Billions of Swedish Krona Supported Anti-Apartheid Struggle

Birgitta Karlström Dorph was on a secret mission in South Africa between 1982 and 1988, writes Ida Karlsson.

By Ida Karlsson in Stockholm
Inter Press Service

Between 1982 and 1988 Birgitta Karlström Dorph was on a secret mission in South Africa. “Why didn’t they stop us? Probably they were not aware of the scope of the operation. The money was transferred through so many different channels. We were clever,” Karlström Dorph says. 

The work was initiated by the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme and the Swedish government, the details of which were not discussed in public.

Altogether, Sweden’s financial support for the black resistance against apartheid in South Africa between 1972 and 1994 amounted to more than SEK 4 billion ($443 million) in today’s value and that is an underestimation, according to figures reported by SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

“On my first morning in South Africa I went to Burgers Park, in the center of Pretoria. A black worker was cleaning a path in the park. Suddenly I came across a bench and on it was written: ‘Whites only’. And I looked at it. I was appalled. I gathered up my courage and spat on the bench,” Karlström Dorph recalls.

Birgitta Karlström Dorph, 79, served as Sweden’s ambassador to Ethiopia and later Botswana. (Ida Karlsson/IPS)

Birgitta Karlström Dorph, 79, also served as Sweden’s ambassador to Ethiopia and later Botswana. (Ida Karlsson/IPS)

From 1982, a Swedish humanitarian committee, headed by the general director of SIDA, handled a huge aid effort whose secret elements the government perhaps was not fully aware of. Karlström Dorph’s work in South Africa was twofold comprising her official diplomatic posting and her secret mission.

“My family didn’t know what I was doing.”

She followed what was going on in the resistance movement to see if she could find people and organizations who could receive Swedish aid.

“The documents that show what we did to support the underground resistance are still classified,” she explains.

Money from Sweden was transferred to leaders within the black resistance in South Africa. Sweden paid for Nelson Mandela’s lawyer, including while he was incarcerated on Robben Island. Sweden also provided the priest and anti-apartheid activist Beyers Naudé with funds when he was subjected to a banning order.

The South African government looked at Naudé as an enemy as he played a crucial role in supporting the underground resistance movement.

“I wanted to understand what was going on in the country. Naudé was my key to the whole opposition. He provided me with contacts,” Karlström Dorph explains.

Channeling the Money

Funds were channeled from SIDA to organizations and small groups in Sweden and then into accounts of community organizations in South Africa.

“I provided Swedish organizations with bank account numbers and contact information to organizations in South Africa, for example in Soweto,” she adds.

Karlström Dorph says she drove around and met people every day.

One of the most important objectives was to build a civil society that eventually could negotiate with the government; individuals and organizations that eventually could take over. 

Protests against Apartheid in South Africa, 1980s. (Paul Weinberg via Wikimedia)

Protests against apartheid in South Africa, 1980s. (Paul Weinberg via Wikimedia)

“We established a program for scholarships. The Swedish Ecumenical Council, an umbrella organization of churches of all denominations, administered about 500 scholarships. People got money transferred into their accounts directly from Sweden. We tried to find relevant organizations throughout the black community,” she says.

People organized themselves and formed a more united opposition in South Africa. UDF, the United Democratic Front, was an umbrella organization for about 600 member organizations against apartheid. Many of the UDF leaders received money through the scholarships. 

“We gave money to those who were arrested and were tortured and interrogated. They needed legal help. A lot of money went to competent lawyers. I also met with wives of those who were imprisoned,” Karlström Dorph explains.

According to Horst Kleinschmidt, a former political activist, Sweden contributed between 60 and 65 percent of the budget of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa, or IDAF, an anti-apartheid organization. Between 1964 and 1991 the organization brought 100 million British Pounds into South Africa for the defense of thousands of political activists and to provide aid for their families while they were in prison. 

The defense of political prisoners meant that when the prosecutor demanded capital punishment, the sentence was reduced to life in prison. Between 1960 and 1990 this effort saved tens of thousands of lives, according to the Swedish author Per Wästberg, who was involved in IDAF’s work.

Karlström Dorph got in touch with Winnie Mandela and visited her while Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.

“We sat down and talked a lot about her husband and the struggle, and various contacts,” Karlström Dorph says.

 F.W. de Klerk, left, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his successor, wait to speak in Philadelphia, 1993. (Library of Congress)

F.W. de Klerk, left, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, and Nelson Mandela, his successor, wait to speak in Philadelphia, 1993. (Library of Congress)

Before they left, she mentioned that she had a book about Nelson Mandela in the car ?a book that was banned. Winnie Mandela immediately asked for it.

“I said: ‘If I give you the book, I am committing a crime,’” Karlström Dorph recalls.

But Winnie Mandela insisted and Karlström Dorph finally went to the car to get it.

“If our activities had been exposed, many of those who were involved in our work would have found themselves in a serious predicament,” Karlström Dorph says.

The apartheid regime killed affiliates of the ANC, the African National Congress, within the country and also in Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. Oftentimes during the national State of Emergency, the police and army were stationed or brought into the segregated, black urban living areas to rule with their guns. People, some of whom were unarmed, were beaten and shot for protesting against apartheid. Police even tore down the housing areas were black people lived.

They Went in with Bulldozers’

“They went in with bulldozers and people did not have time to collect their belongings but had to flee,” Karlström Dorp recalls.

She never visited ANC offices or attended anti-apartheid conferences.

“The ANC was forbidden. Members of ANC were imprisoned or killed,” she says making a throat-slitting gesture. 

“We never talked about ANC during all these years,” she adds.

Her very close association with Naudé would have made Karlström Dorph a prime target.

 “I was never scared. You just had to be careful,” she says. 

 There was one time when they had a very strange break-in in their house.

 “They had turned the house upside down, but they just took one of my dresses and one of my husband’s shirts. They had slept in our beds and left white fingerprints on the hairdryer. My friends said it was typical of the security police. They wanted to show: ‘We know who you are. We keep an eye on you.’”

 When they moved to a new apartment, she found a bullet on the floor in the hallway and there was a hole in the window. Someone had shot through it.

 “They obviously tried to intimidate us. I took the bullet and threw it in the bin,” she says.

 Once they were being followed on the motorway and a car tried to drive them off the road, but they managed to get away.

Many experienced the brutality of the apartheid regime. One of Karlström Dorph’s contacts, a 25-year-old young man in Pretoria, was found dead.

“We transferred some funds to his organization. Someone contacted me and told me that they had thrown him down an old mine shaft in Pretoria,” she says.

‘Palme’s Secret Agent’

In the Swedish documentary “Palme’s secret agent,” Popo Molefe, co-founder of UDF, explains Karlström Dorph’s role. 

“Without the support of a strong and committed personality like Birgitta Karlström Dorph I do not think we would have been able to form the United Democratic Front, a coalition of social forces,” he says. 

Molefe later became the leader of South Africa’s North Western Province.

Between 1972 and 1994 the exiled ANC received about SEK 1.7 billion, or $188 million, in today’s value. At the time the ANC was considered a terrorist organization by the governments in the United Kingdom and the United States. The financial support from Sweden was more or less kept secret until the beginning of the 1990s.

In 1994, South Africans took their first step together into a very new democracy after decades of white supremacist, authoritarian rule in the form of apartheid. Sweden’s involvement had been stronger and much more far-reaching than what was ever reported officially.

Ida Karlsson is Stockholm editor for the Inter Press Service news agency.

36 comments for “Billions of Swedish Krona Supported Anti-Apartheid Struggle

  1. Matt
    March 21, 2019 at 12:00

    All that work to eliminate Apartheid in SA. And now the Africans want to to reverse it and throw out the whites. Go figure.
    I guess move on to Apartheid Israel next?

  2. Red Robbo
    March 18, 2019 at 08:09

    And what did those billions buy?
    The first three South-African Presidents supported the dictator Mugabe. Mbeki is responsible for the premature deaths of up to 365,000 AIDS victims. King Zuma has his palace as well as the deaths of 143 people (Life Healthcare Esidimeni scandal) to his name and shares responsibility for the Marikana massacre with Ramaphosa. Anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu said of the ANC:: ‘They stopped the gravy train just long enough to get on themselves.’ He went on describe the Zuma administration as ‘worse than the apartheid government’ and that he would ‘pray for the downfall of the ANC.’
    South Africa today is the most unequal society in the world – economic apartheid persists for millions. ‘More than two decades after South Africa ousted a racist apartheid system that trapped the vast majority of South Africans in poverty, more than half the country still lives below the national poverty line and most of the nation’s wealth remains in the hands of a small elite’ (NPR, 2 April, 2018).

  3. W.W.
    March 17, 2019 at 23:22

    How many stinking Swedish krona are going to support the White people of “new” South Africa that are now being massacred daily, especially the farmers, and threatened constantly by government officials with outright genocide – as the once great country of South Africa sinks into the savagery of the African jungle no small thanks to the commy scum in Sweden – who are now in the process of destroying their own country!

    • mark
      March 18, 2019 at 12:06

      The black Neanderthal leader of a political party there wants to steal all white owned land and wealth and force all the whites (those who haven’t been murdered yet) to work as domestic servants for blacks.

      Nice to know all the billions of krona from those nice white Swedish liberals created such a wonderful multiculti paradise.

  4. Mia Campioni
    March 17, 2019 at 02:33

    Reading this story and the role of Olaf Palme in the anti-apartheid struggle, was his death deliberate?

    • Doggrotter
      March 17, 2019 at 12:08

      The Murder Olaf Palme.
      The first question is who killed him.
      Your article provides a plausible answer.
      Gerald Bull?

  5. Blackswan
    March 16, 2019 at 20:11

    Bankers start Boer War to control gold. ” The South African War was openly and undeniably provoked and promoted by Jewish interests.
    H.H. Beamish, in a N.Y. speech, 10/30/37. The Boer War occurred 37 years ago. Boer means farmer. Many criticized a great power like like Britain for trying to wipe out the Boers. Upon making inquiry I found all the gold and diamond mines were all owned by Jews, Rothschild controlled gold, Samuels controlled silver, Baum controlled other mining, Moses controlled base metals, anything these people touch they pollute.”

  6. Prithiraj R Dullay
    March 14, 2019 at 16:31

    As a S Africanwho lived in exile (1978-1992) and one who was involved with Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, the solidarity of the Scandinavian countries, relative to the pro Apartheid position of the West, is appreciated.

    While the article is informative, it totally ignores the elephant in the room viz. the debacle of the Apartheid take over of the Geneva based International University Exchange Fund (IUEF). Palme’s incredibly naive representative there, Lars Gunnar Erikkson, allowed Apartheid spy, Craig Williamson to take over the entire operation. In other words, money meant for the resistance inside SA was used by Williamson to monitor, harass, imprison, torture and even murder anti- apartheid opponents. It is known that he fed information to the Secutity forces that led to Steve Biko’s arrest. A few weeks later Biko was dead! While we laud the Scandinavian contribution, it is important for the whole truth be told.
    For those interested in my recent column on similar issues please email me for the links

  7. rosemerry
    March 14, 2019 at 16:15

    Has the mysterious death of Olaf Palme ever been solved???

    • James
      March 14, 2019 at 20:28

      Somehow, his assassination seems to make much more sense after reading this.

    • Lisa
      March 17, 2019 at 15:34

      The Swedish police has a group still investigating the murder, which happened in 1986. The leader of the group said recently that they still get hints from the public regularly, and hope to finally solve the murder within a few years. I don’t have high hopes in this respect.
      Palme had plenty of enemies in Sweden itself, no need to search in South Africa for the murderer.

      It was under Palme’s time as Prime Minister when the anti-American sentiments were rather strong, open opposition to Vietnam war and support of leftist governments like Cuba. Now the times are different.

  8. March 14, 2019 at 13:48

    Somebody or some country needs to do the same thing because of the apartheid taking place in the Middle East. Israel is killing, maiming, destroying homes and businesses, stealing land, restricting freedom of movement of millions of Palestinians and the world turns a blind eye.

    • Tiu
      March 14, 2019 at 16:47

      The Zionist revolution manipulators in Sweden will never do anything against their “homeland”. They were instrumental in the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 as well, major funders and facilitators of propaganda as well as entry into and out of Russia for revolutionary forces and supplies.
      They’re not doing their interventions for the benefit of anyone other than their own tribe. South Africa and Rhodesia had their problems and weren’t perfect, but the general standard of living for everybody was better then than it is now – and it looks like it could get worse for them yet.

    • Sam F
      March 14, 2019 at 19:27

      Exactly so, except that the apartheid regime did not control US elections, mass media, MIC and WallSt as the zionists do. They were similar practitioners of fascism but could not pose as “victims of fascism” by the millions long after the last few real survivors had passed away. They did not have much sympathy among right wing loonies here, while sympathy with African-Americans was strong in the civil rights era; Muslims were and are treated by the US oligarchy as negligible targets.

      Perhaps Saudi Arabia and UAE are the weak links, whose collapse would lead to alliance against Israel, to enforce the rights of Palestinians as Sweden did against apartheid.

      But of course the root cause is the collapse of democracy in the US under economic tyranny, and this must be reversed to recompense our shameful history in the Mideast.

  9. Jeff Harrison
    March 14, 2019 at 11:10

    Impressive. Obviously, the Swedes haven’t always been the fools and American vassals that they appear to be now.

  10. Johan Meyer
    March 14, 2019 at 07:29

    Sweden’s contribution is well respected. However, Cuba (with Russian support) played a more important role—Cuito Cuanavale. Cuba assisted Angola against South Africa’s aggression; the latter started at independence in 1979. Until 1979, about 40% of Angola’s black population were de facto slaves.

    It was the Cuban success at Cuito that lead to negotiations ending in Namibian independence (the position even of US intelligence). Also note that Mandela had started negotiations with the Nats in the early 1980s.

    • Johan Meyer
      March 14, 2019 at 07:31

      Note that Mandela was still in prison when his then secret negotiations had started.

    • Tiu
      March 14, 2019 at 16:55

      Cuba also provided security for Chevron’s oil interests in Angola. De Beers in South Africa had continual trade with UNITA which provided their cash source from the diamond trade. MPLA had the oil – which Chevron kindly helped them extract and sell throughout the conflict.
      Quod scis necis!

      • OlyaPola
        March 18, 2019 at 12:08

        “Cuba also provided security for Chevron’s oil interests in Angola. De Beers in South Africa had continual trade with UNITA which provided their cash source from the diamond trade. MPLA had the oil – which Chevron kindly helped them extract and sell throughout the conflict.”

        Interactions including war are always complex and omniscience never exists, although some challenge these statements through beliefs and wishes.

        War is never a competition between good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats although many who deem war simple double down on their beliefs and holograms fashioned from the projection of their wishes, facilitating outcomes not restricted to Africa in the 1970’s and subsequent.

  11. Anne Jaclard
    March 14, 2019 at 06:42

    Reading this, there is no doubt in my mind left about how social democratic prime minister Olof Palme was assassinated.

    • Michael
      March 14, 2019 at 13:43

      Olof Palme and Folke Bernadotte showed that no good deed goes unpunished. At least Sweden has not banned BDS like France and Germany.

      • Thomas Persson
        March 14, 2019 at 14:50

        And don’t forget Dag Hammarskjöld.

    • Thomas Persson
      March 14, 2019 at 14:47

      South Africa and possibly Chile with other elements of WACL and local fascist Stay Behind elements here in Sweden. This entire foreign policy, our at least ostensible neutrality and any commitment to domestic social democracy died with Palme.

      • Anne Jaclard
        March 15, 2019 at 00:32

        The right wing and the lobby acts like the comparison of Israel to South Africa is falsely framed and a smear, in reality even at the time there was close intelligence and military arms cooperation. Israel helped Botha build up his nuclear arsenal. The United Nations called out the connection multiple times. I believe that if the USSR has lasted for longer and the uncompromising left had maintained power in Palestine, we would have seen a shift similar to what was seen in South Africa. A de facto one state Palestine with the only difference perhaps if a flag and a name – the consitiution would be secular and Arabs would be in control de facto if not in law. Sadly a unipolar world based around US multinational monopolies makes this impossible

        • Kevin Bradley
          March 15, 2019 at 13:38

          Israel and South Africa both provided military aid and training to Guatemala in the 1980s during a period of genocide against the rural indigenous population. Three similar apartheid-inspired states working together.

  12. Brendan
    March 14, 2019 at 04:16

    Prime Minister Olof Palme is mentioned only very briefly in the piece, but his support for the aid is quite likely to be the reason he was assassinated. A South African military intelligence document from months before his murder, if authentic, indicates that the apartheid regime was behind it.

  13. MarkU
    March 14, 2019 at 03:04

    “People, some of whom were unarmed, were beaten and shot for protesting against apartheid. Police even tore down the housing areas were black people lived.”

    “They went in with bulldozers and people did not have time to collect their belongings but had to flee,” Karlström Dorp recalls.

    Yes indeed, a horrible way to behave. Of course if any people were being treated that way in the modern world, I’m sure the Swedish would be there to help put a stop to it……….Oh wait.

    • OlyaPola
      March 14, 2019 at 04:57

      “I’m sure the Swedish would be there to help put a stop to it……….Oh wait.”

      Thank you for your illustration of “magical thinking” in emulation of the opponents.

      You comment is predicated on recognition that change has taken place since 1972 to arrive at the present but suggest that henceforth change will cease in regard to a future present – the end of history as evangelised by Mr. Fukuyama and his associates and disproven by every interaction.

      • March 15, 2019 at 06:14

        But of course. No shortage of slaughter.
        I thought you might have beem refering to something specific to the Sweedish case I was missing.

    • March 14, 2019 at 07:34

      Oh wait what?

      • MarkU
        March 14, 2019 at 13:11

        You honestly can’t think of any place in the world where that stuff has been happening for decades and is still happening right now? seriously?

      • MarkU
        March 14, 2019 at 13:58

        Shooting unarmed protesters, bulldozing homes, not ringing any bells?

        • Tiu
          March 14, 2019 at 23:12

          Might be a bit to subtle for him. Pity your comment gets deleted on this size if you mention the “Z” word!

      • March 15, 2019 at 03:22

        Maybe recalling the name of Jimmy Carter’s 2007 book would help?

    • Tiu
      March 14, 2019 at 23:08

      Sweden was also heavily involved with the 1905 and 1917 Russian Revolution, transferring funds, propaganda, weapons and revolutionaries in and out of Russia.
      Nothing quite like backing a revolution that doesn’t make a mess on your own carpet.
      Historically Sweden was also a major transport provider for the slave trade, not to mention a major arms manufacturer.
      But they do like to present a squeaky clean image, and lots of people buy it.

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