Founder of the Swedish Fund for the Victims of Racial Oppression in South Africa—Swedish South Africa Committee—Board member of the International Defence and Aid Fund—Vice President of Swedish Amnesty International—Member of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance—Chief editor of Dagens Nyheter Member of the European Academy of Arts and Sciences
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm 28 February 1996.
Tor Sellström: You were one of the first, and perhaps the most important, opinion maker on South Africa in Sweden. How did it start? What factors were behind the early Swedish commitment against apartheid?
Per Wästberg: I must underline that my view when I returned from Rhodesia and South Africa in 1959 was quite narrow. I wrote a great number of articles simply because I was so upset. At the time of writing these articles, my only experience of any Swedish commitment was Herbert Tingsten’s book on South Africa, which, I think, came out in 1954. I had also read one of Gunnar Helander’s books. When I came home in the autumn of 1959, I took the initiative of establishing the Fund for the Victims of Racial Oppression in South Africa. In this connection, I came for the first time in contact with others, who—by themselves or sometimes because of my articles—had become interested in Southern Africa. One of them was Olof Tandberg.
Already before going to Rhodesia in early 1959 I had been contacted by him. Olof Tandberg had in 1956 been visiting South Africa for the Swedish National Union of Students (SFS) and he had met Neville Rubin, who was then a student of law at the University of Cape Town and very much engaged in anti-apartheid work. He was the son of Leslie Rubin, who, I would say, at the time was the most dominant anti-apartheid politician with an official role. He was a Liberal, senator for the Africans and close to Alan Paton. Through Olof Tandberg I got a few addresses in South Africa. I had also read Nadine Gordimer’s first novels. That was my background.
Coming home, I again established contact with Olof Tandberg and through him with Björn Beckman, who was then a student. We were very committed. There was also a very young man, Anders Thunborg, who was the international secretary of the Social Democratic Party. He had been excited by my articles, but had also close contacts with the World University Service.
That was one of the groups which in early 1961 formed the Swedish South Africa Committee. It was parallel to the Fund for the Victims of Racial Oppression, which had been established as a kind of bona fide fund-raising operation. We were extremely energetic in trying to have signatures by leading Swedes from all over the political spectrum. I regret to say that the only person that could be regarded as conservative among the signatories was the bishop of Karlstad, Gert Borgenstierna. Otherwise, all the conservative politicians and all the people from the business sector refused to sign, while Bertil Ohlin and others from the Liberal Party, as well as leading Social Democrats and representatives of the trade unions were all right. So, it was a rather broad sector, but as opinion makers we were all the time suffering from the fact that the conservatives were so reluctant to take sides. I think that they thought that the struggle—especially after Sharpeville—was led by too many lefties. It was seen as a left engagement.
The great dividing point was, of course, the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960. It came after my articles and had an extraordinary impact. After that, South Africa was no longer ‘my field’, as it in a way had been before. The issue became more public. Television took it up. I was called there to speak, day after day. I either spoke straight out as a commentator or was interviewed. And suddenly people like Canon Collins, Robert Resha and Oliver Tambo turned up in Sweden. They were also interviewed by me on television, because there was nobody else at the time. In the beginning, I was more or less the only commentator. The Sharpeville massacre led to demonstrations. I think that Sharpeville—more than anything else—started a kind of demonstration culture here in Sweden, which later flowered with the Vietnam movement. That had been very rare in the 1950s, although in November 1956 there were demonstrations against the Russians in Hungary, but they were not that big.
The South Africa Committee organized demonstrations and we very soon lined up, in an ad hoc way, with those who were better organizers, that is, the National Council of Swedish Youth (SUL), the Social Democratic Youth (SSU), the Liberal Youth and the students. We were more or less acting like a small steering cabinet. We were quite few and did not have a membership. You could not become a member of the South Africa Committee and that is why it was so short-lived, I think. Gunnar Helander, myself and others were out speaking for the Fund for the Victims of Racial Oppression and the money we got went there. We had donations and Helander organized church collections. Then there was the question of where to send the money. In the beginning, some of it was sent to SACHED (South African Council of Higher Education) in South Africa. Neville Rubin provided that link and we were guaranteed that the money was coming to good use, and so it was. A few years later SACHED was, I think, the very first organization in South Africa that SIDA supported.
Already at the time of Sharpeville I got to know about Canon Collins and the British Defence and Aid Fund. I then went to London. I think that it was in the autumn of 1960, when Tambo had fled with Ronald Segal. I met Patrick van Rensburg for the first time at Canon Collins’ house. He was devoting all his time to the potato boycott after the revelations of child slavery on the Bethal farms by Joe Slovo and Ruth First in Fighting Talk and New Age. After that visit, more or less all the funds were channelled to IDAF, except for a small amount of petty cash with which we helped people who came to Sweden, for instance the Golden City Dixies. They were the first to seek asylum in Sweden. They played at Gröna Lund and Gunnar Helander and I were suddenly called there by the director and the police. They had defected after a concert and somebody had to establish their bona fide . Helander and I signed almost like a pledge that they were all right— not spies or anything—after having talked to them for quite a long time. Peter Radise was their leader. Anyway, the Fund was based on collections from churches and private individuals until SIDA started to support Defence and Aid from 1964. We then renamed it the Swedish Defence and Aid Fund and all the money went straight to IDAF in London.
Tor Sellström: You mentioned the Swedish National Union of Students, SFS. At one stage in the 1950s, Olof Palme was the chairman of SFS. Do you remember if he had an involvement with South or Southern Africa at that time?
Per Wästberg: Well, not with me. In 1959, when I returned, Palme’s commitment was very much with the American blacks and with India. I do not know if he had his eyes on South Africa. I think that it came slightly later, with Sharpeville. He had possibly also read Tingsten’s articles.
Tor Sellström: If you look at the names of those who signed that first appeal, you find a strong group of people representing a liberal tradition. In the journalistic field opinion makers like Ivar Harrie, Herbert Tingsten, Torgny Segerstedt and others were also of that tradition. How did they react to the fact that ANC later on embarked upon armed struggle? Was that a divisive issue?
Per Wästberg: Not in a serious sense. When the United Nations declared that South Africa was a threat against peace it became a non-issue. Also, when Nelson Mandela turned up in London in 1962, he went to Canon Collins and said: ‘You are a Christian organization and we will need your support if we turn to violence.’ And Collins said: ‘It is OK. We understand you. We will support you nevertheless.’ Which Amnesty International refused to do and which I think that Nelson Mandela up to this day cannot forgive them for. I took it up with him at one point and he said that he could not understand that.
Especially Oliver Tambo had close relations to John Collins. It was not a father-and-son relationship, because they were of the same age, but, nevertheless, it was something like that. They were extremely close. And Trevor Huddleston and Oliver Tambo were almost the same person. Trevor Huddleston would like to die only to see Tambo in heaven. For Oliver Tambo, I think that IDAF and all it stood for, as well as John Collins as a person, represented the very best in the liberation struggle. But Mandela does not mention IDAF in his autobiography. One of the reasons, I think, is that it was written by an American ghost writer who apparently cut out an extraordinary amount of ‘boring’ stuff about organizations, committees, councils and so on. The other thing is the Winnie Mandela trial. IDAF financed a lawyer, but it was not enough in Nelson’s view, I think. They should have done much more and come out openly for Winnie at the time. I do not know what he thinks today.
Tor Sellström: So the ANC leadership—the Robben Island generation—would have known about IDAF?
Per Wästberg: Yes. They would have known on Robben Island. Certainly. There was, however, one question where there were conflicts between IDAF and ANC and that was Robert Resha’s anti-Soviet stance. The main problem was that Canon Collins defended Robert Resha when he was expelled for not obeying the Communist sector within ANC, with J.B. Marks sitting on the money in Moscow. Suddenly Resha got no pay. He was frozen out. He was a lovely person. I got to know him well. If I am not mistaken, he was the first ANC representative to come to Sweden and talk on Swedish television and also, I think, on the First of May 1961.
I think that the question of violence—because of the support of IDAF and of other church people, also in Sweden, and of the explanations given by a number of us who supported ANC—did not come up as something divisive. Of course, later, when there was big SIDA support to ANC, questions were raised in parliament and everywhere about weapons. I think that one of the consequences of this was that ANC’s accounting became better than that of many of SIDA’s programme countries. The South Africans had tried to falsify invoices, saying that there were weapons involved.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that one of the reasons why many Swedish politicians could see beyond the Communist dimension and the question of violence was that they had early personal relations with the nationalist leaders from Southern Africa?
Per Wästberg: I think that that is very true. One also has to take into account the role played by Nyerere, who came on the political scene in 1961, and Kaunda. They were socialists, humanitarians and against violence. There were quite a few Swedes who met them. Nyerere came to Sweden a number of times between 1961 and 1965. Nyerere and Kaunda acted as bridge-builders and South Africa was seen to be at the end of the decolonization process.
The conservatives were not uninterested and they did not really put up great resistance. One of the reasons why the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance had representatives from different political parties, including the Moderate Party, was that they should see where the money went, which, of course, was a secret. But that was much later. I think that the Dag Hammarskjöld tradition and Sweden’s involvement in the UN also played a role. There were so many factors behind our confidence in these people. There was much more confidence in Nyerere, Tambo, Mondlane etc. than in Nkrumah, Sekou Touré and the other West African leaders.
Tor Sellström: You were close to many of the Southern African leaders. How do you think that they saw the Nordic countries at the beginning of the 1960s? Did they view them as Western capitalist countries or as socialist countries?
Per Wästberg: They saw us, I think, as Western, but social democratic. Most of them saw us as an ideal, while the Russians were necessary for them and they felt attracted to the Americans because of their freedom tradition. England was the colonial power. Also, we were a small country and they were small. That was a kind of link. And, again, Hammarskjöld was such a name in Africa, especially after being killed on African soil.
There was also the Swedish missionary tradition. An amazing number of Africans in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania had come into contact with Swedes—and with Finns in Namibia—through the missions. Oliver Tambo came here every year, sometimes several times a year. Clearly, he recognized in the Swedes people who were on the same wavelength. He had a missionary background and was a Christian. He had the most civilized behaviour. He was not a Che Guevara or anybody in fatigues. He was just a firm, but a very nice and civilized chap. The same goes for Mondlane, with his American background. Well, almost anybody. I think that there was a sort of chemistry which had to do with certain values.
The difficulty in the early years was that we were so unused to meeting these people on a formal basis. There was much hush-hush so as not to disturb the Portuguese embassy, the British or the South Africans. It meant that on his visits Mondlane was taken by Palme and others to different restaurants or to my place, because they just could not be seen inside the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This was also true of others. They were never let in officially. SIDA was a bit easier, generally. Of course, SIDA was separate from the ministry. It also took some time before direct public support to the liberation movements was accepted. In the beginning, it had to go through NGOs and this was very much the conservative viewpoint. They warned that they would oppose assistance unless it went through NGOs or through the Red Cross. Guinea-Bissau was such a case.
Amílcar Cabral was, of course, the idol of many. His visits to Sweden made a very big impression. I do not remember how many times he was here. Agostinho Neto—whose umbrella I kept for a very long time; it was forgotten in my place—was much shyer. A difficult person, I think. You could not think of him as a popular speaker.
Tor Sellström: The Swedish government supported the so-called authentic liberation movements. In addition, support was channelled to ZANU. In your view, why was Swedish assistance never extended to other liberation movements, such as FNLA and UNITA of Angola or PAC and Inkatha of South Africa?
Per Wästberg: On the whole we supported the first movements and not the breakaway groups, except for ZANU. In the case of FRELIMO it was not complicated. There were dissidents within FRELIMO and they came here, but they did not make enough impression. With regard to Angola, I think that everybody who had met Holden Roberto and other representatives of FNLA—often dressed in smart suits—could not trust them a bit. Even if Roberto tried to seduce the Liberals and also managed to some extent. I have met him a few times. I immediately thought that this was a person that you should not have any deep relations with, regardless of ideology. He was a tribal man, I would say. It was recognized.
Tor Sellström: You wrote a strong article on Angola in Dagens Nyheter at the beginning of 1975.
Per Wästberg: Yes, against David Wirmark, who was trying to argue in favour of FNLA.
Tor Sellström: His position was to support both movements?
Per Wästberg: Yes. My brother, Olle Wästberg, also went around parts of Angola with Roberto and FNLA.
Regarding UNITA, I think that in the beginning several of us were giving them a chance, which was never the case with FNLA. At one stage, Jonas Savimbi came to Sweden and I remember how Pierre Schori and I—only the two of us—sat with him in the basement of the restaurant Aurora in Stockholm, very isolated. There was nobody else. I think that we talked for five hours. Savimbi was, of course, here in order to get support. I was not totally impressed and to Schori’s credit I must say that he was even less impressed. But we both recognized that Savimbi—in contrast to Roberto—was a forceful, persuasive talker and a personality. Not unsympathetic. Very civilized, one thought at the time.
When it comes to Namibia, I think that SWAPO in the early stages was seen as a tribal Owambo group. SWANU was more of a broadly based intellectual organization. But it never became a serious issue, because the involvement was weak with both SWANU and SWAPO and, finally, when SWANU was no longer there, there was no alternative.
In Zimbabwe, I think that very much was due to the fact that Mugabe was seen as a forceful intellectual. Although he was a Marxist, he was a Western intellectual that one recognized and talked to, while Nkomo, especially, was eating too many desserts. Sithole was an extraordinary drunkard and Muzorewa was a sell-out, more or less. While Mugabe was in jail he could communicate all the time. This was the paradox. He gave orders. Herbert Chitepo was the main ZANU figure in exile and he was a very likeable man.
Regarding South Africa and PAC, there was no question of ever supporting an organization that was more or less fraudulent and that could not take care of money. They had Robert Sobukwe in the beginning and then, if you like, Steve Biko on the black consciousness side, but PAC as an organization was never reliable. There was infighting and they were killing each other. They were absolutely impossible. The Unity Movement was impossible too. Buthelezi also came to Sweden. I met him twice, in Uppsala and Stockholm. He gave me a book and I saw to my horror that it was signed by Buthelezi, ‘your brother in the struggle’ or something like that. That was in 1977, I think. I especially remember one meeting, a long session and a dinner that we had at the Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala with with Ernst Michanek and Sven Hamrell. I suppose that we met on a kind of neutral ground, because Michanek was either the chairman or the vice chairman of the Hammarskjöld Foundation.
Buthelezi was very civilised and softspoken, making the argument that he was ANC inside the country. This was at the time when there were relations between Tambo and Buthelezi. What he asked for, I remember, was that SIDA should finance an Inkatha journal of gardening and agriculture in Zulu through which he could smuggle political messages. Inkatha, I think, had just been founded. He talked about Inkatha in enticing terms, saying that this was a new peace movement that could not call itself ANC, but, in fact, was ANC. We were slightly seduced, but it came to nothing and again I think that Pierre Schori, who was then international secretary of the Social Democratic Party, was more sceptical than Michanek and I. He totally ruled Inkatha out as too tribal and too uncertain. He was very firm.
Tor Sellström: Questions regarding Swedish humanitarian support were discussed in the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, where you from the very beginning were a member. How do you see the role of the committee vis-à-vis the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and SIDA?
Per Wästberg: When Ernst Michanek was offered the position as Director General of SIDA instead of Minister of Social Affairs, he contacted me. We had never met, but I had been very impressed by him from newspaper articles and television programmes on social issues. He did not know much about Africa at all. I gave him a list of books. He was one of the most receptive persons that I have ever met. Very soon he seemed to know everything. He immediately had the idea of a committee to deal in camera with all the sensitive issues in order not to get into trouble with embassies and the political parties.
It started as a very loose committee, with Stig Abelin, Leif Kihlberg and Tord Palmlund as SIDA officials and Gunnar Helander, Sven Hamrell and myself as outside experts. It was quite small and extremely informal. I do not know if there even were any minutes from the very first meetings. I cannot remember us having a secretary. We just chatted. It was like sitting at a coffee table. We traded information, simply. Then gradually, but only slowly, it was widened, but I think that at this early stage there was no representative from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. I cannot say at what stage somebody from the ministry came in. I was absent from 1976 until 1982, when I was chief editor at Dagens Nyheter and not allowed to have any official appointments.
Tor Sellström: Were the committee members appointed by the government?
Per Wästberg: Yes. The security aspect was very much underlined in the 1970s, but, in retrospect, it is extraordinary how the support was conducted on simple personal trust.
Tor Sellström: As a writer and an influential representative in international cultural organizations, how did you look upon the cultural boycott of South Africa?
Per Wästberg: I think that I from the beginning recognized that a cultural boycott was a much more complicated affair than other boycotts. We drew a strict line, perhaps too strict, in accordance with the wishes of ANC. But when it came to free cultural expression, it was more difficult. There were some crucial episodes. One was when Astrid Lindgren phoned and said that they would like to translate Pippi Långstrump (Pippi Longstocking) and several of her books into Afrikaans. Should she allow this? At the time, I simply said that it depended on herself. One could argue that Pippi Långstrump was a revolutionary, especially in the conservative Afrikaner context. On the other hand, hardly any black family would be able to buy these books. I think that the end result was that she did not allow it. Then Peter Weiss, a revolutionary and Marxist writer, phoned me and said that the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, which was then just starting, would like to put on his famous play The Murder of Marat about rebellion against a totalitarian society. I said that my interpretation of the boycott would be that he should allow it, because the Market Theatre was a multi-racial theatre. Eventually, the play was performed and was a great success. I took the question of the cultural boycott up with Oliver Tambo time and time again. I thought that it was tricky and he also realized that from the beginning. The absolute boycott was lifted by a lecture by Oliver Tambo in honour of John Collins. It must have been in 1982 or 1983, when Tambo in a very subtle manner said that cultural expression and art for the benefit of the people should be allowed. That was a turning point. I think that cultural boycotts are always very tricky, but I also think that Sweden followed the boycott of South Africa more strictly than any other country.