Bengt Säve-Söderbergh

SIDA—Head of the Africa section in the Department for International Development Cooperation, Ministry for Foreign Affairs—Secretary General of the International Centre of the Swedish Labour Movement (AIC)—Under-Secretary of State for International Development Cooperation in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs Secretary General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

Tor Sellström: How did your involvement with Southern Africa begin?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: I was at an early age interested in what was going on in the world. When I was nineteen I signed on as a mate with Transatlantic’s merchant ship Klipparen. It took me to South Africa and Mozambique in 1960, a few months after the Sharpeville shootings. I had the opportunity of looking at these countries from the perspective of a young mate working with stevedores in Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London, Cape Town, Lourenço Marques, Beira and other ports. I did that for a couple of months. I later spent one year in the United States, where I saw racial problems from another perspective. I think that my involvement probably was due to a combination of these experiences. I was also marginally involved in various boycott activities against South Africa in the 1960s.

In 1967, I started to work at SIDA, where after some time I got involved with Africa. From there, I went to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. During my first two years, I was dealing with Eastern Africa and in 1972 I became the head of the Africa section. I was then only 32 years old. That position put me into direct contact with the Swedish support to the Southern African liberation movements. I came in at the right moment, when we started the support and we entered into relations with the different movements. After four years, I moved to the Trade Union Confederation (LO), where I formally was placed at the research department, but mainly was involved with solidarity work. After that, I was asked to set up the International Centre of the Swedish Labour Movement (AIC), which now is called the Olof Palme International Center. It was a joint solidarity organization for the labour movement, starting in 1979.

The Swedish government was very much involved with the liberation movements and we had no reason to duplicate what it was doing. However, there were a number of specific projects that we carried out. For example, I remember that we organized a seminar with SWAPO on elections in 1979. At the time, there was hope that something would move on the issue of Namibia. In 1980, I was an election observer in Zimbabwe, also extending financial support and delivering messages from Olof Palme. We had not been invited by the British or the Commonwealth, but by ZAPU and ZANU.

In 1983, a very important thing happened in South Africa—which went almost unnoticed by many people—namely the founding of the United Democratic Front (UDF). I realized that it was a very important event. In those days, there was still some hesitation among solidarity groups and also within ANC regarding the situation inside South Africa. But I immediately initiated working relations with UDF. If there is any crucial matter where I personally affected developments, I would say that it was with regard to UDF. The Swedish contribution to the UDF budget was probably between 60 and 70 per cent. The emergence and development of UDF was a key event in the mid1980s. At that time, we also organized two months of continuous protests outside the South African legation in Stockholm. Every popular movement in Sweden took part. A few months later, I moved back to the Foreign Ministry, where, of course, I could follow and influence things quite a lot.

Tor Sellström: Many of the early Swedish opinion makers against apartheid represented liberal newspapers or the church. I am thinking of people like Herbert Tingsten, Per Wästberg and Gunnar Helander. Would it be fair to say that the Swedish anti-apartheid opinion grew out of the liberal centre?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: No. In all issues you always have the early people, those who pick up a question, who can write and are prominent in other fields. They may have different political opinions. I do not think that you can say that the early anti-apartheid opinion was predominantly liberal. For example, Dagens Nyheter is a Stockholm-based newspaper. There were others who wrote in the trade union papers. I am not at all trying to diminish the role of Tingsten, Wästberg or Helander. They made very important contributions. But looking at the process of how opinions are formed, it always starts with individuals. It takes more time for organizations. I would say that the Swedish anti-apartheid opinion grew out of a combination of people from various ideological leanings. That was also its strength.

Tor Sellström: You worked closely with Olof Palme. How would you asses his role for the Swedish involvement in Southern Africa?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: It was extremely important. Palme had a very strong personal conviction, born out of two considerations. One was, simply, decency and the other more political. Palme was a strong anti-Communist and he had great difficulties in accepting that the democratic world followed the East-West divide, rather than what was decent. I remember him saying that one of the reasons for our involvement was to show that you do not have to be a Communist to be against apartheid. I have also experienced that on several occasions. For example, when I was Under-Secretary of State, Chester Crocker once said to me that he was worried about our support to Communism. But I said: ‘If anybody is supporting Communism in Southern Africa, it is you, Mr Crocker. Communism is often born out of frustration and you are frustrating people by giving the wrong signals’. At that time, I felt fairly proud to represent Sweden.

Olof Palme loved to mix the smaller problems in Sweden with the big problems in the world. It was often a conscious philosophy. Politics is about cleaning the streets in Stockholm, but it is also about survival in the world. I think that it was part of his strength and why the ordinary people felt elevated, because their problems became bigger than themselves, so to speak. I remember many instances where he would have a meeting with the Social Democratic parliamentary group on a domestic issue and some emissary would come from Guinea-Bissau or somewhere to talk about their problems. Palme would then say: ‘Please, come and address our parliamentary group before our discussion’. He always did things like that.

In particular, I was very much impressed by him in 1984. At that time, the South Africans were hitting all over Southern Africa and ANC was facing their greatest problems in later decades. I was in charge of organizing a conference of the Socialist International in Arusha, Tanzania, and went there to prepare it with Salim Salim. I came back and said to Palme: ‘The only negative thing that I can report to you is that the conference will take place one week before the party congress of September 1984. But if that can be dealt with, it would be immensely important if you at an early stage could announce your attendance, because then all the others would also attend. Your name is so important in this connection’. The 1985 elections were coming closer and most people advised him not to go to Africa one week before the party congress. But he said: ‘Give me a week to think about it’. He came back a week later and said: ‘I will not follow the advice given by most people. I will go. If friendships ever count, it is when your friends are in trouble and this time my old friend Oliver Tambo is in trouble’.

His friendship with Tambo had started in the early 1960s. There were some people that he became closer to than others and Tambo occupied a very special place. Like Amílcar Cabral of PAIGC and a few others.

Tor Sellström: How would you explain that the Swedish government with strong parliamentary backing in 1969 embarked upon direct support to the Southern African liberation movements? These movements were also supported by the Communist countries and waged armed struggles.

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: I think that the easiest way is to say that it was a situation where you could show some decency. I do not think that there is more to it. The roots of the problem were fairly straightforward. The East-West dimension was maybe the subject of a few diplomats. Others said that we cannot do it because of this or that principle. But they were a fairly small minority. Most people felt that it was the right thing to do.

Tor Sellström: Palme would perhaps have said that you do not have to agree with the ideology of the Vietnamese or the Angolans, but we must agree with their right to become independent?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Yes. That was the spirit of the time. The right to self-determination was a strong and easily understandable issue, also in relation to our own country. But it was not seen like that by the Cold War representatives. For example, in my conversation with Chester Crocker— having said that he supported Communism—I said: ‘To you, Swedish foreign policy must appear to be in a mess. In South Africa, we support the Soviets; in Zimbabwe, we support the Chinese; and in Afghanistan, we support the Americans’. He became very confused.

In our support to the Southern African liberation movements, there were, basically, two things that we looked at. Were they doing practical things and were they building a strong organization? We were not out to deliver arms or beef up some movement for ideological reasons. No, we assessed whether they were constructive in the struggle against apartheid and colonialism and if they were doing practical things to support their people. Those were our criteria for support. Two very simple criteria, which also meant that it was mostly officials in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and SIDA who informed our policy.

Tor Sellström: In the case of Angola, there was more of an ideological debate regarding the different nationalist movements. However, Olof Palme strongly supported MPLA?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Of all the countries in Southern Africa— except South Africa—Angola was of interest to those who were looking for money. We knew that nobody really cared about Guinea-Bissau and some only marginally cared about Mozambique. Angola was the interesting case and therefore the hottest country in terms of the East-West divide. That probably conditioned Palme. He held the view that if you want to make your voice heard and you come from a small country, you sometimes have to raise it to make it a little bit louder. He had become an international person and if he had not used some of his strong words, the newspapers would never have quoted him. And we knew, of course, that Portugal worked very much with UNITA and the Americans and CIA with FNLA.

Tor Sellström: Both you and Olof Palme had close relations with Agostinho Neto?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Oh, yes. Neto was sitting in my kitchen in Stockholm the famous evening of 24 April 1974. He had no idea of what was going to happen in Portugal. He was not informed about the revolt. The following morning he left for Canada.

Some of the people in MPLA used an Eastern Communist rhetoric, perhaps more so than in any other Southern African liberation movement. However, Agostinho Neto was different. He was more of a nationalist and an intellectual.

Tor Sellström: In 1972, you became the head of the Africa section at the Department for International Development Cooperation of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. That was at the time when the Swedish assistance to the Southern African liberation movements really started. It was something entirely new. How was it looked upon by the ‘old guard’ at the Foreign Ministry?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: In those days, the Foreign Ministry still had quite a few remnants from the House of the Nobility. There were lots of old ambassadors with that background, remnants from an old era that is now gone. However, the important people followed what the government decided, although not always with enthusiasm. The whole concept of the Third World and the people of the 1960s entered the Foreign Ministry as something which the cat had dragged in. I was one of them. At the time, the Foreign Ministry was a fairly closed institution. Sometimes you would receive threats from parts of industry, saying that ‘you are following policies which make our business very difficult’. Some of the old ambassadors would rather listen to that.

Tor Sellström: In the case of Sweden, the humanitarian support was not implemented by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs but delegated to SIDA. Were there any problems connected with that?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: The implementation was done by SIDA, but you had the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance and very close follow ups of the support. The committee had members from the Swedish parliament, representing various political parties. Those who were designated to know could find out just about everything. There were control mechanisms in place. There was nothing specific about it. The Swedish public administration is divided between small ministries and implementing agencies. I do not see this differently. There was a corps of very committed civil servants at both the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and at SIDA. They saw it as a privilege and a challenge to work with these questions.

Tor Sellström: Were you satisfied that the reporting and accounting routines were adequate?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: That depends on what you can demand. People were working in a war-like situation. The government of South Africa was trying everything—including the killing of people— to stop the support. As a consequence, you could not establish the same criteria as in the Swedish society. At the same time, you could, of course, not allow embezzlement of funds or cheating. That could not be tolerated. Getting involved in activities like these always constitutes a risk. If you want change, you must take risks. But, on the whole, we judged on balance and demanded what was reasonable. There was also an educational aspect to it. ANC, for example, was not the best when it comes to accounting and reporting. I think that all organizations that are being built up—whether it is a liberation movement or a sports club— should be trained in these fields. It is also part of democracy-building.

Tor Sellström: Sweden supported a number of international NGOs, like the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). It would appear, however, that IUEF and its Swedish director, Lars-Gunnar Eriksson, had a different agenda, trying to support a ‘third force’ in South Africa. How did you look upon that?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: There were all kinds of organizations. We supported church organizations and many others. IUEF was originally an organization that dealt with scholarships. It was later given some money to look into other contacts. We were never restricted to one movement. That was not our task. It was to find different ways. Through some channels, we would support the victims of apartheid and in other cases we supported organizations that were actively working against the system. IUEF was just one of many organizations.

Well, I was not very much part of that. I was rather looking at it with some suspicion. It was led by someone who was trying to find an angle of his own.

Tor Sellström: As director of AIC, you were–as you said– involved in support to the United Democratic Front (UDF). Would you say that it was AIC’s most important project in South Africa?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Yes. At that time, AIC shared offices with the LO/TCO Council. It was very convenient, because Cyril Ramaphosa and many others who were involved in both the trade unions and UDF were often there. So, I knew what the situation was.

With regard to the trade union movement, I was never a friend of SACTU. I do not know how many times we refused their requests. Gradually, ANC realized that certain doctrines and structures which they had copied from other countries were irrelevant and that the struggle must be waged inside South Africa. There was also a power struggle between those who were outside and those who were inside. I was convinced that nothing decisive would take place until you really had actions going on inside the country. So, to me UDF was very crucial. And, as I said, if there was one area where I played a personal role, this would be it. Seizing the moment and going full blast, although I initially had problems with some SIDA bureaucrats. This was new to them and they did not really know what to do.

Tor Sellström: Who were the UDF leaders that you were in contact with?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Cyril Ramaphosa, Murphy Morobe and various others. I proposed UDF for the Let Live Prize of the newspaper Arbetet and Azhar Cachalia and Murphy Morobe came to Sweden to receive it. We arranged various activities with them. In those days, there was still, as I said, some hesitation about support to the organizations inside South Africa, also within ANC. But, I had a different view.

Tor Sellström: In Sweden, there was a strong solidarity movement, led by the Africa Groups and the Isolate South Africa Committee. How did you see the relations between the solidarity movement and the government?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: They were very easy and warm. There were some frictions, naturally, but they were marginal. The objectives and goals were the same. The solidarity organizations could also do things—mobilizing people, for example— that the government could not do. They had various practical activities. There was a debate on sanctions, but not on the practical support.

Tor Sellström: Did you experience any strong and consistent political opposition to the Swedish policy in support of the liberation movements?

Bengt Säve-Söderbergh: Internationally, yes, in some circles. In Sweden, by some marginal people, especially in the beginning. You had the reactionaries, who were saying: ‘You are just trying to be the conscience of the world’ and things like that. However, if you launch a new policy, you also have to be prepared for such reactions.

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Updated 3 February 2010, 15:32

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Stockholm, 14 January 1997.

Download the interview. (pdf)