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A shared victory and joint future: South Africa and Sweden


Cecilia Julin Ambassador of Sweden to South Africa

With Sweden and South Africa’s shared history, there is a solid ground for upcoming discussions on how to meet our future challenges.

‘Our victory was also yours’

                               – Nelson Mandela to the Swedish King in March 1990

In August 1978 I arrived, as a very naïve young woman, in South Africa to work at the Swedish legation in Pretoria. Little did I know about how nefarious the system here was, but my learning curve was steep. Soon I was sitting in farmhouses around Johannesburg meeting with dissidents, getting used to being watched by the security police and having friends being questioned for “meeting with the communist Swedes”. And I became very proud of what Sweden stood for in the struggle against apartheid and for the support we gave inside and outside the country. And closing this circle by becoming Sweden’s ambassador to a democratic South Africa in 2016 is both an honour and a joy.

Sweden and South Africa go back a long way in the struggle for democracy and human rights. Back in the 1960’s a young South African student, Billy Modise, biked and hitchhiked around in Sweden campaigning to make the Swedes aware of the evils of apartheid. 

Sweden’s support to the struggle movement was unwavering. More than 50% of the ANC’s civilian budget came from Sweden during the struggle years. Significant sums were also given to other people and organisations inside the country, including a large part of the UDF’s budget in the Eighties. What was fantastic was that everyone in Sweden was engaged – schoolchildren, churches, consumer organisations, trade unions, NGOs and the political parties. 

And we are of course very proud that Nelson Mandela made his very first trip outside Africa to Sweden in March 1990. An important reason for this was to meet with Oliver Tambo, who at the time was recovering from a stroke in Stockholm, but also to offer his thanks to the Swedes. He was invited to address the national parliament – the Riksdag – and during his first-ever speech to a parliament anywhere, he spoke of his hope for continued support to create a united, democratic, non-sexist and non-racial South Africa.

Well, we know that the continued process went well. South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, with many Swedish election observers attending, and since 1996 has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. 

Now we continue as partners into the future. A Bi-National Commission was set up in 1999 by then-president Thabo Mbeki and then Swedish prime minister Göran Persson that should meet every two years as deputy president-level. This year the BNC will meet for the tenth time and to celebrate the anniversary our respective heads of government will meet.

Sweden and South Africa share many challenges like youth unemployment, transforming in a just way to the digital society and, not least, taking action against the climate crisis. Both our societies have chosen the way of dialogue between different partners in society to find solutions. The unions and the employers must talk when it comes to preparing and adapting to the fourth industrial revolution; civil society and government must talk when it comes to fighting xenophobia; and everyone must talk about how we deal with climate change. Social dialogue and understanding between the different stakeholders are key to moving forward. 

As President Cyril Ramaphosa often notes, the youth are crucial in how we will meet the future and that they must be prepared for it. The Swedish Prime Minister will speak to students at Wits about what should be the ambition of a progressive nation – and this applies equally to Sweden and South Africa – when promoting equality and progress in the future. 

Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén has a long background in the labour movement and during the Seventies and Eighties he and President Ramaphosa worked together to support the labour union movement in South Africa.  

With our shared history and our firm belief in the same fundamental values, there is a solid ground for our upcoming discussions on how to meet our future challenges. A common phrase for both leaders, and frequently heard in the President’s recent SONA, is social compact. All stakeholders in society need to be involved in finding the measures and solutions that will carry everyone into a just and inclusive future.

Sweden has a feminist government, which corresponds well with President Ramaphosa’s focus on combating gender-based violence and promoting the economic inclusion of women and his leadership by appointing a gender-balanced cabinet last year. These are important issues to work on – nationally, regionally and globally.

Culture is another uniting factor and the announcement of South Africa as the Guest of Honour at the Gothenburg Book Fair in September has been welcomed with great excitement and enthusiasm in Sweden. We look forward to discussing themes like reading promotion and digital culture and South Africa will be able to showcase itself and its literature at this landmark cultural event.

So Sweden looks forward to continuing walking next to South Africa into a more just and inclusive future and it’s my great pleasure to be part of it. DM



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