Scandinavian Institute of African Studies—Swedish South Africa Committee— Member of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance—Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation—Senior Adviser to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Uppsala, 10 April 1996.
Tor Sellström: You have been involved with Africa and African issues for well over forty years. How did it begin?
Sven Hamrell: My involvement in Africa and African issues derives from my early studies in the USA, at Bowdoin College and at the Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science at the New School for Social Research in New York, where I had an opportunity to meet with quite a number of leading American liberals and African-American scholars, who became friends of mine. I took an interest in African affairs already in the late 1940s, not least in developments in Southern Africa, particularly South Africa, which was then in the limelight and much discussed in America.
Tor Sellström: When you were in the United States, Gunnar Myrdal’s famous book on the race question, An American Dilemma, was already published?
Sven Hamrell: Yes, Myrdal was well known in America at the time and I was courteously treated as a compatriot of his.
Tor Sellström: When you came back to Sweden there was no organized opinion in favour of liberation in South or Southern Africa. But it slowly grew during the 1950s?
Sven Hamrell: Yes. There were two people who were extremely important in forming public opinion, especially on the South African issue. One was Herbert Tingsten with his book The Problem of South Africa. Tingsten was considered one of the best political journalists in Europe. He spoke with great authority and his book had a tremendous impact, not only in Sweden but also in other European countries and in South Africa. Another person who was very important and influential was Ivar Harrie, who also travelled in South Africa and published a number of articles that were rather good, especially those that dealt with the intellectual life of the Boers. And, of course, Alan Paton had been in Scandinavia. His Cry, My Beloved Country was actually partly written in Norway. Harrie, Tingsten and Paton were liberals and it meant that the Liberal Party became a very influential force in this respect. Then there were others, like Gunnar Helander, the dean of the cathedral in Västerås. He was already influential in church circles. There were also those who were not liberals. I would not be surprised if Joachim Israel, the sociologist, was active in the early 1950s. He later played an important role in these matters.
Tor Sellström: Israel was a founding member of the Swedish South Africa Committee?
Sven Hamrell: Yes. I also believe that there was an international organization that played a very important, but often neglected, role. That was the Congress for Cultural Freedom. It was an international organization, founded in Berlin. They had a librarian by the name of Jørgen Schleimann as Scandinavian secretary. He was a very influential man in the late 1950s and the early 1960s. The Congress for Cultural Freedom issued a number of publications, such as Encounter in England and Der Monat in Germany. There was also an Italian publication and in Sweden they had a journal called Kulturkontakt. All sorts of people wrote in Kulturkontakt. Per Wästberg wrote about Rhodesia and Anders Ehnmark about meetings with African leaders. Alan Paton also wrote there and so on. One of the editors was Bengt Alexandersson.
Tor Sellström: Of course, Per Wästberg was another very influential person, but of a younger generation?
Sven Hamrell: Yes. He went on a Rotary scholarship to Rhodesia. It must have been in 1958. He came back in 1959. In those days, he was more of a Liberal than a Social Democrat.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that it was mainly Liberals that were behind the anti-apartheid opinion in Sweden before 1960?
Sven Hamrell: I would say that up to 1960 it was mainly liberal forces. Then Jørgen Schleimann and the Congress for Cultural Freedom came into the picture. It was mainly made up of Social Democrats. An important person in the Congress for Cultural Freedom was the South African journalist Colin Legum. There was a confer ence organized by Schleimann for librarians from Africa and Scandinavia that had important results. After that, there was a big socialist conference in Dakar, which was followed by a conference of historians in Accra. I was invited to that conference. It was the beginning of the movement for African socialism.
There we heard Mamadou Dia and Léopold Senghor speak. But the person that I met there for the first time was Joseph Ki-Zerbo from Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso. He is today the leader of the Social Democratic Party in Burkina-Faso and came to play a very important role in the Socialist International as chairman of its South Africa committee. Our friendship started already then.
Tor Sellström: In 1962, you and your colleague Anders Ehnmark published a book called Africans on Africa, with contributions by several African leaders. What was the background to the book?
Sven Hamrell: Mário de Andrade and Marcelino dos Santos were already well known to Anders Ehnmark, because he had met them in Paris. Kenneth Kaunda had been to Uppsala before Zambia became independent. He laid a wreath on the grave of Dag Hammarskjöld. I accompanied him there. And, of course, we knew Ronald Segal. He was a friend of ours.
What made it possible to produce this book was that Anders Ehnmark was sort of a cultural editor of the newspaper Expressen. He could commission articles, pay for them and then edit them. They were published in Expressen, but then expanded into this book. We had the resources of the newspaper, although they did not understand that they were also being used for a different, but good purpose. It was a deliberate strategy on our part. We used Expressen in order to gather material for the book.
Tor Sellström: At the time, you were, of course, already the editor of Verdandi-Debatt.
Sven Hamrell: Yes, I was the founder editor of Verdandi-Debatt. What is perhaps interesting is that Africans on Africa was not the only book published by Verdandi-Debatt in the early 1960s. Anders Ehnmark and Per Wästberg also did a book on Angola and Mozambique. And we translated two books by Colin Legum. One was his famous book on Pan-Africanism and the other was his and his wife Margaret’s book about South Africa. They had a big impact.
Tor Sellström: Was that because they were used in study circles?
Sven Hamrell: They were used in study circles and they were reviewed, not only in Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet, but in all sorts of local papers. This was followed up a bit later with a seminar. I had then become the editor of the Scandinavian Institute for African Studies in Uppsala and we were looking for subjects for our international seminars. Our first seminar dealt with the Soviet bloc, China and Africa. It was held, I think, in 1963 and we published the proceedings in a book in 1964. We had very good participants at the seminar, like Colin Legum, David Morison, Walter Laqueur, Franz Ansprenger and Richard Lowenthal. They were experts on international Communism and, of course, also on Africa. Especially Colin Legum, who showed that one strain of Pan-Africanism—the one represented by George Padmore—was a good alternative to Soviet Communism. As a Social Democrat, he advised us in the Nordic countries to support similar policies and efforts in the African countries. In the end, that would make for a good, balanced development, he thought.
Tor Sellström: Did Colin Legum have good contacts with the Swedish Social Democratic movement?
Sven Hamrell: Yes, he developed very good contacts, but I would say that it started with us. We introduced Legum to the movement through Verdandi and his contributions to our seminars. He was the Commonwealth correspondent of The Observer in those days, which was an important position. If you read the books by Pierre Schori for instance, you can see the enormous importance attached to him. It is rare that a journalist is given such an importance by policymakers.
Tor Sellström: As early as 1961, together with Per Wästberg, Joachim Israel, Gunnar Helander and others, you founded the Swedish South Africa Committee. How did it work? What issues did you raise?
Sven Hamrell: Well, it was a kind of advocacy organization. But, of course, in a way it may have contributed to all sorts of things, for example to the establishment of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance. We also began to approach the trade union movement and the Social Democrats. Joachim Israel was instrumental in that.
The South Africa Committee later led to the establishment of a South West Africa Committee, around 1966 I think. I was also active in the South West Africa Committee together with Tom Nässbjer. We did something most unusual. We managed to engage the social democratic evening paper Aftonbladet in a campaign and collected about one hundred thousand Swedish kronor, which was quite a bit of money in those days. We had a friend at Aftonbladet, who helped us. That was Gunnar Fredriksson, who later became the editor-inchief. He was also a contributor to Verdandi-Debatt, although not on African affairs. In the beginning, Tom Nässbjer was actually given an office in the Social Democratic Party headquarters in Stockholm and then he was moved to Aftonbladet, where he had a room while the campaign was running.
When we had collected the hundred thousand Kronor, there was a bit of a controversy about how it should be used. Should it be handed over to SWANU or to SWAPO? There was a bit of a fight about that. In the end, it was decided that SWAPO should get fifty thousand and SWANU fifty thousand. This laid a very good foundation for the future cooperation between what is now Namibia and Sweden. Since quite a lot of money came from the Swedish trade union movement, it also meant that the Social Democrats became more actively involved in the Southern African issues. It contributed to a process where the initiative, so to speak, moved from the Liberals to the Social Democrats.
Important in this context was, in addition, the establishment of the Consultative Committee on Refugee—later, Humanitarian— Assistance, where I was a member from the very beginning. I remember meeting Anders Thunborg at Stockholm airport in 1964. He came to me, saying: ‘Now we have one million Kronor for South African refugees’. Thunborg was then the international secretary of the Social Democratic Party. The committee was set up to discuss the utilization of these funds.
Tor Sellström: Thunborg was also a member of the South Africa Committee?
Sven Hamrell: Yes. That is how advocacy works. But I think that he must have talked to Olof Palme about this. Palme, it should be remembered, took a very sincere interest in African developments. In 1960, I wrote an article in Dagens Nyheter about the atrocities in the Congo at the time of King Leopold. It was an account of a famous book by the Swedish missionary E. V. Sjöblom, I Palmernas Skugga (In the Shadow of the Palms), published at the turn of the century. A few days after my article appeared, I received an envelope which contained E. D. Morel’s book Red Rubber, the famous book revealing the conditions around the exploitation of rubber in the Congo. It was a gift from Morel to Olof Palme’s grandfather. Palme felt that my article was so good that he sent me the book.
Tor Sellström: How did you view the role of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance?
Sven Hamrell: Well, when Ernst Michanek was the chairman, we felt that we were taking decisions, but it might be that he was doing that. Then there was another Director General of SIDA, Anders Forsse. He behaved differently. We thought that we did not take any decisions. He took them. It was a different style.
In the beginning, the committee was intended to primarily help refugees from South Africa. We were in contact with a very good Norwegian doctor by the name of Cato Aall, who was head of the refugee operations in Zambia. He used to drive down to Botswana in a Landrover, get the refugees over to the Botswana side and then drive them up to Zambia, where they were taken care of by the International Refugee Council of Zambia.
In 1966, I felt that the Scandinavian Institute of African Studies should organize a seminar on refugee problems in Africa and that the proceedings should serve as a guide to the committee and to the Swedish government. Here again you find the name of Margaret Legum, Colin Legum’s very able wife. The book was the first study by a number of competent persons on the African refugee problem. It was followed by a huge conference in Addis Ababa in 1967 on the legal, economic and social aspects of the African refugee problem, organized together with the UNHCR, the OAU and the ECA. At the time, it was one of the biggest conferences on refugees ever organized. It drew up plans for the handling of refugee matters in Africa. This was a very important contribution, but it also shows that in the early period the activities were more strictly humanitarian. Of course, the idea was to help the liberation movements, but they came more into focus later.
At this conference, John Eldridge represented the African American Institute. What should be remembered is that there was a strong American influence in those days, generally in a liberal direction. It is difficult to say what grew out of the commitment of individuals in Sweden and Scandinavia and what may have been, so to speak, stimulated from the USA.
Tor Sellström: Looking at the membership of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance over the years, you find that there were representatives from various political currents in Sweden. However, there were no representatives from the then Swedish Communist Party?
Sven Hamrell: Not that I can remember. It is interesting that there were always representatives of the Moderate Party. Some of them were a bit out of touch, but they had no problem. The Communists were kept on the side-line. However, it is very difficult to assess to what extent the committee was a political instrument.
Tor Sellström: During your long period as a member of the committee, did you experience that there was consistent opposition to the Swedish support to Southern African liberation movements from any quarter?
Sven Hamrell: No, I would not say that I could note that. I was rather surprised, actually, that there was so little opposition.
Tor Sellström: In the beginning, the Swedish support was purely humanitarian. But there were also links to the liberation movements. One obvious link was the Mozambique Institute in Tanzania, which was run by FRELIMO. You received the FRELIMO leader Eduardo Mondlane and his wife Janet in Uppsala in 1964?
Sven Hamrell: Yes, Mondlane came to Sweden every year until he was killed in 1969. He and his wife were extremely nice. Eduardo was, of course, also a very good scholar. A very impressive man.
Tor Sellström: In 1969, the Swedish parliament paved the way for direct support to the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies and in Rhodesia, South West Africa and South Africa. These movements waged armed struggles and were also close to the Soviet Union. Was this contradictory to you?
Sven Hamrell: In my case, I would say that it was natural, because I always believed that Pan-Africanism of the Padmore variety would win in the end. You took a bit of a risk here, but it was actually in favour of a democratic cause and I think that we did the right thing. I think that we assisted the liberation movements in making the right choice.
Tor Sellström: Would it be fair to say that the very early and close relations between many of the African leaders—such as Eduardo Mondlane, Oliver Tambo and Amílcar Cabral—and the political milieus in Sweden made it easier for Swedish politicians to see beyond the ideological surface?
Sven Hamrell: Yes, I think so. Swedish politicians understood that Mondlane, Tambo or Cabral were no simple-minded Communists, because they were not. They were African nationalists.
Tor Sellström: There was never any official support by Sweden to FNLA of Angola, UANC of Zimbabwe or Inkatha of South Africa. How would you explain that?
Sven Hamrell: Well, it is in a way surprising, because if I remember it correctly, there were people in the Liberal Party who were in favour of Holden Roberto and FNLA. But I did not think that that was such a good idea. Muzorewa had, of course, supporters in the church, but support for UANC somehow did not materialize either. I was against Buthelezi, because I knew that he had some strange connections. But there were people who really spoke in favour of him. He even came to the Hammarskjöld Foundation and had sandwiches once. However, we had been advised against him by friends in South Africa. I do not think that Inkatha was discussed much in the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance and I was personally against supporting it.
Tor Sellström: Considerable amounts of public Swedish funds were over the years channelled to the liberation movements in Southern Africa. Did the committee exercise any control over the funds or was it delegated to SIDA?
Sven Hamrell: It was largely delegated to SIDA, but I remember, for instance, that Per Wästberg really tried to look into this matter to make sure that money allocated for humanitarian purposes was not used for purchases of arms. I was personally suspicious of the way that the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF) used some of the money. I had been a member of the board of IUEF and I felt that things could be kept in better order. I requested that the Secretariat of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance should go through the accounts of IUEF to make sure that every Krona was used for the right purpose. However, this did not take place. But I was on record as doing that.
Tor Sellström: Humanitarian support is support for human rights in general. Some of the liberation movements were at different stages rocked by internal strife and there were cases of human rights’ abuses. Did you discuss these matters in the committee? Did you know about them at the time?
Sven Hamrell: Well, I sort of heard about them, but they were not, as I recollect, discussed in the committee. Similarly, the IUEF affair was never properly reported to the committee. I think that it was a mistake. The report on the IUEF should have been made available to every member of the committee, but it was not done. That was not correct.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that the IUEF affair tarnished Sweden’s relations with ANC?
Sven Hamrell: No, not particularly. I think that they had so many other things to care about and I also think that they felt partly guilty themselves, because they had, so to speak, to a degree endorsed Craig Williamson and given him some legitimacy.
Tor Sellström: How would you assess Olof Palme’s role in and for Sweden’s involvement with the struggle for national liberation in Southern Africa?
Sven Hamrell: I have always felt that I was working in his tradition, both at the Scandinavian Institute of African Studies and at the Hammarskjöld Foundation. Palme was a towering figure. Wherever I go in Africa, his name is mentioned with enormous gratitude for what he stood for. Everybody wants to pay tribute to him. Rightly so, I think. It is also very significant that the last major speech that he gave—a week before he was killed—was addressed to the Swedish People’s Parliament Against Apartheid. We published it in Development Dialogue and it is still read with admiration by many Africans.
Tor Sellström: Looking back over all these years, what would in your view constitute the most important contribution by Sweden to the process of national liberation in Southern Africa?
Sven Hamrell: That is a very big question. Of course, one must emphasize that if the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance had not existed and if the Swedish government had not allocated the funds, you would not have had the developments that you have had in South Africa.