The Nordic Africa Institute

Sten Rylander

Swedish ambassador

His career started in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in 1970 on various positions up till 1979, including postings at the Nordic Office of the World Bank in Washington D C (1972-74) and the Swedish OECD-delegation in Paris (1974-76). Wanting to come closer to the reality in Southern Africa he became the country director of Sida in Botswana (1979- 81) where his official engagement in Southern Africa really started. Rylander was appointed ambassador in Angola (1985-88) during a very difficult and volatile period. During those years he had close contacts with the liberation movements ANC and SWAPO which had wide-ranging activities in Angola during this time; SWAPO with their headquarters in Luanda. After two years in Stockholm as Assistant Under-Secretary for bilateral development cooperation in the Ministry, again with much work towards the liberation movements, he moved to become ambassador in Namibia during the first exciting years of independence in 1990-95. After having been the EU Representative in the Darfur conflict, Rylander is currently the Swedish Ambassador to Zimbabwe.

Lennart Wohgemuth: Your career in brief?

Sten Rylander: My career started in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs where I worked in different jobs for ten years 1970-79, including postings at the Nordic Office of the World Bank in Washington D C (1972-74) and the Swedish OECD-delegation in Paris (1974-76). I wanted to come closer to the reality in Southern Africa and chose to become the country director of Sida in Botswana (1979- 81) where my official engagement in Southern Africa really started. I came back home to the Ministry very much engaged in the situation in Southern Africa, after which I became ambassador in Angola (1985-88) during a very difficult and volatile period. During these years I had close contacts with the liberation movements ANC and SWAPO which had wide-ranging activities in Angola during this time; SWAPO with their headquarters in Luanda. For SWAPO it was the years leading up to independence. After two years in Stockholm as Assistant Under-Secretary for bilateral development cooperation in the Ministry, again with much work towards the liberation movements, I moved to become ambassador in Namibia during the first exciting years of independence (1990-95).
Between 1995-98 I was first head of the Eastern and Western Africa Department and later after a merger of the full Africa Department of Sida. 1998 I became ambassador in Tanzania where I stayed for five years. I then became roving ambassador for dialogue with Africa at the Ministry for three years and am now ambassador in Harare, Zimbabwe. As you can see the mainstay of my career has circled around Southern Africa and its development during the past 30 years.

Lennart Wohgemuth: Before your official duties did you have any private interest or contacts with the liberation struggle?

Sten Rylander: Yes, both my wife Berit and myself grew up and were very much engaged in the solidarity movements in Sweden in the late 1960s and early 1970s: first in the FNL-movement regarding Vietnam and later with solidarity work regarding Africa. I met with visitors from the liberation movements who came to meet people in Sweden, but I have no very special memory to share. I built up my interest leading to my wish to go to Southern Africa to work – with Botswana as the entry point.

Lennart Wohgemuth: Any special memories to share from your time in Botswana?

Sten Rylander: I recall in particular four special occasions, which I want to mention here. The first was with regard to our special relations with ANC. I came into contact with ANC and its underground activities in and from Botswana very early. Inger Jernberg at the SIDA office was responsible for those contacts and very close to ANCs representative Joe Gqabi who was later shot in Harare 1980. He was a very good contact person and meant very much to me for understanding the plight of ANC inside South Africa and in Botswana. ANC had a very tough time in Botswana and was watched closely not only by the South African security police but also by the Botswana police. I did not at that time understand how sensitive these contacts were. However, they helped Sweden to be kept informed about the developments in the region. Berit and myself became very close to Joe and his wife Aurelia.
A second strong memory was with regard to Lesotho. One of my duties was to go to Lesotho every now and then to bring money to the ANC office in Maseru led at that time by Chris Hani. I brought the money in my suitcase. The situation for ANC in Lesotho was even more difficult than in Botswana. Our contact person was Chris´s wife Dimpho Hani who at that time worked in the Lesotho Tourist Organisation. After contacting her she then arranged meetings with Chris. I met him some four or five times and we became close friends. This was a time of pressure building up in South Africa, particularly in Eastern Cape and the Port Elisabeth area. Chris led this work from Lesotho. Once Chris wanted me to see how they worked and late one evening he collected some houndred young people who were active in the campaign inside South Africa. We were discussing the situation and the tactics used for a very long time. Because of this close relationship that I established Dimpho was later employed by the Sida office in Maseru when it was established in 1985. Headquarters in Stockholm approved that employment but later it became too sensitive for Stockholm and we had to disassociate ourselves from her–something she never accepted. The decision was taken for security reasons and after consultation with Chris Hani. She was angry but he understood the reasons. This was in 1987 far after I had left. However, I feel very proud of having taken part in this very crucial part of the struggle in South Africa. Apart from bringing the money we exchanged views and discussed the situation in the world. We made it possible for the ANC leadership to have an opening to the West - one of few such channels. We discussed about their strong alliance with the Soviet Union at that time and other important questions with regard to the situation in the world. As a good social democrat I tried to bring up the notion of the existence of an alternative between the two major powers to avoid becoming too dependent on one or the other. I acted as a good dialogue partner to the ANC leadership in Lesotho and in Botswana.
The third memory from that time was in connection with the strong support we gave to culture and media within ANC from the Embassy in Gaberone. In 1981 during my last year in Botswana ANC arranged a cultural festival in Gaberone where Wolly Serote, the famous poet and author, was the driving force. Some of the artists stayed for longer periods in Gaberone, others came for short visits to connect with those in exile. They worked in a formative stage of what was later going to become the ANC cultural policy.
The most dramatic event you experienced yourself, Lennart. You happened to be visiting Botswana and stayed in my house during the night of 21 November 1981 when a raid was carried out by the South African security police (by the Vlaaakplas-based death squad) on an ANC house in Gaberone. Two of the people who worked underground, Joyce Dipale and her boyfriend Rolla – despite their youth very prominent persons in the underground movement, liaised with Bayers Naudé - were wounded; Joyce with three bullets in her back and bleeding profusely. Instead of going to the hospital to be taken care of they came to our house in the middle of the night to search for refuge and medical treatment. They did not dare to go to the hospital as some of the South African security police had also been injured during the shootout and had gone to the hospital, We took care of Joyce for some two-three days arranging with private medical doctors etc. I was deputy head of mission and was covered by diplomatic immunity for what it was worth at that time. It was of course sensitive to have this situation and we could not go on like that for a long time. I do not recall that I asked for instructions from Stockholm, at least not the first two days. This shows however how trusted we were by the ANC cadres and how close our relations had become, mostly through Inger Jernberg, but I also became more and more involved.
ANC used Botswana as an outpost but it was very insecure. When I came, there was still freedom of movement for ANC members and many lived in Gaberone. But under strong pressure from South Africa restrictions were enforced; refugees from South Africa had to be taken to a refugee camp in Dukwe in northern Botswana or sent on to Zambia. After I left in 1982 there were the two spectacular attacks, one in Gaberone and one in Maseru in Lesotho where many people were killed, so the situation became worse all the time. Chris Hani barely escaped the attack in Lesotho.

Lennart Wohgemuth:Then you became the deputy head of the Bilateral Aid Department in the Foreign Ministry. What memories can you recollect from that time?

Sten Rylander: The issues related to the liberation movements remained my main interest during these years. I represented the Ministry in most discussions we held on these issues and I was regularly participating in the work of the Humanitarian Committee dealing with all such issues. I went to the negotiations with ANC and Swapo during these years in Lusaka. And I met most visitors from the region coming to Sweden during that time. I got to know many of the leading figures. For many the ANC was the favourite; they were more sophisticated than SWAPO which still had very little capacity for planning, implementation and accounting. The SWAPO comrades created a lot of problems for the bureaucrats, but I had a lot of sympathy for them because they really represented the people, coming themselves from the countryside of Namibia, while almost all the ANC people came from urban areas. Later we were very much involved in contacts with Hifikepunye Pohamba, the present President of Namibia in a training programme for SWAPO bureaucrats. However, SWAPO also felt sometimes very misunderstood when not being able to use all funds allocated to them etc.

Lennart Wohgemuth: What do you remember from your period as ambassador in Angola?

Sten Rylander: This was a very dramatic period in Angola’s history. Just a few weeks after I had arrived, the US Congress abolished the Clarke´s Amendment, opening up for heavy American involvement in supporting UNITA in the civil war that was going on, leading to a substantial increase of military action in the country. Angola was at that time the headquarters for SWAPO and also ANC was heavily represented there. Berit became the officer in charge at the Swedish Embassy and we engaged with both organisations both politically and in detailed day-to-day operations. I became very close to the whole leadership of SWAPO at that time and also went several times to the main SWAPO camp in Kwanza Zul.
One memory from my close relations with ANC is still very vivid for me. Chris Hani, Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils and some other ANC leaders one day came to my residence and they had among themselves a long debate on what happened at that time in the Soviet Union. Joe Slovo did not understand or accept what was changing in the Soviet Union. He was stuck in an old and very strong Soviet-backing attitude, while Chris Hani being younger and more dynamic in my view had a more reformist view. And he already understood at that time that things were going to change completely. I was tremendously impressed by Chris and think it was a great loss for South Africa when he was killed. I have had my suspicions that it was a plan to take him away. Anyway, this is a good example of our close relationship at the time. They came to our residence and used it as a refuge and a debating ground; a place where they could come and feel at home. This was 1987 or 1988; they came regularly to Angola to visit the ANC camps there. Those camps were important for military training of ANC cadres – something we did not know very much about at that time. What came out later was that they dealt very harshly with dissidents in those camps.
Our home was also a meeting place for other activities. Martti Ahtisaari as the UN Special Representative and Commissioner for Namibia came regularly to Angola to talk to the SWAPO leadership on the process towards independence. He always came to our residence and met the SWAPO leadership at our place. The preparations became very intense towards the end of my stay in 1988. In the process but also through the work of Berit I came very close to them all. Also with regard to Swapo it has come out that they were very ruthless towards what they saw as enemies from within or dissidents. We heard rumours about that and I also spent a lot of time trying to investigate and study the sources of these rumours. But we could never really establish the actual facts. I was personally suspicious about the rumours because all the sources I could find had their roots in apartheid South Africa. And I wrote about that in my reports to the Ministry in Stockholm. It was first in Namibia - after having met a few people that had gone through the torture - that I understood what really had taken place. Bience Gawanas came to my hotel room after I had arrived in 1990 and for three hours told me, crying, what she had gone through. Bience, as well as most others who were taken to the dungeons in southern Angola, were of course no spies. Many of them were under suspicion because they came from the “wrong” tribe (i e from the south of Namibia or south of Ovambo) or because of a good education. Prime Minister Hage Geingob did a lot to try to assist some of these people after independence, including Bience who became Namibia´s first ombudsman. As you know she is now very prominent being one of the top Commissioners in the African Union (AU). This is still a wound which needs healing in Namibia. Sooner or later the whole truth must come out and due official apologies be made; without that national reconciliation will be incomplete.

Lennart Wohgemuth: After Angola you came back to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, this time as Assistant Under-Secretary and head of the bilateral development cooperation?

Sten Rylander: Yes, I was responsible for bilateral cooperation with all countries that received assistance from Sweden. But I still spent a lot of time with the emerging developments in Angola and in the process towards the independence of Namibia. We received requests from the SWAPO leadership to help in preparing for independence in a number of very crucial areas, such as the establishment of a Central Bank and a new constitution. We also arranged meetings between the SWAPO leadership and people from within Namibia. Among others a meeting in Sweden with some 40 progressive white people from inside Namibia. It was a very important meeting. But it was of course also highly sensitive to have that meeting in Stockholm at that time just before the elections were going to take place. Some people did not think this was proper; among others the then head of the Swedish mission in Pretoria. There was also strong pressure on the Swedish government to stop the on-going support to SWAPO and not be biased towards only one party. Among others Martti Ahtisaari advised us to stop the support. He succeeded in stopping the Finnish support in his position as the UN Commissioner for Namibia. I am very proud of the steadfast Swedish position. We managed to continue our support to SWAPO until the elections and we were the first country, only a few days after independence, to negotiate a new aid agreement with the new government - an event I participated in. Before Namibia became independent there was a joint Nordic study on joint administration of aid among the Nordic countries to Namibia. I was one of the people who fought this idea very much with success. The idea was that we should have one Nordic Embassy under Finnish leadership and that Sweden would not have its own political representation – a technocratic proposal from a narrow aid perspective. There was no enthusiasm in the other Nordic countries either. With their strong relations to Namibia, Finland also wanted to have their own outfit in the country. I had also a personal self-interest in this as I was nominated as the first Swedish ambassador to Namibia.

Lennart Wohgemuth: 1990-95 you were the Swedish ambassador in Namibia. What can you say from that horizon?

Sten Rylander: To come as the first Swedish ambassador to Namibia just after independence was really something very special. Our close relationship during the liberation struggle - probably closer than with anybody else - was one important aspect, the suspicion from particularly the white community another. The latter saw us as friends and helpers of the “terrorists”. I worked very hard in the beginning to show that we were friends of every Namibian in a free and independent Namibia. I think I was the only foreign diplomat from the West with this close relationship with the SWAPO leadership from the past and that meant a lot as regards access and continued friendship. I felt from the outset that we were seen as number one, at least among the Western nations and in the international development community. As you know Berit was appointed – at the request of the Namibian government through Prime Minister Hage Geingob - by UNDP as an advisor in the National Planning Commission responsible for building up an aid coordinating unit and to build up capacity to receive development assistance, a highly sensitive position. This and many other similar contacts showed that they trusted us and wanted Sweden to support sensitive areas of cooperation.
ANC was now the only remaining liberation movement and the independence of Namibia opened up a new chapter in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I had a lot of contacts with ANC during my years in Namibia.
One thing that bothered me a lot during this period was the policies pursued by the conservative Swedish government (1991-94) as regards developments in South Africa. We really lost a lot of momentum during this time. Instead of building on our long-standing and very close relationship with the ANC over several decades, and using it as a springboard to a new dynamic bilateral relationship with the new emerging South Africa, Prime Minister Carl Bildt and his colleagues in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs decided to shy away from contacts with the ANC, probably thinking that they were unreliable “communists” who could not be trusted in the build-up to a democratic transition. They instead started to nurture the Democratic Party and other contacts outside the broad ANC alliance. In early October 1993 I wrote a long report to my government about cooperation with the ANC and future relations with South Africa with critical comments from a Namibian perspective. After all, there had been a parallel in Namibia with close and trustful cooperation with SWAPO in the preparations for independence and in the successful transition to democracy and national reconciliation in that country; a process which had been up until then extremely positive, also in terms of the official bilateral relations between Sweden and Namibia. I felt very strongly – together with many of my colleagues – that it would be a tragedy if we now missed the opportunity to be in the lead among the international partners in helping to shape up South Africa´s democratic future. I urged the governmnet to rethink – in the light of the positive experiences in Namibia – and to return to the legacy of close Swedish cooperation with the ANC.
My constructive criticism was not taken lightly in Stockholm and I was taken to task in a most embarrassing manner by the then Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Lars-Åke Nilsson. I was effectively told to shut up and not to interfere in this discussion. I did not accept this kind of mastering from the political leadership in the Ministry and insisted that I had a right and duty to participate in the debate. I later raised this with the Inspector-General of the Ministry and finally got an official apology. Later on in 1994 the conservative government lost the general elections and was replaced by a new Social Democratic government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson. The new government quickly repaired the damage and restored excellent relations with the ANC – but the loss of momentum during the previous years was a fact and we could have been better prepared when the South African transition and break-through came in 1994. Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson went on an official visit to South Africa and Namibia in March 1995. It was indeed my very great pleasure to receive him in Namibia together with President Sam Nujoma just a few weeks before my departure from the country.

Lennart Wohgemuth: When you came home to Sweden and took up your position at the new Sida as head of the African Department South Africa was also “liberated”. What can you add from the period after Namibia?

Sten Rylander: Things were then back to normal and Sweden and Sida engaged very actively and dynamically in assisting in so many ways in the challenging transition in South Africa and in the urgent efforts to go for national reconciliation, democracy and respect for human rights.
One thing that I often think about now – many years after the active liberation struggle in Southern Africa – is how quickly the strong Swedish legacy in this whole area is fading away. Young people who are now entering the diplomatic service in Sweden do not know much about what we did during this shining period of Swedish foreign policy and assistance. You even sometimes hear young people criticizing us for what we used to do at the time in supporting and liaising with the liberation movements. This is a sad development, I think, and more should be done to keep this splendid legacy alive also among younger generations. We should all be very proud of what Sweden managed to do during these decades – in the then bi-polar world which was so different from what we experience today. Thanks to the Nordic Africa Institute and Tor Sellström the active Swedish role is quite thoroughly documented. What is urgent now is for the Southern African countries concerned to document their own history of the liberation struggle so that this knowledge can be passed on to younger generations.