The Nordic Africa Institute

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir

Law professor at Reykjavik University.

The interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd on 23 February 2009.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir

Proscovia Svärd: What do you do for a living?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I am a law professor.

Proscovia Svärd: At what university?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Reykjavik University.

Proscovia Svärd: I got your contacts through other activists who were active during the period when the apartheid system was still in place and they recommended me to talk to you. I am here to document the Icelandic people’s involvement in the liberation struggles, because there is no accumulated documentation as such. I have been to a couple of institutions and I have just come back from the national archives where I have been promised a list of documents on apartheid. Based on earlier interviews, it seems that the documents on the anti-apartheid activities are being kept by individuals. Therefore, I think that the efforts to capture the memory of the Icelandic people’s involvement are worthwhile. So, what was your involvement in the liberation struggles?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I believe you have talked to Sigþrúður Gunnarsdóttir?

Proscovia Svärd: Yes, I have.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: She was a schoolmate and a friend of mine. When she came back from London in the summer of 1988, where she had been active, she started being active here. That meant, that a bunch of us sort of middle-high-scholars joined her, and I think I was in the steering group for about a year. This was from mid 1988 at least 1990.

Proscovia Svärd: How were you organised?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: There was the larger organisation called SAGA and then there was a youth group within it that we called small-SAGA.

Proscovia Svärd: And SAGA is the South African Group against Apartheid?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes. I remember at least two general meetings and then some sort of youth group meetings, but they tend to fuse together in my memory now. But as I said, I remember both meeting the grown-ups quite a few times, and then also the much more frequent and much more active youth group.

Proscovia Svärd: How many were you in this youth group?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I remember the choir was probably 15 or 20 people. So we were quite a few and we sang quite a lot and we were a lot outside stores. On the 1st of May and various holidays like that, we both distributed pamphlets and sold little buttons and things like that. We also lobbied politicians a little bit.

Proscovia Svärd: What did the lobbying include, going to the parliament?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes, and talking to them. I think we got some money from the Ministry of Education once. But what I remember most clearly is the distribution of pamphlets and the singing at various political functions.

Proscovia Svärd: What motivated your engagement as a young person then?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: It seemed to me that there was a lot of unfairness in a lot of places, but this was so contained and so egregious that it was easy to get engaged. In many other situations it seemed to my sixteen year old self that you had two sides, but there, not really.

Proscovia Svärd: It was a one-sided conflict?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: A one-sided unfairness, it seemed to me. And hence, even though it was far away and we did not have first hand information, it seemed morally responsible and right to be engaged in the struggles.

Proscovia Svärd: It s a bit surprising because, during that time, according to the interviews that I have so far carried out, you had a very conservative government, and a population that actually was not very informed about the liberation struggles. How come you as young people thought you had to be part of this struggle?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I think most of the people who were active in SAGA, especially the older people were also active in various causes. By that I mean that there were people who were also involved in the Peace movement, the Israel-Palestine conflict, labour organisations and these were very engaged people. For us who were younger, it depended. Some of us were active in many causes. I was for example active in SAGA and then joined Amnesty. I think partly it is because we had the documentation that Sigþrúður had brought from England.

Proscovia Svärd: And this mainly consisted of songs?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No, she also had books and videos; I remember reading quite a bit.

Proscovia Svärd: Was the documentation on the actions in London?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes, and just general information from anti-apartheid groups and we would also watch movies to what was actually happening.

Proscovia Svärd: For how long were you involved?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I cannot remember but we spent the summer in Helsinki in 1991, I guess that it was soon after that.

Proscovia Svärd: You said we spent, was it the youth group or just a group of friends?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No, just a group of friends. I started studying at the university in the fall of 1991 and I think I was less active by then.

Proscovia Svärd: But by then Nelson Mandela had been released.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes, so I think it might have been the summer of 1990, I do not remember much after we came back from Helsinki.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you engage with any of the international solidarity groups then?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I remember that we got pamphlets and materials in the Scandinavian languages and I remember having read something in Norwegian and Swedish.

Proscovia Svärd: Who handled the contacts with the other international solidarity groups?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Sigþrúður had her contacts in London, but I seem to remember that there were some Scandinavian contacts as well.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you remember having any direct contact with the ANC?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you have contacts with any other youth groups?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No. I remember reading as I said about the methods and the things that were being done in other countries, both in England, Denmark and Norway, etc. And sorting through that, establishing “this would not work here, because people are not informed enough, but this is something that we could do”, but we had no direct contact, no.

Proscovia Svärd: Did you have any kind of leader within the youth group? Or were you all at the same level but involved in different actions?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: As I said, there was some sort of steering group but I do not remember whether it was in SAGA or the youth group. I remember being part of such a group.

Proscovia Svärd: What type of actions did you engage in to make your voices heard?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: As I said there was this sort of outreach campaign, pamphlets, and talking in schools.

Proscovia Svärd: So you used to go to the Icelandic schools and talk to the students?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes, and some people gave interviews but I do not think I ever did. We sang as I said, and we talked to people about South African goods especially at supermarkets.

Proscovia Svärd: Were you among those who placed stickers on goods and labelled them as wrongly imported groceries?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I just remember talking to people and standing beside canned fruits and saying “You know that this is manufactured in South Africa, and therefore it is not supposed to be sold”.

Proscovia Svärd: Were you also involved in the sit-down strike at the airport?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No.

Proscovia Svärd: What else did you do? Did you participate in the TV choir show?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I remember singing and I can probably still sing quite a few of these songs! And I remember singing at the Social Democrats national meeting one year, which was quite big. I remember singing quite a few times, but I do not remember where.

Proscovia Svärd: Some people have mentioned this big concert that was organised? Did you participate in the arrangements around it?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I don’t think I was in Reykjavik at the time.

Proscovia Svärd: Have you ever visited South Africa?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: No I have not. I have talked at conferences with lawyers from South Africa, and apparently it is one of the best constitutions that there is out there right now (I am a constitutional lawyer), but I have never visited – it is on my list.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you remember if there was any organised help that was extended materially to the Southern African people? In Sweden people used to collect money or gather old clothes or other equipment that they considered important and sent them off. Do you remember that happening?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: There may have been something official like that, I do not remember, but it sounds familiar – whether it is because I read about it or because we did something like that, I do not remember.

Proscovia Svärd: When you say official, what do you mean?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I seem to remember this sort of discussion in the Alþingi whether there should be some sort of aid.

Proscovia Svärd: In Alþingi, is that the Icelandic parliament?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you know if the Icelandic government cooperated with any Nordic countries in support of the liberation struggles.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I do not know. I remember being very surprised at the differing views politicians held on this, because to me it was self-evident!

Proscovia Svärd: What were the highlights of your engagement, those that you remember and would say “Yes, it was worthwhile that we did this or that”?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: For me personally the highlights would probably be some of the singing, and the selling and distribution of pamphlets and all that. But the highlight of course of the anti-apartheid struggles was that as 18-year olds in 1990, it seemed that the world was going in the right direction, which is a good thing to see when one is very young.

Proscovia Svärd: But if you move it from your personal highlight, what do you think your engagement meant for the entire struggle?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Very little.

Proscovia Svärd: Why?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Because in spite of everything, what happened here was more sort of raising the level of awareness of the Icelandic people.

Proscovia Svärd: But that was a big thing!

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: That mattered, certainly, but we did not have a strong political engagement, I mean politicians, most of them did not really want to take very strong measures.

Proscovia Svärd: Why was this?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I do not know. Possibly just distance.

Proscovia Svärd: Some other people have mentioned the fact that they were under the armpits of the US more than European countries, do you agree with them?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I do not know and I really do not have a theory on it but I think raising awareness matters and what the average person thinks matters and I think we influenced that.

Proscovia Svärd: That was a big achievement.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: But as far as the official attitude was concerned, I do not think it meant a lot.

Proscovia Svärd: When was the trade embargo reinforced?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I do not remember.

Proscovia Svärd: Other than South Africa, were you involved in other issues concerning Namibia or Zimbabwe or any other country in the region?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: We read about both, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Proscovia Svärd: What do you believe your support meant to the people of Southern Africa?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I think it was a tiny grain in the sort of general support around the world. That is what it was.

Proscovia Svärd: What do you think solidarity means today?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: I think it means respecting that all people are equally entitled to living with dignity and what they need, and respect. So I think that solidarity is hard, just as it is hard on a personal level to accept that your needs are as important as mine. Solidarity to me is that, at a higher level.

Proscovia Svärd: Do you think modern solidarity amounts to that and do you think that young generations of today are equally engaged as you were during your times?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes, I think they may choose different courses and they may articulate it differently, but I see quite a lot of political engagement.

Proscovia Svärd: That is good. So what has Africa meant to the people of Iceland?

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: That is a hard question. I think it is almost impossible to answer, because so few people have been there. All those that I have spoken to are enchanted. And I think so many people just do not think in particular about Africa, just like they do not think about Latin America, or they do not think about what is not being shown in the news every day or what affects them directly.

Proscovia Svärd: But at least your engagement contributed to their awareness of this terrible system that was in place and that was a big contribution in the history of the liberation struggles on Iceland. This is why we are trying to capture this history now for posterity.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Yes.

Proscovia Svärd: This is quite impressing because I do not think many people know that some activities took place on Iceland.

Ragnhildur Helgadóttir: Have you received any minutes from meetings because I have been trying to remember where they could be.

Proscovia Svärd: No. But I thank you so much for your time.