The findings of an investigation into one of the world’s most infamous cold cases, the 1986 assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, will finally be made public in Stockholm on Wednesday.
Palme was shot in the back at close range on a Stockholm street while walking home from the cinema with his wife Lisbeth on a February evening. The gunman disappeared into a side street and the mystery has thwarted the Swedish police ever since, giving rise to an industry built around competing speculative theories.
The two leading schools of thought are that it was a lone gunman, perhaps enraged by Palme’s social democratic politics, or a much more intricate plot involving the South African apartheid regime.
South African intelligence officials met Swedish investigators in Pretoria in March and handed over a dossier of information related to the association, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
It is not clear however whether the dossier included substantive new evidence, or was simply tying up loose ends in a decades-long investigation.
There has long been speculation over the role of the South African apartheid intelligence services, motivated by Palme’s support for the African National Congress and his efforts to close down arms and oil smuggling rings involving the apartheid regime, but no hard proof.
The meeting between South African intelligence and Swedish officials took place on 18 March at the offices of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) in Pretoria, according to a South African intelligence source.
The meeting was convened at the request of the Swedish investigation, and was chaired by Loyiso Jafta, the acting director-general of the South African State Security Agency.
“There was a meeting between this Swedish investigation unit and national intelligence arranged through Dirco … and we handed over a file to the Swedish investigations unit. What they’ve done with it I’m not sure,” the source said.
Neither the Swedish or South African authorities responded to a request for comment on the meeting.
Goran Björkdahl, a serving Swedish diplomat who has independently investigated the Palme assassination, is also convinced that the apartheid regime’s covert security apparatus was responsible for the killing.
Björkdahl’s research into the 1961 crash of the plane carrying the UN secretary general, Dag Hammarskjöld, helped trigger a new UN investigation, which found a “significant amount of evidence” that his flight was brought down by another aircraft.
Maj Gen Chris Thirion, who was head of military intelligence in the last years of the apartheid era, told Björkdahl on camera in 2015 he believed South Africa was responsible for the Palme killing.
“I think so, yes,” Thirion said. “I’m sorry to say it but yes.”
In October 2015, Björkdahl also met a serving general in military intelligence in Johannesburg, who gave him names of South African operatives allegedly involved in the Palme killing, and offered to cooperate with the Swedish investigation in return for immunity for those involved.
“He told me that South Africa was willing to negotiate with Sweden and so he asked me to go back home to Sweden and give that reply to Swedish intelligence,” Björkdahl said.
He handed over all his research in Stockholm, and passed on the message about a possible immunity deal.
“It was very naive I thought, but what I tried to do was to try to facilitate the discussion between South Africa and Sweden, so that Sweden would give immunity against prosecution with the condition that the team who carried out the assassination, come forward and present the evidence.”
“The need to know is greater than the need to punish,” Björkdahl said.
Stieg Larsson, the Swedish investigative journalist and novelist who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also looked into the Palme assassination extensively before he died in 2004.
In 2013, Jan Stocklassa, a former diplomat turned writer, discovered four boxes of Larsson’s research into the killing in a larger archive of documents in a self-storage locker, and used them as a basis to continue Larsson’s investigation. Stocklassa uncovered intriguing connections between the South African apartheid regime and the Palme killing, in his 2018 book The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin. However, Stocklassa has not found definitive proof.
Like Björkdahl, he handed over his material to the police, and says he has been in regular touch with the investigators, but has no idea how they will conclude their investigation.
“We have had very close to continuous dialogues – every six to eight weeks I’ve been speaking to them,” Stocklassa said. “And they’ve been asking for more material and more information, always regarding South Africa.”
The main rival theory is that Palme was killed by an individual acting out of ideological hatred for the Social Democrat prime minister. One suspect is Stig Engström, known as “Skandia man” because he worked for the Swedish insurance company in offices next to the scene of the murder.
Engström had weapons training, possible access to the .357 Magnum revolver suspected to have been used in the killing, and politics considerably to the right of Palme. He took his own life in 2000. In May 2018, a Swedish magazine, Filter, published a 12-year investigation which concluded that Engström was probably the killer, on the grounds he matched the description of the gunman, he had information that only the killer could have known, and lied to the police about his movements on the evening of the murder.
Neither Björkdahl nor Stocklassa say they are certain the official investigation, to be unveiled on Wednesday by the chief prosecutor, Krister Petersson, will be conclusive, saying the investigators have not shown signs of fully exploring the South African angle.
“That makes me nervous that they will do what they’ve done before: go for the more simple solution, which is always a lone killer,” Stocklassa said.
Björkdahl said he was also nervous that Wednesday’s announcement would mark an end to the mystery.
“This investigation is of enormous importance to the Swedish people and it shouldn’t be closed down until we’re totally sure that an innovative collaboration with South Africa cannot solve the case,” he said. “I don’t think we are there yet.”