Salim Ahmed Salim
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of Tanzania Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Copenhagen, 16 November 1995.
Tor Sellström: You were the chairman of the United Nations Decolonization Committee from 1972, also chairing the UN Security Council Committee on Sanctions against Rhodesia. In those capacities you must have worked closely with the Nordic countries?
Salim Ahmed Salim: My contacts with Swedish and Nordic representatives started in the early 1970s, when I went to New York and to the United Nations. We worked very closely with the Nordic countries on issues relating to African problems, especially in the decolonization area. We respected the Nordic position, even if we sometimes did not agree with them.
I can give one classic example, which I think is important. In 1972, we sent a team to the liberated areas of Guinea-Bissau. It was a very difficult exercise, because the Portuguese government was totally opposed to the idea. They continued to stick to the myth that there was nothing like liberated areas. Besides, they held the myth that Portugal was pluri-continental and that all the Portuguese colonies were part of Portugal. In order to defy that myth and give legitimacy to the liberation movements, we decided to send a team into the liberated areas. Among those who went in that team was a Swedish national, a junior officer in the Swedish UN mission. We had three people in the team. There was an Ecuadorian and, I think, a Tunisian. As a result of the mission, we had a dramatic breakthrough in the international understanding in terms of greater legitimacy to the liberation movements vis-àvis the United Nations. We could now call for recognition of the liberation movements as observers in the Fourth Committee. Before that they were simply considered petitioners.
Tor Sellström: Was the team sent as a United Nations mission by the Decolonization Committee?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Yes, under the Decolonization Committee, but in a subterranean manner. Due to the Portuguese, we could not announce that they were going there. We had to be very careful about their security. But it was a United Nations mission and immediately after the return we had a meeting of the whole Committee of 24 in Conakry, Guinea, to welcome the mission back. In fact, the meeting was a camouflage, because otherwise there would have been a concentration on the mission to the liberated areas. We said that we had a meeting of the Committee of 24, but at the same time we had this team.
What happened after that? We went to the Fourth Committee and it decided to invite the liberation movements as observers. But then we had something which I say is important. Amílcar Cabral, the leader of PAIGC, came to New York and we were trying to get him to address the UN General Assembly. In those days it was inconceivable for a representative of a liberation movement to address the General Assembly, but we had the necessary support. However, the Nordic countries had reservations. I remember the ambassador of Sweden and the other Nordic ambassadors telling me: ‘Look, we are not happy with this. Legally, it gives us problems if representatives of the liberation movements address the General Assembly. It has not been done before and it causes a lot of problems.’ So I went to Amílcar Cabral and said: ‘Mr. Secretary General, if you want to address the General Assembly we have the votes. We have the necessary support of the African countries, of the Asian countries and of a number of the Latin American countries. But I want you to know that the Nordic countries are very unhappy about it. What do we do?’ Cabral then said: ‘Look, the Nordic countries are our friends. They have supported us through thick and thin and we do not want to embarrass them. I will not address the General Assembly.’ He did not address the General Assembly in that session. And he was killed in January 1973.
There was so much respect for the position of the Nordic countries. There was no question of doubting their integrity or their sincerity towards the liberation movements. If any other country or combination of countries had said no, we would have pushed the matter to the General Assembly and received the necessary votes. Of course, subsequently it became quite common for the liberation movements to address the General Assembly. SWAPO did so and ANC did so, but in 1972—having obtained observer status in the Fourth Committee—we could not get Cabral to speak in the General Assembly.
Tor Sellström: I guess that another problem was that the Nordic countries as a matter of principle could not vote in favour of resolutions that made reference to the armed struggle?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Occasionally we had to insist on the formulation of armed struggle, but to get maximum possible support we sometimes used the term ‘all possible means’. That was something which everybody could interpret the way they wanted. Sweden and the other Nordic countries could say: ‘We do not include the armed struggle’, and we would say: ‘The armed struggle is not excluded.’
Tor Sellström: But, de facto, the Nordic countries supported movements that waged an armed struggle?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Well, let me say one thing which perhaps is more fundamental. I also remember saying it to the late Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme. I knew him very well. We used to serve together in the Independent Commission on International Security. One day we were informally discussing the Southern African situation and I said to him: ‘Look, the role of the Nordic countries goes beyond the practical assistance that you provide to the liberation movements. It is what it means in the context of the North-South divide.’ The struggle in Southern Africa was basically against white rule—whether in the case of Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, in the Portuguese colonies, in Namibia or in South Africa—but I think that the contribution by countries like the Nordic countries made it impossible for the African countries to see it in terms of colour. The issue was not simply colour, because here were the Nordic countries—as white as they could be—, who were the most active supporters of the struggle. So I said to Palme: ‘It is more than what you provide. It is the symbolism involved in the commitment which the Nordic countries have made to the struggle against colonialism and racialism, against apartheid, in Southern Africa.’
Tor Sellström: Do you then think that the Nordic countries served as some sort of bridge-builders between the East and the West? They supported the same so-called ‘authentic six’ liberation movements that were supported by the East bloc, while at the same time forming part of the West?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Yes, absolutely. Also as a moderating factor. By virtue of their situation, the Nordic countries were quite conscious of the concerns and reservations of the Western countries, who did not share their attitude towards the struggle. The Nordic countries were much more vigorous and much more supportive in a very serious manner. The support was not only political and diplomatic, but also tangible, through financial and other assistance to the liberation movements. They did act as bridge-builders, promoting understanding not only between East and West, but also between North and South.
For the entire period that I was the chairman of the United Nations Committee on De-colonization I had very good relations with all the Nordic ambassadors, many of whom became my personal friends. I was very conscious of and very sensitive to what they had to say. At no time did I ever question their sincerity to the struggle. When we differed on the methods, one had always to appreciate their points of view, because we knew that the Nordic countries’ position was to support the liberation movements in a practical manner. We sometimes had to hold back. That was also the only way in which I could understand Cabral’s position. Amílcar Cabral was one of those luminaries—a giant among people—and he did not hesitate when I said: ‘We have the votes, but we have the problem of our friends in the Nordic countries. What do we do?’ He said: ‘OK, I do not have to speak to the General Assembly.’ That shows something. It shows the respect which he had for the Nordic countries, and, of course, those of us who were supporting him and the struggle shared that respect.
Tor Sellström: Tanzania was the decisive meeting place between the Nordic countries and the liberation movements. In the case of Sweden, support was channelled to PAIGC, MPLA, FRELIMO, ZANU, ZAPU, SWAPO and ANC. With the exception of ZANU, they were ‘the authentic six’ that were close to the Eastern European countries. Tanzania followed the broader OAU recognition principle. How can you explain that Sweden decided to support these movements?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Well, in the case of FRELIMO it was obvious. It was not controversial. At the initial stage of the Angolan struggle, the Tanzanian government was supporting MPLA. It was also accommodating FNLA and UNITA by virtue of being the headquarters of the OAU Liberation Committee. But, over a period of time Tanzania became more and more identified with MPLA. In the case of South Africa, we always considered ANC as the strongest movement. But I should in all frankness say that there was a belief throughout many African countries—not only in Tanzania—that PAC had bona fide support.
I had long arguments on this question with Johnny Makatini, who was a brilliant South African leader. He used to tell me: ‘Look Salim, you people are wasting our time. The only authentic national movement in South Africa is the African National Congress. You are the only ones who support PAC.’ We used to have endless debates. But we did not find it difficult to understand the Swedish position, especially by virtue of the policy of ANC. ANC always followed a more inclusive policy. The policy of PAC was for some time depicted as a more radical Africanist position. So for us it was very easy to comprehend why Sweden would be more supportive of ANC. In addition, ANC did its homework. It did tremendous work in the Nordic countries.
Tor Sellström: It is still interesting that Palme and Nyerere—who were very close—partly disagreed on the question of which movements to support?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Actually, it was not a contention. Over a period of years—especially from the 1970s— Tanzania’s support for PAC became more pro forma by virtue of its obligation as headquarters of the OAU Liberation Committee. This was contrary to the early days, when there was a belief that maybe PAC was more dynamic. It was for the armed struggle when ANC was not and all that. But when Umkhonto we Sizwe started to operate things became clear. Another thing that really turned the Tanzanian government’s position regarding South Africa was that the ANC trainees in Tanzania did not remain there. They were moving into South Africa. Most of the PAC trainees remained as armchair revolutionaries. That was, of course, a difficult situation.
Tor Sellström: Tanzania received lots of South African refugees. After the Soweto uprising in 1976, there was a gional Commissioner in Morogoro who facilitated the setting up of the ANC Solomon Mahlango Freedom College, SOMAFCO.
Salim Ahmed Salim: Yes, that was Anna Abdallah, who is now a Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office.
Tor Sellström: SOMAFCO became a focal point for international solidarity. Those who could not assist the struggle inside South Africa could at least give humanitarian support to the school, and thus to ANC?
Salim Ahmed Salim: It was a modern school in every sense of the word. I have on several occasions visited it. It was a pride for ANC, but it was also a pride for the Nordic countries, who actively supported the school.
Tor Sellström: When you agreed to this kind of huge project of the liberation movements in exile, did you never have second thoughts regarding the buildup of ‘statelets within the state’?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Not really. You also have to understand the policy of Tanzania, particularly the personal contribution of President Nyerere to the struggle. He was a leader who really identified himself completely and without the slightest reservation with the struggle in Southern Africa. He saw it as an extension of Tanzania’s own struggle. At no point did he hesitate to give everything that the country could give in support. In fact, this is one of the points where Nyerere was criticized by some of his opponents. They would say that he paid too much attention to foreign policy—especially to the liberation struggle—at the expense of the affairs of the country.
Tor Sellström: Palme would receive the same criticism in Sweden.
Salim Ahmed Salim: Exactly. In addition, the liberation movements—especially ANC and FRELIMO; despite the fact that we had the assassination of Mondlane and so on—were serious. They had an internal discipline and they respected the sovereignty of Tanzania. At no point was there any fear that you would create a ministate within the state. Most important was that the Tanzanians themselves identified with the struggle. This was crucial, because it was not solely a question of Nyerere or the government. It was a sense of identification of the people of Tanzania with the struggle. The people felt very strongly that this was their own struggle, whether it was the question of Mozambique, Rhodesia, Namibia or South Africa. It was then easier for the government to assume policies and do things which in other circumstances would have created problems.
Tor Sellström: Can one also say that about the local population in the Morogoro area regarding the ANC presence in the settlements of Mazimbu and Dakawa?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Absolutely. I remember visiting those areas in different capacities, as chairman of the UN Committee of 24, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as Prime Minister and as Minister of Defence. Every time I found sympathy and pride among the people of Morogoro. I never noticed any element of resentment or jealousy on the part of the local population.
Tor Sellström: In spite of the tragic accident that happened to your predecessor as Prime Minister, the late Mr. Sokoine, who died in a car crash outside the ANC settlement?
Salim Ahmed Salim: Absolutely. It involved an ANC cadre. It shows the extent of the political commitment and the maturity of the ordinary Tanzanian to the struggle of South Africa. A thing like that could easily have clouded people’s judgement. It could have brought about emotions and anti-ANC feelings, but nothing of that sort happened. It was just considered as one of those unfortunate accidents that do take place. There was no stigmatization, either of the man himself or of the movement from which he came.
Tor Sellström: Were you fully informed about the Nordic support to the liberation movements in Tanzania? Did you at any point see this as interference in your internal affairs?
Salim Ahmed Salim: I am perhaps the wrong person to ask, because I was so involved and I so much valued the contribution of the Nordic countries that I am almost biased. I think that the contribution made a major difference in the struggle in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola and certainly and most surely in South Africa.
One of my most pleasant memories is from 1987, I believe. At that time, I was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. Oliver Tambo, the President General of the African National Congress, and people like Alfred Nzo and Thabo Mbeki organized an anti-apartheid conference in Arusha. I co-chaired the conference with Lisbet Palme. It was a really moving experience. What was remarkable was the sense of identification with Sweden and the Nordic countries, especially with Lisbet by virtue of Olof’s contribution. People remembered the contribution he made. For example, the important statement in Stockholm just before his death.
For me, it has always been pleasant memories. Firstly, because the support was real. It was genuine, with no strings attached whatsoever. Secondly, it was support which made a difference at the practical level of the struggle. It also made a difference at the political and diplomatic level, and I was a witness to both. As permanent representative of Tanzania to the United Nations and chairman of the UN Decolonization Committee for ten years I know what it meant. Also as the representative of my country to the Security Council. There were times when I served there with Mr. Rydbeck, who used to be the ambassador of Sweden. I know what it meant when we were dealing with the problems of South Africa or Angola. It was remarkable to be able to talk the same language between myself from an African country and the Swedish, Danish or Norwegian representatives.
When I was the chairman of the Committee of 24, we went to Botswana. I had a Norwegian with me, Tom Vraalsen, who is now, I think, ambassador in London. He was one of my vice-chairmen. This was in 1976, after the independence of Mozambique. We were preparing for a conference in support of the struggle in Zimbabwe and Namibia. We went to Lusaka and from there to Gaborone. We had to negotiate our way, because the plane had to make sure that it did not go through Rhodesian or Namibian air space. Somehow we reached Gaborone, where we stayed at the Gaborone Sun. Like any UN mission, we had people of all colours. We had a Japanese, a Jamaican lady who was very black, a Yugoslav, an Indian and Tom Vraalsen. We had a UN. We got to the Gaborone Sun. At that time apartheid was in its prime and the hall was full of white South Africans. We got there and Vraalsen decided to dance cheek-to-cheek with this lady from Jamaica. You should have seen the people in that hotel, looking flabbergasted, offended or both! But we enjoyed it! It is terrible, but we liked it and Vraalsen said: ‘Look at this disaster. Look at the honky dancing with a nigger.’ There was such an unbelievable spirit of camaraderie. I think that even for the South Africans it was an occasion—stiff as they were—because they were also people who waited for things to change.
I recall some of these events that really made us part of the same family. We felt alike, as friends fighting for the same cause, struggling for the same issues. If we disagreed, we would disagree on tactics, but, basically, the strategic objective was the same. I have really very pleasant memories of the Nordic support, which I believe was very important for the struggle against colonialism and racialism. It came at a time when it was not fashionable. At the end of the struggle, everybody wanted to be identified. Everybody wanted to join and say that they had supported the struggle. But in the early days it was not fashionable. In those days, the Nordic countries were, in fact, committing something next to sacrilege. But we had their support and I must add that it did not matter who the government in power was, whether in Sweden, Denmark, Finland or Norway.
They were our allies. We always say that the only traditional allies of the struggle in Southern Africa were the Nordic countries. When we talk in terms of ‘traditional’, we think of people who were supporting the struggle when it was in its infancy, who were critical when it comes to criticism and who did not have any particular vested interests in the classic, narrow sense of the words. Their vested interest was humanitarian. Seeing the injustices and rectifying the wrongs that were going on. The Nordic countries made a monu-whose skin and colours are like your oppresmental contribution also in terms of race rela-sors’? The question of colour became irreletions. People simply did not know how to vant. What was relevant was the nature of the hate. How can you hate when you have allies struggle.