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Sweden and Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle
Nelson Mandela views a bust of Olof Palme in Stockholm in 2001. File photo: TT

Sweden and Mandela's anti-apartheid struggle

Published: 06 Dec 2013 12:20 GMT+01:00

The struggle against white minority rule chimed with the spirit of Swedish politics, particularly the idealistic, internationalist tendencies of the Social Democratic Party, which dominated Swedish politics for most of the sixties, seventies and eighties. While many western countries viewed South Africa through the prism of the Cold War - something that often tempered their opposition to apartheid - neutral and Social Democratic Sweden took a stronger stance.

For many, Olof Palme, the charismatic Social Democrat leader and prime minster, embodied Sweden's strong anti-apartheid stance - a fact acknowledged during Mandela's visits to Sweden, during which he met Palme's widow Lisbeth and paid his respects at the assassinated politician's grave. 

Sweden made "a great contribution in support of the struggle for liberation in southern Africa," noted E.S. Reddy, Secretary of the UN Special Committee against Apartheid from 1963 to 1965, in a book published in 1998.

This support was grounded in a Swedish anti-apartheid movement founded back in the fifties. In 1957, Swedish missionary Gunnar Helander was barred reentry to South Africa due to his affiliation with anti-apartheid activists. Helander later threw his support behind the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the peaceful struggle of Albert Luthuli, the prominent ANC politician.

IN PICTURES: Nelson Mandela and Sweden

Author Pär Westberg, who went on to found the Swedish chapter of Amnesty International, met South African literary giant Nadine Gordimer in the late 1950s. She introduced him to Mandela, and fellow anti-apartheid activists and ANC politicians Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu, who was also jailed for 25 years in the Robben Island prison with Mandela.

This inspired Westberg to set up the Swedish South Africa Committee, with the aim of mobilizing Swedish politicians against the South African regime.

"We were extremely energetic in trying to have signatures by leading Swedes from all over the political spectrum," Westberg noted in an interview with Helander last year. Although conservative politicians and businesspeople in Sweden were generally as resistant to supporting the anti-apartheid movement as elsewhere, Social Democrats and Liberals were supportive, as were trade union activists.

SEE ALSO: Sweden hails Mandela: 'He changed the world'

But in the 1960s, Sweden did not turn this general anti-apartheid sentiment into concrete foreign policy on South Africa. Several political observers note that the Vietnam War drew attention away from southern African liberation struggles, but the ANC still let their disappointment at Sweden be known.

ANC Secretary General Duma Nokwe complained that "we are disappointed with (...) the Swedish government on the question of South Africa at the United Nations", according to a 1999 compilation of essays on the topic entitled "Sweden and National Liberation in Southern Africa", edited by Tor Sellström.

Popular resistance started instead on the ground, finding voices in Sweden's student movements in the late 1960s. As apartheid resistance started spreading worldwide, groups in Sweden began boycotting South African produce.

Students refused to eat oranges imported from South Africa, carrying placards urging others not to buy fruit from the country because "it tastes of blood".

And while any action through the UN in what was legally a domestic affair remained elusive, in 1972 Sweden started channeling direct financial support to the ANC. These were small amounts at first - just 150,000 kronor - but later grew into significant amounts.

"I think that one can say, without casting any reflection on any of the other countries, that Sweden played a pivotal role as far as aid was concerned, not only to our movement, but to the liberation movement as a whole," Kay Moonsamy, treasurer of the South African Communist Party, told Tor Sellström in a 1995 interview. 

Palme would later, as Sweden's prime minister, also caution his international colleagues from letting the African independence conflicts be drawn into the Cold War.

"(We must) oppose the efforts to use African countries as pawns in a power game, prevent a new scramble for Africa stemming from superpower rivalry," Palme told the UN Security Council in 1977.

In 1978, the Swedish government banned any further business investments in South Africa, despite the presence of Swedish companies such as Asea, Transatlic, and Volvo. 

Just a few days before Palme's 1986 assassination, which some conspiracy theorists pinned on a white South African backlash, he again addressed the question of apartheid.

"We must live up to our responsibility for bringing this repulsive system to an end," he said.

While Sweden never provided any military to the ANC, which had a militant wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, a senior foreign ministry source told The Local that the amount of humanitarian assistance poured into the movement allowed it "to allocate its other resources as it saw fit".

DON'T MISS: Mandela's complex ties with Germany (The Local Germany)

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

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