Rev. Rune Forsbeck
Swedish Ecumenical Council
The interview was held by Bertil Högberg on 17 November 2005.
Rev. Rune Forsbeck was the Secretary General of the Swedish Ecumenical Council (predecessor to the Christian Council of Sweden) from 1985. Here he tells the story of the council’s support to the liberation struggle by giving scholarships, among other kinds of support. He also describes the cooperation with ISAK and the work they did together.
Bertil Högberg: It is 17 November 2005. I am sitting with Rune Forsbeck. How and when did you become involved in the struggle for Southern African liberation?
Rune Forsbeck: It was when I took up my position as the Secretary General of the Swedish Ecumenical Council, the predecessor of the Christian Council of Sweden. I took that position at the beginning of August, 1985 and my predecessor told me that there was an involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and that the involvement had to be kept very secret. He gave me the information about it that I needed. I had to think about whether I should inform the leadership of the council or not. Finally I decided to do so, to tell them that there was an engagement, inspired and asked for by the Swedish government.
Bertil Högberg: Was it the government who said that it must be kept secret?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, it was.
Bertil Högberg: If you go back, that wasn't the first instance where you had some kind of involvement when it came to the issues around apartheid and so on?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes and no, because like everybody in Sweden at that time, every person who was following what was happening in the world, I knew what was going on in South Africa and I read articles and some books. But I had no direct involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle. The direct involvement started when I became general secretary.
Bertil Högberg: You were never involved in the boycott in the beginning, in the 1960s?
Rune Forsbeck: No, I wasn't.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, what was your position before you came to the council?
Rune Forsbeck: I was pastor in the congregation in Lidingö outside Stockholm, where I still live with my wife.
Bertil Högberg: And that belongs to which church?
Rune Forsbeck: It belongs to the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden.
Bertil Högberg: Can you describe what activities the council was involved with?
Rune Forsbeck: As far as I remember, it was only the so-called scholarship programme and one or two more projects. There were not so many scholarship receivers at that time. I think there were only 12 or 15. Very soon the Foreign Ministry took contact and asked the Swedish Ecumenical Council for more involvement, more engagement, and also to take responsibility for other kinds of projects. During the more than eight years that I worked for the Council, the scholarship programme grew all the time. If I remember rightly, at the end in 1993, when the Swedish Ecumenical Council was dissolved, we had some 300 scholarship receivers.
Bertil Högberg: Who administered those scholarships in South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: We cooperated in the scholarship programme with the Ecumenical Advice Bureau run by Beyers Naudé and Wolfram Kistner in Johannesburg.
Bertil Högberg: You must also have had some contact with the South African Council of Churches?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, of course. When I came to the Swedish Ecumenical Council Beyers Naudé was General Secretary of SACC, and we had a lot of contacts, both concerning the scholarship programmes and for other reasons. We became involved in many projects and programmes and the initiative was taken by the Swedish legation in Pretoria. They suggested different projects and then we were asked by the Foreign Ministry to submit an application and then administer the project and send the money to South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: If one goes back in the history of the Ecumenical Council and looks at the 1970s, which was before you joined it, the Ecumenical Council was very active on the sanctions issue.
Rune Forsbeck: That's right, yes.
Bertil Högberg: They were actually the ones pushing that issue towards the first law, the solidarity movement in itself had not really woken up on that issue yet. Were these issues about sanctions still something that was talked about and discussed within the Ecumenical Council in the years when you were there?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, all the time we had contacts with the Isolate South Africa Committee, ISAK, in Sweden and I reported back to the Council about these contacts.
Bertil Högberg: So you worked together with ISAK on certain campaigns?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, we did and very often I called the ISAK office to get advice and information and so on. We had tight links with one another.
Bertil Högberg: But you were formally not members?
Rune Forsbeck: No, we were not members.
Bertil Högberg: One of the issues for discussion among the churches in the 1970s was about the World Council of Churches’ involvement in the Programme to Combat Racism, PCR.
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: That was also supported from Sweden. Were you involved from the Ecumenical Council in that support or was that direct, via the churches?
Rune Forsbeck: It was both one and the other. At the beginning some support was given by the churches, I think The Church of Sweden and The Mission Covenant Church and Sweden, but rather soon the support to PCR – and it was a substantial support – was coordinated via The Swedish Ecumenical Council.
Bertil Högberg: Were issues around Southern Africa, apart from the more secret type of programme, something that you often discussed within the Council?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes. To me it was very important to keep the executive committee informed about what I was doing. So I reported all the time about the contacts and the committee said yes, this is right, you should do so. But in a way it was still secret; we tried to keep the information within certain limits and not to tell everybody about our involvement.
Bertil Högberg: Were there any conflicts around any statements or any positions that the Council took around the issue of South Africa within the Ecumenical movement?
Rune Forsbeck: I think the right answer this time is also yes and no. I can't remember any big discussions or arguments about this. I know that some of the church leaders might question the amount of time I spent on these issues. I think that they could ask themselves at least if it is reasonable that our general secretary takes so much time for this and puts so much energy in this work? I remember specially once, when we discussed from where we got information about the situation in South Africa, that the Roman Catholic bishop asked me about my source in South Africa and I replied that I think it is necessary to have more than one source to know what is going on in South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: There were some churches that were not really happy about the support for sanctions.
Rune Forsbeck: Oh, yes.
Bertil Högberg: And how did they react?
Rune Forsbeck: You know our work didn't deal with sanctions so much as with support to different projects and programmes, different organizations and also different publishing houses. As far as I remember we did not discuss the issue of sanctions much within the Council. I think that many of the church leaders thought like this, “If our general secretary wants to do this kind of work and is willing to report back to us on what he is doing, he might go on, it is okay”.
Bertil Högberg: You mentioned that the scholarship programme was administered by Beyers Naudé’s organization in South Africa.
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: But then you said the support grew to other areas. Can you mention other institutions that got support?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, for instance the Institute for Contextual Theology. We gave support to the Institute and other organizations, and when I say support, it was mainly financial support. We applied for money from the Swedish government through SIDA, the Swedish International Development Authority. We sent the money to the different organizations. Sometimes we had to take another route, as we could not always send money directly to South Africa, but we could send it to England first, to Oxfam I think, and they sent the money on. That is one example. We also supported three or four publishing houses, Skotaville Publishers for instance, Taurus, and Ravan Press. We gave support to NECC, the National Education Crisis Committee, a programme to educate teachers. We supported an organization called Diakonia in Durban and also gave support to the Call of Islam in Cape Town.
Bertil Högberg: Did it ever become an issue in the Council that you supported an Islamic organisation?
Rune Forsbeck: No, we all agreed that as this was an anti-apartheid struggle, it was right to support our Muslim brothers and sisters. I was very impressed by the work that was done by the Call of Islam in Cape Town, especially their work for and with women. That was not debated. We also supported the Reformed churches in their endeavour to unite. I try to remember the names of the churches.
Bertil Högberg: Now they are called the Uniting Reformed Churches.
Rune Forsbeck: That's right. We also had contact and gave support to an organization of the indigenous churches, but they used another word I think rather than indigenous.
Bertil Högberg: Independent churches.
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, independent churches, and we also had a visit here in Stockholm by one of the leaders from that organization, a bishop, I don't remember his name now, but I remember him very well.
Bertil Högberg: You had visitors coming from South Africa and did you also visit South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, I had the opportunity to go there four times. In 1990 for the first time and then in 1991, 1992 and 1993. My last visit was within PEMSA, as we called it in Sweden, the Peace Monitoring Programme that many different organizations in Sweden participated in. My first visit was in 1990, and we planned to send an ecumenical delegation from Sweden to South Africa but that was impossible, the South African government did not allow us to go to South Africa. So we decided to invite our South African and Namibian friends to send a delegation to Sweden instead. They came, I don't remember which year, and that delegation consisted of 12 people. They were split up in smaller groups and went to different parts of Sweden to try to establish more personal contacts between congregations in Sweden and congregations in South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: Was that successful?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, I would say that it was successful.
Bertil Högberg: What would you say that personal contacts meant in this whole thing?
Rune Forsbeck: I think they are crucial, they are very important. If you get a personal contact, you get another kind of understanding of the situation than you would have otherwise.
Bertil Högberg: Were there were many representatives in the Council who had their own personal contacts in South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: No I don't think so. Maybe some had, for instance the leader of my own church knew Beyers Naudé personally. I think they had met at international ecumenical organizations. Maybe Krister Stendahl, who was president of the executive committee in the beginning, knew Desmond Tutu.
Bertil Högberg: He was the bishop of the Lutheran Church of Sweden in Stockholm.
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Okay. We have talked about South Africa but what were your relations to Namibia? Did you have any contacts with the ecumenical movement there?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, I met my colleague Abisai Shejavali two or three times in Geneva. I also took part in a conference in Zambia. It was a conference for the churches and the liberation movements in Southern Africa at the end of the 1980s. That conference was very important for most of the churches and the liberation movements as far as I understand and at that conference it was noted that it was the first time that Oliver Tambo and Beyers Naudé met. At that conference I made some legwork for the delegation I mentioned, the South African-Namibian delegation to Sweden.
Bertil Högberg: There were people coming, to the conference, from inside South Africa and Namibia as well as the liberation movements?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, and also those who lived in exile.
Bertil Högberg: Were there more Swedes at that conference?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, there were also people from the foreign office.
Bertil Högberg: But you represented the church movement?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Did you have any contacts on the ecumenical level with the other countries in Southern Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: Not directly, but I met representatives of the National Councils of Churches at the worldwide meetings for National Councils of Churches and of course also when we had meetings for General Secretaries from the whole world in Geneva. I knew them, but our formal contacts as a Council were limited to South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: If we go back to the Swedish scene, you said that there was close cooperation with ISAK. Can you mention some of the campaigns that you were involved in together?
Rune Forsbeck: What first comes to my mind are the demonstrations combined with services outside the South African legation on Linnégatan in Stockholm. We also wrote petitions together and tried to come inside the doors of the legation to hand over these petitions or papers, but we were never let in, so we had to drop everything in the letter box of the legation.
Bertil Högberg: I remember scanning some pictures for the archives from those events. They were often organised around political prisoners, weren’t they?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: There were pictures of demonstrations with representatives from churches standing outside waving various placards together with ISAK.
Rune Forsbeck: Release Nelson Mandela, and so on.
Bertil Högberg: And other political prisoners. At one time I think you campaigned when Allan Boesak was detained?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: Were you involved together with ISAK in that as well?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, we were. Allan Boesak visited Sweden two or three times and we met him and he also met with the church leaders on these occasions. I remember specially meeting him in the home of Olle Engström who for many years was a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches.
Bertil Högberg: Did you work with any other organizations in Sweden around any campaigns on South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: No, not more than in the PEMSA programme I mentioned. It was a very broad campaign in which many Swedish organizations were involved.
Bertil Högberg: What about on the Nordic level? Did you have any contacts on the Nordic level around South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, there was a programme run especially by the Norwegian churches concerning Southern Africa. I don't remember the name of that programme now but I remember that we didn't agree with our Norwegian friends on all occasions so we had some difficulties in the cooperation we had. There were at least attempts from Norway to get some sort of common Nordic approach to the programmes in South Africa.
Bertil Högberg: Do you remember on what issues there were differences?
Rune Forsbeck: No, I don't remember that; it is more than ten years ago.
Bertil Högberg: You said that the contacts with some of these new projects and organizations came often via the Swedish legation in Pretoria, basically asking you to apply for money for that programme. Were there also instances where you yourself found organisations or when people approached you directly for support so that you developed your own contacts?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes I think so, but I can't give you an example right now. I think that there were instances when the knowledge spread in the organizations and churches in South Africa that it was possible to get support from the Swedish Ecumenical Council. I think that some of them took contact directly with me and asked for support, but right now I can't remember who. Individuals who applied for a scholarship we always referred to The Ecumenical Advice Bureau in Johannesburg.
Bertil Högberg: Did you ever support SACC, the South African Council of Churches, as such? They got a lot of Swedish support, but that was probably established earlier via the Church of Sweden?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, I think so. Of course we had contacts with SACC especially in the preparations of the delegation. It was a formal invitation from our Council to the South African and Namibian Councils of Churchesto send a delegation to Sweden. When I came into the work Beyers Naudé was the General Secretary of the South African Council of Churches and Frank Chikane succeeded him. Both Beyers and Frank visited Sweden and I hosted them and arranged different meetings with them. So we had contacts with the South African Council of Churches, but as you said, we gave them no direct financial support in the Council.
Bertil Högberg: Have any contacts remained? Are there any relationships that you kept over the years?
Rune Forsbeck: No, I am sorry to say that no contacts have remained. I am a bit sorry for that. A dream I have is that it would be possible for me to go back to South Africa or to invite some people to come here and to re-establish the contacts.
Bertil Högberg: Funding for these programmes stopped in 1993/94?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes.
Bertil Högberg: And at the same time the Swedish Ecumenical Council was transformed into …
Rune Forsbeck: The Christian Council of Sweden.
Bertil Högberg: Did South Africa in any way become part of the new organization or did it lose that contact completely?
Rune Forsbeck: I don't know, but I think that the contacts were more or less lost, although I know that there was a delegation from South Africa in Sweden not many years ago and that the Christian Council of Churches was host for that visit. At that meeting I got the opportunity to give an account of the work that had been done by the Swedish Ecumenical Council.
Bertil Högberg: Are there any particular highlights from the work on South Africa?
Rune Forsbeck: Yes, I remember especially when two young men from the Ecumenical Advice Bureau took me inside a so-called hostel where the workers lived. I could see with my own eyes the conditions they lived under and it was terrible. I stood in a very small room where I think eight or ten men slept in the nights. They asked me who I was and so I tried to explain to them and I tried to say to them that what I can do is to tell people at home about your conditions here and so we can pray for you and so on, and they expressed their thankfulness for that. From there we went back to the office and I met Beyers Naudé and he said to me, “Rune, now you have done what almost no white South African man has done, you have been inside and you have seen with your own eyes the conditions there”.
Bertil Högberg: Any more such memories?
Rune Forsbeck: I remember the words of the bishop I mentioned, when he said goodbye to me to go back to South Africa. I had hosted him here in Stockholm and had also taken him to some places in Stockholm. He said goodbye and said to me, “Thank you so much, I will never forget this visit because you have treated me as a human being.”
Bertil Högberg: Is there anything more you think that we have forgotten to touch on?
Rune Forsbeck: We have forgotten much and we will remember afterwards what we should have said.
Bertil Högberg: I think we can leave it like that, thank you.
Rune Forsbeck: Thank you so much.