It is 34 years since the people of Sweden and the rest of the world were robbed of an outstanding leader with a great passion for freedom and social justice, Olof Palme, who was assassinated as he returned home from the cinema. Newspaper reports in recent months have discussed his life and his death, and have reminded me of my own encounters with him.
Olof Palme was a well-known personality, the prime minister of Sweden, and a leading advocate of social justice, human rights, global peace and honesty, and an advocate of disarmament, especially regarding weapons of mass destruction.
He was a very strong advocate for the freedom and independence of oppressed people in Africa and elsewhere. He was one of the leading social democrats on the global scene. The true nature of who he was can be found in the description of him by his friend and ally, Willy Brandt (the former German chancellor), who himself had lived in exile in Norway and Sweden during the days of the Nazis, and who also was a supporter of social justice and human rights. In an essay published in honour of Olof Palme, Willy Brandt stated: “Olof Palme’s international reputation was based on his openness and his sincere political convictions. In his opposition to world armament; his fight against world hunger; his condemnation of dictatorship, invasion and oppression.” (‘North-South: the task ahead’, in Hadjor Kofi Buenor (ed.) (1988) Essays in Honour of Olof Palme, p. 33)
Willy Brandt further stated: “Evil forces are threatening in many parts. They took the life of Olof Palme, our beloved brother.”
Palme strongly opposed the US war in Vietnam and the coup in Chile, and supported peace in the Middle East, and freedom for Southern Africa. In his capacity as prime minister, and as leader of the Social Democratic Party, he presided over Sweden’s support for the freedom and independence of Namibia, as well as the freedom struggle of the people of South Africa. Sweden was among the countries that opened the doors to exiles from all corners of the world, including Namibia. I personally recall one meeting in 1974 which I attended, having been invited by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany under the leadership of Willy Brandt, alongside other key social democrat leaders of that period. This event, held in Geneva, was organised by the Socialist International, a grouping of European socialist parties. As the Swapo Representative in the UK and Western Europe, I was fortunate to be invited to this event and given the opportunity to brief the conference on Namibia.
Willy Brandt was the host, in his capacity as the leader of the Socialist International. After the discussions, I was invited to attend the evening dinner with Willy Brandt himself, Olof Palme, Francois Mitterrand (France), Yitzhak Rabin (Israel), Leopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal) and Bruno Kreisky (Austria), among others. A very fascinating conversation on a number of important global issues took place in that room, including the need for dialogue between Egypt and Israel. Shortly thereafter President Anwar Sadat visited Israel to promote dialogue between the two countries. The reality of those dangerous times manifested itself in the assassinations of both Anwar Sadat and, later, Yitzhak Rabin. This demonstrated the vulnerability of global actors for social justice.
As leader of the Socialist International, Willy Brandt worked with the leaders of the Frontline States in the struggle against the white minority regimes of South Africa and Namibia. He cooperated with the ANC and Swapo, the two major actors from the region. During this crucial time, the work of the Socialist International on Southern Africa was coordinated by Olof Palme, who was then succeeded by Joop den Uyl and Wim Kok, from the Dutch Labour Party.
The closure of investigations into the brutal killing of Olof Palme earlier this year has not ended the speculation about who was responsible. For a prime minister of a developed nation to be ruthlessly killed, without the culprits being brought to book, is the cause of great concern. His life was lost in similar brutal fashion to those of so many people whose causes he championed around the world.
There were many assassinations of comrades who were fighting for social justice against the ills of the South African apartheid system in South Africa and Namibia. Indeed, it is a painful reality that the world lost so many gallant sons and daughters from our region, without the culprits being brought to justice. I would have loved it if Olof Palme could have been around to visit some of the liberated countries for which he had fought but, unfortunately, he did not live to witness the fruits of his efforts.
Olof Palme was brutally killed in February 1986. I remember waking up in Oxford, walking towards a shop to buy a newspaper, and being confronted by the displayed headlines announcing that he had been assassinated the previous evening. I was in shock and rubbed my eyes to make sure that I was not imagining things.
In Essays in Honour of Olof Palme, Basil Davidson, the well-known historian and a long-standing supporter of Africa’s struggle for freedom and independence, recalled how he heard the news of Olof Palme’s death:
“They told me as soon as the plane had landed and we passengers had disembarked. They told me with gravity of sorrow edged by anger. They had heard the news from Stockholm three hours earlier but were still trying to think that it could not be true. They were long-accustomed to losing comrades by the enemy’s assassinating hand: but how could this have come to pass in Sweden? The hours went by and no denial came. Cape Verde mourned the loss of Olof Palme with a direct emotion, as I observed and shared it, that came from losing a strong companion whose voice carried across the world, defending the oppressed and shielding the weak, and whose friendship had been all the dearer because it was the fruit of shared ideas and understandings.”
As we reflect upon the life of Olof Palme, we are reminded of the fact that the struggle does demand of us “to make choices about right and wrong every day; about who to be, what you stand for and how to treat each other” (Feature on David Jammy, WITS Review, vol 43, May 2020, p. 34).
Indeed this is a point that is further elaborated upon by Karl Marx, when he wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). Let us remember Olof Palme and continue to pay tribute to the memory of this great internationalist and a true friend of the world. He inspired many of us around the globe to fight for what we believed in. We also remember Palme’s wife, Lisbet, and her similar commitment to the cause of social justice and freedom in the world.
Talking about commitment and courage, I also find the role played by Willy Brandt as he dealt with Germany’s past as exemplary. He went to Poland in 1970 and famously dropped to his knees in front of the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, apologising for the Nazi atrocities, and demonstrating to the Polish people and to the world his desire to deal head-on with the unfinished business of the past. Brandt and Palme were committed social democrats who partnered with leaders from the global South to tackle problems of war, apartheid, and inequality. Their legacy lives on.
*Professor Peter Katjavivi writes in his own capapcity