Barney Pityana

President of the South African Students Organisation—Black Consciousness Movement—ANC—Director of the Programme to Combat Racism of the World Council of Churches Chairman of the South African Human Rights Commission

Tor Sellström: As a young student activist at Lovedale and at the University College of Fort Hare in the 1960s, were you aware of the Nordic support to the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa?

Barney Pityana: No, I was not. In those days, I was very much involved in the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the University Christian Movement (UCM), of which I was an officer. However, I do think that SCM and the Anglican Students Federation had visitors from Sweden coming to address us, but I cannot remember their names. So, there were links between the Student Christian Movement and Sweden.
I was expelled from Fort Hare in 1968. I was regional director of the University Christian Movement and president of the Anglican Students Federation before I joined the South African Students Organisation (SASO). While I was with UCM, I became aware of the World University Service (WUS), partly because at that time I also participated in the work of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS). From 1968, I knew of the financial support to NUSAS from the Nordic countries. Of course, in my early days I was not unaware of Dag Hammarskjöld during the Congo crisis.

Tor Sellström: There were refugee students in Sweden who had been expelled from Fort Hare at the time of the Extension of the University Education Act in 1959. One of them was Billy Modise, who is now South Africa’s High Commissioner to Canada. They may have been in contact with their alma mater?

Barney Pityana: I am sure that there were those links, but for me it was a gradual realization as I got involved and moved into the leadership. That was also when I became aware of the support structures that were needed to carry out our work.

Tor Sellström: In her contribution to the book Bounds of Possibility: The Legacy of Steve Biko and Black Consciousness—which is co-edited by you— Mamphela Ramphele describes how there was a reluctance on the part of funding agencies to support black initiatives in South Africa during the period from 1970 to 1977, with the exceptions of the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF) and WUS. Both IUEF and WUS were to a high degree funded by the Nordic countries. What projects were supported by these organizations?

Barney Pityana: We started SASO with really nothing but commitment. However, we recognized very early on that we were going to need some funding support. Our initial access to financial support was through Beyers Naudé and the Christian Institute, who connected us with various people and also gave us small amounts. The second channel at the time—we were in Durban then—was UCM. Many of us in the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) had been involved in UCM and through them we began to receive support from the United Methodist Church in the United States. Through UCM we also linked up with WUS. Via the Christian Institute and UCM, our initial support was thus very much from the churches.
The Nordic support increased quite quickly as we developed projects. The University of Natal Medical School had an exchange programme with a university in Sweden. They used to have two students going to Sweden for a term or something like that. In 1969 or 1970, two students—Aubrey Mokoape and a colleague—went there and they were the ones who made the first major approaches for funds. I think that it was through them that we made the first contacts with IUEF. Before that IUEF was not a major funding source, as far as I remember.
However, I think that Mamphela Ramphele is right, because in those days the funding was never substantial. We were never trusted, in spite of the fact that we had clear programmes. In fact, NUSAS was getting more support from the same sources than we did. But NUSAS was developing projects in reaction to us. Also, they were always limited to scholarships and things like that, while we started projects that, for example, involved students going to the communities to run clinics and have winter schools. NUSAS did not have that, but we did and we carried them out with very little funding support. I think that the reason why the donors were so reluctant was that they were not used to blacks establishing their own organizations. Whatever they might say, there was a racist element. It was a struggle for us, although we were convinced that we had a claim.
Having said that, our first breakthrough came when Ben Khoapa and Steve Biko managed to break out of Spro-cas (Special Project on Christianity in an Apartheid Society) to establish the Black Community Programmes, or BCP. Major funding was now coming to a body that was black. So, when Steve Biko was banished to King William’s Town, he was able—as part of the Black Community Programmes—to establish all the projects that were based there, including the clinic and the study programmes. The funding for this came from the Nordic countries through IUEF and WUS.

Tor Sellström: Lars-Gunnar Eriksson, the Director of IUEF, was a Swedish Social Democrat. However, while the Swedish Social Democratic government had extended direct official humanitarian assistance to the ANC since 1973, Eriksson and IUEF were allegedly looking for a ‘third force’ in South Africa. Would it be fair to say that the support given by IUEF to the Black Consciousness Movement was motivated by anti-ANC considerations?

Barney Pityana: I think that the situation was a lot more nuanced than that. Even before Craig Williamson came onto the scene I think that Lars-Gunnar Eriksson recognized that there was a very new and very significant political movement represented by SASO and Black Consciousness (BC) inside South Africa. His main interest was to recognize that movement and then to support and nurture it. What happened subsequently—prematurely, I think— was that large numbers of BC people left South Africa in the wake of the 1973 upheavals, that is, after Turfloop, and that they began to develop material needs in exile. In the process, people like Harry Nengwekhulu—the first senior BC person who left South Africa— became close to IUEF. He experienced the need to get resources in order to provide scholarships and cater for a growing number of BC people outside South Africa. According to him, in order to get that support many of the traditional donor agencies required that the people belonged to ANC. Bearing in mind the arrogance of the BC people in those days, it was very difficult for most of them to contemplate that. But Lars-Gunnar Eriksson and IUEF gave them support. I do not think that he did so because he was seeking to form a ‘third force’, but simply because somebody like Harry Nengwekhulu approached him for that.
In addition, Lars-Gunnar Eriksson hired Craig Williamson with the support of ANC and against opposition from us and from the South African Council of Churches. We told him that Williamson was not a person to be trusted. There was a lot of controversy around that. In fact, Williamson was according to Eriksson in those days clearly supported by ANC. So, it could not be that Lars-Gunnar Eriksson was in favour of the formation of a ‘third force’. Craig Williamson’s emergence at IUEF had the support of ANC and one of the first things that he did when he got there was trying to stop the support for BCM and concentrate IUEF’s support on ANC.
I do not think that Lars-Gunnar was thinking in terms of a ‘third force’, but there was on his part a recognition of BCM as a new political movement in South Africa. From talking to him I know that he felt that too many refused to acknowledge that. His insight was that BCM was a political force that had to be taken into account.

Tor Sellström: That kind of hesitancy on behalf of the donors could perhaps also be noticed when the United Democratic Front (UDF) was created in 1983?

Barney Pityana: That is right, but after the exposure of Craig Williamson and the collapse of IUEF it became increasingly important for the donors to make sure that any position that they took on South Africa had the support of ANC. Informally, ANC was in that way able to indicate what could and what could not be supported.
When I left South Africa in 1978—in the wake of the murder of Steve Biko—there was a very clear sense that it was important for us to start negotiations with ANC about the political scene outside South Africa. Within BC there were people who were taking all kinds of positions. One group was becoming close to the Nigerians, also training people there. Others were moving to Libya and even to Palestine. And there was a lot of conflict among the BC people in Botswana. By 1978, it had become very clear that the situation was untidy. And, indeed, Steve Biko would have come out of South Africa to try to bring some order into the situation and encourage people to have a creative relationship with ANC. That would have been the main objective of the talks.
I was never convinced that it was necessary to have both a BCM and the traditional liberation movements. When I came out, I told everybody very clearly that that never was the intention of BC. BC had a role inside South Africa at the time, but I was never convinced that I was going to come out of South Africa and become BCM. But I also recognized that if we were going to move ahead, it was important that we could take as many people with us as possible. So, in faithfulness to what the people in South Africa wanted we organized meetings with ANC. These meetings were financially supported by Lars-Gunnar Eriksson. However, we did not get his support for a BC conference that took place in London and that we felt was necessary. When there was concern on behalf of some people that there was going to be a ‘third force’, IUEF did not support that.
We had a very useful meeting with ANC in Lusaka, which for me determined that there really was no need to form a separate organization. But it was necessary to hold this national meeting in London in 1980 to report on our discussions with ANC. I then discovered that things had gone so far—largely because of the relations between BC people and ANC people and others—that it never was going to be possible to keep anything like a united, cohesive position and, secondly, it had also become very clear that the idea of having a common position as BC was not going to operate.

Tor Sellström: In an interview with Craig Williamson in 1996, he said that the background to Steve Biko’s arrest and death in September 1977 was that Biko was preparing to leave South Africa to meet Oliver Tambo and that this meeting was being organized “by the Swedes” through IUEF. Would this be correct?

Barney Pityana: On his initiative, Steve Biko planned to clandestinely meet ANC abroad. And to come back. He had no intention of permanently leaving the country. I am aware that IUEF was to make it possible. Harry Nengwekhulu was part of it and he would have found some means of support from them. I do not know how advanced the plans were at the time of Steve’s arrest. It had nothing to do with that. It was due to the fact that he had breached his banning orders.
It is true that there were definite plans for Steve Biko to meet with ANC. There were various reasons for that. One was the fact that growing numbers of BC people were leaving the country and many of them were seeking military training. Secondly, especially the situation among the BC people in Botswana was very bad. There were lots of factions and it was necessary that those who really did want to get involved in armed combat could be trusted. Steve would have explored the possibility of BCM engaging in open political struggle internally in South Africa and of letting those who wanted to be involved in armed struggle do so through ANC. Essentially, that is what he was going to explore. It was to bring some sort of discipline into what had been happening in exile.

Tor Sellström: In exile, you joined ANC and subsequently became the director of the Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) of the World Council of Churches, based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a recently published book, it is said that the Nordic churches were quite slow in implementing the PCR recommendations. Is that also your opinion?

Barney Pityana: Well, I was the third director of PCR and by that time there was very strong support from the Nordic churches. However, there was also a very strong movement for the isolation of South Africa and it is true that some Nordic churches—certainly in Norway—were not supportive of this. For example, Norway did not believe in the actions we took against Shell, which was a major campaign. They did not support that at all, but supported instead a process which we did not support, namely that of channelling funds to groups within South Africa. Like ANC, we believed that it undermined the isolation of South Africa.
However, the Special Fund to Combat Racism, which was our main fund, in fact relied a great deal on Nordic and German support. The support from the churches in Sweden and Norway was considerable, while the support from Germany did not officially come from the churches, but rather from groups who were raising funds informally. It is also true that the funds of the Nordic aid agencies came from their governments and we were aware that they were distributing public funds that they knew were going towards the support of ANC and other liberation movements. During my time as director, the Special Fund increased dramatically because the consciousness of the need to combat racism all over the world also increased. But the major part of that fund was contributed because of South Africa. The money was, however, not necessarily spent on South Africa.
In brief, I would say that we did receive funding from the Nordic countries and that— in the formal sense—some Nordic churches were ambivalent about supporting the Special Fund.

Tor Sellström: You were also closely involved with the ANC Department of Religious Affairs and Inter-Faith Chaplaincy, which from the beginning was almost fully funded by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). In turn, LWF was strongly supported by the Nordic churches. In the light of the fact that the membership of ANC represented a very wide religious spectrum, did this Lutheran link constitute a problem?

Barney Pityana: No, not at all. Around 1983–1984, ANC had come to recognize the very important role played by the churches in South Africa. ANC was beginning to have a very direct sense of that from the cadres that came out of South Africa into the camps. The sense of religion had become very evident. ANC had also come to recognize that there was a need for some kind of pastoral care among its cadres. Especially, this was clearly understood by President O.R. Tambo and to some extent by people like Thabo Mbeki.
The international campaign against South Africa could not continue without the involvement of the churches. The churches were critical. By 1983, when UDF was formed, religious communities were also involved in the struggle inside South Africa. The products of that—the people who were going to ANC— were for the first time clearly people who were aware of their religion. That is why it was necessary to have a Department of Religious Affairs. But I do not think that it ever really achieved its potential. It was seen as a way in which ANC could have religious people within the movement and bring their zeal for liberation and their religious commitment together. ANC was not asking people to give up their religion in order to become committed cadres.
The other aspect was the chaplaincy, that is, the means of caring for people in the camps or in the general refugee situation in which the ANC cadres were living. It was also to be a forum where links between the churches in South Africa and ANC could take place. That did not happen as well as it could have. There was an interest from religious people in South Africa in the work of ANC and people did—in a clandestine manner—continue to meet and focus on what ANC was doing about religious issues, but those formal links with the churches were not sufficiently established.

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Updated 3 February 2010, 15:15

The interview was held by Tor Sellström in Uppsala on 23 January 1997.

Download the interview (pdf)
from the book Liberation in Southern Africa - Regional and Swedish Voices (2. edition) Sellström, Tor (Ed). (pdf)