Börje Mattsson

The committee that re-shaped Finland’s Africa policy

Börje Mattsson walked through the bush with Angola’s freedom fighters and later contributed to a key change in Finnish official policy towards Southern Africa’s liberation movements. Now writing his memoir, he uses the NAI library to get his facts straight and to corroborate his recollections.

His first encounter with Africa was in 1969. As chairperson of the Finnish student’s UN association, he was invited to a conference in Uganda. He also visited Kenya and Tanzania, the latter then serving as a hub for the liberation movements of Southern Africa.

“It was from here the various liberation movements organised and launched their resistance to colonialism. I got to know both Sam Nujoma and Samora Machel, later the presidents of Namibia and Mozambique,” Mattsson recalls.  

Finnish Africa committee
After returning to Finland, he and several comrades established the Africa committee, whose aim was informing the people of Finland about events in Africa. It also actively supported the liberation struggle. However, before its members could inform others they needed more information themselves and decided to return to Africa. A contribution of 5, 000 Swedish kronor by the Nordic Africa Institute financed the journey. Their first destination was Ethiopia, where the committee more or less by coincidence found themselves at an OAU meeting of African heads of state. They befriended the leader of the Angolan independence struggle, Agostino Neto, and, out of the blue, Mattsson was invited to pay a visit to the MPLA guerrillas fighting against the Portuguese.

“Neto said our chances of survival were fifty-fifty. If we were unarmed when the Portuguese attacked, we could say we were journalists. However, we didn’t want any special treatment ‒ if our friends were going to be killed, they might as well kill us too. So we carried weapons,” Mattsson explains.

They filmed their walk through the bush with a Super8 camera. The film proved invaluable back in Finland in countering the propaganda portraying the MPLA as violent terrorists. Their soldiers were ordinary men and women wanting only their freedom. In the early 1970s, Finland supported no armed struggles, regardless of the oppressiveness of the regime. The Africa committee scored a huge victory when, after years of advocacy work, Finland changed that policy.

Heroes become despots
The liberation movements and newly independent African states shaped the optimistic view of Africa that characterised the 1960s and 1970s. However, it didn’t take long for the optimism to sour and for former heroes to become despots.

“All liberation movements become awful ruling parties once they are in power. This is clearly evidenced in their political rhetoric, whereby critical voices are labelled as traitorous. Corruption also really hampers democratic development. It seems that many Africa leaders believe that since they fought for and achieved independence, they have a right to a good life,” Mattsson notes.

Even though he recognises South Africa’s current troubles, Mattsson still views that country as a miracle. “A racist system far worse than any imposed by a colonial power was dismantled. And it was achieved without much violence or retaliation. This was fundamentally thanks to Nelson Mandela.”

“But now the ANC, too, has become a dinosaur unable to move beyond the freedom struggle,” Mattson concludes. 

More info:
Read more about Finland’s involvement in southern Africa’s liberation.

NAI director Iina Soiri and Pekka Peltola are authors of the book ‘Finland and national liberation in Southern Africa’.

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