Programme Director, Naomi Madima of Freedom Park;
Ms Jane Mufamadi, CEO of Freedom Park;
Mr Julius Ledwaba, Education Officer;
Dr Mukanda Mulemfo, Founder of the Olof Palme Youth Education Initiative;

H.E. Ms Karin Hernmarck-Ahliny, Acting Ambassador of the Royal Kingdom of Sweden to the Republic of South Africa
Representatives of governments;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to deliver the first Olof Palme Youth Lecture. I am sincerely humbled to be tasked with setting the tone for an event that I hope will grow from strength-to-strength in the years to come. I am also delighted to be in the presence of so many young people, who I hope will continue the legacy of servant leadership that Olof Palme personified.

We gather on a meaningful date. On the 21st of February 1986, the late Prime Minister, Olof Palme, delivered what would become his final address to the Swedish Parliament against Apartheid. Thirty-two years on, we now consider his vivid legacy in light of continuing national and international challenges that plague our world.

With this initial lecture, we collectively honour Palme’s life and the pathways he mapped for future leaders. We ensure that future generations, remember the name ‘Olof Palme’, which is forever coupled with the democratic beliefs and servant leadership that characterised his time as Prime Minister of the Royal Kingdom of Sweden.

Keeping memory alive is a radical and important act. Today we mark Olof Palme’s contribution to the liberation of oppressed people on our continent in two ways.

Firstly, we launch the book ‘The Story of Olof Palme’ by Dr Mukanda Mulemfo, one of the organisers of today’s event. Dr Mulemfo wrote this book inspired by the belief that ‘Olof Palme has a life story which is educational and inspiring to the children of South Africa, Sweden and the world’.[1] You, our country’s youth, are the inheritors of the hard-won South African freedom that Olof Palme played a critical hand in supporting.

The second way in which we commemorate Olof Palme joins his name with the many other Swedish nationals, whose names will be added to the ‘Wall of Names’ at Freedom Park. This is the park’s highest honour: celebrating the lives of those who sacrificed their existence, time, ability, voices and skills to the pursuit and attainment of democratic freedoms and values in South Africa.

Combined, these acts contribute to ensuring that Sweden’s contribution to the anti-apartheid movement will never be forgotten. Ending apartheid, we must remember, was not achieved by one individual or a singular organisation. Rather, it was the result of a great swell of voices joined together to stand against the injustice of the aparthied system that regulated every aspect of our lives according to skin colour.

It is meaningful that this lecture is taking place at Freedom Park, which is founded on the belief in the critical importance of memory: precisely because ‘the memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from’, as John Still once pointed out. Since 2004, this space has served to meaningfuly remember those who contributed to the anti-apartheid struggle for emancipation, in the spirit of social cohesion and reconcilliation[2], making it an appropriate host venue for the first Olof Palme Youth Lecture.

I have titled today’s address: ‘Lessons in Servant Leadership and Solidarity – Considering Olof Palme’s Contribution to South African Freedom’.

The most fitting place to start is through Olof Palme’s own words. In 1964 he eloquently outlined the aim of democracy, stating:

‘Our goal is freedom, as far as possible, from the pressure of external conditions, freedom for individuals to develop their unique personalities, freedom to shape our lives in accordance with our own wishes’.

This goal, which is never completely attained, must be constantly pursued. In pursuing it, Olof Palme revealed an unwavering belief in the universal values of freedom, equality and justice for all, through courageous acts that showed him to be a ‘servant leader’. The two-term Prime Minister was a man of the people. With humility, dignity and integrity, he served not only the Swedish people, but championed the rights of oppressed peoples across the world. He linked the progress of the people of Sweden with the liberation of others in the world – demonstrating a belief in the value and importance of every human life.

Robert K. Greenleaf, who first coined the term ‘servant leader’ defines it as a person who ‘begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead’. He makes a distinction between someone who is a leader first and a servant first, stating that the servant leader seeks to always make sure that ‘other people’s highest priority needs are being served.’[3]

The idea of a ‘servant leader’ presents us with a different way of thinking about leadership. It is not about titles or claiming power. It is not interested in money, or gaining material possessions. Rather, it places the people, their needs, rights and freedoms, at the centre. It is about making everyone’s lives better and protecting their human rights. This kind of leadership style should be one that many of us seek to follow.

For Greenleaf, to identify a servant leader, we have to ask:

‘Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?’

When thinking about Olof Palme’s leadership style, to each of these questions, we can answer a resounding ‘yes’! As a servant leader, Olof Palme supported the liberation struggles of oppressed people – through his words, actions and policy decisions. In the case of South Africa, Olof Palme actively campaigned for an end to the apartheid system. He viewed it as an uncivilised, violent and unjust system that had no place in a modern society.

His work, in addition to being a humble public servant, infused an activist sentiment into Swedish foreign policy. This is important as the political ideal of ‘sovereignty’, which gives countries the right to govern themselves, often means that states adopt a principle of not intervening in human rights issues in other sovereign states – often to the detriment of many people who live in cruel and unfair conditions.

Olof Palme chose the more difficult route; he knew that the international community needed to intervene. He was a symbol of all the democratic values that we continue to fight for and uphold in our society: unity, democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism, equality, justice and peace. Therefore, to many of us, Olof Palme is not a ‘foreign person’. That idea was eroded by his intense commitment to campaigning against apartheid, which saw him give multiple speeches on the topic.

Following the Prime Minister’s untimely death, the great Oliver Tambo said:

‘Our own people will always remember Olof Palme as one of us, an unswerving opponent of the apartheid system, one who took sides by supporting the oppressed and our organisation, the African National Congress.’[4]

Desmond Tutu once likened the struggle for justice to a situation where an elephant has one foot on the tail of a mouse. If you come across this reality and say you are on nobody’s side, this is not true. By not standing with the mouse, who clearly cannot move and be free, you are siding with the elephant – you are siding with injustice. It was this that Olof Palme so delicately understood in his pursuit of peace. 

His final speech[5] to the Swedish Parliament against Apartheid reveals the intensity of his belief and commitment to South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. Olof Palme poetically captured the nature of Apartheid’s oppressive reality, by revealing its ugly truth. He stated:

‘The reality speaks another language. We know that South Africa is a country where black people do not have the franchise, where destitution in the so-called black “homelands” is in glaring contrast to the affluent white areas…This deeply unjust distribution is the result of a conscious policy and one of the cruellest cases of the removal of people in modern history.’[6]

For the great leader, apartheid could not be ‘reformed’, only ‘abolished’. He believed that the leaders of the world, and particularly those outside the country, were jointly responsible for ending the apartheid regime, arguing that external support needed to be withdrawn and ‘turned into resistance’. Olof Palme famously said: ‘If the world decides to abolish apartheid, apartheid will disappear.’

As I look around this room, at the near 250 students gathered here, I have no doubt that many of you face daily challenges – some an inheritance of our history and failure to adequately address its residues. At times, these trials can seem impossible to overcome, built on unfairness and pressing their weight on your back. While confronting these, I urge you to view your freedom, happiness, success and growth, as connected to those around you, and to live your lives in the spirit of solidarity. Our challenges might be daunting, but they are not insurmountable – especially if we join hands in confronting them.

Olof Palme showed us what is possible when we stand together – and with other people whose difficulties do not directly affect us. His life tells us that we cannot look away when we see injustice. We have to act.

At his funeral Ingvar Carlsson, Olof Palme’s friend and the successive Prime Minister of Sweden said:

“Peace was his most important task, because he saw war as the greatest threat to humankind.”[7]

Olof Palme viewed peace, fairness and justice as the ultimate democratic goal to be upheld. He considered the ‘big picture’ and was always focused on both the internal and external effects of apartheid – and the consequences for international peace and security. Palme knew that apartheid and the government’s attempts to defend it threatened not only South Africans, but put international peace and security at risk.  As a result, he believed in intensive outside pressure from international states, in solidarity with anti-apartheid efforts within the country.

He drew attention to the way apartheid resulted in cross-border violence, pointing out how neighbouring countries faced threats and attacks from South Africa. Conflict in nearby countries was fuelled and supported by the apartheid government – in spite of agreements and treaties they entered into. Therefore, the Swedish government extended their support to Southern African frontline states – particularly those who were economically dependent on South Africa.

Olof Palme did this, even though he faced much backlash and criticism from other international states who believed that such actions would be ineffective. In following what he knew was right and just, Sweden became leader, and was swiftly followed by other countries, in programmes of action against South Africa, which included commitments to economic sanctions and trade policies and lobbying the United Nations to increase pressure on our government.

In this spirit, we have to ask ourselves: what can we do to contribute to peace in our communities, countries and the world?

Today, Apartheid is gone and all the people of South Africa became equal before the law with the first democratic elections of April 1994. Our democracy is built on one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, which emphasises the need to build a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, just and prosperous society.

But there is still much to do to ensure people live the lives promised to them by our constitution – and it will require effort on your part. You will face criticism, like Olof Palme did, but you must persevere. As the fight to fully realise the goal of democracy continues, young people like you are raising their voices and contributing to improving our society and ensuring that all of our people are truly free. This freedom is not just about the right to vote and participate in politics. It is freedom from oppression, hunger, poverty, homelessness and other shackles on our lives.

As you do this – you must maintain a global focus, like Olof Palme did. Our world faces many challenges, including climate change, terrorism of many kinds, poverty, despair, hunger and violence. All these and many more terrible social, political and economic conditions that make many lives difficult and harsh can and must be stopped by conscious action by all of us.

It is the task of progressive humanists, who believe in the value of all human lives, to question and campaign against the immoral basis of the current state of global affairs. In doing this, we must create and offer different ways of thinking, acting and governing that are inspired by the spirit of servant leadership: putting people and their needs first.

Olof Palme was one such progressive democrat. He is an example to us all. I can think of no leader that exemplifies this kind of thinking in their approach to the world; whose ideals reflected a radical belief in our interconnection and common future.

Olof Palme’s life is a testament to the democratic belief in universal freedom and rights. He was firmly committed to the issues that affected the underdeveloped and poor nations, and fighting the economic system that kept money in the hands of the super-rich and disadvantaged the masses.

Today, we celebrate Olof Palme as a visionary who saw the humanist, universal and democratic future he sought to build, and pursued it with every privilege, opportunity and tool at his disposal – in the face of many obstacles. The best way we can honour his legacy, is to follow in his footsteps. By helping others, you enhance your own ability to survive challenges.

I end with the words of Oliver Tambo. Speaking of Olof Palme’s legacy after he passed on, he said:

‘They cannot obliterate and reduce to nought the legacy that Olof Palme left behind, an important part of which is the unwavering involvement of the Swedish and other peoples in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa, the establishment of a just and lasting peace in this region, and its development as a prosperous zone of free and equal nations.’[8]

Thank you.

[1] The Story of Olof Palme by Dr Mukanda Mulemfo: Foreword.








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