SIDA—Regional coordinator of Swedish humanitarian assistance to Southern Africa—Private consultant
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 31 October 1996.
Tor Sellström: When did you start working for SIDA?
Roland Axelsson: I started to work for NIB (Swedish Agency for International Assistance) in 1962. I had then graduated with a masters in business administration from the Gothenburg School of Economics and I had worked for two years at the Swedish National Audit Bureau (RRV).
Tor Sellström: You went to Africa very early. When and where did you get involved with Swedish humanitarian assistance to the Southern African liberation movements?
Roland Axelsson: I first spent six years in Ethiopia and there I had very little contact with any liberation movement. But in 1972, I came to Tanzania as an administrator at the Swedish embassy and I almost immediately came in contact with FRELIMO, ANC and SWAPO. I was not a programme officer at that time. It was people such as Anders Möllander who dealt with the liberation movements, but as I paid all the money to them I got to know them quite well. Those I especially remember from that time are Hifikepunye Pohamba, who was the Chief Representative of SWAPO, Thomas Nkobi, who was the Treasurer General of ANC— at that time living in Morogoro—and my old friend Kay Moonsamy. So, it is now over twenty years since we met. In FRELIMO it was Janet Mondlane, who was the head of the Mozambique Institute. With ZANU, ZAPU and MPLA I had very little contact.
Tor Sellström: That means that you were involved with Swedish support to ANC from the very beginning. The first allocation was given in 1973.
Roland Axelsson: Yes. In the beginning the amounts were very small. I bought some office furniture and a lot of vegetables for the ANC office in Morogoro and the South African refugees there.
Tor Sellström: From then on you worked very closely with all the Southern African liberation movements. These movements waged an armed struggle and received military support from the Soviet Union or China. How did you experience this in your day to day relations? Did you feel that the movements were striving for a Communist cause or that they were nationalist in outlook?
Roland Axelsson: Let me talk about ANC and SWAPO only
Tor Sellström: You mentioned Kay Moonsamy. He is today the Treasurer General of the South African Communist Party.
Roland Axelsson: Yes, he was a Communist, but he was shocked when he learnt about the real situation in Moscow. If he had known what was going on during the Stalinist era, I do not think that he would have been a Communist. My friend Thomas Nkobi also used to read the monthly magazine issued by the South African Communist Party, so I once asked him: ‘Are you a Communist?’ And he said: ’ No, I am not. I could never be’.
Tor Sellström: From the point of view of accounting, financial openness and transparency, how would you describe SIDA’s relationship—and your relationship—with SWAPO and ANC? Did you get access to the necessary information and documentation?
Roland Axelsson: Well, financial openness and transparency were, of course, delicate questions. SIDA wanted to know as much as possible about how the donor funds were used, but ANC and SWAPO could not accept external audit. We had to stick to internal audit and what I could get out of various documents. I was very much trusted and allowed to study the respective systems of financial management. Neither ANC nor SWAPO accepted at that time that any other SIDA official should look through their books, so I was privileged. I am talking about the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s.
Tor Sellström: In general terms, is it then your view that the payment and accounting procedures were satisfactory?
Roland Axelsson: Yes, absolutely. We had an agreed system, whereby the movements got advance payments and then submitted their settlements of accounts with vouchers. Everything had to be shown in one or another way. If they had spent the money correctly, we stamped the documents. We had a rubber stamp ‘Financed by SIDA’. Every single little receipt was stamped, not only by me in Lusaka, but also by my colleagues in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and the other countries. It applied to all funds, except the home front allocations.
Tor Sellström: All receipts were stamped so that they could not be used twice?
Roland Axelsson: Exactly. Because they also had to submit receipts to the Norwegian embassy and Norway did not request that they should be stamped. I was afraid that they would bring the same receipts to the Norwegians.
Tor Sellström: Some people have alleged that SIDA’s humanitarian assistance either was misappropriated by the leaders of the movements or used for military purposes. How would you comment upon these allegations? Were the financial control mechanisms comparable to those governing Swedish development assistance to independent countries or were they less strict?
Roland Axelsson: There were, as everywhere in life, small pockets of misuse and mismanagement. It happened, for instance, in Lesotho. A person called Kanalelo got a small amount of funds which he was to distribute among the ANC families in the country. But he stole the money, left the country and established a small enterprise in Zimbabwe instead. But he was not an ANC leader. He was an outsider who used the liberation movement. The leaders who I got to know were honest, to the best of my knowledge.
No funds were used for military purposes. It happened, however, that funds were used to feed military people. They had to live too. Except for the home front allocation, the financial control was in my opinion better and stricter than the control exercised concerning aid to independent countries. In those countries—like Zambia or Tanzania—it was the national audit bureau which audited everything. At that time, they had not yet started to get help from the Swedish national audit bureau and the audit was not very good.
Tor Sellström: But in the case of international NGOs— where SIDA did not have the direct responsibility—we know of at least one case where there was mismanagement of funds and even political infiltration, namely the IUEF. In your view, how could this happen? Why did SIDA and the other donors not monitor IUEF more closely?
Roland Axelsson: Well, that is difficult to know exactly, but probably because Sweden placed an administratively incompetent person as director of IUEF. As auditor at SIDA, I tried in 1976-77 to make an audit of IUEF, but I was stopped by our government. Stig Abelin and I wanted to do that, but we were not allowed to.
Tor Sellström: In 1984, you moved to Lusaka, Zambia, and served there until 1991 as SIDA’s regional coordinator of humanitarian assistance to SWAPO and ANC in Southern Africa and Uganda, Ethiopia and Madagascar. During these years, the South African regime constantly attacked the liberation movements in the Frontline States and Lesotho and Swaziland. Offices were bombed and representatives were killed. Yet, you managed all the time to get the humanitarian assistance through. How did you work?
Roland Axelsson: Funds were disbursed to ANC and SWAPO by the Swedish embassies in most countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Botswana. The money was normally paid by cheque, but in Botswana it was in cash. In Lesotho, Swaziland, Uganda and Madagascar, various methods had to be used. In Swaziland and Lesotho, I created fake organizations and managed to open local bank accounts in the name of those organizations. ‘SIDA Housing Project’ in Swaziland, for example. In Swaziland, we also used Ephesus House. It was a branch office of the defunct IUEF which lived on after the dissolution of IUEF. I used that office as a cover until it was bombed by the South African security forces.
ANC and SWAPO supported me. Thomas Nkobi, Hifikepunye Pohamba and all their coworkers supported me one hundred per cent. They trusted me, but it was, of course, in their interest that their people were fed and that the money was correctly spent.
Tor Sellström: In some countries I understand that you also administered Norwegian humanitarian assistance. Was there an agreement on this cooperation between Norway and Sweden?
Roland Axelsson: No, I never administered Norwegian funds. Being a SIDA coordinator, I however, cooperated very closely with the Norwegian embassies and consulates, especially in Lusaka, Harare and Gaborone. As I travelled much more in the region than my Norwegian colleagues, I sometimes acted on their behalf. I did so especially in Mozambique, but also in other countries, Botswana, for instance. But there was no written agreement between Sweden and Norway. It was a verbal agreement between me and the Norwegians.
Tor Sellström: How would you describe the difference, if any, between Swedish and Norwegian humanitarian support to ANC?
Roland Axelsson: The assistance was very similar, but Norway had no budget item called ‘Home Front’. They were also more eager than Sweden to support big agricultural and infrastructural projects, like Dakawa in Tanzania. SIDA preferred smaller agricultural farms, such as Alpha and Chongela in Zambia and Mazimbu in Tanzania.
Tor Sellström: Norway paid for the planning of the ANC settlement at Dakawa?
Roland Axelsson: Yes. All the roads and the water and sewage systems were paid for by Norway. They used the non-governmental organization Norsk Folkehjelp to do the job.
Tor Sellström: How about the ANC farms in Angola? Josef Jonsson went there to make some kind of feasibility study for SIDA. Was any Swedish assistance given directly to these farms?
Roland Axelsson: Yes, we purchased quite a lot of equipment that was sent to the ANC farm in Malanje. Josef Jonsson was there, overseeing the arrival of the equipment. But after a few months, the ANC people had to leave. The area was not secure. Some people were killed and others were frightened. So, the Swedish assistance was unfortunately of very little use.
Tor Sellström: Being responsible for considerable amounts of money and travelling around in what de facto in the 1980s was a war zone in Southern Africa, you must have been closely monitored by the apartheid regime?
Roland Axelsson: Well, I always suspected that I was observed, but very little happened. They were always very kind to me at Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg. They asked me: ‘Why don’t you get a temporary visa to go to Johannesburg and spend the day there instead of sitting here?’ Sometimes I had to wait for ten to fifteen hours at the airport, so every time I said: ‘Yes, please’. I waited and waited, and in about half an hour they always came back and said: ‘Sorry, we can’t grant you a visa’. They were nice and did their best, but I was listed as a terrorist sympathizer. Such people were not let into the country, of course.
A very unpleasant thing once happened in Mbabane, Swaziland. I was driving from my hotel to see a Swedish priest who lived just outside Mbabane. It was in the evening. Around seven, I think. It was dark anyhow. Just when I passed the city centre, a small pick-up truck hit me head on at full speed. I fortunately survived without a broken leg. But the car was completely wrecked. It had to go to the scrap-yard. I was lucky. I still cannot believe that it was an accident. It was done on purpose.
Tor Sellström: Do you know of similar incidents against other SIDA officials involved with support to ANC and SWAPO in the Frontline States? I think that there was an incident in Lesotho, where the brakes of a car were tampered with?
Roland Axelsson: That is true. It concerned a lady employed by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. It was bad. The South African security service was very alert in Lesotho. Once I was together with the Swedish ambassador. Going to the airport, we were followed by the South African police. We knew that, because they had ten minutes earlier tried to persuade the ambassador’s driver to tell them about Swedish assistance to ANC. But nothing happened. We were just observed the whole time until we left.
Tor Sellström: The authorities in Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland must have been interested in Sweden’s support to the liberation movements. Did they ever question you or create obstacles to your work?
Roland Axelsson: No, I cannot say that they did. They never questioned me, but I never sought any contact with them either. But I remember that my colleagues in Maseru and Gaborone sometimes were harassed. We always tried to be careful. For instance, in Gaborone we never met ANC in the Swedish embassy. We had to arrange some other place where we could meet. We knew that the embassy was always watched. And we never used diplomatic cars. We always used other cars, both to and from such meetings.
Tor Sellström: At a certain stage in the late 1980s, I think that it became impossible to continue the payments to ANC in Lesotho and Swaziland. Was the decision to freeze the payments taken by SIDA or by ANC?
Roland Axelsson: In the case of Lesotho, I had to convince Thomas Nkobi that it was necessary. He agreed and then, of course, SIDA Stockholm also agreed. It was too dangerous to work there any longer. The South Africans had infiltrated everywhere. We could not get the money to the families who needed the support. And we could not find a reliable person to assist us. But in Swaziland we never stopped the assistance completely. SIDA wanted to stop it several times, but I managed to convince them that it should go on.
Tor Sellström: You mentioned the budget item ‘Home Front’, which was included in the Swedish allocation to ANC. For this activity, Sweden did not request a comprehensive financial audit, but only a descriptive report. As an accountant, were you satisfied that the assistance to the ‘Home Front’ was used for humanitarian, civilian and not military purposes? It was used in South Africa, where you could not go.
Roland Axelsson: Absolutely. In our agreement on financial procedures we said that receipts regarding home front activities should not necessarily be delivered to SIDA if it implied any risk to ANC. Each year we got what I would call half financial statements. We got statements, but they were not so detailed. However, all the material that ANC bought for the money, like small cars, duplicating machines, simple office equipment and so on were listed, even if there was no detailed purchase price for each item. We could anyhow estimate how much they would have paid. These items were obtained to distribute political leaflets within South Africa. South Africa is a big country, so they needed a lot of cars and so on.
Tor Sellström: So, it was mainly for organization, information and political work inside South Africa?
Roland Axelsson: Yes, for political work inside the country. Not for making bombs and other things. Absolutely not. I do not know who became the registered owners of the vehicles, for example. It was definitely not ANC. It must have been someone else. But the home front aid was humanitarian in the political sense of the word.
Tor Sellström: After the unbanning of ANC, you were invited by Thomas Nkobi to assist him with the setting up of ANC’s financial administration in South Africa. How would you describe your relationship with the late Treasurer General of ANC?
Roland Axelsson: Thomas Nkobi was a great and honest man. He was a person of great importance to the liberation struggle and he was a unique friend of mine. We treated each other like brothers in an open and frank manner. I had known him for twenty years, and when I met him at our last meeting on 26 April 1994 I told him as a joke to buy a new hat: ‘You have to buy a new hat before you will be appointed Minister of Finance in the new South Africa’. But he replied: ‘No, I will keep my old hat, because I will never qualify for that governmental position’. He was a very honest man.
Tor Sellström: Looking back over all these years, how would you assess the role played by Sweden and the other Nordic countries in and for the struggle for national independence and democracy in Southern Africa?
Roland Axelsson: The Swedish and Nordic role was quite essential. Without our assistance in the form of daily necessities, health care and so on, both ANC and SWAPO would have been faced with enormous problems, which most probably would have delayed the liberation considerably. Of course, liberation would have come anyhow, sooner or later, but it would have taken more time, with more suffering for many people. There were no alternatives. No other countries in the world were willing to assist in the way that Sweden and Norway did.
Tor Sellström: Many SWAPO and ANC leaders have fond memories of the cooperation with SIDA in general and with you in particular. You participated very closely in an important historic process in Southern Africa. What has it meant for you on a personal level?
Roland Axelsson: I would say that I got many friends. I felt personally involved in one of the greatest— and for humanity most important—events in our lifetime, the liberation of Southern Africa. I was proud of being in a position to do something and not only watch what was going on. I am still closely following the developments in Southern Africa. It was a great time for me.
Tor Sellström: Is there anything that you would like to add?
Roland Axelsson: Well, maybe I could mention the airlifts of thousands of South African refugees who had found a temporary retreat in Swaziland, Lesotho and Botswana, but had to leave those countries rather quickly and be moved to Zambia and Tanzania. The airlifts were arranged by UNHCR, but SIDA was heavily involved, especially in the financing of those airlifts on many occasions.
Another important event took place in 1978, after the terrible Kassinga massacre of Namibian refugees in Angola. I remember how we chartered a British airplane in Lusaka to fly foodstuffs to Luanda as emergency assistance. We procured mealie-meal to fill five airplanes, but when we were about to load the lorries we had rented from Zambia National Milling, the Zambian Minister of Agriculture gave contra-orders, saying that we could not export maize flour: ‘You have to find something else to send to Angola’. Elisabeth Michanek of SIDA, the Vice-President of SWAPO at that time, Mishake Muyongo, and I then had to run around in the market places in Lusaka to buy other foodstuffs. We found beans, rice, wheat etc. We needed quite a lot to fill five DC 8 aircraft, but we managed. I personally accompanied one of the flights to Luanda. It was very interesting. When we arrived at Luanda airport, Angolan military planes were already parked there. Everything was re-loaded into these military aircraft, which then flew the food to Kassinga and the surviving Namibian refugees.
, as they were of a greater concern to me. I did not speak Portuguese, so I had very little contact with FRELIMO in that respect. I understood quite well that weapons were necessary in the liberation struggle and also that Sweden could not supply those weapons. The Soviet Union could and did. That was fully acceptable. I strongly believed that the Soviet Union could never influence the thousands of students who were granted scholarships for studies in Moscow and other places. On the contrary, many of the students there became in fact anti-Communist. Some individuals within ANC and SWAPO were, of course, Communists—at least they said so— but they were hardly Stalinists. The majority of the people I got to know worked hard for the liberation of their countries, to get rid of colonialism and introduce democracy. I would say that they have also managed now, to a great extent at least.