Sweden, South Africa & the Churches.

Finland has just joined NATO.  Norway was a founding member in 1949. Sweden wishes to join but to date is blocked by Turkey.

A few weeks ago, the Russian Ambassador in Stockholm, Ukrainian-born Viktor Tatarinsev, commented “the Swedes will undoubtedly be sent to their deaths in the interests of others” adding that joining NATO would make Swedes “a legitimate target of Russia’s retaliatory measures”.  Putin had similarly warned that Finland stood to suffer “serious military and political consequences”.

You have to admire these three Nordics close neighbours of Russia, Finland with 800 miles of shared border.  Their total population today is a mere 21.5 million.   They are threatened by a Russian Federation of 146 million.  St. Petersburg is about the same distance from the Finnish border as Aberystwyth from London. Defiance like this takes courage.  Not the first instance of courageous Nordic foreign policy.

In the 1980s while working on human rights and international development, I grew to respect Sweden and her fellow Nordics as international actors.  My first encounter was with Birgitta Berggren, the southern Africa desk officer of SIDA (the Swedish International Development Agency) – at the time equivalent to Britain’s now defunct DfID.  She was seeking assistance in funding the ‘home front’ of the African National Congress (ANC).   A British passport meant I did not require a visa involving special checks to enter South Africa and my Church contacts would help.

The 1980s saw an intensification of the Cold War and the final crisis of apartheid.  In 1982 Nelson Mandela was moved off Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison where the South African National Intelligence Agency could sound him out more privately – most likely in the hope of driving a wedge between him and the ANC leadership.  They failed.  In November 1985 while Mandela was in hospital for a prostate operation, ‘Kobie’ Coetzee, the Minister of Justice opened the first government talks.

Under pressure from Pretoria, the Frontline States with their many South African exiles had reached bilateral agreements with the apartheid regime that restricted or closed the bases of the ANC’s military wing.  But in 1983 within South Africa, the UDF (United Democratic Front) had been launched.  Made up of some 400 civic, trades union, student, women’s and church-linked organisations, despite repression, it gained ground becoming the key pillar of the ANC’s ‘home front’.

Under the leadership of Prime Minister Olof Palme until his assassination in February 1986, support for national liberation movements in Southern Africa was a key element of the Swedish Social Democrats’ foreign policy.  By the mid-1980s, in contrast to the US and UK who were doing their best to make sure the ANC failed, Sweden was treating the ANC as a government in waiting.   What mattered for most western governments was that the ANC was ‘Soviet-backed’.   ‘Swedish-backed’ or ‘Nordic backed’ would have been just as accurate a description, especially when referring to non-military support.

Sweden had begun supporting the ANC’s “home-front” in the mid-1970s and in the 1980s sought to increase their funding via the trade unions and the Churches within South Africa.  In the words of SIDA’s Lars-Olof Edström in Lusaka, Zambia in 1980: “ANC is no longer an exile organisation [but] very active inside South Africa.  Support to the internal work must accordingly constitute an essential part of the Swedish assistance”.  The Nordics’ intervention was both timely and strategically important.  Between 1969-1995 SIDA’s regular assistance to the southern African liberation movements, using figures from Tor Sellström’s Sweden & National Liberation in Southern Africa Vol II, adjusted for inflation and converted to sterling, amounted to £100s of millions in current values.
And this does not include money for cultural activities, information, research work and emergencies.  Half of it went to the ANC.

Many in the Churches inside South Africa were ready to help deliver financial assistance to the ANC.  An influential group of radical Christian leaders supporting and consulting the ANC determined the spending priorities.  They were led by Rev. Dr. Beyers Naudé, a prominent Dutch Reformed Church minister who had resigned from his ministry in order to oppose apartheid.  He endured banning (severe restrictions on movement and political activity) from 1977 to 1985.

Naudé, with influence in the Netherlands and internationally, then became secretary-general of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) and a key point of reference for the Swedish legation in Pretoria.  Alongside him were the theologian Father Albert Nolan OP, who when elected master-general of the Dominicans had asked to be allowed to continue his work in South Africa, and Rev. Frank Chikane, who succeeded Naudé as secretary-general of the SACC.
He survived an attempted poisoning ordered by the Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok.

With the blessing of this Christian group Swedish money financed – non-military – needs of ANC activists as well as supporting organisations like COSAS (Congress of South African Students), the ANC’s youth movement.   A Catholic network led by the Fr. Albert Nolan worked with the internal organisations of the ANC.   The Grail, a lay Catholic women’s association, sheltered activists on the run, handing out Swedish money for travel and other needs.  One need was a de-bugging device sourced in Croydon and delivered to the UDF.

Thabo Mbeki, a future President of South Africa, speaking in a 1995 interview, said that the special role of Sweden “was to say that the people have got the right and the duty to rebel against oppression” and “as part of the recognition of that right…you support the people who are engaged in the struggle”.   “You do not define what they should be”. Or become, he might have added.
Sweden through the Churches and trade unions made a significant contribution to internal grassroots mobilisation.

By the mid-1980s Church relations with the ANC extended from grassroots to the highest level. Thabo Mbeki travelled often to London so I was able to consult him in a variety of venues, mainly pubs.  Meetings between the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC) and the ANC began with a discussion between Archbishop Denis Hurley, President of the SACBC and Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC President, at the Great Western Hotel, Paddington, London – hugs, beer and sandwiches.  This meeting was followed by a more formal one in Harare between the South African bishops in the SACBC and Mbeki.

The Churches also established wider more complex links. Until the mid-1980s the European Economic Community (EEC), the USA and UK resisted pressure to impose sanctions on the apartheid regime.  The EEC initiated, and was ready to fund, a face-saving ‘special programme for the victims of apartheid’ within South Africa.

To this end, they asked two representatives, one Protestant and one Catholic to a consultative meeting in Brussels.  Rev. Beyers Naudé represented the Protestants.  At the time, Father Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, secretary- general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference (SACBC), was in prison and suffering torture. I was surprised to be asked to go instead of him.

The array of EU officials that greeted us was even more surprised to hear from Dr. Naudé of the restrictive conditions which the Churches demanded before they would accept and distribute EEC funding.    No money should go to Inkatha, an ethnic Zulu political movement shaping up for a civil war with the non-racial nationalist ANC.
Germany, USA, and UK greeted Inkatha as an opponent to the ANC despite the risk of serious violence.
Civil war came close during government negotiations between 1990 and 1994, with massacres involving Zulu militia trained and armed by the South African Defense Force.

During the 1994 elections, the Nordics through the Churches continued their efforts to contain violence.  Highly effective election monitoring, notably by international World Council of Churches’ teams, played a significant part in keeping campaigning and voting peaceful.

I accompanied former President of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, monitoring in KwaZulu Natal, the main area of Inkatha support.  Tensions were palpable but a ceasefire ordered by the Inkatha leader, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, held.  The ANC won 62% of the national vote, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 10%.

In the bipolar world of the 1970s and 1980s, Swedish governments of different persuasions and the Nordics, had the courage to break the Cold War mould by making difficult ethical and political choices.   In their support for the liberation movements, they had in the main the enthusiastic agreement of civil society.

Human rights and development agencies, diplomats, anti-apartheid and women’s groups, trades unions and Churches interacted and worked together.  The result and success of the 1994 elections was a vindication of their judgement.

​The closing lines of Tor Sellström’s magisterial study, Sweden & National Liberation in Southern Africa point to an anomaly worth pondering: “the great Swedish support to the South African struggle against apartheid has not become a fact worth mentioning in the textbooks…  It would have been possible to point out the importance that also a small country like Sweden can have.  But the textbooks are silent”.  (Puzzle with the national flag of Sweden and south Africa on a world map background.123rf)

Ian Linden
Professor at St Mary’s University,
Strawberry Hill, London.


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