SWAPO—Student and SWAPO-Democrats in Sweden—Namibia National Front Director of the Jakob Morenga Tutorial College
The interview was held by Tor Sällström in Windhoek, 16 March 1995
Tor Sellström: How do you see the development of the liberation movement in Namibia and the relations with the Nordic countries?
Ottilie Abrahams: Namibia has a history of groups like SWAPO and SWANU working together. For example, already at the time when my husband was arrested by the South African police in Rehoboth, SWAPO and SWANU stood ready to go as one body to defend him. Even in exile, SWAPO and SWANU always worked together. If SWANU people arrived in a place where they did not have a representative, they were taken in by the SWAPO people. In the late 1960s, we held talks with SWANU. That was when Moses Katjiuongua and Fanuel Kozonguizi were in Dar es Salaam. We held talks on forming one body. We felt that we were getting very far. Then we met OAU, because we knew what their concept of ‘sole authenticity’ would do. We asked OAU specifically not to give money either to SWAPO or to SWANU, but to give it to an organization. The name was SWANLIF, South West African National Liberation Front. We already knew in 1963 that donors were going to use the question of funding to alienate the two groups. There were certain political groups in certain countries which were supposed to be the sole liberators of those countries, and we opposed that view from the start.
Tor Sellström: Was that view the policy of the OAU Liberation Committee?
Ottilie Abrahams: Yes. We said that it was a violation of the democratic rights of the people. We foresaw that they would create demagogue people who wanted to colonize the struggle so that any input which was not in line with the ‘sole authentic party’ immediately would be stifled. In spite of the oppression, those of us who had stayed in South Africa were brought up in a very democratic tradition in the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM). You could get up when a leader spoke, ask about anything and tell him that you did not agree with him. In the Cape Peninsula Students’ Union we were taught to fight ideas with ideas. We always thought critically. If we agree with you, we do not care whether you are the President or not. If we disagreed, we would say so. We always felt that if people basically were loyal to the party, but had different ideas on how to get to the goal, it was an enrichment. When we went to Dar es Salaam in 1963— that is, when we went into exile—we came to a place where people were beginning to talk about the ‘sole and authentic’ leaders of the revolution. The concept was imposed by people from outside. First by OAU. The donors— for their own reasons—then decided that they were going to reinforce the idea. But we felt that it was suppressing any opposition. We felt that if you belong to a party and you see that something is wrong, you have to have the right to criticize and to propose an alternative. But whenever you did that you were put in a prison camp because you were opposing the leaders. I am myself suspended from SWAPO until this day. The reason was ‘disrespecting the leadership’ when I was Secretary for Education and part of the Executive Committee. My upbringing was politically different. If there was something that I wanted to say, I said it, because you wanted to go with your party. But this business of ‘sole and authentic’ began to mean that the only opinion that was relevant was the opinion that agreed with what the leaders said.
Tor Sellström: But you were in favour of one strong Namibian liberation movement?
Ottilie Abrahams: When one speaks about a movement one does not speak about one party. A liberation movement includes all groups, whether they are church groups, women groups or political parties. They are moving towards a common goal. That is what I understand by a liberation movement, and that is why we got on so well when we formed SWANLIF. That did not mean that SWAPO or SWANU should dismantle, but that we should meet on issues of common concern and speak with one voice. We said so in the meeting with OAU: ‘We have formed this organization and this is what we stand for.’ We gave them copies of documents where we said: ‘Please, do not give money to one or the other. Give the money to the movement. Then we can decide how much we are going to use for what item. Each party will have its own share to do with it as it pleases.’ After I spoke they got up and said: ‘How do we know that you are not forming SWANLIF to get our money?’ As naive as I was, I got up and said: ‘Look, we were sent out of the country to get this organization going. We are South West Africans and we will do it with or without your help.’ And when we left the meeting, the money was immediately given to SWAPO. End of story. This is what the donors subsequently have also done. We regarded this as interference in the affairs of another country, whether we were free or not. One day when I am old I want to write a book on the birth of the concept of sole authenticity. This is where it started. It is important, because it boosted certain organizations to such an extent that they became little Hitlers. Already in those years we fought SIDA and all those people, saying: ‘You are creating a problem for us which will cause the death of many, many people.’
Tor Sellström: In Sweden, the decision to support SWAPO was taken a couple of years later. At the beginning of the 1960s, there was a close relationship with SWANU.
Ottilie Abrahams: But after the invention of sole authenticity the others were dropped. Because the elite in Africa said so. All of us had to fall into place with that! The reason why I am delivering this point is that I feel that there is a direct link between that problem and the position of the opposition today. It is like a snowball. You, the authentic party, get the money. Because of that you can get more organizers and because you have more organizers you can get more people. The thing snow-balls! Where we are now, the snowball is so big that everybody else is insignificant. The problems are going to be felt in Namibia, as they have been felt in other countries. This is where it comes from. Right from the start. If you were a person who disagreed, you went to the camps. Later on you went to the holes of ANC, SWAPO and other groups. There is a direct line here. Because of that, these parties became more bigotted than they would have been if they had been left on their own. The tradition of democracy—which is a prerequisite for health in any country—has slowly been watered down. If you look at the opposition in Namibia, it consists mostly of people who were not there in the beginning. Apart from people like Moses Katjiuongua and so on, they were not there when we started. They do not have this history of the struggle. They do not have that sense of decorum. As a result, even though people do not want to vote for the party in power, there is no alternative. Because with their support OAU and the donors made sure that there should not be any opposition.
Tor Sellström: In the case of the ruling Nordic Social Democratic Parties, multi-party democracy was, of course, a principle within the Socialist International. It was also a principle supported by the non-socialist, bourgeois parties. When you lived in Sweden, how did they react to your points of view in this context?
Ottilie Abrahams: Precisely, and that is why we kept asking them: ‘If democracy is good for you, why is it not good for us?’ We asked them! But they said: ‘Africa is different.’ They just told us that we are different! The other thing they said was that ‘we have to mobilize the Swedish society. The things that you are telling us are not important and if we must put the whole complexity of the argument in front of the Swedish people, they will not understand it.’ I said that I did not know that the Swedes were such idiots. This was the country from which Ingmar Bergman comes. If the Swedes could understand the plays of Ingmar Bergman, surely they could understand the complexities of the African political situation. But they said ‘No, you are going to confuse the people.’ That was the argument. My opinion, frankly, was that the Swedes knew exactly what we were talking about. If you want democracy you can even go to the pre-schools in Sweden. That democracy reinforced the democracy which we learnt in South Africa. It was that reinforcement of democracy that made us create schools like the one where we are sitting now and where the students are running the affairs. All this started in South Africa. It was reinforced in Sweden and is now even found in rural preschools. Not that the Swedes have given one cent to support it. The Norwegians have, but the Swedes have scrupulously avoided giving the Jakob Morenga Tutorial College one cent for the past ten years. These schools come out of their ideas. But in that country—where democracy was even part of the pre-schools— they could not understand that we were asking for democracy. Because we were not first class citizens. We were third class. And the bourgeois government in Sweden at that time, for their own reasons—maybe because they wanted to sell Volvos here after independence or whatever they wanted to sell—agreed to accept it. But when we were in Sweden we did not experience any discrimination as human beings. Up to this day I have always said that if I could not live in my own country, I would live in Sweden. I do not think that refugees were treated better in any part of the world. My children still think of themselves as Swedish citizens. As human beings we were treated very well, but not at the political level. My little children came back from school telling me that they had learnt that SWAPO was the only political party in Namibia. I said: ‘Let the Swedes teach their nonsense to people who do not know, but we know.’ Then you had SIDA coming with things like ‘liberated territories in Namibia’. We were sitting in the audience, asking them: ‘Tell us, where are those places?’
Tor Sellström: Did not Per Sandén shoot a film there in the 1970s?
Ottilie Abrahams: Per Sandén. We went to Per and said: ‘Just tell us where that place is?’ He disappeared! Anything that is based on a lie has to explode some time or other.
Tor Sellström: When Andreas Shipanga was jailed, he had some support from prominent church people, for example in England. There must, surely, have been voices also raised in the Nordic countries?
Ottilie Abrahams: We started a hell of a campaign in Sweden and because of that we have been ostracized for years by all the African governments. Even though my husband was the doctor for MPLA—and although we provided money with which they attacked the enemy—those people cannot even invite us for a ceremony. We still have to be ostracized.
Tor Sellström: When did you launch that campaign?
Ottilie Abrahams: It was just before SWAPO-Democrats was formed. And just before Shipanga and the others came out of prison. We campaigned for two years, with church people like this man in Germany, Groth, and others. He was also ostracized and is still being ostracized for telling the truth. We pursued the campaign through the Namibian Review, which we had established in Sweden with Swedish money. People smuggled out letters from the prison holes in Angola that we published in the Namibian Review . They realized that some opposition started to build up about what was happening.
Tor Sellström: You founded SWAPO-Democrats in Sweden in June 1978. Did the new party have any support there?
Ottilie Abrahams: There were lots of Swedes who understood our position, but they were not in charge. When Shipanga and these people were freed, they came to Stockholm. SWAPO-D was formed in Spånga, where we lived. But the problem was that by that time we had been in exile for thirteen years and we were totally out of touch with the sentiments of the people in Namibia. The formation of SWAPO-D was a mistake. But the feeling behind it was not a mistake. We did not want to leave SWAPO, but we wanted the accent to be on democracy. That is the problem we had with SWAPO. Historically, the establishment of that party was an expression of the wishes of some of us who came from South West Africa. We voted for SWAPO, we thought that it was a good party, but we wanted infusion of democracy.
Tor Sellström: So SWAPO-Democrats did not have any support from a political organization, church or youth movement in Sweden or the other Nordic countries?
Ottilie Abrahams: No. The mistake we made was that we thought that the people who formed SWAPOD with us were the same people whom we knew in 1963. We did not know that they were exposed to the same influences as the rest of SWAPO. The people we had in SWAPO in South Africa were real resistance people. The police used to invade their houses at three or four o’clock in the morning. They never revealed names of SWAPO people. They could be locked up, beaten or whatever, but they stuck to their comrades. Now, when we formed SWAPO-D we had not seen each other for thirteen years. But what we obviously forgot was that these people—who had also been in the leadership of SWAPO—were exposed to the same influences and were affected by this. They were thinking very similarly to SWAPO.
Tor Sellström: Why did you then form SWAPO-D in Sweden? Ottilie Abrahams : Because that is where we and other SWAPO people, like the Moongos, were living. We had numerous discussions on this before it was done. We thought that if we returned to Namibia as a group, we would know where we were going. But when we arrived in Namibia, we discovered that people were totally opposed to the formation of anything new. They were also exposed to ‘the sole and authentic’ concept and people regarded SWAPO, for very good reasons, as the liberating organization. There was no fertile ground for anything else.
Tor Sellström: Did you notice any difference between the Nordic countries in this respect? What were the reactions in the different Nordic countries to the detention of Shipanga and the formation of SWAPO-Democrats?
Ottilie Abrahams: I would say that the opinion was predominantly pro-SWAPO, but you had people—even in Finland—who disagreed with the official position. Of course, people around the Beukes in Norway were in opposition to this concept. But some had more sense than we. As my husband said one day: ‘We should actually have shut up and got onto the band-wagon.’ But there are certain things you just cannot do.
Tor Sellström: How about Denmark? The Danish government never officially recognized SWAPO as the sole and authentic movement and DANIDA channelled their funds through WUS, IUEF, Africa Education Trust etc.?
Ottilie Abrahams: In Denmark you also had individuals who were totally opposed to us. In WUS, definitely. I was not really involved there, but I got the impression that they were just as full of ‘sole authenticity’. WUS Denmark was terrible. My problem is that there were good projects coming up, real nation-building projects. But because the projects were not launched by SWAPO, they were ditched. This school is a triumph of the spirit of the people in the NGOs. In spite of all the oppression and suppression, it is now ten years old. That is why it is so important to me.
Tor Sellström: Why did you join SWAPO in the first place?
Ottilie Abrahams: One can understand why people in Namibia went to SWAPO. We were ourselves very strong SWAPO executive members. SWANU also had a good position as the oldest political party. It is probably an accident that my husband and I were both studying in Cape Town at the time. We decided that it did not matter whether we worked in SWAPO or in SWANU as long as the movement was good. There were, for example, people who did not know how to vote. We took them into the NEUM to open their minds and actually taught them how to vote. By bringing them into the NEUM we thought that influence and tradition of democracy would be brought into Namibia. That is why we joined SWAPO. But if SWANU had been in Cape Town we could probably have joined SWANU. It was a question of throwing the dice as to which organization you would support. To us it was not important who was in SWAPO. We had numerous discussions on this issue. It was a common decision that SWAPO is where we will go, but at the same time we had good relations with SWANU and helped them wherever we were.