Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson
The interview was conducted by Proscovia Svärd in Reykjavik, 23 February 2009.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you do for a living?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I have a company that repairs computers for companies, so we are a little bit like an IT-department for 20 different small and middle-sized companies.
Proscovia Svärd: I will just briefly tell you what I am doing here. I co-ordinate a documentation project on the Nordic countries’ involvement in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa. And since Iceland does not have an official written version of the Icelandic people’s involvement in the liberation struggles like the case is for Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden), I am here to find out if there were any anti-apartheid activities during that period. And if that is the case, find out where the documentation could be. So far, I have not found any assembled archives like in the case of the other Nordic countries where the documents can be localised at the National Archives, or where private people made an effort to collect these documents. I have received much help from Professor Jónína Einarsdóttir, and other people that have put me in contact with activists who participated in the anti-apartheid activities. So, I would like to hear about your involvement in the liberation struggles?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I had read about politics and human rights and tried to mould my ideas about life and what was fair. I started to take part in the youth movement of the People’s Alliance; a party at the time which was formed from the Social Democrats and Socialists. And we actively went out with leaflets to supermarkets and handed out information to people encouraging them not to buy fruits from South Africa, since the ANC at the time had asked for a trade embargo against these products in order to push for a change of the white government. We also made posters and we held meetings - this was a big part of what we did. I must have been 16 or 17 years old at that time, in 1982 or 1983. Other organisations like the Apprentice Organisation were very much involved as well, and we often had meetings there to prepare the support to South Africa and the ANC. The support did not work out the first time but there were some activities that the youth in the People’s Alliance became more involved in. There was for example a girl who was very active and was a member of the board of the youth organisation and people kind of let her choose between being active in the youth organisation or working for the party. She was very strong in the youth organisation and was very committed to the cause of the struggle but she was pushed into working more for the party which was a shame. I was quite new and did not know much about how things were supposed to be done.
Proscovia Svärd: What was the name of this girl, do you still remember?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Anna Hildur Hildibrandsdóttir. She was later known for the promotion of an Icelandic girl band in the UK called Bellatrix. She was very strong in this, but she was put against the wall in a way, to either be here or there.
Proscovia Svärd: Why was that?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: It was about internal politics within the People’s Alliance.
Proscovia Svärd: It seems that every person who was involved in the anti-apartheid activities has collected some documents but no one has deposited them at any of the information institution and so, everybody has bits and pieces.
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Actually that is what I plan to do but it will have to be next summer. I would like to document the activities and hand the documentation over to the National Archives.
Proscovia Svärd: That would be great! I hope that this could be a co-ordinated effort among the activists, to collect or make photocopies of all the records they have and hand them to the National Archives. I visited the National archives today and I do not think that has ever happened.
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: No, and the documents need to be organised very well if they are to be used in a proper way. That is what I want to do because I studied History at the University and after my studies I have even become worse at keeping papers; everything .
Proscovia Svärd: You keep everything! That is good!
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, I have a lot of papers.
Proscovia Svärd: So in other words, you have a lot of documentation at your place?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, but I do not know where this or that is, so I have to go through it and organise it and then take it to the National Archives - that is my plan.
Proscovia Svärd: I hope your plan will materialise. So how were you organised? You have talked about the youth of the People’s Alliance and I have also heard about the youth under the South African Group against Apartheid (SAGA). Did you ever join SAGA?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I took part in it, but I was never an active member of its board. SAGA arranged a concert and I took part in the work around it.
Proscovia Svärd: So you were never active in the youth organisation within SAGA? I have just interviewed someone who told me that there were a couple of young people with SAGA who were engaged in the anti-apartheid activities under the guidance of some older people.
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: What year was this?
Proscovia Svärd: SAGA was formed in May 1988.
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I probably helped with the organisation but I was not a board member. I have been active in very many organisations so I am not sure.
Proscovia Svärd: Were there many organisations in Iceland at this time that were involved in the liberation struggles in Southern Africa?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I knew about at least two that were founded. The first one did not work because I think it had lost the vital people who had been active before and the latter is probably SAGA that you were talking about. I just met a man today who actually knows quite a lot about this.
Proscovia Svärd: What is his name?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Kristinn Einarsson.
Proscovia Svärd: Ok, I will contact him. So what motivated your engagement in the liberation struggles?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: It was such a fundamental thing in connection with human rights. And I would say that at the time in Iceland, we were a very homogeneous people, everybody was pretty much like me – with this colour of hair and skin – we did not see much of coloured people. And that has changed a lot in Iceland. But I remember that it was a little bit shocking for me, when I met a black person for the first time and we talked during a coffee break at a meeting a few years later. This was after I had handed out leaflets asking people not to buy Del Monte or to buy from supermarkets that sold South African fruits, and after having informed people that the black people were just as much humans as we whites are!
Proscovia Svärd: Where was he from?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I do not remember but I think he was from the United States. But he was talking to me and in the back of my head I was so occupied with the fact that he was black! And it irritated me very much because I had been talking to all these people in Iceland, telling them that blacks were just like us, so why was I so occupied with the fact that he was black? But I think when I met him again and then a third time, it was not a problem anymore - he was just a person. Maybe it is easier to come to a conclusion that something is right or wrong, but for one’s emotional life to come to the same conclusion – it is not the same thing. You need the experience to bring it together, so that your feelings and what you are thinking are in sync, in a way. I thought it was very strange then, and I was very frustrated by how I had reacted, but then I realised it was normal. I was simply not used to seeing a person that was physically different.
Proscovia Svärd: How long were you active?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I think that in the People’s Alliance we were very active for a year and a half. Then we took part whenever something was happening and maybe things would be quiet for a couple of months but, we would get a message that we were going to meet about something and then we would get together and organise things. And I remember also when I was active in the youth movement and connected to the “Æskulýðssamband Íslands”, (an umbrella organisation of Icelandic youth organisations), there was a man who came from WFDY, the World Federation of Democratic Youth. What had happened was that the old Eastern Bloc was very strong there, so the right-wing organisations had quit it and organised what they called WAY (World Assembly of Youth). But then, because of a money scandal that had been provided to this new organisation by the CIA (the spy organisation in America), a lot of organisations left it as a result. So this meant that both the WFDY and the WAY were weakened and so at that time, the Third World Countries started to be strong in WFDY. There was a man from the youth of the ANC who was a WFDY leader who came to Iceland.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you remember his name? Was it Aaron Mnisi?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I believe that was his name. He came here as a representative of WFDY to make the umbrella youth organisation of Iceland become an active part of WFDY. He visited the other Scandinavian countries too and asked them to do the same thing. I think this was one or two years before the elections were held in which apartheid was abolished. We organised meetings with him to talk about the ANC. He also talked a lot about feedback and about how to organise the elections. He went to “Idnskólinn” (the Apprentice School) and some other schools, and I went with him to organise this, and he lived in my home during this time. So that was another kind of involvement. I remember he was about my age, and I was very shocked to hear stories about his friends having been both tortured and even killed in prison.
Proscovia Svärd: His family?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: No, his friends and he had also been in prison.
Proscovia Svärd: How old were you by that time?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: That is a good question, I am born in 1965, so I must have been around 22 or 23 and he was around my age. But I was so surprised at how open and joyful he was, even though he had been tortured and all that – it was a little bit difficult for me to understand. Sometimes we went out in the evenings to bars, and he would get tired of talking only about the situation in South Africa – so he would lie and say that he was from the American base, just to get a little time off from politics, so that we could just have fun!
Proscovia Svärd: So, in other words you were engaged in some international solidarity groups through the youth umbrella organisation?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes.
Proscovia Svärd: Did you have any direct contact with the ANC?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: No, but I think a lot of the information and the contacts came through the Scandinavian countries. Because a lot of people had been studying in Denmark, Norway or Sweden and had become active in groups based there. Then when they came back, they started to work on the same issues and organised solidarity work here in Iceland. But I was active in other different organisations during the following years, to support the struggle in Nicaragua and El Salvador as well.
Proscovia Svärd: Were you active in the Palestine issue?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, but I was never a member of the board though but I am a member of the organisation. I often help with technical things because it is easier for me when I do not have a lot of time, I can rig up a sound system – it is easy for me and that is at least something that I can do to help.
Proscovia Svärd: That is good. So, earlier on you mentioned the actions you participated in; distributing pamphlets and information on the forbidden goods that had been imported into Iceland from South Africa. What other actions were you involved in?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: We mainly distributed posters with animations and drawings, kind of like comic-strips against apartheid. It would be interesting if you could find these posters.
Proscovia Svärd: If you have those posters we would be very glad to access them, because the rest of the Nordic countries already have posters posted on our website.
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I think that Kristinn must have some posters and I can probably find some somewhere. They were made by a very popular man who used to make comics. There was a poster that had a hand coming from above like some kind of god. He drew a man, and then another man, and when he had finished, he coloured one of them. But then the other one was envious so he started hitting him. When I showed this to the guy from the ANC who came here to visit, he said that it was not really how they would have put in, but of course we were far away and we saw it differently. It was more like a silly joke, but a political joke anyway. Then we also went outside of the few supermarkets that were here at the time and distributed pamphlets and the police would come and take us away.
Proscovia Svärd: The police came?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, sometimes it was on the premises of the supermarkets and so some of us would be arrested or taken to the station for a few hours and then thrown out. I was a little bit stupid in these matters because when the police came and asked us to get into their car, we agreed and they drove us downtown and went near the police station and then asked, “Where do you want to go out?”, and we replied “Go out? Are we not arrested?”, and they said “No, no, we just invited you to the car for a ride!” and we would get very angry; because we thought we had been arrested. We thought we had no choice, but of course it was just a trick. I remember especially one day after we had been to the supermarkets, which we had done for a week or quite some time and were very frustrated, we came back to the headquarters of the People’s Alliance Party and saw a case full of lemons from South Africa in the Party’s premises! This was after having been out protesting all day and asking people not to buy fruits from South Africa –and we asked them what they were doing!
Proscovia Svärd: In the People’s Alliance premises?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, they had had some kind of fiesta in the evening and someone had gone out and bought a lot of lemons to cut up to use for the drinks. We were very angry and told the people who were working that, “You must not be doing such stuff because we have been protesting and telling people not to buy things from South Africa, and then you go and buy a whole box of lemons!” and they said “Sorry, we just did not think!”.
Proscovia Svärd: What were the highlights of your commitment and your involvement in this struggle?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Well, I think the highlight was when we were active and tried to set up an organisation about these issues. I sometimes tried to help with technical things around concerts, and at least one concert was held outdoors with bands that were playing to support this cause, so that would probably be it. Most of the time, I have taken part in things than led them.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you think your actions contributed to the awareness of the Icelandic people as far as the liberation struggle in Southern Africa was concerned?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, because the actions got quite a lot of media attention and we held meetings and we talked about apartheid in schools – so it definitively had an effect.
Proscovia Svärd: When I talked about the media in my earlier interviews, I was told that the media was politically aligned, what is your view on that?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: At the time, there was only one television channel, at least at the beginning of this period. There was a political kind of committee for the national radio and the national television, and the political party which was strong of course tried to influence what was shown by the media. I remember that when I was active in this youth umbrella organisation I often talked to people in these exchange organisations, and they said it was devastating for the two South Africa exchange students when they saw the media here in Iceland – because of the way they presented the situation in South Africa and the discussion about Nelson Mandela in prison and all that. They had never seen anything like that because their media in South Africa were not telling the same story. The story there was that the whites came there first and the blacks later! So for them to realise that the truth was totally different was very shocking. By coming to Iceland, they learned more about their own country than about Iceland, in a way. Their whole world-view changed by coming here and seeing the news on the television and on the radio.
Proscovia Svärd: The People’s Alliance had a newspaper as well, right, “The People’s Will”?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes, “Þjóðviljinn”. There was a lot of articles in it, the drawing of the poster was actually first published in this paper “Þjóðviljinn”, “the Will of the People”. So we asked them if we could use it as a poster and they said yes. They also often wrote about these issues.
Proscovia Svärd: What about the right wing paper, “Morgunblaðið”?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: They were pretty good too I think, but maybe did not support drastic change within South Africa, saying that it was more complicated, etc. And I remember once when I was handing out pamphlets to a woman, she said “Have you ever been to South Africa?” and I said “No”. And she went on: “Well I have, and let me tell you it is not like you think; blacks in South Africa have it much better than in the surrounding countries!”
Proscovia Svärd: Was she Icelandic?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Yes. I was a little bit put in a difficult position because I thought she knew so much more than me but I replied, “Yes, but it is a question of a principle, it is about human rights, everyone should be treated equally!” Later of course I found out that it is not necessarily the one who knows more about a situation that has the right opinions. Because eventually Nelson Mandela was released from prison and everything changed. I thought about the fact that there could have been a very bloody uprising. I think that there is still this big gap between people and the reasons why a lot of people are poor persist even though some are in a better position. But at least South Africa showed that you can have fundamental change without too much blood being spilt.
Proscovia Svärd: Do you know if the Icelandic government cooperated with the rest of the Nordic countries?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: There was a time when the People’s Alliance was in the government, and I do not remember really what happened, but I think there were discussions and some resolution in parliament about this. I think Kristinn Einarsson would be in a better position to tell you since he worked with this issue more formally, within the union of students that I told you about, but also in support of the ANC, and the claims of the ANC.
Proscovia Svärd: You mentioned that you have always been active in different organisations. Apart from focusing on South Africa, were there other Southern African countries that your group was working with, like Namibia or Zimbabwe?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Not so much, no. There were also organisations that were “friends” of countries, promoting cultural relations and so on. But there were quite a few organisations focusing on Southern and Latin America. I think this was also because there was a man who was accidentally in a big meeting in El Salvador when there were a lot of people rallying against the government, and he was on a lamp post when the army started shooting and killed a lot of people. This man went into some kind of picture-taking frenzy without thinking he could be shot himself. I never saw it but there was a slide show of these events that he showed in different countries around the world, and also here in Iceland in a hotel. And when the lights came on, most people were crying. And after that, an organisation called “The El Salvador Committee” was formed. It later changed into the “Central America Committee”, and they were very active for a long time. People also went to Cuba to work there, this kind of support was very strong and is still strong here in Iceland, I believe.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think your support meant for Southern Africa?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Well, I think it was moral support at least. I think also that the idea was to have an impact economically on South Africa, and probably there were some companies that decided to stop importing for a while. There were also a lot of discussions about this in parliament if I remember correctly, and some limitation was imposed at least, but it was very easy to go around it by re-branding merchandise. I think we were often thinking of us as part of the Scandinavian countries in this respect, so I think that probably it helped in some ways economically too. There were a lot of discussions, the right-wingers were saying “Yes, but it is bad for the coloured people too, because they will have less money”, etc. And we were referring to the fact that this was a call from the ANC, a call for change.
Proscovia Svärd: I have also heard that you had a very conservative government during this time, why do you think this was the case?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I think there were some left-governments, the three years before 1991 and a coalition governments every now and then. I think the difference between Iceland and the other Scandinavian countries was that the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Alliance were bigger in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. And the Social Democrats in Iceland were much smaller than the People’s Alliance and were not equally as strong as the Social Democratic Parties in the rest of the Nordic countries. So Iceland was different in that way.
Proscovia Svärd: What do you think solidarity means today?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Solidarity in what respect?
Proscovia Svärd: In the same way you think of the solidarity that the few of you in Iceland showed then? Is it the same thing?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: I think organisations like Amnesty International have been active in Iceland for a very long time, and I think the idea of human rights is a very important one. It is not so much linked with parties or political ideas as before. I think human rights have become more and more universally thought of as something that should be outside of party-politics. In Iceland we have had a very strong feminist movement, and in it of course, there is an emphasis on the fact that all people are equal, women, men, and coloured, from different cultures and religions and ways of looking at life. So I think it is very important here. There was one or two people in the Frjalslyndi flokkurinn (Liberal Party) were trying to be xenophobic before the last elections and, there was a very strong reaction to that in Iceland. Of course some people are afraid that “they”, (foreigners) will take our jobs and all that, but I think it is not a very big group of people. Usually people become angry towards those who try to use this reasoning to promote some kind of fear about the future.
Proscovia Svärd: And finally, what has Africa meant to the people of Iceland?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: Africa? I think, being a leftist-activist, I have not often felt to be part of the winning team. So for me when Nelson Mandela was released and the elections in South Africa were held (and I remember the pictures of all the long queues of people waiting to vote), I felt so happy and proud that even though I did not do so much to change this. But maybe I did help, a little bit. So I felt very happy, and it was also encouraging to see that it is possible to change in a peaceful way, through demonstrations etc.
Proscovia Svärd: Have you ever been to Africa?
Sigvarður Ari Huldarsson: No, I have never been. I hope I will, in the future.
Proscovia Svärd: Thank you so much.