Congress of Democrats—ANC—International Defence and Aid Fund—Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. Secretary to Walter Sisulu at the ANC Head Office
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Johannesburg, 19 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: You worked with the programme to support dependants of political prisoners inside South Africa at the International Defence and Aid Fund in London for many years. When did you start at IDAF?
Rica Hodgson: I started in the beginning of 1964, after I had escaped from South Africa. I had worked for the Treason Trial Defence Fund in South Africa and for the first Defence and Aid Fund that was started here in 1961. I was the secretary of that fund from 1961 to 1963.
Tor Sellström: IDAF was one of the first organizations to benefit from support from the Nordic countries?
Rica Hodgson: That is correct.
Tor Sellström: How do you see this support in retrospect?
Rica Hodgson: When I started, it was the British Defence and Aid Fund. It was not yet international and my job was mainly to raise money. At that stage, we were not so involved in the channelling of money to South Africa and we had not yet worked out a modus operandi. That came later, when we started the international. It was in 1964, I believe, that we became an international organization. Then I had two functions. I raised money for the British side of the fund and I had to find ways and means to send the money, surreptitiously, to the families in South Africa. The first organization I remember giving us money was from Sweden. I think it was SIDA. Well, there were two organizations, SIDA and Rädda Barnen (Save the Children), but I think that SIDA was the first one.
When we started we were great amateurs. We were not professional at all. Our post was intercepted somewhere along the line. Knowing what we know today of what happened here with the Special Branch and the security police in other countries, I realize that there was somebody tampering with it in the post office in Britain. But I did not know then how it was happening or where it was happening. The first thing that I realized was that we needed to find a safe letter-box so that the mail should not come to the Defence and Aid Fund as such. We had a poky little office at the time, just up the road from Amen Court, and we decided that my records were not safe in that place. Canon Collins lived in Amen Court, in one of those beautiful old homes. To begin with, they gave me what used to be the children’s nursery right at the top of the house, with one of those lovely old cabinets with a chest of drawers. Those drawers always stuck and my files were in there. I was usually on my knees, getting out the files.
Of course, people wanted proof of what we were doing and we did not keep books as such. The only proof we had were the letters that came back from the people in South Africa. We got them put onto tape. We filed them and kept every original letter. The letters we had written and the letters people had written back to us. In the beginning we were not prepared to show anybody anything. The first people we showed them to were SIDA, Rädda Barnen and the United Nations. Those were the three organizations that we gave access to our records. I think that later we may also have done so to a Norwegian organization, but those three used to come every now and again and they would ask for proof. I then had the basement office in Canon Collins’ house with my three very dedicated typists. The donors would come in, we would pull out a drawer and I would take out the letter stacks. They would read the letters from South Africa. Certainly the Swedes. I think that the others came in later, the Danes and the Norwegians. I do not remember the Finns giving us support on that level.
The welfare work was getting so big that we could not find enough people to work as correspondents. I did not know enough people in England to do the work and we were not using South Africans for obvious reasons. So we started to spread the work. Anna-Lena Wästberg was one of the early people to take on a sector. I never really asked her how she did it in Sweden. Whether she engaged other people to do it. Then we got people to do it in Norway. Kari Storhaug, Abdul Minty’s wife. She was wonderful, adorable. She engaged a large amount of people. I went to Holland to set up a religious group. I think that they might have been Catholics. We had groups all over the world. In Ireland, Kader Asmal’s wife did the whole set-up. I think that we had somebody in Denmark later, but Kari and Anna-Lena were the first two. They worked through the central fund. We sent them the money to send out to the individuals. They wrote the letters and forwarded the money. That was the involvement.
Of course, Gunnar Helander was wonderful. I am sure that he as a single person did more in Sweden to raise the whole issue about South Africa than anybody else. He was a great friend of Canon Collins. He came religiously to all our conferences and made a wonderful input.
Tor Sellström: ‘Pik’ Botha has mentioned Gunnar Helander as one of the hostile activists in Sweden.
Rica Hodgson: I am sure! At a later stage Lars-Gunnar Eriksson started to come in with Craig Williamson. But Phyllis Altman and I knew. I just knew from early days that Williamson was a spy and I tried to warn some of the ANC people that he was. Phyllis and I did not trust him. In fact, somewhere he says that there were a couple of people that he could not get past and that was us two in the Defence and Aid Fund.
Tor Sellström: Per Wästberg just published a book where he mentions how Williamson tried to penetrate IDAF, but never succeeded.
Rica Hodgson: So did Eriksson! I did not trust Eriksson to tell you the truth. I may have been wrong, but I did not trust him and Williamson. They were trying to get in on the trials and Canon Collins arranged a meeting with them. At that stage, I think that Canon Collins maybe saw Lars-Gunnar Eriksson as taking over from him, because he knew that he was not going to last that much longer. He was getting old and I think that he saw Lars-Gunnar as a possible successor. He was trying to build him up at one late conference of ours. He was going to have this meeting and Williamson was to come. Phyllis Altman, who was dealing with the trials, simply said: ‘If Williamson is there, I am not going to be there’. So that was it. We never had Williamson at any of our meetings. Eriksson did come to some of our conferences, and, of course, he knew about our work. That worried me, but at least he never had any proof of what we were doing and that was our strong point. Also the South Africans knew, but they did not know any of how it was done, so they could not prove anything.
Tor Sellström: Did IDAF give direct support to the liberation movements?
Rica Hodgson: Yes, Canon Collins, certainly. The Treasurer General of ANC, Thomas Nkobi, would come and see him, but that was not my part. If they wanted money for dependants in South Africa they had to give me the names and addresses. He also gave assistance to individuals in exile.
Tor Sellström: When did you leave the Fund?
Rica Hodgson: I left for the SOMAFCO settlement at Mazimbu, Tanzania, at the end of 1980. Of course, the work continued. I did manage to get a very good woman to take it over. But before I left, I did a tour of the whole of Canada and set up the Canadian end of the fund. We never had a Defence and Aid Fund there before. When I came back from East Africa to London in 1986, I attended the Defence and Aid Fund conference. We had just got a million dollars from the Canadian government so I was very happy. That was my swan song at IDAF.
In 1978 I also did a tour for the Defence and Aid Fund. It was the Year of the Child, and I was charged by Canon Collins to go and visit the refugee camps in Africa and meet representatives of ZANU, ZAPU, SWAPO, ANC and PAC. I went to Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique and Angola. When I came back I produced a little booklet on it. Joe Slovo was in Mozambique at the time. I remember going over to have a swim. He lived somewhere where there was a swimming pool and there was a young man with long, golden hair. Everybody was really friendly with that man and I said: ‘Who is that, Joe?’ Joe said: ‘That, my dear Rica, is the SIDA representative and without SIDA we would all be starving.’ That stayed in my mind as something very important.
Tor Sellström: Did you not see it as quite odd that the Nordic countries, two of them being NATO members, were giving support to the same liberation movements that were supported by the socialist bloc?
Rica Hodgson: Well, I could see different political reasons why we were being helped. The Defence and Aid Fund never got any money from the socialist countries, for example. Not at all. Holland became quite a big contributor later. But if we now come to the ANC settlement at Mazimbu, Tanzania, there was a different kind of aid. Foodwise, I guess that there were times when we really would have starved if we had not had food from the Soviet Union and the GDR. Our ANC representative collected food in Austria and Germany, but the Russians certainly were the backbone for our food. There were many times when we did not have anything to eat except the food from Russia.
But without the Scandinavians we would not have had SOMAFCO. In every way. The first person that I met there was Lars Larsen, our architect. He was from DanChurchAid in Denmark. What a wonderful guy! He was the first man to build for us. Spencer Hodgson came in 1979, but Lars was already there. Then we had a succession of Nordic volunteers. The Swedish volunteers were mainly teachers, like Knut Bergknut and his wife. Fantastic! And the children! Knut’s little girl, I remember, spoke English, Zulu, Swedish and Kiswahili. Lars’ child too spoke Kiswahili perfectly. I remember very well the last woman who came from Finland to run the library and Lars’ brother who came to do farm work. We also had a lovely Danish guy who ran our furniture factory. Without the input from the Scandinavian volunteers we would have been hard hit. Of course, moneywise as well. We survived on money mainly from Scandinavia.
Tor Sellström: Did you feel that there was some sort of hidden agenda behind the support from the Nordic countries?
Rica Hodgson: I never thought about it like that. I had known them for so long, already from IDAF. No, I did not think so. I thought it was humanitarian. But other people did. Lots of people did. I believe that nobody does anything out of pure humanitarian reasons. They also look to the future. I believe that the socialist countries were the same. They would want to continue trade and things like that. I think that it applies to all countries, but I think that the Scandinavians started earlier with the humanitarian support than anybody else. The Russians were giving guns and that is a different story.
Another thing that I remember very well is those marvellous clothing parcels we used to get from Sweden. I think that I still have a skirt that I got through them. We used to look for cotton materials and there was some very good stuff amongst all that. What was not suitable for us we would send to areas where they needed it for the winter, like in Botswana. I believe that some of it even went into South Africa. The labels were removed from the clothing before it was sent there.
Tor Sellström: There were several organizations in Sweden that collected clothes.
Rica Hodgson: Yes, I remember that one was Bread and Fishes and another was Emmaus. I always had to write the thank-you-letters, because I was also the secretary to both Mohammed Tikly and Tim Maseko, the directors of the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.