The Nordic Africa Institute

Sören Lindh

Africa Groups in Sweden

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 4 February 1997.

Tor Sellström: You have been actively involved in the Swedish solidarity movement with Southern Africa for about thirty years. How did your involvement begin?

Sören Lindh: It started around 1967, when I was a tutor for a student group in Uppsala. That is where my interest in Africa began. A year or so later, I was quarrelling with my father about international solidarity. I was angry with him and his friends, because they did not care. Going back to Uppsala, where I lived at the time, I asked myself: ‘What do you do yourself?’ The conclusion was: ‘Nothing’, so I conceived an organization that could fit into the government agency where I worked, the Swedish Agency for Administrative Development ( Statskontoret). The main idea was to raise financial support and maybe have some information activities, but no big meetings. That was in November 1968. A handful of colleagues bought the idea and our organization still works.

It was conceived as a group in support of FRELIMO. Support for Vietnam was not politically realistic at this government agency. But I had read some articles by the Swedish journalist Anders Johansson from Dagens Nyheter about FRELIMO. So we chose the liberation movement in Mozambique. The organization was formed on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis: ‘FRELIMO it is. If you do not like it, leave it!’ That meant that we could avoid a lot of internal fights about what to support. Either you were in or you were out. And, as I said, the organization has survived for about thirty years.

Tor Sellström: Did you have any previous contacts with FRELIMO?

Sören Lindh: No. The idea was to mobilize people to do useful things. Then, of course, we got in touch with FRELIMO’s representative in Sweden at that time, Lourenço Mutaca. It was just after the Cabora Bassa campaign, so it was not anything new or special.

Tor Sellström: How was the initiative received by your colleagues?

Sören Lindh: It was positive. A number of people joined. I think that we quite soon were about 15-20 people out of a total of some 300 employees. On the other hand, we tried to get the administration to draw money from the salaries every month—which usually was done if it concerned the Red Cross, Save the Children or similar organizations—but they said that they could not do that. Instead, we had to set up a special fund-raising account with a bank to which the members automatically transferred their contributions. It proved a bit difficult over the years, but it has worked.

Our main activity was fund-raising, but at the beginning of the 1970s we could also draw on the progressive wave of 1968. We had a number of meetings and small exhibitions at the agency. That boosted the activities and by 1972-73 we started to finance the shipment of used clothes to FRELIMO in Tanzania. The clothes went to Mtwara and from there into Mozambique. We also organized meetings with Marcelino dos Santos and others when they came to Sweden. Our activities went up and down, but they were quite good. Of course, all the time we were looked for by people from the Portuguese security police and others. There were instances when we had to adjourn meetings for a while and ask people to leave the room.

Tor Sellström: Were these people Portuguese?

Sören Lindh: No, they were Swedes, but of the type that security organizations would recruit and use as middlemen. But we were informed by our friends among the Portuguese deserters in Sweden when people from PIDE were monitoring the Africa Groups’ demonstrations.

Tor Sellström: How was your FRELIMO group linked to the broader Swedish solidarity movement with Southern Africa?

Sören Lindh: In the beginning, there were no links. It lasted for about one year, but by the end of 1969 we got in touch with some people who belonged to the first Africa Group in southern Sweden and with others who wanted to set up a similar organization in Stockholm. Some of them were linked to the Swedish UN Association and later formed the Stockholm Africa Group. We were in touch with them, but we did not work together very much until 1971, when I joined. The Stockholm Africa Group really started to work at around that time. Before that it mainly functioned as a study circle. We also contacted those who had been working with the Cabora Bassa campaign against ASEA’s participation in the project. They had a fund-raising account and a few pennies, but also a tradition of information which we took over. We also talked to the Social Democratic Youth League, which made a Swedish version of FRELIMO’s publication Mozambique Revolution. Eventually, we formed a sub-group within the Stockholm Africa Group, called FRELIMO-Sweden.

Tor Sellström: Did the Social Democratic Youth League form part of FRELIMO-Sweden?

Sören Lindh: No. They could not link up with us formally, but we talked and made an agreement with FRELIMO to send Mozambique Revolution to us instead. We then set up a subscription service and activated our fund-raising account. I think that it set a standard for the Africa Groups’ external work, with fund-raising and information activities. Later, we highlighted the Wiriyamu massacre in Mozambique. In preparation for the Stockholm conference on the environment, we also highlighted the genocide in South Africa and in Angola.

Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament paved the way for direct humanitarian support to the national liberation movements in Southern Africa. How would you explain that a broad parliamentary majority in a neutral, Western country was in favour of liberation movements that waged armed struggles and were supported by the Soviet Union and/or China?

Sören Lindh: Well, I have not thought of it very deeply, but if you look at it superficially you can see that it took place in the aftermath of the first South Africa boycott campaign. There was at the time a debate around the question that the West must do everything in its power to prevent Southern Africa from becoming Communist. I would not say that this was the reason for the Social Democrats’ solidarity, but I imagine that some on the non-socialist, bourgeois side had that position. What was different in the case of Sweden—and maybe in the other Nordic countries—was that we did not have a business community that was actively and aggressively against us. I do not presume that they were foresighted enough to say: ‘This could be of use for us in the future’. I do not think that. But, on the other hand, they did not really care. They did not harass the government or the solidarity movement unless we stepped on a very touchy toe.

Tor Sellström: In your view, was the Swedish official support then given to influence the liberation movements ideologically, or was it granted as humanitarian assistance without any strings attached?

Sören Lindh: We did not think about these things at the time. If you look back, there were, of course, people within the social democratic movement that wanted to influence them. I think that it goes for Sweden and for the social democratic movement in general. It was very clearly the case in the trade union field. Looking back, there must have been such strategies. But, we did not bother very much at the time. We did our work as well as we could and that was that. As FRELIMO put it, ‘do not get sectarian, we would like to get as broad support from Sweden as possible’. We said: ‘Fine, we will organize that’. So, we opened up. I think that it goes for the work on Angola as well. We entered into relations with a number of organizations and political movements, from the far left to sections of the Liberal Party. We worked with them when they were prepared to do so and set ourselves up as the information centre for Southern Africa of the NGO sector. Those who cared to ask would get the information. In retrospect, I can say that the information was very good.

Tor Sellström: It was not until in 1975 that the Africa Groups recognized ANC as the leading force in South Africa. What factors could explain that the solidarity movement was so late?

Sören Lindh: There could be a number of factors, some relevant and some really irrelevant. I think that the most relevant was that we were working in a political situation in Sweden where the focus was on Vietnam and later—from 1973— on Chile. We had to say: ‘OK, we work with Africa, even if it may distract one or two activists from ‘the main focus’. This was at the time of the ‘focal point discussion’, according to which all attention should be given to Vietnam. But we said that it was important to also cover other areas of the globe. In our case, we gave priority to the armed struggle in the Portuguese colonies. That was it. That also meant that we staved off demands to recognize this and that organization in other areas, although we were, of course, in solidarity with their struggle.

One of the more irrelevant reasons was that a couple of the leading Swedish activists had been staying for longer periods in Africa, where they had met people from the other liberation movements. Some of these persons were marked by exile and maybe not the ones that they should have met, because they did not encourage any political enthusiasm. These Swedes saw them as ‘café revolutionaries’, who it was not worthwhile supporting. Nobody in the Africa Groups really cared to question that position, because we could not do anything practical about it at that time, anyway. I think that it was one reason that held us back.

Another reason—whether relevant or irrelevant, I do not know—was that from 1973 the Trotskyists became very active in the Africa Groups. A few local groups were dominated by them and there were attacks on all the liberation movements, except ZANU. In their view, ZAPU, SWAPO and ANC were Stalinist, whatever that meant. For us who did the actual work, it was not very important to take on that fight. It would have required a big effort, so we said: ‘Let it be’. But after 1975, when liberation had been achieved in the Portuguese colonies and we had to look for new areas, we took the decision to support ANC and SWAPO, as well as not to choose between ZANU and ZAPU. There were heavy fights between us in the mainstream and the Trotskyists. One of my arguments that I remember in that discussion was: ‘OK, we might have objections to some features of SWAPO, but if we turn the question around and ask ourselves where the Namibian activists and progressives are, we will find that they are in SWAPO. Fine. Let us then support SWAPO and hope that the progressive forces will take over’. That was the level of discussion at that time.

Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that the fact that the Swedish government and SIDA already had close relations with the liberation movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia made it more difficult for the solidarity movement to recognize them?

Sören Lindh: No. FRELIMO, PAIGC and MPLA also had support from the government and the Social Democratic Party. However, what we could see from the movements’ representatives in Sweden was not always encouraging, for example, the infighting between ZANU and ZAPU. We tried to be as pragmatic as possible, appraising whether they had a genuine popular backing and if they could wage the struggle and so on. If they were productive on the home front and appreciated by the people. In the case of Zimbabwe, that was a bit difficult to assess. I think that it is why we had some difficulties with them and why we ended up supporting both ZANU and ZAPU.

Tor Sellström: Talking about Zimbabwe, one gets the impression that the liberation movement with the weakest constituency in Sweden was ZAPU. Would you agree with that?

Sören Lindh: Yes, I think that it is correct. ZAPU was the weakest for a number of reasons. When we talked to them, they had a clear analysis of the situation, but when we started to look at what was happening on the ground we could not find anything. So, we did not campaign very much for them. I also think that they were saying a lot of things that antagonized Social Democrats, Liberals and Trotskyists. This was in contrast to ZANU. ZANU floated around. You could not see any analysis, but they could on the other hand at times point at victories and advances here and there. I think that more enemies and a weak home ground worked against ZAPU in Sweden.

Tor Sellström: At the beginning of the 1970s, the Maoist left in Sweden advocated support to UNITA in Angola, upholding that MPLA, FNLA and UNITA should be recognized and assisted as part of a united front. How did the Africa Groups look upon this?

Sören Lindh: Well, we laughed a bit about it. We also smiled about the Liberal youth. They went for FNLA, but they also had a tendency to look favourably at UNITA. The Africa Groups did thorough homework on the Angolan organizations. We had already made an analysis in 1972, but did not publish it as it might provoke quarrels within the left. The time to take it up came in 1974. That is when we produced our booklet on UNITA, FNLA and MPLA, which is still a strong historical document. It influenced not only the left, but a number of organizations.

Tor Sellström: In the case of Sweden, the government and the solidarity movement eventually supported the same liberation movements in Southern Africa. However, the situation was different on the trade union front. Notably, LO and TCO never advocated support to the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), while the Africa Groups strongly campaigned in its favour. Why did the Swedish trade union movement not support SACTU?

Sören Lindh: I think that it was influenced by the so-called constructive engagement approach. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU)—to which both LO and TCO belonged—had a very strong tradition of anti-Communism. If others were not too dogmatic about that, the trade unions were. In 1976, there was, for example, an ICFTU meeting in Mexico. For that meeting, the Swedish LO and TCO produced a report on the trade union situation in South Africa. I remember that they said that ‘ANC had vanished, but that its spirit lingered on’. They also very clearly said: ‘No support to organizations that do not exist. Like SACTU’. The interesting thing is that the report was first published in English for the Mexico meeting, so it was apparently meant for external consumption. Only later was it translated into Swedish.

Now, who was the secretary of the LO/TCO report? It was Åke Magnusson, a liberal who had been working with the student movement, channelling support to FRELIMO. That is where I first met him. I found him strange. He did not really fit in. Later, he joined the business side, actively working against sanctions and has become the head of the International Council of Swedish Industry. He also “infiltrated” the church, because the Swedish Ecumenical Council used him as well. But they realized that they were betting on the wrong horse. They corrected their position, but LO/TCO never did.

Tor Sellström: LO and TCO supported internal trade union organizations like FOSATU, which was a driving force behind the constitution of COSATU. In retrospect, would it be fair to say that the support to FOSATU and other South African trade unions made a difference?

Sören Lindh: What we did was that we gave selective support to internal trade union organizations. We talked to ANC and others and they told us that they had people in those organizations. We were not against giving money to internal organizations as such and we adjusted our campaign accordingly. But we said: ‘Give money to SACTU as well’. That was our main message.

We also had to do our homework on the trade union situation. We used ANC’s News Briefings and other sources to follow what was happening and realized from the beginning that it was a dangerous terrain unless it was very clear what you were doing. The interesting thing about the SACTU campaign is that we got allies within the Swedish trade unions. I had, for instance, contacts with the chairman of TCO, Lennart Bodström. He was concerned. Interestingly, he later became Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The fight we had around SACTU also left the Trotskyists behind. They could not cope. We were doing things. We were pushing and lobbying and they could only say: ‘We have to think’. However, it was a situation where you had to act, which meant that it was about the last we saw of the Trotskyists within the Africa Groups.

Tor Sellström: Did the emphasis on SACTU alienate the solidarity movement from organized labour in Sweden?

Sören Lindh: We alienated ourselves from the official establishment of the trade unions, but we went to the shop stewards and to the local branches and said: ‘Some people in South Africa are working openly, but in disguise. Others are working underground. If you would like to have a balanced situation, how do you channel the support? To both sides’. That made sense to a lot of people. We had unions supporting our view. Then they had to face the fact that SACTU was a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), but most of the people who were active and interested in international affairs did not care about that.

But, of course, it alienated us to a certain extent. However, we would have been their opponents anyway, launching the sanctions campaign in late 1976. We then talked to a number of people who had been active in the sanctions campaign in the 1960s. We learned from their mistakes and also from their advances. An interesting thing was that the initial opposition to the idea of a boycott against South Africa came from the trade unions and other Social Democrats. They said: ‘We tried it. It did not work. Do not try to do what we did, because we know that it will not work’. We were a bit surprised, but formed other alliances. The last to come on board was the Social Democratic Youth League. We had all the political youth movements except the Moderates on board before we formally asked the Social Democrats to join the Isolate South Africa Committee (ISAK).

Tor Sellström: Looking at the trade union scene in South Africa at the time, there were emerging unions that later became extremely important, such as the National Union of Mineworkers. They were largely influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement, with leaders such as Cyril Ramaphosa. Why did the Black Consciousness Movement never receive any support from the Swedish government or the solidarity movement?

Sören Lindh: Well, what did they do? Where did they belong? I refer to the discussion we had on SWAPO: ‘There are progressives, but there are also a lot of other people and it is very difficult to see who is who’. We could perhaps see them as John the Baptist, coming before Jesus, but they were not Jesus.

Tor Sellström: The Swedish solidarity movement—the Africa Groups and ISAK—was very strong and united. How would you asses its influence on the Swedish government?

Sören Lindh: We opted at the start for a maximum platform, with full sanctions and support for all the liberation movements in the ISAK programme. We got more or less 100 per cent support for that. So we had a strong basis, which meant that we could be very active regarding information, press releases and so on. At the beginning of the 1980s, we had a bourgeois government in Sweden. We harassed them and embarrassed Foreign and Prime Ministers alike with our questions. We were very well informed and that made us respected.

I also think that we were instrumental in helping the Social Democrats to take stronger actions against South Africa, going from an investment ban to full sanctions. For example, we found that according to the GATT treaty, a government could ban goods irrespective of other commitments if they were produced by prison labourers. We could easily show that many South African grapes, oranges and other agricultural products fell under that clause. We got support for our position. The Social Democratic member of parliament Maj-Lis Lööw read some of the statements and comments that we made in one of our booklets to the parliamentary records. Eventually, the government said: ‘If we ban agricultural trade, why should we continue in other areas?’ I think that our campaign helped them to a more comfortable position.

Tor Sellström: Was this situation similar in Denmark, Finland and Norway?

Sören Lindh: Finland was always exceptional. They did not have a strong grassroots organization. There was an activity as part of the Peace Committee, which was broader and wider than in Sweden. But it was quite a bureaucratic organization, with very few who had any international experience.

When it comes to Denmark and Norway, I guess that they did not have such a strong presence in the Southern African region as we had. We also had much more financial support. We received a number of grants from the government, available to all NGOs. We used them, which was not the case to that extent in Denmark and Norway. I also think that their political platforms were not that strong. They did not have the inner circle of organizations that we had in Sweden. It was, for example, not by chance that ISAK had its office close to us over the years. Even organizations that politically were quite far from us accepted our leading role as “the experts”. I think that it partly was due to the fact that we tried to be factual and pragmatic. We always tried to be on firm ground.

Tor Sellström: Nevertheless, your publication Afrikabulletinen did not sell very well?

Sören Lindh: I think that it has to do with history. From the beginning, we did not aim at becoming a mass movement. We did not want to take away support and activists from the Vietnam or the Chile campaigns. We remained in the expert, lobbying area. Looking back, you could say that we carried that too far and that we were not seen as an organization in itself. That is bad. We should have gone out to became more of a mass movement. On the other hand, we have a strong and active core of long term members.

Tor Sellström: The Africa Groups and ISAK would over the years increasingly receive official funds to carry out their activities in Southern Africa. Was there a discussion regarding possible loss of autonomy due to the funding from SIDA?

Sören Lindh: It is hard to say how it affected us. We said: ‘These are not grants and gifts from the government, but taxpayers’ money that belongs to us. It is the people that rule and the people say: Do not interfere with what the NGO is doing. Just look if they are doing what they have promised to do’. We were quite strong on that point.

When we took up projects, we also very soon found that SIDA wanted us to do things that they could not do, some good and some bad. So, in a number of cases we were setting the terms, not the other way around. But I am also sure that there were occasions where we yielded, not in a political way, but by accepting principles from SIDA. It would be amazing if we did not. But I think that, generally, we said that ‘it is our money. We do what we want and don’t you try to turn us away from what we think is correct’.

Tor Sellström: In general terms, how would you then characterize the relations between the solidarity movement and the Swedish government?

Sören Lindh: I think that we have influenced the position of official Sweden. We have been boasting about the fact that we did things together and it has been to our advantage.

Our recruitment organization was set up in 1976. We had not done a thing in the Southern African region before in terms of development work, but we managed to survive the first mistakes and learn a lot from them. Eventually, we set up good machinery and were quickly regarded as professional by those who cared about development assistance at SIDA and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. They came to respect us.

Tor Sellström: You have been involved with Swedish solidarity work for Southern Africa for about thirty years. Where, do you think, did the Swedish solidarity movement make the greatest impact?

Sören Lindh: Well, many things have gone so wrong for the region that it is hard to say that there have been any victories. I remember that we said to the people training to go to Southern Africa that the economy would end up in a mess. Unfortunately, we were much more correct than we hoped to be.

One of the very important things that we did was our work in Mozambique from 1976 to 1981-82. It was extremely good, and I think that we helped to establish a solidarity experience that hopefully will surface again with the younger generations. The spirit and collaboration were very good. Also at the practical level it was a victory, no matter what happened afterwards. Another achievement was the first ISAK boycott campaign, where we got the full support of the member organizations because they saw that we did a good job. Our research work won the respect of the Christian movement. These are important aspects. But there are lots of others.