LO/TCO—Miners International Federation—Regional adviser in Southern Africa
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Bro, 29 Januari 1997.
Tor Sellström: You have had a long and important involvement in trade union matters in the whole world. What is the background to your involvement? When did you go to Southern Africa?
Stig Blomqvist: Well, the background is that when I was working for the International Transport Workers Federation, John Näslund and Anders Stendalen of the Swedish Mine-workers Union asked me in 1981 if I was willing to start an international education project. Peter Tait, the former general secretary of the Miners International Federation (MIF) had agreed with Stendalen on that. Tait came to Stockholm and we had a chat. I did not speak very good English in those days. Maybe not now either, but in those days it was terrible. A mix of seaman’s English and cockney. However, Anders Stendalen persuaded me to jump into the boat. It was the most difficult boat that I have ever boarded, but it was interesting.
It started as a six month project, through which I was supposed to introduce a new system for trade union education in the Third World, at a very basic level. It was largely inspired by the Swedish study circle activities. I soon found myself sitting in London to start the work, but MIF had nothing to fall back on. There was no policy, nor history of education. I thought that there was something, but there was nothing to build on. What I had to do first of all was to get a platform to work from. It was not very easy. I was also clever enough to begin in the most difficult part of the world, Latin America, a continent full of rotten trade unions. Not trade unions for the workers, anyway.
I started in Colombia, but I learnt very quickly that it was a difficult country, full of corruption, drug cartels and corrupt trade unions. There was not one union that was not corrupt. But I was lucky, because the union stopped the project and instead I went to Peru. Peru was interesting. There was no corruption, but lots of political intrigues. I worked in a small mine up in the Andes, about four to five thousand metres above sea-level. It was owned by the Japanese. Very isolated. There was only one road and it was guarded by the police, the guardia civil. The miners’ lives were in the hands of the damned company. One day, the police started to attack me and a union leader, but the miners came from everywhere. They stoned the guardia civil to release us. The next day, when we were planning the education activities in the union hall, hell broke loose. The police opened fire against the miners about 500 metres from where we were. There was blood all over the place. One person was killed and others had bullets in their legs, arms and upper bodies.
That was my experience from the trade unions in Latin America. After that, I went to Guyana and in 1983 from there to Zimbabwe, in the centre of the mining activities in Africa. I knew that I could live decently there and also go home to Sweden sometimes. I also knew that there were lots of contract workers down there.
Tor Sellström: Were you employed by MIF?
Stig Blomqvist: No, I have never been employed by MIF. I have been on loan from the Swedish Mine-workers Union. I am a Swedish miner and I will die as such.
Tor Sellström: Your base was in Harare. But from where did the funds for your projects come?
Stig Blomqvist: From the beginning, the project was funded by LO/TCO through SIDA. It was completely financed from Sweden.
Now, soon after my arrival in Harare, I got involved with one of the most important unions in Africa, well, in the whole world outside Europe. One day I was approached by a man called Cyril Ramaphosa. He called me from Johannesburg and said that he was the General Secretary of a newly formed National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He asked me if I was willing to get the union moving through education activities. He was himself a very well educated fellow. He had been chosen to set up a union and really get something going in South Africa. I then met Ramaphosa and a fellow called James Motlatsi at the airport in Harare. I first took them to the trade union office in town and introduced them to Geoffrey Mutandare, the chairman of the Mine-workers Union of Zimbabwe. Mutandare was joking and said: ‘We must have a party for our friends from South Africa’. But Cyril said: ‘No. We have not come here for a party. We have come here for work’. That showed me what kind of man he was. That was enough for me.
We then went to my house, and I told them about the low cost education which I had been introducing in the unions. Ramaphosa said: ‘It sounds good’. In those days, James Motlatsi was not saying one word. He was just sitting there. But Cyril presented his plans and wrote down the layout on a paper. He showed his capacity. How he can form ideas into an almost perfect layout. Because it was he who did that, not I.
We designed the whole structure of NUM’s education activity that night. It is still there today. So it was not a bad job. Cyril was very interesting. He could easily get my ideas on a paper. That was not my strong side. He also worked out a preliminary budget for one year. I then phoned the former director of the LO/TCO Council of International Trade Union Cooperation, Jan-Erik Norling. It was late in the evening. I said to him: ‘Can you get the money?’ And Norling said: ‘You can go ahead with the planning. I will get the money’. He took a risk that nobody else in Sweden in those days would have taken.Norling was the one who saved the face of the Swedish trade union movement’s international involvement, I would say. He had the brains to analyse the situation very quickly and take a high risk. He struggled through the Swedish bureaucracy to get the money, as he had promised. There were not many who supported him in those days, but later on—when NUM and South Africa became star projects— then there was a different tone.
That was the beginning. At the time, NUM had 40,000 members. Then, slowly, things started to develop in South Africa. In the beginning, NUM was working from one room, where Ramaphosa and Motlatsi were also sleeping. As a team, they were perfect. As I said, Motlatsi was not talking, but in the mines he was talking a lot. He is the best agitator I know. Talking to mass meetings. He is better than Cyril even.
Tor Sellström: So the first support to the National Union of Mineworkers of South Africa was from Sweden. How about the United States and other Western countries? Were they not involved in the trade union movement?
Stig Blomqvist: Cyril told me that he had been running around the world, to the Americans, to the Germans, everybody, trying to get assistance. But they did not get anything practical which was useful to them. What they got was peanuts. Nothing to start a mass movement with. And that is what we are talking about, the start of a mass movement. NUM started as a union for blacks. That was the only way to mobilize the black mineworkers. Today, everybody is allowed into the union. Anyway, when the activity started to develop, the money required was also starting to be enormous. I then got Norway and Denmark involved. They are my neighbours and I was able to talk to them. Later, the support also involved Holland. The bulk of the money was always from Sweden, but the other countries helped a lot.
In 1986 or 1987, I was invited to the mine-workers’ congress and I got a visa to South Africa for the first time. It gave me the opportunity to meet the miners who I had been trying to support for so long. It was unusual to do a project when you never had been to the country! Anyway, the South African mine-workers showed me their appreciation in many ways. They carried me on their shoulders around the congress hall, for example.
Tor Sellström: Where was this?
Stig Blomqvist: That was outside Johannesburg, in Soweto. I also went with Motlatsi to the mines. In those days, he was talking. The silence was over. I was one of them. Motlatsi was the first President of NUM. He started as a contract worker from Lesotho. I have seen his mines, his bed and the steel cabinet where he kept his clothes. We visited the gold mine Western Deep Levels, where there was a mass meeting of about 15,000 people. I addressed the miners there. They greeted me, but said: ‘Can you give us guns?’ That was the most important. They were revolutionary minded, but I explained: ‘I am sorry, I cannot do that. The Swedish people do not believe in a violent change of society. We believe in peaceful methods, including strikes, but not in violence’. And they accepted that.
Tor Sellström: Were you the only foreign representative at the NUM congress?
Stig Blomqvist: I think that there was somebody from England, but I was the only mineworker. Naturally, there were also some political people invited, because ANC was involved in the development of the trade union movement in South Africa. Without the trade union movement, ANC would be nothing.
Tor Sellström: The project that you developed, was it the so-called E-plan?
Stig Blomqvist: Well, E-plan simply stood for education plan. But it was confusing to the police. They did not know what the E-plan was. The whole system in South Africa was built on the cell-system, the communist-inspired system, and the Swedish study circle activity. We started cells which could operate in a country where nothing was allowed and that is how South Africa is free today. That is the whole thing. It also worked in the closed hostels.
Tor Sellström: You were also closely involved with the Mineworkers Union of Namibia (MUN). How did that begin?
Stig Blomqvist: It began the first time I was in South Africa, really. There were two representatives of the Mineworkers Union of Namibia at the NUM congress. We talked a lot and agreed that I should come over to discuss education activities.
I went there and when I arrived in Windhoek, I was met by one of my oldest friends, Ben Ulenga. He was a very interesting fellow. He was a former guerrilla commander in Namibia who had spent nine years on Robben Island. He told me about this, how it was and how he kept his mind clear. He is very sharp. We began a long friendship.
In Namibia, we also agreed to use education to try to get the union on its feet. The background of MUN was really that it was Cyril Ramaphosa who formed it among the contract workers from Namibia. When they formed the mineworkers’ union in Namibia, they signed over the membership. However, Ben Ulenga, Cyril Ramaphosa and I agreed that NUM of South Africa should take their brothers and sisters of Namibia under their wings and assist them in whatever way they wanted.
Tor Sellström: Did you ever have any contacts with SACTU in South Africa?
Stig Blomqvist: No.
Tor Sellström: Was that because SACTU was a member of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU)?
Stig Blomqvist: No. MIF often discussed what to do about the involvement of WFTU, but I said: ‘Don’t worry about that. Worry about what you yourself do or not do’. The dictator-style of a trade union is nothing that the Third World buys. No way.
Tor Sellström: Was the LO/TCO council in Sweden worried that you were supporting trade unions in South Africa and Namibia that were controlled by Communists?
Stig Blomqvist: I do not know. They did not say so. If they were, they kept it for themselves.
Tor Sellström: Did you ever visit any Swedish companies in South Africa or Namibia?
Stig Blomqvist: No, because my way to operate was to keep away from Swedish activities in the country where I was. I did not even visit the embassy.
Tor Sellström: In general terms, what do you think that the role of the Swedish trade union movement was for South Africa and Namibia compared with that of the big Western powers?
Stig Blomqvist: The big Western powers did nothing for the development of the movement in South Africa. That is my judgement. It was only the Nordic countries and Holland. They should have full credit for that. Nobody else, especially not the Germans. They have not done anything, other than invite people for seminars where they tried to brainwash them. Against that background, what is happening today is very worrying. MIF has been hijacked by the Americans and the Germans. I fought against it and I almost lost my health. I was fighting, because I saw that the Americans and the Germans wanted to control others with their money. Everything they assisted was connected to their own countries. They used the trade union movement for political purposes, which has been described very well by the Latin American expert Åke Wedin. He says that the Americans and the Germans are trying to control the trade unions in the Third World. I agree with him completely.