I was there as representative from ISAK. But since then I haven't been down, unfortunately, I would like to go, because there must be big changes. I mean just between those three trips I made you could see a difference.
Bertil Högberg: If you should try to sum up how do you see the role of ISAK, what it meant in Sweden?
Margareta Gunnarsson: I think it showed that you could do something; you can actually have an impact on things. Small things, so-called small things, are big and that boycotting and decisions you make on your everyday life can actually have an impact in someone else's life somewhere else. And it’s interesting when you hear today that there are companies saying that they did good things, and we know that back then they didn't, they were not that positive. And all of a sudden you change history, a little bit anyway. Also that you worked together across all kinds of NGOs, we've done that. It was not an easy road many times I guess but at the same time it’s important to do it, to find out that this is a task we need to cooperate on.