While most of the violence connected with the South African apartheid regime occurred within South Africa, the apartheid regime went to great lengths to maintain apartheid for decades outside their borders, as well. This included not just military invasions and assassinations in neighboring states, including Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola, but also bombings and assassinations in Europe, as well.
One of the most high profile of these targeted assassinations was possibly that of Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986.
Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme (1969-1976, 1982-1986)
Palme is the only European head of state to have been assassinated since before World War II.
He was gunned down in Stockholm as he was walking with his wife on February 28, 1986. He was shot twice in the back at close range.
Convicted murderer, petty thief and drug addict Christer Pettersson was initially convicted of Palme’s murder in 1988, but was later acquitted by an appeals court in 1989 due to insufficient evidence.
Despite eyewitness accounts and numerous leads over the last three decades, the identity of the killer remains a mystery.
Like the murder of US President John F. Kennedy, the killing of Palme has haunted Sweden ever since, and has attracted a legion of conspiracy theories.
Palme was outspoken on many issues, from speaking out against America’s involvement in Vietnam to supporting Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Organization. He had befriended Fidel Castro, and dared to take a leading role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
Palme was not alone as Sweden had a long history of being at the forefront of the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
In the aftermath of World War II, Sweden fully supported colonial self-determination so much that journalist Per Wastberg referred to it at such a level that “anti-colonialism was embedded in the Swedish consciousness.” They were not simply taking a stance of neutrality, but supported the forceful advocacy of decolonization.
Starting in the 1960s, Sweden was providing material support for liberation movements in Africa. This took the form of equipment, food, educational materials, and transportation. The Swedish organization that was formed to engineer this aid was the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), formed in 1962.
Freedom fighters were also welcomed in Sweden, making it a haven for leaders of liberation movements. While Britain and the United States were terrified to be seen with the “wrong” terrorist or guerrilla fighter, Sweden openly welcomed these leaders. Oliver Tambo, the president of the ANC, went to Sweden for the first time in 1962, starting a long relationship between the ANC and Sweden.
For many years, according to De Wet Potgieter in his book Total Onslaught, Sweden was the biggest funder and most loyal supporter of the ANC’s liberation struggle. More than 50% of the ANC’s finances for the military, propaganda, diplomatic, and economic struggles against the South African regime in the 1980s came from Sweden.
Sweden had even started funding the International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). Based out of Geneva, the IUEF was a Swedish initiative run from Stockholm. The purpose was to provide scholarships to victims of apartheid from South Africa, as well as students who had fled oppressive, right-wing regimes in Latin America, to study in Europe.
Sweden had also been the first country to adopt strict and unyielding sanctions against South Africa, having starting imposing these unilaterally in the 1970s.
The so-called Swedish People’s Parliament Against Apartheid, a collection of Swedish popular organizations opposed to apartheid, had also been formed and was also one of the world’s most powerful anti-apartheid movements.
Olof Palme, as prime minister of Sweden from 1969-1976 and 1982-1986, was the leader of Sweden’s anti-apartheid fight. He was an outspoken critic of South African apartheid, and he was proud of the leading role his country took in support of the ANC against the apartheid regime.
As a result, Sweden and Palme were at the forefront of European and worldwide action against apartheid South Africa. As a result, Sweden was fast becoming one of the biggest problems in South Africa’s war against the ANC.
One week before his death, Palme had made a speech condemning apartheid at a meeting of the Swedish People’s Parliament Against Apartheid in Stockholm, which was attended by ANC leaders Oliver Tambo and Thabo Mbeki. While many people spoke at the meeting, including Tambo, Palme’s address was the most scathing.
Oliver Tambo and Olof Palme in Stockholm in February 1986
In this speech, on February 21, 1986, Palme did not mince words in attacking apartheid.
According to Palme in his address, “Apartheid cannot be reformed; it can only be abolished.”
Palme also advocated for a global boycott of South Africa: “We are all responsible for apartheid. If the world wants to eradicate apartheid, it can do so tomorrow, by simply withdrawing support for the apartheid regime. …The system will survive as long as it receives external support. If that support is withdrawn and turned into resistance, apartheid cannot continue to exist. If the world decides to abolish apartheid, apartheid will disappear.”
These comments were infuriating to the South African government, and clearly it gave some cause for concern about the sort of international anti-apartheid movement that Palme was calling for. According to De Wet Potgieter, “The South African government hated Palme… The economic and psychological toll that his anti-apartheid campaign took on South Africa was incalculable.”
In fact, as early as October 15, 1985, in a Military Intelligence secret report, concluded that Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was now an “enemy of the state” of South Africa. In this report, the most chilling section read: “Action proposed previously against Mr. Palme should now be given urgent attention.”
On February 28, 1986, Palme was assassinated.
Plaque placed in the sidewalk in Stockholm where Palme was assassinated in 1986
In the early days of the police investigation into the assassination, according to James Sanders in his book Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, journalist Per Wastberg reported that the murder had been the handiwork of three South African agents. Wastberg received the information from one of her South African sources, yet her information was ignored by the Swedish police.
More than ten years after Palme’s assassination, Eugene de Kock, testifying in a Pretoria court, declared that he had notified the South African Attorney General of numerous apartheid crimes, notably the assassination of Palme.
De Kock had been the commander of C10, a counter-insurgency police force based just outside Pretoria, on a remote farm known as Vlakplaas. This government hit squad became the number one death squad for killing anti-apartheid activists, both in and outside of South Africa.
The government denied the existence of a group devoted to exterminating insurgents, but Vlakplaas’ purpose was to do just this. According to Max du Preez in Pale Native, “The list of murders, tortures, assaults, and kidnappings was long.”
In A Human Being Died That Night, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela points out that, “The covert operations program did not “officially” exist but was clearly necessary for apartheid to survive.” And the government saw it as that important that they pumped millions in secret funds into de Kock’s unit for years, according to Gobodo-Madikizela.
With the start of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), de Kock applied for amnesty and appeared before the commission for the first time in 1997. Before the TRC, de Kock confessed to crimes against humanity. He specifically confessed to more than 100 acts of murder, torture and fraud, taking full responsibility for the activities of his undercover unit.
One of these murders was that of Palme, which he said was one of Craig Williamson’s projects. Williamson was a South African Police major and an infamous apartheid spy responsible for a wealth of state-sponsored overseas bombings, burglaries, kidnappings, assassinations during the 1980s. From 1977, Williamson was a regular visitor to Stockholm. He has successfully infiltrated the IUEF, using it as a front to spy on the ANC and diverting funds away from its treasury back to the apartheid regime. However, there is no evidence that Williamson was in Sweden at the time of the assassination.
Williamson was investigated but never charged with the assassination.
Another possible apartheid link was Nigel Barnett, a South African military intelligence agent and a spy for apartheid South Africa. Barnett interestingly had been adopted as a child by a family with Swedish antecedents, had visited Sweden on numerous occasions, and could speak Swedish. Barnett also had videotapes of television coverage of Palme’s assassination and an airline ticket stub from Johannesburg to Stockholm from 1986. When investigated by Mozambique authorities about the murder of Palme, Barnett even failed a polygraph test when asked if he had murdered Palme. However, there is no evidence that Barnett was in Sweden at the time of the assassination.
Barnett was investigated but never charged with the assassination.
Another possible apartheid link was Roy Allen, who worked with the South African Military Intelligence in the 1980s. He worked as a spy in Europe and was in Stockholm on the night of the murder – February 28, 1986. He was questioned by South African investigators in 1996 about the Palme assassination but was never charged.
In fact, no South Africans have ever been charged with the Palme assassination.
Sweden has now named a new chief prosecutor to lead the inquiry into the 1986 unsolved murder of the Palme. Krister Petersson, Stockholm’s chief prosecutor, has been brought in to oversee the case, which will start in February. Only time will tell if the mystery of this assassination will now finally be solved.