In June 2020 the Swedish police announced that they were finally closing their investigation into the February 1986 murder of Prime Minister Olof Palme. They named Stig Engstrom, the so-called "Skandia Man", as the person they believed had most likely killed Palme. They could not however detain and interrogate Engstrom, and nor could Engstrom defend himself, as he had been dead since 2000.
It was an announcement that was met with an underwhelming response from the public. There was no clear motive, the theory of events was possible but implausible, and there was a complete lack of forensic evidence tying Engstrom to the crime. After 34 years of investigations into the murder of their own Prime Minister – for which no expense had been spared - the Swedish police could not even reliably say for sure whether the assassination was the product of a carefully planned international conspiracy, or the opportunistic act of some random Swedish lunatic. The possibility that the assassination was carried out by, or on behalf of, the white South African state – a theory which has received much attention over the years – had never been stood up, but nor could it be totally discounted.
The assassination of Palme was thus added to the list of great unsolved - and seemingly unsolvable - political assassinations of the late Twentieth Century. There it joined, among others, the November 1977 murder of the up-and-coming National Party politician, Robert Smit, and his wife, Jeanne-Cora, in the town of Springs, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. Though the ‘Smit Murders’ caused shockwaves within white South Africa at the time they too have never been solved although, it could be argued, the suspicions around who ordered them did dramatically alter the course of white South African politics.
It is interesting to compare these two sets of assassinations, though they occurred just over eight years and some six thousand miles apart. Both were committed at times of crisis for the white South African state. Those killed were deeply involved in South African politics (albeit in very different ways), and both remain unsolved to this day. There are also further strange echoes between them.
Robert van Schalkwijk Smit was born on the 13 July 1933 in Boshof in the Orange Free State. He matriculated first class at Grey College in Bloemfontein and then studied at the University of the Orange Free State, where he had received a B. Comm and B. Comm Honours degree (cum laude). He had then attended Oxford University (Pembroke College) on a Rhodes Scholarship, graduating with a B. Litt Research degree. It was while at Oxford that he had married Jeanne-Cora. He had, through part time study, gone on to receive a D. Comm degree from Stellenbosch University. He had gone into the civil service after his return from Oxford becoming Deputy Secretary for Finance in 1968 at the young age of 37.
In 1971 he had been appointed full-time Alternate Executive Director at the Headquarters of the International Monetary Fund in Washington DC for South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Lesotho, and Swaziland. This position ended however in October 1974 following the election of anti-apartheid Labour governments in Australia and New Zealand. He remained in Washington DC to set up alternative arrangements, returning to South Africa in October 1975 and resumed his position as Deputy Secretary for Finance. He had resigned from government in January 1976 to become Managing Director of Santam International Limited, a management company responsible for conducting international banking business on behalf of Santam Bank Limited, Mercabank Limited, and Boland Bank Limited.
Between 1975 and 1977 the National Party government had been hit by a series of political disasters. The South African Defence Force had invaded deep into Angola in late 1975 – in Operation Savannah – before being forced to beat a retreat in early 1976.
The Soweto Uprising that followed on 16th June 1976, had taken the security services by surprise, and had been brutally crushed by police, with 176, if not more, students killed. The confidence of the ruling National Party elite in its ability to hold onto power and in apartheid as a solution to South Africa’s problems was severely shaken by these events.
The death of Steve Biko while in Security Branch custody on 12th September 1977 had attracted yet further international opprobrium with the UN Security Council imposing a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa a month later.
The government of Prime Minister John Vorster, with his ad hoc style of managing cabinet, seemed disorganised, adrift, and incapable of meeting the critical challenges confronting it. This was even though its electoral support among the white minority was more secure than ever following the collapse of the United Party as an opposition.
On 20th September 1977 Vorster formally announced that elections would be held on 30th November 1977. Robert Smit now made his move into politics, having been selected as the National Party’s candidate for the Springs Constituency on the East Rand. He and Jeanne-Cora moved into a rented house at 17 Wedza Road in Selcourt, Springs, while their two children remained in their Pretoria home.
At 3.40pm on the afternoon of 22nd November, just over a week before the election, an English-speaking man, who said his name was “MacDougal”, phoned the National Party offices in Springs. The call was answered by the receptionist there, Mrs Susanna Lombaard. MacDougal told Lombaard that he wished to speak to Dr Smit about politics and asked whether he could see him tonight. He lived nearby. She then transferred him to Robert Smit so they could make arrangements. In his diary Smit noted down a meeting with “MacDougal” at 7.30pm to 7.45pm that evening.
The Citizen journalist, Rita Niemand, interviewed Smit at the NP offices at around 5.30pm that day. He told her during their general conversation that he was due to meet “some people” that evening at home at around 7.30pm. He described them as “anti-Nats” whom he was hoping to persuade to vote for him. He did not tell her their names but jokingly said, “they would not want their names in your paper”. At around 6pm Smit went and answered the phone – Mrs Lombaard being in the kitchen making tea - and when he returned, he commented to Niemand that that was one of the “people I am going to see at my home tonight”.
At around the same time, 6pm, Jeanne-Cora Smit was driven home by the Smits’ driver, Daniel Tshabalala. Between 7pm and 7.30pm Mrs Smit had a telephonic conversation with a friend, Gloria Dawn Lottering. During the course of the conversation Smit had told Lottering that her husband had invited people for the evening. When Lottering had asked who they were Smit had answered “Man dit is Progs” (man, it is opposition Progressive Party people).
In the following ten minutes the visitors must have arrived as at around 7.40pm Lombaard received a call from Mrs Smit. She appeared to be in good spirits. She told Mrs Lombaard to tell Robert Smit that his guests were waiting. Not long after (between 15 and 20 minutes later) Robert Smit left the offices, explaining to those still in the office that there were guests waiting for him at home (he usually left much later).
The drive home from the NP offices would have taken under 15 minutes. He parked on the street, entered by the front door, and as he walked out of the entrance passage found his guests waiting for him. The one shot him through the neck, the other through the chest as he fell forward. A bullet was then put into his head. He was also stabbed once in the back.
His body was then dragged round the corner to the passage leading to the bedrooms. The bodies of Robert and Jeanne-Cora Smit were discovered the next morning by Mr. Tshabalala, who had been sleeping in an outside room attached to one of the next-door houses. Jeanne-Cora was lying slumped next to the telephone. She had been stabbed fourteen times, shot through the stomach by one assassin, the bullet lodging in her leg, and finished off with a shot to the head by another.
The police believed that the killers had spent some time in the house and had gone through the cupboards and drawers thoroughly, though neatly replacing everything once they had gone through them. No valuables had been stolen. Of all the many fingerprints samples that were collected at the scene there were only two palm prints that could not in the end be matched to the Smits or their household.
The police identified three weapons that had been used in the attack – two handguns and a double-bladed stabbing knife of some kind. There were wounds from all three weapons on both bodies. The words “RAU TEM” were written in red spray paint on the fridge and across a wall in the kitchen.
No arrests were ever made for the murders. “MacDougal” never came forward and nor was he identified. No organisation ever came forward to claim responsibility for the killing. The police were unable to either find the murder weapons or work out where they had come from. The suspicions as to who gave the order for the murder would cast a long shadow across Afrikaner politics, and various individuals who were not involved have been named as possible culprits and their names unfairly tainted.
Olof Palme was born on 30th January 1927. He was born into an upper-class Stockholm family, his father a successful businessman and his mother an aristocrat. He was tutored as a child before graduating from one of Sweden’s top private schools. After doing his national service he studied at Stockholm University before transferring across to Kenyon College in Ohio, on scholarship, where he completed his BA degree with straight As in 1948. After travelling extensively across the United States of America he returned to Sweden to study law at Stockholm University, joining the Swedish Social Democratic Party at around this time.
The Social Democratic Party was the dominant political party in Sweden, having been continuously in government since 1932. In 1953 Palme joined the staff of Prime Minister Tage Erlander before becoming a member of parliament in 1957 and a minister in 1963. Palme was a “democratic socialist” at home but a vocal supporter of Soviet-backed Marxist-Leninist national liberation movements abroad. In 1968, while Minister of Education, he had participated in a pro-Vietcong march in Stockholm, alongside the North Vietnamese ambassador, and in a speech had denounced the Americans in virulent terms, an act which permanently poisoned his relationship with the United States government.
In 1969 he had been elected leader of the Social Democrats after Erlander stepped down, and then succeeded him as Prime Minister. In 1976 he had lost the Prime Ministership after a coalition of conservative parties had cobbled together a majority, but had remained leader of the Social Democratic Party, coming back to power after the 1982 elections before securing re-election in 1985.
Under Palme Sweden had become a major political, financial, and diplomatic backer of the African National Congress. On Friday 21st February 1986 a Swedish People’s Assembly was held in Stockholm. It was addressed both by ANC President Oliver Tambo and Palme himself. In his speech Tambo thanked the Swedish government for the measures it had taken to “isolate apartheid South Africa” and for the “material support” it had extended to the ANC. In his address Palme supported Tambo’s call for the imposition of “comprehensive sanctions” by the international community on South Africa.
The following Friday, 28th February 1986, was a more routine day at the office; with Palme returning home to his apartment, and his wife Lisbet, late that afternoon. The two had earlier talked about going to the cinema that evening. The apartment had a direct telephone line which the Palmes’ answered themselves. Olof Palme answered several calls that evening, including one from his son Mårten, in which Mårten told his father that he and his girlfriend were going to watch a film called The Brothers Mozart at the Grand cinema.
Olof Palme was non-committal as to whether he and Lisbet would join them. But by the time the Palmes left their apartment at around 8:35 p.m. they had decided for The Brothers Mozart in preference to the movie My Life as a Dog, which was being screened at another cinema, and which they had earlier considered seeing.
Palme had given his bodyguards off earlier that day and the two walked unescorted to the Gamla stan metro station, where they caught the subway at 20.42pm; travelling about two kilometers to the Rådmansgatan metro station, arriving at 20:47pm. From there they had walked to the Grand Cinema on the corner of Tegnérgatan and Sveavägen. There they had met up with Mårten and his girlfriend and queued for tickets, which were almost sold out. The movie ended not long after 11pm and after tarrying for a while in the foyer, they headed back in the direction of their apartment along Sveavägen (this is in the opposite direction to the Rådmansgatan metro station.) The temperature was well below freezing (-7°C) and though the night was clear there was a thin layer of snow and ice on the ground.
They crossed the street a few blocks down – onto the “wrong” side for their journey home - and stopped to look in a shop window displaying Indian clothing, before continuing along that side. On the corner of Sveavägen and Tunnelgatan there was a shop called "Dekorima" with a brightly lit shop window. A man, who witnesses said had been waiting ahead of the couple, came up from behind and shot Palme from close range through the back, killing him instantly.
A second shot went through the back of Lisbeth Palme's coat leaving a longitudinal scratch on her back. The shooter then ran up the Tunnelgatan, a narrow side street further hedged in with builder’s scaffolding, bounded up a stairway (comprising 90 steps in total), and after a few more turns, disappeared. Witnesses described the killer as being tall, well-built, and of northern-European appearance. He was wearing a long dark coat.
There are some rather strange echoes between these two assassinations once you place them against each other. As noted, they remain to this day unsolved, although the authorities and journalists have come up with many different suspects, some more plausible than others. To this day we do not know for sure who ordered, orchestrated, or executed either.
In both crimes revolvers were used. The Smits were both shot with a .38 Webley and .32 long bullet fired from an Astra or a similar kind of revolver. The Palmes’ with .357 Winchester Western metal piercing bullets probably fired from a long-barrelled Smith & Wesson revolver; a more powerful, but larger and more unwieldy handgun.
Revolvers are not commonly regarded as an assassin’s weapon of choice, for the simple reason that they cannot be silenced, unlike 9mm pistols or .22 pistols or rifles. They do have considerable offsetting advantages. Revolvers do not jam, unlike pistols, and they also do not eject cartridges, so they minimise the physical evidence left at the scene. A .38 and a .357 (the latter is essentially the same bullet, but with a far more powerful cartridge behind it) would reliably do the job against an unarmed and unprotected target in one or two shots, in a way that a .22 may not. A.32 long, while a relatively underpowered calibre, is also one of the most accurate ones, and is commonly used in target shooting.
These were all handguns in common use - so it would be easy to procure versions of them whose origins would remain obscure – and the bullets themselves would thus leave little clue as to their origin. The handguns themselves would have been permanently disposed of immediately afterwards. In neither the Smit murders nor the Palme assassination were the weapons traced or their origins identified despite huge police efforts being put into those tasks.
The Smit murders were very clearly carefully set up. Robert Smit trusted his killers enough to assist in the arrangement of the date, time, and place of his own execution. Though he openly disclosed that he was meeting people that evening he also kept their identities secret, to the extent that he knew them.
Intriguingly, there is speculation that something similar may have happened with Palme. In his book Blood on the Snow: The Killing of Olof Palme Jan Bondeson writes that one aspect of the killing that puzzled investigators was that the murder site appeared to have been chosen by the victim not the murderer.
There was no real witness evidence that the Palmes had been followed from the cinema. How then did the assassin know that the Palmes’ would walk home? That they would choose that route (which was not the best one)? And that they would cross the street onto the wrong side at that moment? According to one witness, Inge Morelius, the assassin had been waiting for the Palmes for at least a couple of minutes, so it was not possible for him to have followed them there. Bondeson suggests that “The only theory that explains this puzzling murder scenario is that Olof Palme had arranged to meet somebody at the Dekorima corner that night, and that this meeting was a trap to lead him to his death.”
The motive for the Smits’ assassination has never been fully pinned down. But the common belief is that through his work he came across certain untoward outflows of money - of which there were many at the time, involving many different actors (and not just South African ones) - and he either blackmailed or threatened to blow the whistle on the wrong people.
If however the South African state had been involved in Palme’s assassination the motive is, in a sense, much clearer, particularly at that specific moment in history. Here the proponents of the idea of South African involvement have tended to undermine their own case by failing to consider the matter from the perspective of the ANC’s Afrikaner-nationalist adversaries.
The motive for the murder is commonly ascribed to Palme’s opposition to “apartheid” as if this was a rare and unique position at the time. Within South Africa there had been consistent liberal opposition to apartheid from 1948 in the universities, parliament, and the English-language press. By the late 1970s a significant component of the Afrikaner-elite itself had completely lost faith in apartheid as a policy and had started a process of gradually reforming and dismantling the system. By the mid-1980s apartheid and white rule was clearly on the way out, the real question was what it was ultimately going to be replaced with.
The ANC/SACP meanwhile had since the early 1960s sought to identify and capitalise upon the arrival of the revolutionary situation in South Africa and seize power by force. The liberation movement planned to then implement a “vigorous and vigilant dictatorship of the people” against the former oppressors, return the wealth of the white minority to the black majority from whom they believed it had been stolen, and then replace the capitalist system with a socialist one.
By the mid-1980s the world had had three decades of experience of how national liberation movements acted once in power. They almost invariably imposed Leninist-style dictatorships on their societies, subjected formerly prosperous ethnic and racial minorities to horrific maltreatment, and through such actions, combined with socialist economic policies, immiserated their populations more generally. One could and many did oppose apartheid without wishing to inflict such an outcome on South Africa. But this is what the ANC/SACP in exile remained ideologically committed to, right up until the late 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In the 1960s and early 1970s the ANC/SACP had sought, with Soviet backing, to engineer a national uprising in South Africa directed against the white minority and their black collaborators. This operation had failed ignominiously at initiation in 1972 and when the Soweto Uprising had exploded in mid-1976 the ANC had not been in a position to guide it in any meaningful way.
By the time of the Vaal uprising in September 1984 the situation was different. A huge mythology had developed around the now long absent ANC, and township activists looked to the liberation movement in exile for strategic and tactical guidance. This was then provided through broadcasts from Radio Freedom, pamphlets smuggled in from abroad, and the instructions transmitted through the party’s growing underground. The movement would remain heavily dependent on open incitement as it was highly constrained in its ability to successfully infiltrate weapons and MK guerrillas into the country.
Following earlier calls for South Africa to be made ungovernable on the 25th April 1985 the ANC issued a statement calling for general insurrection. This called inter alia on “our fighting youth, in every black community, school and university” to organise themselves into “small mobile units” which would “protect the people against anti-social elements and act in an organised way in both black and white areas against the enemy and its agents.”
In the same Radio Freedom broadcast in which the statement of the NEC was conveyed into South Africa these units were told to arm themselves in any way possible and then “begin to identify collaborators and enemy agents and deal with them. Those collaborators who are serving in the community councils must be dealt with. Informers, policemen, special branch police and army personnel living and working amongst our people must be eliminated. The puppets in the tricameral parliament and the Bantustans must be destroyed.”
With this instruction the ANC further unleashed truly horrific popular violence against alleged black collaborators of the white regime; from ordinary policemen, to suspected informers, to local government councillors and Bantustan officials. Hundreds of such people and their families were firebombed out of their homes, or were themselves burnt alive by the fighting youth of the liberation movement.
Calls were further made through 1985 (though far less successfully) for this violence to be spread into the white, Coloured and Indian areas, and for white policemen and soldiers to be attacked in their homes as their black colleagues had been. The youth were also exhorted to invade and rob white households for the purpose of seizing any weapons therein. In mid-1985 the ANC also resolved to target white farmers directly through MK actions (including landmine campaigns and assassinations) and more indirectly, by instructing, arming, and training these self-organised units of fighting youth to attack rural homesteads.
In early1986 the ANC/SACP leadership believed that they were on the verge of finally toppling the regime. In the ANC NEC’s January 8th statement of 1986 Oliver Tambo now issued the command: “The charge we give to Umkhonto we Sizwe and to the masses of our people is attack, advance, give the enemy no quarter--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!” The statement also called for work to be done to get “our people” in the rural areas “to rise up against the blood-sucking white soldier-farmers and to address the central task of the landless masses: seizing the land which rightfully belongs to them.”
This then was the revolutionary agenda of the ANC/SACP at the time and which Palme was uncritically supporting and bankrolling. In his February 1986 speech in Stockholm Palme had even praised the way in which “young blacks” had “boycotted the schools for nigh on two years and defied both the police and the military powers” and how “Quislings have been chased out of black residential areas”. The intelligence services would no doubt also have had access to less public information as to why Palme was supporting the ANC – then a major Soviet-proxy in the critical final stages of the Cold War – and for what purposes the money he was funnelling into the organisation was actually being used for.
In GK Chesterton’s short story The Secret of Father Brown the Catholic Priest and amateur detective Father Brown is pressed by an American acquaintance to explain the methods behind his extraordinary success in solving one murder after another. Father Brown finally agrees to tell his secret, and then patiently explains, “You see, I had murdered them all myself. So, of course, I knew how it was done.”
Ignoring the shocked reaction of his interlocutor he continued, “I had planned out each of the crimes very carefully. I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.”
If Palme’s killing was indeed ordered by the South African state, it is certainly possible, as Father Brown managed to do, to “get inside the murderer…. thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; bending oneself into “the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; seeing the “world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective of a straight road to a pool of blood.”
Palme’s sponsorship of the ANC at a time it was targeting policemen, government officials and farmers for elimination - through armed attack and brutal mob violence - was one that would have seemed to invite murderous retribution. In particular, the targeting of white farmers (the Boers) would have been felt by Afrikaner-nationalists as being directed against their very being.
We also now know that it was in 1986 that the South African Defence Force began setting up an infrastructure (through the establishment of Trewits and the Civil Cooperation Bureau) through which it sought to carry out assassinations abroad, including in Europe. This came after the Palme killing, but it is deeply suggestive of the desperate, hate-filled, and murderous mindset that took hold within some parts of the security services (though not all).
The argument against South African involvement, apart from the lack of direct evidence for it, is that killing a Western European leader would have been regarded as taboo. Furthermore, it would also have been a hugely risky enterprise whose exposure would have destroyed what little international support white South Africa still enjoyed; and brought down the punitive economic and other sanctions that the country was desperately then trying to avoid.
Here though too there are strange echoes with the Smit murders. The murder of Robert Smit, and more especially the brutal killing of Jeanne-Cora, cut across all moral norms of a highly Calvinist Afrikaner establishment, and it shocked white South African society more generally to the core. The political and other risks taken by whoever ordered the killings were thus huge – not least they had committed a capital crime for which the death penalty was mandatory at the time.
If one “gets inside the murderer” then one is struck by a remarkable similarity in mindset of whoever it was who ordered the Palme and Smit assassinations (assuming that that is what they were). This involved not just a sort of innate murderousness but, even rarer still, a willingness and ability to incur an extraordinary level of personal and political risk; an unusual combination of two uncommon qualities (at least in a politician.)
This all raises the question as to whether there could be some kind of link, or overlap, between the two assassinations? Certainly, some of the same shadowy South African operatives have been mentioned, in odd ways, in regard to both. And yet this is a question that seems not to have been seriously considered for certain particular reasons. This will be the subject of a future article.