Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele (aka ‘Rebecca Matlou’)
ANC—Administrative officer at the ANC mission to Sweden and the Nordic countries—Deputy Secretary of International Affairs Minister of Housing
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Cape Town 7 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: In your experience, how would you describe the relationship between ANC and the Nordic countries?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: The experience of contact with the Nordic countries was very fulfilling for a member of the liberation movement, especially for those of us who had direct contacts, either with the governments or the solidarity groups. I did a lot of work on culture and women’s issues when I was still in Lusaka, trying to establish what support we could get from the Nordic countries. We had clothes collected for cadres in the residences of ANC all across Africa. Some of the clothes also went to the soldiers in the camps. We were maintained in that way.
I was fortunate to go to Sweden for a year and a half, although it was for health reasons. I was able to work in the ANC office, so I could actually go and see the places and the people who were collecting clothes for us, Bread and Fishes, for example. I was in contact with Rädda Barnen (Save the Children) as well. Their responsibility was to take care of the children's needs with clothes. On the medical and nutrition levels, I remember that a course was put together which was tailored for those who were going to take care of our children. The Swedes were involved in that through the UN structures in Zambia and Tanzania. It was an introduction on how to take care of an infant when you do not have all the resources. I know, because immediately after that I benefited from the same experience when my daughter was born with lots of allergies. I had to get the knowledge from people who had gone through that course.
This was very important, because within ANC women were expected to play an equal role to men as members of the liberation movement. You were not to be discriminated against because you were a mother. We were expected to participate fully and have an input towards the liberation of our people. We needed child care facilities to be able to keep our children while we were at work. Otherwise most of us would never have had the opportunity of going to school, taking part in the process of running ANC offices or being part of the military structures. You would have had to look for somebody to take care of the child. But we had established support institutions to take care of that aspect. It was very important. At times it also assisted us to cater for casualties, such as unplanned pregnancies, where a young mother still wanted to pursue her schooling. There would be a centre where the children were taken care of, like Mazimbu, and maybe a family would take responsibility as godparents for that individual child.
It was an atmosphere where we encouraged continuity of progress and ambition. It was very important and we are appreciative of that experience. We also did a lot of work around women’s programmes. I was in the ANC women’s section for many years, on the executive and in the council of the Women’s League. We did a lot of work with Nordic NGOs, like teaching women skills in Tanzania.
Tor Sellström: Was this through the Africa Groups?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: Yes.
Tor Sellström: And through the women’s branches of some Swedish political parties?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: Yes. It was a whole effort by the Swedish society, from the different occupational groups. If it was women, you would get that from the women’s desk at SIDA. If it was youth, from the youth section, and so forth. We received a lot of support, financial and non-financial, and that enabled us to push on with the struggle. I was editor of the ANC women’s journal, Voice of Women, for some time and I remember that our publication was funded at some stage by SIDA. It enabled us to produce and distribute the bulletin, both internationally and internally through our underground structures. That was supported by SIDA. Through this support, we were also able to be part of the cultural world. For example, through SIDA we produced what was called Malibongwe—Poetry is Their Weapon, which was a collection of anthologies from women who had the talent for writing. I remember Lindiwe Mabuza and myself collecting the writings from our comrades in the camps and from all over the world where we knew that some of our people were writers. That was very important at the time, because we felt that all aspects of life that are part and parcel of a social being and activity should be encouraged.
When you are a member of a liberation movement you do not stop being an individual, a person, or part of a community or society. All these aspects had to be encouraged, so that at the end of the day you would emerge as a person with feelings, a person who respects human rights and confirms human dignity.
We felt for those who were artists and as encouragement we produced Malibongwe— Poetry is Their Weapon. Just after I left Sweden, we also collected short stories from our women to enter a continental competition organized by SIDA women’s section for female fiction writers in Africa. I was happy to read the manuscripts of those who entered the competition. I sent in two stories and was lucky to be nominated and honoured with a prize.
Tor Sellström: And Baleka Kgotsisile?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: Yes, she also participated. I am happy to say that the final copy of the collection adopted the title of my story, One Never Knows. It was an inspiration. The second part of the collected stories appeared in an anthology called Whispering Land, a very enriching collection, where women give their opinion and thinking about different social issues in life. That we also produced with SIDA.
While I was in the ANC office in Stockholm, I was asked to coordinate the Amandla visits. Amandla was the ANC cultural group, which was part of our cultural package: we were engaged in poetry, in fiction and graphic art itself. We also had a music and dance group, the Amandla Cultural Ensemble. When I was there, I coordinated their tour of the Scandinavian countries together with the ANC Chief Representative at that time, Lindiwe Mabuza, who is now our ambassador to Germany. It was amazing how the crowds came out to really, practically, support our struggle. Also to be exposed to the kind of solidarity and emotion that was expressed through the support of the musical ensemble. It was a very exciting time!
Tor Sellström: Did you visit all the Nordic countries?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: Yes, I did.
Tor Sellström: Would you say that the involvement of the Nordic societies in arts and culture constituted some sort of cement when it came to the political stand on Southern Africa. Did arts and culture involve the Nordic societies more closely for your cause?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: It did play a very important role. The Amandla ensemble also generated funds for ANC. In addition, it informed the people of the Scandinavian countries of the kind of culture we practise in South Africa. If you listen to their records, you will find that they sing about lost friends, loved ones, the struggle in South Africa and about solidarity. It covered a whole range of themes. It was also very important to show the people who were supporting us that we were there to promote all aspects of our life, not just the military, armed struggle, as some people wanted to believe. At that time, anybody who was a member of the liberation movement was referred to as a terrorist or a soldier. But not everybody was a soldier. Being a soldier is a specialized, professional form of training and experience. We needed to expose people to the different activities that we were engaged in as members of the liberation movement.
Those in the Scandinavian countries who were inclined to the arts felt that here was something that they could associate with and contribute to directly. Something that they understood. It opened a whole world of communication and contacts between the Scandinavian countries and ANC and both parties held and maintained that relationship and partnership jealously. But that was not all. Around this cultural activity we also hosted graphic artists and photography artists against apartheid at the cultural institute close to our old office in Stockholm. We could therefore present a comprehensive picture of our culture in South Africa. We also managed to bring in Ndebele art, for example, and some artists that we could invite from South Africa at the time. It was very exciting and fulfilling.
We saw the solidarity movement as a force which encouraged and motivated the government to do more. The role played by the government and that played by the NGOs could not be disputed. Governments have limitations. They are members of international bodies like the UN and bound by resolutions of those bodies. They function within certain limitations. But where they could not assist us, the solidarity movement could. The governments did not stop them, because they believed in what was being done for the liberation of our people. It was a commitment which was appreciated and commended by our people.
Tor Sellström: The very first government supported project by Sweden in South Africa was the arts’ workshop at Rorke’s Drift in Natal at the beginning of the 1960s. Culture in a broader sense, performing arts, poetry and writing, goes like a common theme through the Nordic countries’ involvement with Southern Africa?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: True. Also, the majority of the projects in our settlements in Tanzania were funded by the Scandinavian countries. Through them, we had a piggery, a tanning factory—where people could make belts and shoes—a carpentry section, farming and so on. Throughout the years, our people were kept active by these projects, learning skills and moral values. If you instil a sense of labour and responsibility in a people, you also have possibilities of instilling moral and value standards.
These projects kept our people engaged and occupied. Many wondered how ANC in exile could be so stable and not have major crises around its membership. It is because, day in and day out, our people were occupied. Nobody was allowed to go idle. If you were not at school, you were running a project. If you were not running a project, you were studying. You were at school or in the offices. The Scandinavian countries helped us to deal with the nagging presence of time. The whole period of some twenty years in exile went past without one feeling burdened by it, because it was a period of action, where you always had something to do. You were not left hopeless and nostalgic by exile. We were helped to concretize our hope and were given strength to do what we believed in. You never had to sit and look at the problematic aspects of exile. There were, actually, productive, positive issues that you could immediately relate to. The armed struggle progressed well, although of course, with expected hiccups here and there. You did not have to be perpetually subjected to depressed feelings of disappointment because people you knew had moved into the country and had been killed or arrested. The support maintained a balance in our lives which was a very important factor. Exile is not easy. Some of the people in exile who were not part of the revolutionary stream had nothing to sustain them. Exile does tend to eat the spirit inside and challenge your mental stability. But for us in ANC, there was a basis to keep us stable. The future, the hope for freedom sustained us. Our vision was kept alive.
The Scandinavian countries were very consistent, which is something that has to be commended. There is no point in getting assistance for a year or two and then it stops. Without continuity you cannot plan, but because we had friends in the Nordic countries we could plan ahead and they could contribute within their respective capacity. For example, all students in the Nordic countries were asked one day a year to go out and collect money, pens and paper for our students at the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College in Tanzania. That was Operation Day’s Work. Through that contact with our children who were in exile all over Africa, there developed a pen-pal relationship. They made friends who could write to them, send them cards and so on. The mental stability, growth and all that goes with this was critical in our environment. Everybody was encouraged to do something. I also remember very well that some of the teachers at our school were expatriates from the Scandinavian countries and Holland.
Tor Sellström: You participated in a tour with the late President Oliver Tambo, Thabo Mbeki and Thomas Nkobi to the Nordic countries in 1980. Did you notice any differences between the governments in the Nordic countries?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: The Social Democratic governments were dominating at that time. Of course, the position on South Africa depended on who was in the driving seat at a particular time. I remember very well when we went to Denmark during that trip. We tried to convince the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they should observe the economic boycott against South Africa and stop their importation of South African coal. But they said: ‘We need South African coal, because it is very special for our industry’. We tried to argue that ‘it won't be for long. If you stop the importation of coal, the South African regime is going to feel the pressure, and when they feel the pressure you will be shortening the time frame in terms of getting them to the negotiating table’. They did not understand us, but we appreciated the little bit that they could do, because at that time it was tough for the liberation movement. We had to try to convince and influence people to support the boycott. But now and then there were countries—through the private sector or some elements in government— busting the sanctions. We continuously had to lobby and mobilize the forces for democracy.
I think that we did very well, especially in the Scandinavian countries. At the end of the day, the larger part of our support against apartheid came from that region. It was followed by some countries outside the Nordic region, especially anti-apartheid groups in Europe and the Americas. They were very strong in those countries where the governments did not understand our point of view. Through the anti-apartheid movements, the people supported us. There was that kind of balance. But in the Scandinavian countries we had the support of both the governments and the society. This actually gave us strength and confidence.
Tor Sellström: Do you feel that the Nordic support was given with political conditions, or was it without strings attached?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: There were no political conditions. But when it comes to accounting, there was a special requirement. They could not give us money for the armed struggle. They would give us money for social needs and we would have to find the means to deal with the other aspects of our struggle, in this case armed struggle.
Tor Sellström: In your dialogue with the Nordic governments, did they comment on the fact that you received support for the armed struggle from the socialist countries?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: The issue would be discussed now and then. I remember one of the meetings where I was present The argument by Sweden was that they were neutral during the World War. They would like to abide by that principle and not support the armed struggle. We made sure that they supported other needs of the liberation movement. We were fortunate that the Eastern countries understood both the political and the military aspect of our struggle and beefed us up in terms of the armed struggle. We managed to do as much as we did because they were there for us. At that time, they were very stable and we enjoyed their support immensely.
Tor Sellström: Did you never have the impression that the Nordic countries made it a condition that you should side with the Western world?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: No, we did not feel that. They never put those kinds of pressures on us. Not at all. It was discussed very openly. They maintained their position and they did whatever they could at the humanitarian level. They never tried to say that ‘we think that you should follow this or the other camp’. The warm camp or the cold camp. They did not do that. They just said: ‘We are going to support the liberation of the people of South Africa. We believe that they are fighting a just cause. We are against apartheid and any form of injustice and we are going to support them.’ That is, for example, the reason why some of our students were accepted for studies. We have many people who qualified in the Scandinavian countries.
Tor Sellström: Norway and Denmark were members of NATO. How did you look upon that?
Sankie M. Mahanyele: On the question of South Africa they formed part of the Scandinavian bloc. They believed in us and we really appreciated that. After the unbanning of ANC, we were also lucky to receive some diplomatic training in Norway. A group of us went there to be exposed to foreign affairs’ issues, because at that time we were running ANC missions all over the world. We were taken for a special course, funded by the Nordic countries, but led by the Norwegian government. It was in 1992 or 1993, just before I came back.
We were now operating at a different level, because we were getting into things like Norwegian trade, foreign policy options of Norway, NATO and the future vision of Norway towards the European continent. We were engaging at a different level. We were dealing with policy issues. It was not just humanitarian assistance, but a package of how to move forward, getting exposure to how governments work and run their business. We had done a similar course at the European Union, but there was something specific that we received from Norway, namely aspects of communication. It was because of our close friendship with that country.