Sweden’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe Sten Rylander (SR) was a man of few words when he took up his post in the country about five years ago.
He is a dear friend to liberation movements in southern Africa, including the ANC, Swapo and Zanu PF.
Rylander, once an ambassador in Tanzania before he became a roving diplomat in Africa, is set to leave Zimbabwe tomorrow.
He retires from government in six months.
NewsDay Deputy Editor Brian Mangwende (BM) spoke to Sweden’s first head of the Eastern and Western African Department ahead of his departure. Below are excerpts:
BM: You are on record stating categorically that Swedish policy towards Zimbabwe would not change but taking into consideration what has been happening over the past 10 years, do you still have the same view as you leave the country after a lengthy and eventful stay in the country?
SR: What I have been saying is that Swedish policy is guided by the same values and cornerstones as when we supported the liberation struggle a few decades ago. We supported liberation movements in southern Africa, including Zanu and Zapu, in their fight for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.
BM: You have a history of excellent relations with liberation movements in Africa, including Zanu PF, ANC and Swapo. Is the case still the same today? What do you think of their style of governance then and now?
SR: Our liberation struggle credentials are there and we are very proud of them. Relationships and contacts with many of those who were involved in southern Africa at the time are intact. My friendship and interaction with people like Aziz Pahad, Kader Asmal, and Ronnie Kasrils have been very important in carrying out my work in Zimbabwe. All liberation movements in southern Africa have struggled with the transition from movements to well-organised parties in a modern democracy. My view is that both ANC and Swapo have done better in this regard than Zanu PF.
BM: What do you take back home with you as the darkest experiences during your stay in Zimbabwe and what do you view as the most hopeful moments you cherish as you leave?
SR: The darkest experiences centre on the excessive violence and massive abuses of human rights that took place in 2007 and 2008. Strong memories from that time are when Morgan Tsvangirai was severely beaten up in March 2007 and when some of us went looking for him around police stations in Harare. Also when Jestina Mukoko disappeared in November 2008 and when I spent most of my time during Christmas at Rotten Row Magistrates’ Court attending the proceedings when she finally appeared again.
I am leaving Zimbabwe on an optimistic note. The nation is slowly coming together again after so many years of political tensions and mistrust. A government of national unity is in place and efforts to pave the way for true reconciliation and national healing have started up.
BM: Zimbabwe is trying to re-engage the EU and to normalise relations with the international community. What chances do you give the country in this endeavour? What advice would you give Zimbabwe and what would you say to Sweden, the EU and the Western bloc?
SR: I am disappointed that I have to leave with most of the “restrictive measures” still in place. But when it comes to the EU, a credible process is going on with the latest element having been the recent Zimbabwe visit to Brussels to meet with Lady Ashton.
There is now a consolidated and united opinion on this within the Zimbabwean government and this will make progress easier. I am trying to encourage our side to be more forthcoming and to think “outside the box”. The key to a quick solution is still more determined efforts to implement the GPA.
BM: What do you make of the recent diplomatic spat at the national shrine where President Robert Mugabe clashed with some Western diplomats over his tirade against their countries?
SR: My view is that a funeral is a funeral and not a platform for political slogans and attacks. I understand if my colleagues left after the countries they represent had been asked “to go to hell”. On the other hand, I took good note of the much more conciliatory speech made by the President on National Heroes’ Day; maybe an effort to try to repair the damage.
BM: Your stay in Zimbabwe, how has it been? Do you see the country’s latest diamond find taking the nation out of its economic cesspit?
SR: It has been a very challenging posting and I have been through thick and thin during both positive and negative periods. But I leave in a spirit of achievement – in the sense that I believe that I and other diplomats have contributed positively on the margin to the ongoing processes that will take Zimbabwe out of the woods.
The huge diamond find and the ongoing processes in cooperation with the Kimberley Process will surely help Zimbabwe to come out of “the cesspit”. But much remains to be done to arrange for orderly, transparent and accountable procedures for the production and sale of the diamonds. The proceeds of these sales must not continue to disappear over loose borders but be benefiting the national fiscus.
BM: Zanu PF has always accused the US and its allies of pursuing a regime change agenda by imposing targeted sanctions. Given the fact that Sweden and you in particular had a cordial relationship with liberation movements, what is your comment?
SR: I and the country I represent have never been involved in or in favour of “pursuing a regime change agenda”. The restrictive measures were imposed for reasons relating to democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and that is well known by Zanu PF.
BM: Were you involved at any stage in plots to oust President Mugabe? What is your take on liberation movements, given that almost all of them deny opposition parties space, accusing the West of fomenting civil strife?
SR: I am a professional diplomat and a good democrat and I would never even come close to anything that could be characterised as “plots”, as implied in your question. But I will continue to fight for democratic space and to encourage previous liberation movements to do better in the transition to an orderly and prosperous democracy, with a strong role also for civil society.
BM: The inclusive government, your assessment so far. Could this be a panacea to problems in Africa? Who do you blame for the slow progress in implementing the Global Political Agreement in Zimbabwe?
SR: The formation of the inclusive government and the work done up until now has been quite impressive in many areas. Zimbabwe has turned the corner and is now on a much more positive track. Progress is more clearly seen in the economic and social sectors. There is, no doubt, slow movement in some areas, which is regrettable. There is also no doubt, I think, that the blame for this slowness cannot be put on the MDC formations. I am critical of the recent tendency to view inclusive governments as a panacea to problems in Africa. Sometimes it may be a necessity in order to get out of a very troublesome situation, which I think has been the case here in Zimbabwe. But if one is not careful, democracy can be seriously undermined; especially in cases where fraud and vote rigging have taken place and where losers somehow turn out to become winners.
BM: In what areas is Sweden supporting Zimbabwe?
SR: We are a major bilateral donor and partner to Zimbabwe and are likely to remain so also in the future. Our support includes assistance to humanitarian programmes through the UN and civil society, orphans and vulnerable children, women’s organisations and gender programmes, youth development, culture, media, the constitution-making process, education (textbooks), local government and housing, and the emerging AfDB-operated Multi-Donor Trust Fund (MDTF).
BM: What do you think about the media and political environment in Zimbabwe?
SR: It has been nothing less than sad and tragic to see the very restricted media environment having been upheld for such a long time by control freaks in the previous government. Zimbabwe is a country with one of the best educated populations in
sub-Saharan Africa and yet it has been almost the only one in Africa which did not allow community-based radio systems to operate. This is not only a question of democratic space but of efficiency and effectiveness in the pursuit of development efforts. Such systems are strongly needed, for example in the fight against malaria, cholera and HIV and Aids.
I am very happy about the recent breakthrough and opening up in this respect. Our embassy has provided strong support for a long time to organisations such as Misa , the Voluntary Media Council and ZUJ and we will continue to do so. I warmly congratulate my friend Trevor Ncube and his whole team for having succeeded in bringing out NewsDay as a new vibrant daily.
BM: What is your take on the 59-41% investment regulations?
SR: I am all in favour of indigenisation and “black empowerment” and we see good efforts along these lines all over southern Africa. But unfortunately Zimbabwe has been seen to be out of line compared to other countries in the region by insisting on excessive and politically-motivated demands. The negative consequences of this policy have been to scare off private investors, both foreign and local; this at a time when encouragement of private sector involvement should have the highest possible priority. However, the issue is not yet closed and I have hopes that common sense and good reason will finally prevail.
BM: At one stage, you were accused of partially funding Simba Makoni’s political movement Mavambo/Kusile/Dawn, how far true is this?
SR: There is really no truth in this allegation. What is true though is that Simba Makoni is a close and long-time friend, since our many interactions during the time he was at the helm of Sadc, and that I was one who followed his political endeavours with great interest. It is also true that we, since a long time back, have maintained links with SAPES Trust, which at one stage happened to back-stop the Mavambo initiative.
BM: Your general comments on what can be done to spruce up Zimbabwe’s image in the eyes of the international community.
SR: I have four suggestions: to see to it that the ongoing constitution-making process will be carried out in an open, transparent and democratic way and be taken to a good and positive conclusion before the next elections; to push through electoral reforms and to pave the way for good, solid, democratic and credible elections; to go for national healing and reconciliation also involving transitional justice; and finally to arrange for good and orderly leadership change when that time comes.
BM: Finally, the EU-Zim talks, what can be done?
SR: There is a need to follow up as quickly as possible from the discussions that took place in Brussels last month, and to try to intensify the dialogue also here in Harare. The EU ambassadors in Zimbabwe are fully mandated by their respective governments to pursue such local dialogue efforts. Otherwise – as I indicated before – I think it would be a good thing if both sides try to think more “outside the box”, so that the long process towards normalisation can be finally completed. I also believe that the region and more particularly, the South African government, have a role to play in this context.