ANC—Secretary General. Former ANC Deputy President—Senior adviser to the President of South Africa
The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Johannesburg on 15 September 1995.
Tor Sellström: Did the ANC leadership have any contacts with the Nordic countries before the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the late Chief Luthuli in 1961?
Walter Sisulu: No, I think that the first contacts with the Nordic countries were with Chief Luthuli.
Tor Sellström: When he went to Norway, did he travel alone or was he accompanied by other ANC leaders?
Walter Sisulu: Unfortunately, he was not accompanied by any leading person. He was accompanied by his secretary and, of course, by his wife.
Tor Sellström: So the involvement by the Nordic countries started when you were on Robben Island?
Walter Sisulu: Indeed so. That is the time when it became shaped according to our desire. Now, on the question of Chief Luthuli: We had not, I must confess, by that time attached such an importance to the Nobel Prize itself. But from that time on we began to analyze it and realize its significance.
Tor Sellström: In the Nordic countries it was very significant. It came after the Sharpeville massacre and when you took the decision to launch the armed struggle.
Walter Sisulu: Yes, it came at a time when a drastic change was taking place.
Tor Sellström: The good relations between the Nordic countries and ANC were, of course, to a large extent the work of the late Oliver Tambo?
Walter Sisulu: Yes, indeed so.
Tor Sellström: He came to Sweden in 1961.
Walter Sisulu: Yes, I think in 1961.
Tor Sellström: When you were on Robben Island, did you get any information about the Nordic support?
Walter Sisulu: Yes, we were quite well informed. Although we were not allowed newspapers, we were able to get information. We knew of the role of the Nordics.
Tor Sellström: How did you view this? You had these Western countries in the North that supported the same liberation movements in Southern Africa as the Soviet Union did.
Walter Sisulu: Well, this was an eye opener. We had never before thought of them in that way. We began to look at them and realized what a tremendous advance we were making, having good relations with the Nordic countries. Its importance was beyond our understanding.
Tor Sellström: Do you think that it assisted you to create political space?
Walter Sisulu: No doubt. It was a tremendous move to have such a relationship. O.R. Tambo did great work, particularly in that field. He was able to analyze the situation. He was a diplomat and a politician.
Tor Sellström: I think that Thabo Mbeki was very much working along the same lines as O.R. Tambo?
Walter Sisulu: Yes. After all, he is a product of O.R. Tambo.
Tor Sellström: I have read that the late Olof Palme, the Swedish Prime Minister, corresponded with you and Nelson Mandela when you were on Robben Island. Is that possible?
Walter Sisulu: I cannot remember that. They would not have handed them over. You see, the letters were kept and when the relationship changed, Mandela was perhaps able to read them. I do not think that they would have allowed it during the early times.
Tor Sellström: When you were released, you went to Sweden to see O.R. Tambo. Coming there, how did you assess the Nordic countries and the relationship that he had built over the years?
Walter Sisulu: It was fantastic! Amazing! Just to cope with that relationship and to consolidate and improve it. It was our task. It had a tremendous impact on me. The information of the part that they had played.
Tor Sellström: At that time Sweden had a conservative government?
Walter Sisulu: Yes, but the right and the left were able to work together.
Tor Sellström: One reason for that is that very early on it was not only the political left, but also the church and the liberal centre that were involved.
Walter Sisulu: My understanding was that that was ableto bring the right to realize. It seems that without the left they had known very little.
Tor Sellström: There followed an intense process leading up to the elections in which the Nordic countries supported ANC. Do you think that it had any significant impact?
Walter Sisulu: It had a tremendous impact! The Nordic countries have got one aspect which perhaps now we understand. From the point of view of humanity, I think that they are among the greatest. I think that the part they have played in international politics is beyond understanding.
Tor Sellström: The Nordic countries are very modern, but also very traditional, with a strong tradition of egalitarian policies and democratic principles.
Walter Sisulu: Yes, I think that that helped to shape the relationship and for us to understand what kind of society we were dealing with.
Tor Sellström: The relationship will now continue.
Walter Sisulu: It must grow! It must be intensified! We just cannot afford to lose it, to allow it to cool down. It must continue on a high level, because we are not only dealing with a particular struggle. We now have a fiddle and we have a role to play on the international arena. We have to see to it that good friends such as we have had are maintained. And that we together will work out a new programme, new era, a new approach. The Nordic countries are indispensable to us in that situation.
Tor Sellström: I believe that it is also important for the Nordic countries to have allies that think in similar terms.
Walter Sisulu: Yes, I agree with that fully.
Tor Sellström: It is part of the reason why the Nordic countries supported ANC, SWAPO, MPLA, FRELIMO and ZANU/ZAPU, namely the question of small nations’ right to selfdetermination.
Walter Sisulu: It is very important. We will never be able to fully grasp this relationship. I have no words to express it, but the feeling in me is the feeling of greatness and of the function that awaits both the Nordic countries and ourselves. In the same way that we have worked together, I have no doubt that we will be able to take this a step further. I lack words to say how we should consolidate this relationship, how it should be taken further. We need each other. We have a greater job to do and this time not for a particular country, but on a global basis.
Tor Sellström: Yes, but this struggle is even more difficult.
Walter Sisulu: Yes, more difficult, because it involves by and large the question of non-racialism. We now have to lead other countries in this direction. We have difficulties in getting people to understan it at home and yet it is the greatest task that we must work for. The first stage without the second is not worth it. I am very much attached to and feel very sentimental about the relationship that has been built with the Nordic countries. I happen to have been to Sweden and Norway. I came into contact with the people of those countries and my respect for them grew beyond what words can explain.
Tor Sellström: Did you hear the children sing in Xhosa and Zulu?
Walter Sisulu: Yes! I came back and said that they sing Nkosi Sikelele better than we do! I emphasised this to Oliver Tambo because he himself was a musician. I listened to it in Norway and in Sweden. They were very good.