Bertil Högberg: You are a Professor at Umeå University , that's where you became a Professor.
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, I became a Professor at the University of Umeå in 1993, and formally I am still affiliated with the University but I am on longterm leave, and currently I'm acting Professor of Environmental History at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm . We are now in the premises of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, which was founded in the early 20th century. It’s a meeting point for people in engineering, the natural sciences and also politics and of course private enterprise for all sorts of people meet here.
Bertil Högberg: And you are one of the members of this academy?
Sverker Sörlin: Yes I have been a member of the academy since 1999.
Bertil Högberg: Okay, we are here to talk about your involvement in the solidarity work for Southern Africa. When did you become involved in that solidarity work?
Sverker Sörlin: I suppose in one sense it started already in high school, in the small village of Vilhelmina in Västerbotten or in Lapland even. We organized study groups, study circles around African issues. I recall particularly one occasion, at least on one occasion; we were picking up on campaigns that were organized by the Africa Groups in Sweden, we didn't have any formal links as I recall it, to the Africa Groups in Sweden, but there were some people apparently in Stockholm organizing national activities and we assembled some campaign material and we had meetings and organized activities and some people came and there was music and we sold books and brochures and things like that.
Bertil Högberg: When was this?
Sverker Sörlin: This would have been, around 1973/74, thereabouts.
Bertil Högberg: And do you remember what the campaigns were about?
Sverker Sörlin: No, I don't, well I can guess. I think it had something to do with the then still Portuguese colonies. In the study groups we discussed the history of these colonies and the history of the liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea Bissau, I think those three in particular, Cape Verde islands perhaps also. I think that was one of the themes at least, I recall particularly that we studied these matters and we read some texts. Still I don't think we understood very much about it, we simply weren't very well informed, but in a sort of particular way we talked to each other as if we knew what we were talking about. I think this was part of the broader pattern. I mean, at the same time we had the Vietnam war, there were conflicts around the world and the same explanatory paradigm was basically used for them all. So we were basically for liberation struggles wherever they occurred, and by whichever means, I don't think we understood any details of it. Then not much later, it was in the late 70's or early 80's, I visited these areas in Southern Africa and I actually came to the former colonies, both in Guinea Bissau and a later trip to Mozambique and then I had a much deeper understanding. Particularly when I got there, I saw the whole scene with new eyes.
Bertil Högberg: And then from there you moved to?
Sverker Sörlin: Well after high school, I did The military service for one year, and during that year I can't think I was very much involved in Africa work, but then I started university. I was still involved slightly in an Africa Group in Umeå. I think some time around 1976 or 77, and then I moved to Skåne in the south to become a student in a People's High School, at Tomalila, which was one of those travelling schools that were quite popular at the time. We weren't that kind of school where we sort of bought a bus and put it into shape and then drove all the way down to Africa, we used more regular ways of communication and we travelled by airplane and so on. The group I was with went to West Africa; amongst the countries we visited was Guinea Bissau. It was a slightly bizarre trip because our small community of students plus our teacher sort of disassembled on route, so that after several weeks or a bit more than a month I found myself alone, at the time actually in Gambia, and then I kept travelling on my own basically. It was extremely useful afterwards, I'm very lucky that I did that trip, but as part of a regular study programme I thought it was slightly bewildering. I devoted that entire year to African issues, and I also started writing. I wrote about my trip and a couple of newspaper articles. After that year I continued my studies at University. I became even more involved in the Africa Group there, and I suppose, with growing experience and gaining a bit more knowledge, I also became a bit more articulate about these matters. I started writing slightly more sophisticated papers. In fact my debut so to speak, my first really published paper in anything that can be called a journal, was published in the Lund based Zenit. I think it was in the first issue of 1979 where I published a paper on French/Africa policies under Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. I was very much picking up on my trip to West Africa, but probably also was informed by my entire work with African issues. Then I kept going with this line of work in the Africa Group there and on some occasion I also became involved on a national level, although I can't precisely recall when that was. I think it was around 1980 perhaps.
Bertil Högberg: I think it was later, 1983.
Sverker Sörlin: 1983, yes, maybe you have that on record.
Bertil Högberg: Yes but if we leave the national level for a while could you describe the Africa Group when you came to be involved in it?
Sverker Sörlin: Well it was, I recall vividly a number of members some of whom I have been in touch with until now actually. A couple of people there have become friends throughout my life so far, first of all it was, looking back I mean, it was a very intellectual community.
Bertil Högberg: Were they university students?
Sverker Sörlin: Well yes, by and large, there were people affiliated with the University one way or the other, most of us were students. Some would be employed by the University, not many though, but I recall one or two. And then there were other people who maybe were neither students nor faculty but rather sort of floating around, like people do at universities now. Maybe doing something, but if they were working, most of them they had a university background, they would have been trained at university. So if we take a class perspective on this group of people, it was certainly not an average community. One of the most striking features I would say was that virtually nobody was born in Umeå, everybody just assembled there. We were renting the same premises as a couple of other solidarity groups; the Chile Committee was our neighbour in that same building and they had basically the same pattern. They were larger than we were, at least in the early years, but basically the same kind of people. We had weekly meetings during term time but in the summer and over the Christmas period there were no activities at all. Everything was organized around the terms, or the semesters rather. We weren't many; we were between 10 and 20 at a typical meeting. Maybe the membership was slightly larger, perhaps up to 30 at best, but about 15, 20, more or less, active people with a nucleus of half a dozen or eight. We had particular areas of responsibility. You could for example be responsible for taking minutes or for organizing Saturday afternoon events like seminars or inviting people to speak. There were a number of responsibilities.
Bertil Högberg: Selling the bulletin?
Sverker Sörlin: Selling the paper, or the magazine, the Africa Bulletin, although I think that was something that was expected by perhaps more people. I don't think we actually did do very much of that, I don't remember I did it very much though. One thing we were quite good at was organizing large events, like inviting fairly major artists or dance groups or sometimes picking up on occasions when a touring team from somewhere in Africa, mostly Southern Africa, came to Sweden, to tour with a dance group or a singing group or something like that. But we also just took any attractive artist and organized big events with African food and called these Africa Days. Hundreds of people would come and pay a fee to spend the day there and listen to the music and be part of the event. Of course all work was voluntary, so the surplus from these kinds of events then was sent as support to either the ANC or SWAPO or whatever organization. So in a sense I suppose it was just a local variety of the kinds of activities that you would find in a number of Africa Groups around the country, although my recollection is that we were quite active at times, I think a group like that has its ups and downs, but for a number of years there around 1980 and several years into the eighties I think we were quite active. And certainly it took quite a bit of our time particularly when you were part of the nucleus, it was quite a bit of organization, writing minutes, phone calls, endless lists of calls to make or writing up an article. We were doing PR work and media relations. We tried to be innovative in trying to make headlines or draw attention to our activities. We organized campaigns in shops; boycott campaigns where we put labels on fruit. I recall on one occasion, it was in the winter and of course, being in the north, there’s a lot of snow. The river that runs through the city freezes, and we had come up with the idea that in the middle of the night we could walk up a pattern in the snow on the ice with a message. Then when the shadows emerged in the pattern we had walked up with our feet you could find words like boycott South Africa, and that was of course making headlines.
Bertil Högberg: In the media?
Sverker Sörlin: In the local media of course. So it was pretty hectic at times and then of course you related this local work to the national work, you went to congresses and things like that, at least some of us did.
Bertil Högberg: How was the relationship between the local group and the national level?
Sverker Sörlin: Well I suppose the objective answer would be that most of the activities that took place on the local level were quite autonomous. You did not need the central level for much apart from printing materials of course. And otherwise I think it was like in most organizations, but I recall also one aspect of this that maybe is worth commenting. At times I think there were tensions, I have some problems now recalling what the tensions were all about, but I recall that there was a certain resentment in our group at times towards, let’s call it Stockholm, or the central level. On one level I think it had to do with personal relationships, we would find this or that person being a bit offensive or maybe demanding. I think maybe we were sometimes asked to do things in a way that we simply didn't want to and then when the tone became a bit more aggressive from the central level that we should actually adhere to whatever they wanted we would take some pleasure in saying no. And I can recall that at some congress there were differences of opinion that certainly were not just about our local group against the rest of the nation. Sometimes I can remember there were some tensions between the local level more generally speaking and then the central level. Maybe if I should speculate I could perhaps think that this is maybe an interpretation and I am not sure that I felt this at the time, but I don't think I'm just sort of inventing this, but I feel that there were some people at the central level who we would consider perhaps having another agenda in fact. And to be very honest that was a communist agenda, and not that that was articulated really, but certainly quite a few in our group were quite radical, maybe also some were communist, but that wasn't really the dividing line, if you were or were not. But I think we would still as a group not easily adhere to a bluntly communist agenda that would have been splitting up our activities in the group and the appearance of the group. So that might have been in the air although, and I think to some extent that was voiced at the national congresses, when some people advocated that fairly strongly, this became more and more an impossible position for me to take, for all sorts of reasons. Then another thing was that I think one source of the resentment that we felt locally was that we were distrusted, yes, and I recall that fairly vividly actually. The central level could take the liberty of telling us what to do as if we were an instrument working on their behalf rather than equal partners with a common cause. That did not mean that we would consider leaving the organization, neither individually, nor collectively, but at times there was a tension. Otherwise I think things went off fairly well.
Bertil Högberg: You talk about this political tension; did you have any internal political tension within your group?
Sverker Sörlin: Not really, I do think that we stayed away from that by and large, simply because we had a fairly “ecumenical” understanding of what solidarity work was to do with. It was clear to the people in our group, I mean some you would be able to call communists, some would definitely be social democrats and you might even find liberals, but that was not the point. The point was that we were sort of founded on a level of working together. At the time there were tons of organizations on the left and all sorts of fractions fighting against each other, and certainly there was a lot of that in Umeå, but it didn't affect our group, it didn't really.
Bertil Högberg: One of the key concepts was the anti-imperialism. Which could be interpreted rather differently at times.
Sverker Sörlin: Well certainly yes, and there is also this kind of coded language, which you could find in certain international organizations, for example you knew that some organizations were run from Moscow. Others were also radical but not run from Moscow. We were not so much affected by that however. Maybe if I go back to what I said earlier, that sometimes you had the impression that this was precisely what affected certain people on the national level. That they were not just being themselves, they were also at the same time advocating some position that was in a sense alien to our organization and to what the organization did, there was an external voice that was speaking. But that was never really articulated. My interpretation now is that that took the shape of personal tensions and resentment at times.
Bertil Högberg: The basic instrument for a kind of ideological socialization within the organization was the study material, the book which had a particular political perspective on Africa, on imperialism, on colonialism, and so on, how did you look upon that book, because that was also quite clearly political in its scope.
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, you mean that general book what was it called?
Bertil Högberg: The Liberation Struggle in Africa. There was an early publication that came out in 1969, 1971, around that time, then the other one came 1977, and then the second edition in 1979 or 1980.
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, we used both of those, I think it also grew in size for the second edition, and I recall at least Mai Palmberg was among the authors.
Bertil Högberg: She was the editor. And also author of some of the chapters.
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, well I think we looked reasonably favourably on that book, very few of us, if any, were really experts on the history of Africa, although with time again you picked up on that history, and I would say towards the end of my active years in the Africa Groups I don't think I regarded that book anymore as a solid piece of history. I was sort of gradually becoming a historian myself and I looked upon it more and more as one version, and perhaps a fairly particular version. But earlier, I mean in the late 70's when we started using it, I think we by and large used it without any particular precaution. I don't think we were actively discussing big problems with that book, we didn't really. I would probably have a lot of fun if I started reading it today. I think the oldest version of that book might have already been used back in the Vilhelmina study group.
Bertil Högberg: Some of the Africa Group members that came from the older tradition had a rule that you had to be an activist to become a member and you had to go through the study circle and kind of pass a test. Did you have that way of thinking?
Sverker Sörlin: I don't recall that, to be honest I don't know, but I doubt we had it. I know that was often the case in more politically pronounced organizations, I mean like party organizations or Marxist organizations, they would have requirements in terms of having gone through some internal training so to speak. We certainly did organize study groups but if that was a requirement to become a member I'm not sure, nor do I believe that we actually had an activity requirement that we actually had a list of members that was only these members who were active, because then you would have to remove people from that list if they weren't active, but I don't think we did that. I think it was rather claimed interest that was the principle.
Bertil Högberg: You talked about the boycott activities that you did, this is the time when also ISAK was creative, it was on the national level, did you have a local ISAK committee in Umeå?
Sverker Sörlin: Oh, Isolate South Africa, yes, again I'm not sure about that, but certainly we used the acronym all the time, but if there was one it must have been more or less concurrent with the Africa Group. I can think of no other particular organization that would have been outside of it, I mean we were doing the Africa work; there was no local competitor.
Bertil Högberg: So there was no regular co-ordination with other NGO's in Umeå around campaigns and so on, or was that more ad hoc also?
Sverker Sörlin: Well maybe that was the ISAK idea, that maybe for particular boycott South Africa campaigns we sought co-operation. I mean we were quite active in having contacts with various study circles and organizations like for example the left communist party and the Social Democrats.
Bertil Högberg: What about the church youth movements?
Sverker Sörlin: The church also, I think the church was quite sympathetic particularly perhaps the Church Youth Movement. There might also have been other smaller NGO's or even political groups, although I can't quite remember. The scene of solidarity and fringe political activity was fairly active and there were quite a few people around all the time. And you knew everybody, I mean you were involved, you had a lot of connections and the network was constantly in flux, so if I don't recall it may also be a reflection of the fact that sometimes it wasn't too formal, you didn't come and represent an organization, you just assembled, and you know things evolved.
Bertil Högberg: Do you have any special events that you remember and significant activities that you remember?
Sverker Sörlin: Picking up on this question and the previous question, I recall one occasion which I think took place at ABF or one of those study organizations. They had a special building complex outside Umeå where several organizations had assembled for an Africa weekend, and on that occasion I recall we were a few people from the local Africa Group that made presentations. I had prepared one, and mine and the others from the Africa Groups were very successful as presentations. There was a consistency and a logic to the presentations that was attractive. And I also recall that it was a sign of maturity I think, because you had the impression that you were always on the fringe, but here a number of more so to speak established people had assembled to listen to you, and in a sense, since you didn't get nervous but rather presented a good oral presentation, you had the feeling of actually being in the position of some expertise, that the others obviously didn't have. They were listening so keenly and asking polite and interesting questions. I think that it also had something to do with the kind of role that we played in the local community. A number of us, not everybody, but several of us, were asked to make presentations at conferences and schools and write articles, so it was not just a matter of building an opinion for a cause, it was also providing public debate with some knowledge that wasn't available to everybody. And that I recall, and I think that I mentioned earlier the big sort of festivals or festivities that could be an entire Saturday afternoon, they were quite spectacular. Then of course we organized demonstrations in the centre of the town, there could be many many dozens of people and sometimes maybe I would say hundreds, but not many hundred, and they would typically end with a speech in the local public square. At least once or twice I gave such speeches but also friends, other friends in the local Africa Group would give speeches, for example Wendela Englund, she was quite active. She was also very instrumental in organizing theatre activities for children such as children's plays in the public library or activities for children when the parents were upstairs listening to some lecture or watched some dance or music show. I think the rhythm of the working year for the Africa Group was that you had several months and weeks of internal work like meetings and taking minutes, organizing, preparing or getting funding. And then once or twice a year these public events when we were sort of going public with our message trying to draw attention to it, and I think that also meant a lot, maybe it meant something for Africa, I hope so, but it certainly meant very much to the people involved.
Bertil Högberg: Did you meet resistance; did you have a local public debate around the issues?
Sverker Sörlin: Very small resistance as I recall. This was at the time after Soweto and particularly after Steve Biko's death and we were sort of entering a phase when the general public had adopted the South African issue, apartheid had to be abolished. We could still discuss the methods and the instruments but the basic message was met with no real resistance.
Bertil Högberg: When did you leave the Africa Group work?
Sverker Sörlin: That's harder to say actually, I think it was a gradual thing. It was really a gradual thing. I lived in Luleå for a year in 1981 or 82, and then I was slightly active in the Luleå Group. I kept working for the local group and still, in 1983, I was involved on the national level, I think I was on the national board only for one or two years, maybe just one year.
Bertil Högberg: The reason I remember is because I found in the African Group picture archive a picture of the board sitting outside the house where I was staying in Uppsala and I know exactly which year I lived there.
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, I recall precisely that meeting, that's actually the only meeting that I do recall. The board had a full day meeting in Uppsala and often when I go by there now I recall that particular meeting. Around 1983 or so I was appointed by the Student Union to serve on the board that actually was in charge of the entire building where the Umeå group had their premises. Then I had a position from which I was able to secure the presence of these solidarity groups in the building when other forces were actually trying to use it for other purposes. And so these were negotiations going on back and forth. It was also coinciding with the opening of the new “Peoples House” in Umeå which was opened by Kjell-Olof Feldt then the Finance Minister as I recall it in late 85 or early 86, and at about that period I think my involvement with the Africa Groups was fading somehow. I was extremely busy in those days writing up my dissertation which was presented in the winter of 1988 and also the energy that had come from the long Africa trips that I had done, had ceased to work so to speak. I was starting teaching at the University so I suppose my most active period in the Africa Group in Umeå was between 1977 and, or maybe 1976 and 1983/84. You will occasionally find my name around for another couple of years. But at the time of my dissertation in 1988 I don't think I was in any way involved at all. Although I think I have retained a membership in the organization ever since basically.
Bertil Högberg: Coming back to that year you were on the national board, what was your feeling or reaction to that, seeing that aspect of the organization?
Sverker Sörlin: Strangely I have very few memories of that.
Bertil Högberg: Maybe I can refresh you on one of the issues, because I remember we discussed, at the end of your first year, that you were very disappointed at the level of discussions. We were mostly preoccupied with very small practical things and we completely left out the big ideological or strategic questions, we didn't spend enough time on that. That was your criticism and that was also the reason why you stepped down after only one year.
Sverker Sörlin: It makes sense when you say it. Let me return to that, but let me first ask you how would you know what you say now, do you have that in minutes?
Bertil Högberg: No, from my memory, because I clearly remember our discussion as I agreed with you. I regretted that you left the board and because this was the period when I was the chairperson, so I was very much responsible for how the board was running.
Sverker Sörlin: Oh is that right, I didn’t recall either, who was the chair. But yes, you're probably right. I do recall that, now that you're saying it, I do recall that I was slightly disappointed, but maybe too much of some nitty gritty. The most particular thing that I recall is that we had a long discussion, that was in your house, about the name of the campaign that was going to be run the next year. I have a very particular idea of the name of the campaign; I don't know if that then became the decision. I also recall that on another occasion, I think the meeting was in Stockholm or somewhere, although I can't recall where the meetings were in Stockholm. Yes we had started that new Solidarity House.
Anyhow, the single thing I recall was a discussion on how we were supposed to evaluate the economic value of our un-sold books and other materials. I had no real knowledge of bookkeeping and I was just so surprised that things that I deemed totally useless, could have some value attached. I always found that so intriguing. Of course now that I know a bit more about bookkeeping I know that you can do that. I just recalled it as a problem and I kept asking questions about how the economy was run and I couldn't fully understand it. But apart from that I have virtually no recollections, strangely.
Bertil Högberg: If you look at our strategies, how we were portraying the struggle, how we were trying to convince people to support our struggle, what are your reflections around that?
Sverker Sörlin: Well I think you have to distinguish them between what I thought then and what I think now that I thought then. These would be quite different things I suppose.
Bertil Högberg: Yes, but present both, that would be interesting.
Sverker Sörlin: Yeah, by and large I don't think I had very big problems with that at the time, I mean after all I was part of the ball game, I was working in the organization. I know that I was arguing a little bit with people editing the magazine. I thought they were taking too narrow an approach particularly not involving people who were actually there to write. I wanted the message to be spread more broadly, and I recall even suggesting to them that they should ask this and that person. I suppose that was towards the end of my active years, because it just seems like the kind of thing I would have said in 1983 but not in 1976. I think I gradually came to look upon the activities as more sectarian than they needed to be which was an idea that didn't cross my mind when I started becoming involved. So I suppose the first years were more learning and intake and just being, and then my views broadened, not just from being in the Africa Groups but certainly from all the other things I did, and my studies, and also my earlier research. I think my scope broadened and then I came to look upon the Africa activities and saying to myself, well is this really going to do the trick. This is a sort of tunnel kind of thing, we could broaden this, because the message is right. The aim to liberate the people in South Africa, that's fine, but I started gradually seeing more and more. Maybe this is also the resentment that I spoke about earlier, maybe this reinforced the sense that I wasn't, that it wasn't very necessary that I contribute to this anymore. I cannot recall at any given point that I took an active stance against what did not happen, as I said I have always been a member. It just didn't seem that important as if this was an unnecessarily short lever, it could have been made longer to enhance effects, but somehow it wasn't.
Bertil Högberg: I recall a discussion we had that is touching on this issue in November 1982 in Umeå with the group when I was visiting. You were particularly active in that discussion, criticizing that we were too theoretical in a way and factual. We were presenting the case very accurately and so on, but there was very little feeling, there were very few persons actually that appeared in what we were communicating. We were talking very abstractly about the struggle, not making it relate to persons, do you recall that discussion or that perspective? I remember it because it struck me and I think we became a little bit better on that later. I then saw it as a correct analysis of what we were doing.
Sverker Sörlin: Have you kept minutes of things or notes? Because when you say that we did have a discussion in 1982, I simply have to believe you but are you positive or is it just something you want to believe?
Bertil Högberg: No, because this is a discussion that is so clear in my memory and I can link it to here because I know why I was in Umeå that year and because it influenced my thinking.
Sverker Sörlin: So that was before I was on the board?
Bertil Högberg: Yes.
Sverker Sörlin: Or I was about to begin?
Bertil Högberg: So it was, but it touched on the same things, we could be more effective, using more people, more personal tours, people coming to speak, more music, more of that type of thing to become part of the national agenda.
Sverker Sörlin: One thing I could say and this also has to do with events, well another thing we actually did was that we went away as a group in Umeå, at least on one, maybe on a couple of occasions. We travelled to a house in the mountains, which my family owned. Somehow we managed to put up the entire membership of the group, there probably were about a dozen people, or something, and I also recall that we organized reading groups, privately and within the group. When I say privately I mean that a fraction of the group was also seeing each other privately.
We read novels or short stories; we did certainly organize studies, not just around the book you mentioned but also around the texts that we found ourselves. Now what did I want to say with this?
Bertil Högberg: That could be an outflowing of the kind of reaction that you wanted to go to…?
Sverker Sörlin: Yes, yes, what I wanted to say was that around the same time we, and this was also particularly nourished by the fact that I had been to Southern Africa and come back and seen places. For example I had been fascinated by the colonial plantation economy, and I'd never seen so many coconut palms in my life as I saw somewhere in southern Mozambique, it was absolutely tremendous, there were millions of trees. I'd only read about it in old books but I recall from my childhood these things, when you bought large things in the grocery store and they packaged it with string. What was inside was something strange, because it was made of thin little fibres that were sort of dissolving when you opened the package, but I saw how it was produced and I could follow the process from A to Z. I thought it was amazing, and when I came back, I think that was part of the texture of understanding the politics and also understanding the problems. This was a crucial trip. We had an academic study group a full year before that. Then Carina, as you recall, and myself, we went to Southern Africa and spent three months there and we were seeing a number of solidarity people and also diplomats and other people in Maputo. My analysis was absolutely clear before we even came there, but it was sort of reinforced by being there, that this country was headed for problems. They are free now but this won't work, that was my absolute conviction. They had to do things differently, and somewhere they were speaking for eight hours at their party congress and they're showing Ukrainian agricultural machinery for 2 minutes at the beginning of every cinema performance. This just doesn’t work. People can't read or write, you have to do this differently. And so when I spoke to solidarity people in Maputo they kept rehearsing some sort of ritualistic idea of what was supposed to be done there. Echoing bizarre messages that I recall from study circles, but it just didn't work, and I took that to mean that a far more complex analysis, less political, was needed to understand this. Part of this new understanding to me was that you had to take into account so much else that we hadn't read about but I now had experienced myself. For example snakes or flowers, so when we organized our new themes for these Saturday event things, we sort of got rid of the politics, at least at the surface level, and organized meetings around e.g. orchids in Southern Africa. Or we had one speaker talk about snakes, and people came in larger groups than they had come before, we attracted new people. And then we would find that nice because we would then be able to also go on talking about the politics of the whole thing, it became more cultural and more complex and, probably going back to what you said, this was the kind of flavour or insight that we had gained. Then at a point I felt a certain desperation that the rest of the organization hadn’t grasped this, they just kept moving the same way they always had. I wanted to change it and what I experienced, this is just an after-rationalization maybe, on the national level was that it was a bit harder to move this whole thing than I expected.
Bertil Högberg: I think that's right because it was just half a year later, after these discussions that you became a member of the board.
Sverker Sörlin: I think actually you promoted my promotions so to speak. I recall now that you were, as far as I recall, you were fairly observant on these sentiments. I never regarded you as a dogmatic person. I also started making up my mind about why people did this kind of job and that was also a revelation. I only thought of this in the 70's as sort of political work, but with time I realized, I sort of did some micro-sociology studies silently at meetings, and I noticed that people they were not all political, as I said before. And quite a few people, it occurred to me, came from some deeper, let’s call it people's movements background. It could be Christian, it could be the temperance movement, it could be all the political movements, but they would somehow in an articulate way often be part of something, they wanted to belong to something that was larger than themselves and they wanted to make an imprint on society. Basically it was a whole lot of idealism, and then I mean it not as a superficial word, it’s idealism at its very core. The idea that through ideas you can make the world a better world. Idealism also in the sense that we are here in some sort of metaphysical project that means lifting ourselves and the world we live in to some higher state, which was quite, I shouldn't say contrary to, but very different from the pure Marxist analysis, which was materialistic. Although it also had this metaphysical learning and projections towards the future and a better world and so on, but the routes were quite different. And then I realized that so many people were in this for that reason. I think that the resentment was rather towards the materialists. Coming back to you, I sort of sensed that you were observant on this approach that you had to take in order to make this kind of organization work. Whereas there were some other hardliners that would be pushing the Moscow view of it.
Bertil Högberg: It’s interesting that one of the hardliners has made exactly the same analysis as you about the background of so many of the people within the Africa Groups and that so many of us came from other popular movements and so on, like the churches, and that was a very strong base in the organization, he has written a paper on that.
Sverker Sörlin: Interesting yes.
Bertil Högberg: Okay. Did you have many visits from Southern Africa so that you met people from South Africa and Namibia and Zimbabwe?
Sverker Sörlin: Well it depends on what you mean by many, well I should say if not every semester at least most semesters, that means at least once a year.
Bertil Högberg: What did these visits mean?
Sverker Sörlin: Well, it meant a sense of concreteness that this was real, and sometimes you could wonder perhaps, you knew, what the meaning of all this was, but then a living person came from a trade union of South Africa or something like that, what's it called, Sactu for example, and similar organizations, SWAPO. I recall one guy from SWAPO, probably he was an engineering student that had been both in East Berlin and then gone to Moscow and then came to Helsinki, I don't know if you can recall this person.
Bertil Högberg: No, not the person.
Sverker Sörlin: I recall eating with him in a restaurant and he had a beefsteak and French fries, he started with the French fries, he ate all the French fries and then stabbed the piece of meat with his fork, picked it up like this and held it like a mushroom and started eating the meat from the sides, I found that very interesting. And even more interesting I found the way he was talking about himself and about his languages, of course he knew at least two tribal languages from his home, and then of course you had to speak Afrikaans to be able to go to school and of course you learned English, so by the age of ten he was speaking four languages. And then he moved to East Berlin and started speaking German, and then he went to Moscow and “How was the Russian?” I said, “What do you mean how was the Russian?” “Do you speak Russian?” of course he did, he was an engineering student. “But now you’re in Helsinki” I said triumphantly “and you don't speak Finnish”, “Of course I speak Finnish”, and I was totally bewildered. Was that a problem, what's so special with the Finns? You encountered these kinds of things. And there was a female ambassador in the ANC; I suppose you met her during that time.
Bertil Högberg: Lindiwe Mabusa.
Sverker Sörlin: Lindiwe yes. I recall one particular very tiny thing, that Lindiwe said on one occasion when she visited us in Luleå, that was also big news, an article in the newspaper, I think actually I wrote an article about that, and she said when we, for some reason we mentioned that we were reading a recent novel by Andre Brink in our study group, I mentioned it and then she sort of paused for a while and said “What do you make of it?”, as if, that was also something you sensed in some of those visits, that was a way of telling right from wrong. Actually the last thing I did, and that was really part of my South African life so to speak, was when I wrote a review for Expressen on the autobiography of one of the first sisters. I was actually travelling in South Africa with my family in 1998, in the spring of 1998, and that book was then just out, published, so I picked it up in a bookstore and read it with an enormous hunger, it was fantastic.
Bertil Högberg: Which book?
Sverker Sörlin: Well Joe Slovo. Slovo was married to Ruth first and then you see they were divorced, famously divorced. They were both very active in many ways. I met Ruth in Maputo in her office at the University in the fall of 1980 where she was murdered only months later by that bomb. She was a cheeky, lively, intelligent woman. Then Joe Slovo was just a face on the cover of a Penguin book, they both were staunch communists, and being a communist in South Africa in those days, had a particular meaning. Then there were the daughters, and one of those daughters is an author I think, I can't recall her name now, Margaret Slovo perhaps. Anyway in 1998 she published this autobiography and it was fascinating. All these places that she wrote about from her childhood in Cape Town, these were places I had been to during that trip. I wrote this review for Expressen. It was an echo of this more dogmatic version that I think I reacted against, to begin with, more emotionally rather than rationally. I simply disliked it. I didn't like people, not even if they came from South Africa proper, to tell me whether I liked the book or not, or whether it was good reading or not. I could read other books, I could read any books, but just don't try and tell me that I'm just being mesmerized by some super-authoritarian capitalist power, I'm not, I'm thinking, as we all are. I want to mention this autobiography by Slovo's daughter because she also had been having all sorts of problems. Then she went to England and grew up there and she had always had a problematic relationship with her father because he was always away doing splinter work and she had also learned to distance herself from his political position. Then he became Minister of the Government and I think he got cancer towards the end of his life. She then went back to South Africa and spent time with him and they grew closer and closer. She tells the story of when he's going into Soweto to some big rally, at some big stadium, and she was going in his car, and he didn't have to look underneath the car any more because gone were the days of the agents, when they tried to bomb his car all the time. Now he could travel safely and she saw tens of thousands of people rallying to celebrate him. And that was such a moving moment I think because she understood in a way that she had never been able to when it happened, when she was only a girl, what her father had had to do. And at that point I think also there was some reconciliation between them. He had always been a communist but now he was going to that rally having liberated South Africa and it was in the 90's and he was dying of cancer, it was also as if they were in a transitory zone, leaving the territory where these kinds of distinctions were real.
Bertil Högberg: Thank you.