SWAPO—Chief Representative to the United Kingdom and Western Europe—Secretary of Information and PublicityVice-Chancellor of the University of Namibia
The interview was held by Tor Sällström in Windhoek, 20 March 1995.
Tor Sellström: In general terms, how would you describe the Nordic support to the liberation struggle in Southern Africa and Namibia?
Peter Katjavivi: The Nordic support was extremely important in a variety of ways. First of all, there was the educational and humanitarian assistance, given on the understanding that there was an obvious need to reinforce the liberation movements, who by themselves were responsible for a number of people but did not have the resources to assist the refugees. Many Namibian women and young children who had fled the country were found in refugee camps, initially in Zambia and later in Angola. I think that the underlying understanding by the Nordic countries was that they made a distinction between humanitarian assistance and the recognition that you might extend to a liberation movement.
I think that they felt that this was an important form of help, which they were ready to give. I recall my particular experience in Norway. In 1969-70, the word ‘resistance’ was well understood by most people there and they identified with what we were trying to do. They might not agree with the method that we were using, but there was a very strong feeling that we were involved in a resistance, designed to achieve freedom and liberation.
Another important consideration was that we as a party immediately understood that it was important not to simply leave our people in the care of UNHCR. We were not ordinary refugees. We were refugees who were out to prepare ourselves to make a contribution towards the liberation of our country. The idea of being in a refugee camp was not to settle there indefinitely. It was an opportunity to regroup and acquire the necessary skills and competence while we were in exile. It became a training camp, where you acquired skills that might be needed in an independent Namibia. I think that that consideration was well understood by the Nordic countries. We were able to have nurses, who could look after the refugees, to have people with skills in carpentry and in agricultural activities etc. This led to the realization that we needed to create a spirit of self-reliance and not simply be spoon-fed by aid. It helped to build capacity within the movement, by helping its members to help themselves. I think that that is what happened. We were helped to help ourselves.
Let me move to another important area: I think that a number of institutions, organizations, churches and solidarity movements— like the Africa Groups in Sweden and others— played an important role in assisting us to develop ways and means of reaching out to the home base. It was extremely important that we were able to maintain the political initiative inside the country. We were not able to be on the spot, but through the assistance we received—initially from the churches and later from the trade unions and from the youth and solidarity organizations—we were able to develop a mechanism to reinforce and strengthen our lines of communication with the colleagues inside the country. I was in the middle of that, using London as a base.
We were able to provide funds directly from exile into the country. The party was then able to organize itself and its activities inside Namibia. I refer to a number of colleagues who were involved, like our Chairman David Meroro, Aaron Mushimba, Axel Johannes, Nico Bessinger, Daniel Tjongarero etc. I can go on mentioning names, like Reverend Kameeta and Martha Ford. This was done through whatever opportunities we had at the time, including a number of old friends from Sweden, who were linked to the churches and were able to spend time here. At the same time, we maintained links with the party officials and were able to co-ordinate activities and update them on the activities of the movement abroad. Necessary briefings were conducted on that basis. With regard to the funding that we were able to provide it was important that we encouraged our leaders and our colleagues inside the country to develop a culture of sharing those funds as much as possible.
Under those conditions, we were also conscious of the fact that any information could be used against individuals and against the party itself if it happened to land in the wrong hands. We were very anxious that the South African agents did not discover that network we had been able to establish between SWAPO in exile and the SWAPO leadership inside the country.
When the South Africans started the Turnhalle project it was important to counter their policies. An initiative developed within the leadership of SWAPO in Namibia and they consulted with us in exile. The process of constitutional discussions was initiated. The colleagues in Namibia wanted a discussion paper which could be used as a talking point within the country. There were meetings in Windhoek and Rehoboth, in Otjivarongo, Okahandja, Walvis Bay and so on. We were able to organize this through Amnesty International or the International Defence and Aid Fund. We received funds from them and lined up a colleague to go to Namibia. I happened to be in Oslo attending some meetings when our colleague was ready to fly to Namibia with this important document. He came to see me in Oslo. It was just a hand-written piece of paper. I called Hans Beukes to come and join me. I involved him in checking some of the wording of this paper. The original idea was to discuss it in Lusaka with some colleagues, including Moses Garoeb. Eventually, the person flew directly to Namibia.
This is how the discussion paper on Namibia’s future constitution started. Eventually, there were a number of versions from the original text to a fourth, fifth and sixth revised version. This is the constitutional framework. It goes back to the 1970s, when we started to engage in this particular exercise discussing the concept of an ombudsman, the independence of the judiciary and so on. These were questions which were touched upon not only by SWAPO in exile, but also shared with our colleagues inside the country.
Again, I want to underline the role which the Nordic countries played in this regard. The funding sources can be traced to Nordic bodies which were actively involved in helping us to be able to achieve all this work. I remember a number of colleagues of mine at the Swedish embassy in Lusaka and at the Swedish embassy in London. It is tremendous when you think about it. These people basically positioned themselves behind you. They were not always visible. Nobody knew about that, but the underlying interest and commitment was just tremendous. That kind of international solidarity and understanding is what helped us to do as much as we did.
We are talking about a particular generation of people, who appeared on the scene at a very special time. There was a sense of good will. At no time did we feel that they were condescending. They were people who were committed to something. They were prepared to reinforce the struggle by working in partnership.
Tor Sellström: It was then a concerned partnership rather than a paternalistic relationship?
Peter Katjavivi: Absolutely. It goes back to the days of the late Olof Palme and what he did for the cause of this country when a number of compatriots arrived in Sweden. The way they were received and Olof Palme’s own commitment. Through his activity, the first international conference ever on the question of Namibia was held. It was presided over by Palme in Oxford in 1966. That commitment and support continued for many years. It was from a leadership, a party and a country. It was a country’s commitment in many ways. I think that that is a kind of tradition which in many ways has characterized the Nordic support.
In the minutes of the SWAPO Central Committee from the 1970s, the support is recognized. The minutes tell you that at the end of every Central Committee we normally issued a declaration and I cannot recall one single SWAPO Central Committee where we did not indicate our thanks and appreciation to the Nordic countries in terms of the material given and the policy of support to our cause. The unwavering nature of the Nordic support was always applauded and recognized in black and white.
Tor Sellström: On the other hand, in the Nordic countries there was criticism from the political left. It would say that it was not enough to give humanitarian support. There should also be armed assistance. By not giving armed support to the liberation movements, the governments of the Nordic countries showed their real interests, namely a hidden agenda to make Southern Africa safe for capitalism? Peter Katjavivi: As a national liberation movement we would say that we had our own agenda. We were looking for support from countries in terms of international solidarity and goodwill to the cause of the people of Namibia. We were realistic as to the world we lived in.
I remember my own experience in Oslo. One year I was at a big international conference there. We were from different parts of the world. There were people from the Black Panthers of the USA, who went all over the world campaigning for support. When someone from that party spoke, a houseful came. It was very dramatic. Then I spoke. We had a clear mission in terms of what we were trying to gain. Within the Western world, North America and Europe in general, we were looking to consolidate the solidarity on the basis of the objective conditions which prevailed. We were not there to question whether one should be socialist or whatever. We accepted the reality of the situation. I did not ask for arms. I asked for concrete support of solidarity, educational support for our young people and other things that I thought were obtainable and more realistic and efficient in support of our cause.
We knew where to go for arms, that was not the problem. The problem was to build strong solidarity support for the cause. For the liberation struggle we knew where to go. Africa had made that commitment. We were supported by OAU, with the Liberation Committee facilitating the supply of arms. But in terms of what we needed in Western Europe we knew what we were looking for. I think that that is what made a distinction between our liberation struggle and other causes which appeared on the scene, wanting this and that.
Tor Sellström: What underlined the Nordic commitment was the question of apartheid, illegal occupation and minority rule in Southern Africa. Other liberation movements in the world never received the same response?
Peter Katjavivi: I am happy that someone is doing this study. It is a question of doing justice to a long tradition of support to the liberation of the entire Southern African sub-continent. It is a unique experience on the part of the people who were involved in this particular process. I think that it is also a major contribution in terms of the resources and the commitment made by the Nordic governments.
You owe it to the people of the Nordic countries to have it on record, so that future generations can understand that at a given time in history the people of the Nordic world stood up in a remarkable way and provided assistance which was a major source of strength to many of us in the region. Another important thing is that it should be pleasing to our friends in the Nordic world to have assisted a people, or a party like SWAPO, and actually be able to see that what we said at that time was not just propaganda. We meant it.
Tor Sellström: One question raised by people from the political opposition is that OAU sought one sole and authentic liberation movement. In turn, this would have created an imbalance in the democratic system needed upon independence?
Peter Katjavivi: I think that we cannot rewrite our history. The critical issue with regard to the decision of organizing SWAPO as the sole and authentic representative of the people of Namibia is the fact that after several years of struggle and patient persuasion of the South African regime to reason with the UN it became quite clear that you needed to build a strong alternative force. We were in a situation where SWAPO had to embark upon and intensify the liberation struggle, mobilizing its forces at home and abroad, as well as the international community. We witnessed a situation as during the Second World War in Europe. ‘Unite for peace, unite for a common issue, forget our differences’. It was a national resistance struggle to rescue the country from foreign occupation. I think that we all realized that unless we presented a united front we would continue to be under South African slavery. The purpose was to make sure that South Africa understood the seriousness of the commitment we made on behalf of the people of Namibia. It did not necessarily mean that we were not interested in encouraging a multi-party democracy, or pluralism. It was simply for the purpose of carrying out a decisive and unified liberation struggle. What happens afterwards, in an independent Namibia, is entirely a domestic matter. I think that we should be able to make that distinction. I also think that even among our white compatriots, there were people who were seriously concerned about the possibility of South Africa organizing her own half-solutions or neo-colonial solutions. SWAPO was the only visible force. We did not have the situation that occurred in Zimbabwe or in Angola. Namibia was an easy case, with one movement which was clearly committed and was visible. Everybody could see that for themselves. OAU or the UN had no major problem in deciding. But I would also like to say that many of us did recognize the fact that we were, and are, the authentic representative of the people of Namibia. It became a heavy responsibility. It meant that we should also care for those who were not members of SWAPO. We found that we needed to do something about that. We provided scholarships and support to Namibian students who were not members of SWAPO. We provided them with whatever facilities were under our care. We were also willing to help and unify professional Namibians who could be employed by foreign governments in Africa or elsewhere.
Some of my Namibian compatriots came to me to ask for support, knowing that they talked to a SWAPO person. I never hesitated to say that we will do the best that we can. We had an overall obligation to assist not only members of the party, but everyone.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the Nordic countries helped to expand your support internationally? Did the Nordic support help you to erode the resistance shown by other Western countries, like Britain, France, Germany and the United States?
Peter Katjavivi: I think that the support was crucial in a variety of ways, because it was expressed at different levels. For instance, within the UN system we had a UN Council for Namibia running an important UN Institute in Lusaka, Zambia. We had a UN Trust Fund, through which a number of our students were funded with scholarships and you had the initial support given to a number of agencies like IDAF in London, Amnesty International and Christian Aid.
These funds were all directed to provide educational and humanitarian support systems. They played an important role. When I went to London to set up the first SWAPO office there in 1968, I was received by the head of IDAF, the late Canon Collins, through whom support was channelled to cover trials in Namibia. Funds were also made available to send observers to a number of major trials. Almost every year you had one, two or three major trials. We were able to enlist the services of lawyers to take on these cases after we had been able to work together, particularly with Sweden, to provide us with the funding.
I think that the support highlighted the concern of the international community over the plight of the Namibian people and the general situation in Southern Africa.
Some of the countries—also those who were not with us and who were not prepared to support us in this way—obviously felt embarrassed. There were individuals in a country like the UK who were embarrassed that their own government did absolutely nothing. It was talked about. In the House of Commons there were comments by the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. In Germany, the same thing. But it did not encourage a favourable climate within those countries for obvious reasons, that is, the strong ties which existed between, for instance, the UK and South Africa. In the particular case of Zimbabwe, at the time of independence they were objecting to the Swedish humanitarian support to the liberation movements. I remember a distinguished personality in the UK saying: ‘It is holding things up.’ I was a bit amazed by that comment. I thought that they should be thankful that there were people in the West who were supportive of the liberation struggle in our part of the world.
By and large, what the Nordic support meant to us is that it distinguished those societies from the rest of the Western world. It was a lesson to us. It was a pleasant experience to know that there were people who were with us while the going was tough. They did not join us after independence. We had been together and that is something which I think most of us value. Whatever happens in the years to come, the relationship was not built yesterday. It is much deeper and I am confident that it will stand whatever pressures of time.