The Nordic Africa Institute

Trevor Manuel

Western Cape Regional Secretary of the United Democratic Front—ANC.

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Cape Town, 8 September 1995.

Tor Sellström: You were one of the leading persons in the setting up of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the Cape in August 1983. Subsequently, the Nordic countries channelled support to UDF. Did you have any personal contacts with the Nordic countries before the launch of UDF?

Trevor Manuel: No, I did not. I was working in civic organizations on a full-time basis from 1981, but we had very little access to resources. For campaigns, we used to go around the townships, but also to the churches. I later came to understand that we then also used facilities that were extended by the Nordic countries. On the Cape Flats, the Lutheran Centre in Belgravia was, for example, a meeting point which was very widely used. But I did not immediately understand the connection. Not until later. Even the launch of UDF was done through Johannesburg contacts and through the dispatch of an individual to Botswana for an ANC hook-up to get some hard cash that we could use. No, we were kept removed from contacts. It was probably not until 1984 that I strengthened contacts with Birgitta Karlström Dorph at the Swedish legation. They worked very closely with us.
I certainly was involved in putting together the UDF budget for 1985, which requested the princely sum of 455,000 Rands. I came from a tradition of much lower budgets, but I think that there was a turning point with the intensification of the activities. Very early in 1985 we realized that even the resources of the budget that I had spent so many nights putting together were just gone. I do not know whether it would even have carried us until the ANC conference in mid-1985, because by then you had had the shootings in Uitenhage and a number of other events.
During that period, I became intensely aware of the general support from the Nordic countries. We had people like Allan Boesak who were based in Cape Town. They could do the running. I did not even have a passport.

Tor Sellström: And you were detained on a number of occasions?

Trevor Manuel: Yes, from 1985 I was repeatedly detained, so I participated in those discussions for only a fairly short period.

Tor Sellström: Without previous contacts with the Nordic countries, was it strange to you that these Western countries—two of them being members of NATO—supported UDF?

Trevor Manuel: No, it was not strange. I think that the tradition of Nordic Social Democracy gave a very strong moral image to the support. You must also bear in mind that many of the conduits were the Nordic churches. They were involved outside the Swedish legation itself. It was also a time when the churches here were raising the same issues. No, it was not strange at all.
In those days we had a very strongly bipolar world and we came from a fairly strong anti-imperialist tradition. But, needless to say, being inside the country there was no contact with any Warsaw Pact country. The Nordic countries presented themselves as a fairly safe route. These were the channels used for the resources, as well as the World Council of Churches.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that the Swedish and Nordic support to UDF was extended without strings attached or was it part of an ideological package?

Trevor Manuel: I think that there may have been some part of the latter. In 1984, UDF won a Swedish prize and extensive offers were made for people to spend time in Sweden and in the other Nordic countries, going there for training and for an examination of the way in which Social Democracy functions. This was debated in UDF in the early days. There was some suspicion about elements in the Nordic countries, such as the general improvement in living standards, the role of the trade unions and the change from what we narrowly understood as a necessary, very militant position by the trade unions. Almost an emasculation of a tradition.
Looking back, I can say that the issues that were then strongly in focus in South Africa were issues related to the question of ownership of the means of production. Our view was that the general improvements and the general conduct of Social Democracy—capitalism with a good face—had numbed the sense of the workers about the question of who should own the means of production. You must imagine the context of this debate. They were not big public debates, but amongst us there were at the time certainly debates about whether the Nordic support was not a very careful plan to have us focus on reform rather than on revolution.

Tor Sellström: Did you find that projects were imposed on you or did you yourselves design the projects for which you received financial support?

Trevor Manuel: I think that in the early period the support was primarily for political activities. Budgetary support. Towards the latter part of the 1980s you actually saw a shift to projects, and I think that on all sides there was a turning point which I still find a bit disconcerting. During the State of Emergency, survival became imperative to the kind of fund-raising that we had done in the early 1980s. The demands were also much greater. In the early 1980s we were far more frugal.
Some of these points may sound contradictory. Here I am: a minister, nicely dressed, sitting in Trade and Commerce and talking about ownership of the means of production. But, historically, these were then the issues. We spent a fair amount of time in prison debating with some concern the ease with which money had suddenly become available.
In the early period, a lot was done from resources collected from the workers. We were earning 350 Rands a month in UDF when they were still earning 125 Rands in the Food and Canning Workers Union here in the Western Cape. There were set rules in the movement. We stood at the gate and collected dues from the workers on Friday, because the bosses would not give us any supportive facilities. You kept the money collected until you paid it over, either on Saturday morning or the following Monday. If indeed you used a penny, the General Secretary had the executive mandate to call in the police and hand you over for theft. It hardened the organizers. There was a frugality about the involvement, with people of a very strong character. High calibre activists. There was a commitment that certainly had no relation to any pecuniary advantage for those involved. Good organizers were also lost, because when the third week of the month came and there was no food in the house some would take the money collected and buy some food. Thus, they could not pay the money over on Monday morning and they would have to go.
However, in the circumstances where there was an underground operation—I am not talking about the military underground, but of the conditions imposed by the State of Emergency—all financial accounting went out through the window, and I think that there was a measure of corruption. Whether this was per force of circumstance or by design remains a moot point, but there was just too much money around. I also think that a great deal of personal enrichment took place.
At that time, the European Union (EU) started its twin-track strategy and we had the establishment of the Kagiso Trust with project financing in South Africa. Again we had a series of debates, this time about the power of Thatcher in shaping the twin-track strategy of the EU. And once again money was made available without sufficient financial controls. I think that you saw this during the height of the State of Emergency, particularly in 1986.
When we launched UDF, activists who had a track record went out. We were involved in the cooking of the meals. We hired mattresses and people slept in schools, church halls, mosques or whatever space we could find to accommodate them. But at the COSATU launch in Durban in 1985 people stayed in hotels. For me that was a big shift.
I also recall when we prepared what was called the first anti-apartheid conference. It was scheduled for September 1988 and was to be held in Cape Town. I was fresh out of jail and was asked by the UDF people to be involved. COSATU, then a very young organization, was also involved. Our dates coincided with the short September university vacation, so I went to see directors of institutions that had hostels to find out whether we could use the student residences. Having made the initial contacts, I discovered, however, that COSATU had moved somebody down to Cape Town, located in the COSATU regional office, and that this individual already had found hotels and made block bookings. It was a shock to my system, because I think that what came with it was a style of organizing that we would never be able to sustain on our own. But, you said ‘antiapartheid conference. Fine, do a quick project When the conference eventually took place in Johannesburg at the end of 1989—it was called Conference for a Democratic Future— we all stayed in hotels. In the early period of UDF we stayed in houses even for executive meetings, but when we came out of jail there was a shift to hotels and a shift from driving to flying. There were all those kinds of things. Sure, it may have happened in different ways, but I think that we were spoilt in a way that it was virtually impossible to retreat from.

Tor Sellström: I guess that this probably was difficult to do much about from the side of the donors, apart from the fact that the amounts involved grew very big from the mid-1980s onwards.

Trevor Manuel: Well, I can understand the pressure on people with bleeding hearts, sitting in frosty Nordic countries, when you said: ‘This is what the conference will cost. This is the cost of the flights and this is the cost of the hotels etc.’ Nobody there was going to say ‘Don’t fly. Drive! Don’t stay in hotels. Go and sleep on the floor!’.
Now, did we need all these conferences? Perhaps we did. Perhaps we needed to take the struggle through these kinds of processes. Perhaps they were important in preparation for what by the late 1980s was to become part of the ANC agenda. The central issue at that Conference for a Democratic Future was how to generate support for a negotiated settlement. Perhaps we needed the fights with AZAPO on these issues. Hindsight is always very important. Would we have done things differently? Your guess is as good as mine, but I think that these activities assisted in building a depth of support.

Tor Sellström: Do you think that the people in the Western Cape were knowledgeable about the Nordic countries’ involvement and support?

Trevor Manuel: I think that there was only a very small group of people that was. I do not remember anybody asking where the money came from, and I do not remember anybody ever being willing—if asked—to indicate the source of the money. That may have been a major difference between exile and the situation inside South Africa. In exile you knew. Inside the country, there was a pretty tight circle. The source of support was seen as covert and we would not do anything to jeopardise it.

Tor Sellström: And there was, of course, legislation against it?

Trevor Manuel: Yes, so I do not think that the message of support really got through to the people.

Tor Sellström: I am asking this because of the contradictory dimension of the relationship. In the Nordic countries practically everybody was involved in some kind of support, through the solidarity movements, the trade unions, the churches or otherwise. The result is that you have a strong legacy of solidarity with a people that in itself is not that aware of the involvement. That would make it more difficult to build a popularly based relationship between, for example, Sweden and the new South Africa?

Trevor Manuel: I think that there are certain things that one became aware of during that period. There were contacts. One of the individuals who repeatedly came through was a man from Sweden called Magnus Walan. I do not remember when I first met Magnus, but it would have been before my long stint in jail. It was probably with the Swedish priest Per Svensson at the Lutheran Centre in Belgravia in early 1985 or something like that. He communicated, for example, that there were annual days of solidarity with South Africa when school children went out and collected money.
Those were wonderful stories that we used to illustrate the deep morality of our struggle and how important information was kept away from us through the control of the media by the apartheid regime. But we would not make a speech about it. It would be too light. If indeed there were visitors, we would say: ‘These are our friends from Sweden. They are coming to look at what we are doing here because of a, b, c or d. And this is what is happening back in their country.’ Whether that made any impression on the general consciousness, I cannot vouch for at all.
Now, coming back to the questions of means and ownership, which are very meaningful to me: two weeks ago I spoke to a small rural organization located in Namaqualand and with little networks all over the Cape. The nice thing is that even their headquarters are in a place called Saron, not in a city. I shared a few insights with them. One was communicated to me by an Italian woman who visited from Mozambique when I was running ERIP, the Education, Resource and Information Project, where we had a small press for the printing of community pamphlets. We were sitting in my office and she really chided me, saying: ‘Look at all the white space on the paper.’ Then she told me a story about Mozambique and how RENAMO with apartheid support had destroyed not only the paper mills, but even the tree nurseries that provided the raw material. She explained that in the department in which she was teaching at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo they only got two reams of paper and how the students had learnt to write in small print and use every space of the paper available. They had also started a programme of recycling.
That was one story that I told. The other was a story of a church. Terror Lekota and I were trying to get UDF going in the northern Free State in early 1985, but we could not find a venue. There was a vigilante group called the A-Team which was taking out young activists. However, the pastor of a traditional African Zion Apostolic Church gave his church to us for a Sunday, provided that we were out by evening. He would suspend his services during the day so that we could use the facilities.
I am making a point about ownership. I would draw these two examples together and say: How does an organization function when the tap can be closed off? Particularly now, when it is easier for donors to deal bilaterally with the government? Because no government—no matter how good—is going to say that ‘we will forego this money. We are not going to use it. Give it to some NGO.’
I was making this point already when I was moving from being a regional organizer here in the Western Cape to sort of a higher profile national representative. In the beginning of 1989, soon after I came out of jail—I was still banned, but I went there in defiance—I addressed the Kagiso Trust and I spoke about the need for austerity programmes, which was also published in a report. Well, again I say that I must be living the complete contradiction, but I think that in the debate on funding the shift I talked about was an important change.
I was heading a SADC meeting the other day and there was a debate about a forestry programme, meant to have been located in Malawi. It is an important programme. Malawi got up to object: ‘Why did Zimbabwe take this project away from them? Why is it now in Zimbabwe?’ And the Zimbabweans said: ‘In all honesty, we did not know that this project used to be located in, or was taken out of, Malawi and brought to Zimbabwe. The Danes who are involved in the project came with it to us.’ In the context, Zimbabwe had the good grace to say no: ‘Thanks for raising it. The project will now go back to Malawi.’ To me it just told that entire story again.
Another example: for good, sound reasons we kept a very flat structure in ANC and the lowest paid people were earning 2,200 Rands a month. Those were the people that we sought to bring over into the police force. They would have been security guards at the ANC headquarters at Shell House in Johannesburg and so on. But it is almost impossible to take them in, because the starting rate in the police force is only about 850 Rands a month. That is a problem. In SADC we have chosen a ‘softer option’. The Executive Secretary is getting 10,000 US Dollars a month, tax-free, which is not bad by any standards. If you are a Mozambican minister, you could kill to get a position like that. But, having been there, what are you going to do thereafter?
We have got the same thing here. There are salaries set for the President, the Deputy Presidents, the Ministers and Deputy Ministers, the ordinary parliamentarians etc., which are largely shaped by what existed in the past. Even though we have made salary cuts— driven by us—the gap is still very big, but people won’t give up. It is very seductive.