Historian, currently Publishing Director at the Meteorological Office
The interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd in Reykjavik, Iceland, on the 22nd of February, 2009.
Proscovia Svärd: Yesterday you were one of the participants at the seminar that was organized by the Nordic Africa institute, Africa 20:20 and the University of Iceland. What were your reflections on this seminar?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think it was a good seminar in the sense of recovering some of the history on the solidarity work in Iceland towards the struggles in South Africa, in the 1980s until the 1990s.
Proscovia Svärd: I also displayed a couple of publications that have covered the involvement of the rest of Nordic Countries in the liberation struggles except Iceland. I am now here to try and find out what documentation there might be on the Icelandic peoples’ involvement. Unfortunately, so far my attempts have not been very successful and I have therefore embarked on carrying out interviews in order to capture the oral history of the activists like you who were involved. Do you think that it is time for Iceland to document its official involvement?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I appreciate your attempts very much and I think this is a good opportunity to do this kind of collection of materials. Unfortunately, most of the materials are scattered with individuals but if we help each other, we might be able to find materials with for example the trade unions, federation of labour, and possibly in the national archives, in newspapers and magazines of different kinds and individuals’ archives.
Proscovia Svärd: I understand from the past interviews that I have carried out that the Icelandic media was during this period politically aligned. What is your comment on that?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It is true that the media was quite tainted by the political struggles or fights for power in parliament and in the government. There were also you know, crises within politics on Iceland as always. The right wing “Morgunblaðið” of the Conservative Independence Party did not publish much on Southern Africa and especially not about what we were doing. “Þjóðviljinn” of the People’s Alliance did much more. I remember coming home to Iceland with a long interview in 1985 based on a talk with the Head of the ANC delegation at the United Nations in the US and could not get it published. But you could say this was at the beginning and a year or a few months later, we got better access to the media.
Proscovia Svärd: So what was the attitude of the Icelandic government towards your activities?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think it was rather indifferent. In 1985 I came in contact with the National Apprentice Students’ Union and discovered they had had concerts and activities related to the struggle in South-Africa earlier in the year, which I didn’t know about because I had not read about it anywhere. So I think this tells you a little bit about the indifference towards these activities at the time.
Proscovia Svärd: The people that I interviewed earlier mentioned that the Icelandic government was during that time very conservative, do you agree to that?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, the governments were shifting. Some of the governments in the late 1980s were very short-lived. Yes, the government was conservative and it was probably closer to the US politics than to Europe. Later you could say there was a shift where the Icelandic rulers began moving more towards Europe in the 1990s, but during the Reagan times and connected to an American NATO-base in Iceland, everything in the foreign policy was much closer to the US politics.
Proscovia Svärd: How were you involved in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I was a student in Denmark and at the beginning of the struggles in southern Africa. We knew about the Soweto uprisings and the killings. I lived in Denmark from 1974 – 1982 and in 1977 – 1980 met people from SACTU. This was a group of people who had fled to Denmark and were living in Aarhus.
Proscovia Svärd: What does SACTU stand for?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It stands for South African Trade Union Congress and they had come to Denmark as refugees. They were used to working underground quite a lot.
Proscovia Svärd: In Denmark?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, in Southern Africa and therefore, they were not very outspoken in Denmark. I remember it was basically one family and one of the members had disappeared.
Proscovia Svärd: Did the family member disappear in Denmark?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, on the way to Denmark. The repression by the South African police was quite wide spread and reached many of the European countries. They killed people in several other countries than Southern Africa.
Proscovia Svärd: So he never reappeared?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I don’t know, not when I was there.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok.
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: But I returned to Iceland in1982 and I was as I said involved in 1985. In August 1985, I attended a conference in the United States, where I heard Neo Numzana, Head of the ANC delegation to the UN, speak, following which I and my companion (Gylfi Páll Hersìr) interviewed him and invited him to Iceland. No newspaper agreed to publish the interview! I should say that I was a member of the Militant Socialist Organization and we came to collaborate in 1985 with the Militant paper in the US and the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Young Socialists who organized a conference each summer. So we heard this person speak at this conference and we invited him to Iceland. As Head of the UN delegation of course, he was very busy and he could not come but he put us in touch with the ANC representative in Copenhagen in Denmark. We prepared for his tour here to speak and visit organizations, political parties, youth organizations many of whom supported and became active organizing and receiving him. He arrived in October 1985 and his tour was a great success I could say.
Proscovia Svärd: What was the name of the ANC Representative?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Aaron Mnisi
Proscovia Svärd: When you came back to Iceland how were you organized?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, I joined this Militant Socialistic Organization which I knew of and which participated in all kinds of political activities. It was working class oriented politics and some of my main activities in the late 1980s were around the South African solidarity work.
Proscovia Svärd: Were there any youth organizations then?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, but we collaborated. There were young people amongst us, it was a young organization then and we collaborated without any problems with for example the Peoples’ Alliance. In fact many of us became members of its youth organization. And we collaborated with the National Apprentice Students Union very much. And I remember the Social Democratic Youth organized some activities and press conferences in collaboration with us.
Proscovia Svärd: Can you say something more about National Apprentice Union?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It was a union of students who were learning different skills, for example carpentry, metal welding, hair dressing, and all kinds of skills. It was a sort of non- academic education, after the basic education. It was a big school, in Reykjavik and several other cities and towns in Iceland and this was the National Union of the students. They had a congress every year I guess. A couple of their congresses invited people from ANC to speak to them.
Proscovia Svärd: Was the students’ work supposed to contribute towards the struggles?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It was mainly the leadership of the union that was involved directly. We could say this was mainly informative activities and directed at activating and educating people about the struggles in South Africa, about the world and struggles in general, also relating to it more directly by having relations to the ANC. You asked me before whether we sent materials or any help to South Africa but I do not think that happened.
Proscovia Svärd: You mentioned “Operation dagsverke”. Did it have any intention to collect money through the students’ work and to send it to South Africa? Can you comment on it?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, not really because I knew about it afterwards. As I said there was no press coverage and I didn’t meet the Apprentice students until afterwards. I saw their leaflets and the posters they made for this activity, and I knew that the Ministry of Education had prohibited them to collect money through their work and send it to South Africa. The plan had been to send the money; that is, a day’s wage for each student in some plant, factory or other places, to a refugee camp in Tanzania. But they were prohibited to do this by the Minister of Education.
Proscovia Svärd: Why was this?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think it was ignorance, reactionary and not proper thinking about what education was. If the Minister used the argument that they needed to study for that one day and shouldn’t take a day off to work, it was a very, very narrow argument because you really would get education out of working and sending money to the young South African refugees in the camp in Tanzania.
Proscovia Svärd: But you are perhaps analyzing her from a perspective of an activist. If you are a parent, who thinks that children should be at school Monday to Friday in order to follow the school curriculum so, do you think the Minister was merely reactionary or was there some grain of truth in her reaction?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, I am a parent and I had a young son at that time but I disagreed with the Minister totally: I think it is so much better to know something about the world and be active in it than to sit by a table in school all day, most months of a year. It is really not always good what you are learning there.
Proscovia Svärd: What motivated your engagement in the liberation struggles?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Interest about the world and politics. One got fascinated by the spirit and how the strength of the struggles changed society. It is something that one really got drawn to, 1985 to 1994. We were able to take the first step towards one country in Southern Africa and there was a lot to learn about strategy and leadership. When one realized what was going on, it was fun to follow.
Proscovia Svärd: For how long were you involved in the action group against apartheid?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think the last thing I did was probably to see the Parliamentary Commission of Foreign Affairs and this was the in Winter 1993/94. The Commission wanted to meet some of the people who had been active in the solidarity work, and to hear their reactions regarding the lifting of the ban on South African goods. This ban had been decided on in May 1988 by the Parliament after several fights about it, but they wanted to lift it in 1993. We knew that the position of ANC was not to lift it until the elections. Those who went to this meeting were I, Kristinn Halldór Einarsson from the Apprentice Student’s Union and another person from their board, and Halldór Grönvold from the Icelandic Federation of Labour. We were four and we gave them the ANC statement on the ban.
Proscovia Svärd: Did the Commission react positively?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: They listened, but the Parliament withdrew the ban nevertheless.
Proscovia Svärd: So, your efforts’ didn’t materialize into any positive results?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, we had the opportunity to state that we supported the ANC position.
Proscovia Svärd: This was most important of course. I have my research on the Icelandic documentation on liberation struggles at the National Library discovered that there was also a Committee called the “South African Committee against Apartheid” that had been formed in 1988. Were you part of this organization?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I was a member of it but I was not a founding member because I was not in the country at the time but I participated in its preparation - I joined it and was active in it.
Proscovia Svärd: If I may take you back to the Militant Association that you mentioned, was it formed first and then the South Africa Committee against Apartheid that was formed in 1988 (SAGA)? I would like to know about how they were successively established. Which was first?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: The Militant Socialist Organization. It was a rounded political organization, not exclusively a solidarity organization.
Proscovia Svärd: And which year was it formed?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: In early 1980s and onwards to 1989, and it was dissolved about 1990. I was also a member of the South Africa Committee Against Apartheid (SAGA) which was founded in the spring or in the summer 1988. Prior to that, we worked in ad-hoc Committees on the issues of South Africa.
Proscovia Svärd: Was the South Africa Committee Against Apartheid (SAGA) the only active organization remaining for those who wanted to work against apartheid?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No there were some other organizations. Organizations did not necessarily preclude each other.
Proscovia Svärd: But at least the South African Committee against Apartheid (SAGA) was after its establishment the organization that you knew officially worked for the struggles.
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Yes, it was officially working for the struggle and it had dozens of both individuals and organizations who were its founding members. It was known and officially recognized as working in solidarity with South Africa. I remember there was a message from Albertina Sisulu received when the organization was established.
Proscovia Svärd: Was this a South African?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Albertina Sisulu was the wife of Walter Sisulu who spent a decade in prison with Mandela on Robben Island. He was older than Mandela and he died around 2000 or a little later. He was the founding member of the ANC Youth League in 1944.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok, this is getting interesting. Did the South African Committee against Apartheid (SAGA) also involve the youth, or was it just you, the people who had the experience that organised the activities?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think it is best to look at it as a collaboration.
Proscovia Svärd: Collaboration?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: There were several senior high schools involved. I remember a large group of young people from the high school called MH.
Proscovia Svärd: What does MH mean?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It is one of the Senior High Schools in Reykjavik and it means Senior High school of Hamrahlid, which is a just a geographic name. I don’t know how big the school is but it probably has about 800 - 1000 students. There was a group of 10-15 young people, who were very active around the trade ban on South Africa that is the ban against the import of South African goods. Despite the ban, South African goods were being imported. The students were therefore active, especially in front of one of the largest supermarkets in the centre of Reykjavik. They sang songs; they went inside the stores and collected the South African goods, took them to the counters and left them there as sort of an action. They also went to Keflavik international airport and tried to block a group of people who were to board a plane to South Africa to see the beautiful beaches for the whites. I think this was in 1990 or even 1991. We have pictures of them, and at least “Þjóðviljinn” published news on this and showed pictures from the airport. They sang South African freedom songs. On one occasion one of our guests, who was a representative of the ANC, Mr. Tim Maseko who came from Copenhagen heard them sing. He was an older person and was very experienced and had been the Schoolmaster of the ANC School in Lusaka, Zambia. I forget what the occasion was, but this choir of about 10 young white youth stood up and sang some songs, and he said to me, “I want a photo of this because we need to show white people in South Africa these white youth singing our songs, so they can be less afraid and appreciate more what we want for everyone, not only for blacks but for everyone in our country”.
Proscovia Svärd: So, your organization at least had direct contacts with the ANC representatives because in my earlier interviews, people seem to have forgotten the type of collaboration that existed. Did you have any collaboration with other international solidarity groups, like for example the ones based in Sweden?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Not that I know of. I met people from Denmark and we had at least one visitor just coming through from the solidarity movement in Denmark. I didn’t know much about the groups in Denmark, I think they were several. As far as Sweden is concerned, I knew the individual Icelandic students who knew Sweden and some of the youth who were active in the early 1990s against the trade ban on South African goods came from Sweden. I am sure they had contacts with Swedes but not on the organizational plan.
Proscovia Svärd: What were the highlights of your engagement in the liberation struggles?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, I was mainly involved on the organizational level - that is, I planned tours, helped organise so that the finances for the tours were sufficient, had a lot of contacts with the trade unions and some political organizations. I also accompanied the South African representatives a couple of times to see Ministers or Parliament Commissions. I think knowing them and working with them successfully was fun and of course going to big meetings where students and others would listen carefully and ask questions. I think maybe those were the highlights.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you know if the Icelandic government co-operated with rest of the Nordic countries in support of the liberation struggles?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: I think I can say no. The Icelandic government was on a slightly different track. As I said earlier, the United States never decided to boycott South African goods. Both the US and the British stood by the white government. This was not the case with the Nordic countries because they had a different line. Therefore, I think there was no collaboration. The different line of the Icelandic government came through in a very concrete way when on one occasion. Late in the process, in early 1993, the head of the ANC office in Copenhagen, Tim Maseko, was harassed by the immigration office at the airport when he was entering the country. The Foreign Minister did not want to see him for some reason which I do not know. Also, I learned a bit later from an ANC source, that the Foreign Minister or the Foreign Ministry was not interested in organizing for Mandela to visit Iceland when he was on the tour to Nordic countries. I also don’t know why. I think it`s simply narrowness or may be having been too close to the US. It would have been really interesting to hear Mandela speak and see him. I got this confirmed by somebody who worked with the Ministry at that time, so I think it is correct that they did not really want to organize for him to get here.
Proscovia Svärd: Many people have referred to the Icelandic government as conservative. Would you bluntly say that it actually was in support of the white regime in South Africa?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, I think basically the ruling class has many layers in any population. The rulers in Iceland and the government at that time mostly thought about themselves. It was ignorance, indifference and the issue of foreign politics having been too close to other strong countries. In the mid 1990s, they moved more towards the European system and they are even thinking about joining the European Union now. It is always based on what serves their interest.
Proscovia Svärd: Of the nation?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: No, not of the nation but of a certain part of the nation.
Proscovia Svärd: Did the youth organizations in Iceland collaborate with other youth organizations in Southern Africa, for example with the ANC youth organizations?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: There was one young person, Andila Yawa who visited Iceland in 1991 or 1992.
Proscovia Svärd: Was he a South African?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Yes, he was a South African representative of the ANC Youth Group League and he was also for a year the President of the World Federation of Democratic Youth based in Budapest. He came here on a speaking tour and he spoke in Sweden at a conference as well. He stayed in contact with us and with the Apprentice Students’ Union which mainly sponsored his visit.
Proscovia Svärd: The struggles involved several countries in southern Africa, was it just South Africa your organization worked towards or did it include countries like Namibia and Zimbabwe?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Many of us wrote a lot of articles to increase awareness about Southern Africa and some of these articles were about Namibia and Angola and particularly the last fight in Angola, where the south African army invaded 1976-1978 and were finally defeated in 1988. We followed this.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think your support meant to for southern Africa?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well, I think Southern Africa and South Africa in particular needed all the support in the world to finally get free and hold democratic elections. They said it and I believed it. It probably meant not less for our culture and the knowledge about the world. It helped us to think widely and to be aware of the political struggles and we learnt from them. Therefore, it also meant a lot for us and South Africa as well.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think solidarity means today?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: It is extremely important amongst people who have no power in the struggles. Well, maybe it is too much to say that but, it is so important for people who do not have a government to serve their interests, which is what we need in most places.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you think you managed to create awareness among the ordinary people through your activities?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Yes, I think so. I think that we absolutely did. Maybe one cannot see it now because, as I was trying to put in words yesterday during our earlier meeting, continuity is important. If you do not have the power, if you do not have the tools, the continuity of several struggles and lessons get broken. So, you have to continue to keep it alive. I knew people I worked with, I worked in a factory for a period in the late 1980’s and the workers were interested and they wanted to know more about what is going on in other places of the world.
Proscovia Svärd: So what has Africa meant to the people of Iceland?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Well what can I add? We are all part of the world and it should be for us all, not for those who now decide.
Proscovia Svärd: Sure, as a global people?
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Yes.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok, thank you so much.
Sigurlaug Gunnlaugsdóttir: Thank you too.