Anti-apartheid activist turns 50

Morten Nielsen ought to be the embodiment of an old school activist, overtaken by young, well-groomed activists with white Apple-laptops and university degrees. He turned 50 on Tuesday, having been an activist and employee of the Danish solidarity organisation, Africa Contact, formerly the Danish Anti-Apartheid Movement, since the mid-eighties.

Morten, who used to work as a bricklayer and often wears colourful African-made shirts, certainly does not fit the part of the contemporary young European developmentalist or Africa-activist. But he nevertheless believes that his and Africa Contact’s methods and philosophy are both contemporary and even ahead of its time.

“I believe that Africa Contact in many ways looks towards the future,” he says. “Many other organisations try to work in a true partnership where the partner organisation calls the shots. But we actually succeed in doing so. Our strength is that we work closely together with popular movements in Africa, including in South Africa, and that we involve many volunteers in our work.”

“Africa Contact thereby tries to grapple with the major issues in development. Many other small NGO’s, on the other hand, are too ‘polite’ and dare not set their own agenda. This is sad,” says Nielsen.

Regardless of his long-term commitment to the cause of solidarity, Morten became involved with solidarity work in South and Southern Africa somewhat by chance. “My family have always done solidarity work in one way or another so I grew up with it, so to speak. You know, Che and Lumumba posters on the wall, helping German refugees across the border during World War II, protesting against the Vietnam War, or involving themselves in Algerian liberation is all part of my families’ legacy.”

Morten was initially interested in Pinochet’s Chile and the Palestinian cause, but was asked to join the Danish Anti-Apartheid Movement by a friend, who surely couldn’t have predicted that Morten would become one of the main instigators behind the Danish drive to isolate apartheid-South Africa, or that he would still be part of the organisation today.

“The biggest imprint that we have left,” Morten says, “is that we were a big part of making the Danish parliament impose mandatory economic sanctions against apartheid-South Africa in 1986. The struggle to do so began as far back as in the sixties in Denmark, and in many ways it was an uphill struggle that we fought alone. But the international solidarity that we were part of was surely an important factor in getting rid of the apartheid regime.”

That Morten, as one of only two representatives from Denmark (the other was the Prime Minister), was invited to Mandela’s inauguration shows that the ANC appreciated the efforts of Morten and his fellow activists.

A letter sent to President Zuma on the 9th of August this year that criticises South Africa’s loan to Swaziland, on the other hand, proves that Morten looks to the future and not the past. Especially as Morten and the Danish Anti-Apartheid Movement had aided and abetted the ANC in Denmark, and that Morten had personally met and socialised with Zuma in the eighties.

“Solidarity and activism must always look to the future, not the past, as there are still many battles to be fought and won,” as Morten puts it, “and there are no short cuts to development and justice.”

And he has a clear message to those youngsters who wish to “make a difference” in the world today. “They must organise,” he says. “Too many young people today think and work as individuals. Individualism is in vogue and they believe that they only have to show their face to make a difference.”

“On top of this they must rid themselves of any dogmatism or paternalism when working with development and doing solidarity work. There is no ‘one true way’ of achieving development. The people themselves, whose lives we want to help improve, often have the knowledge to do so themselves. What they need is help to do so by the political involvement of young people from other countries.”

“And these youngsters need first-hand experience to be able to be of any real help, analytically as well as with more concrete matters,” insists Morten. “You cannot learn what to say to a group of HIV-positive villagers who haven’t eaten for a week at university. You need to experience such injustices yourself to be able to deal with it properly, preferably with a local who has experience of such situations.”

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