Death of a stalwart
● Billy Modise, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 87, built the anti-apartheid movement in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, became democratic South Africa’s first high commissioner to Canada and chief of state protocol in Thabo Mbeki’s administration.
He was born in Bloemfontein on December 8 1930. After matriculating he went to the University of Fort Hare to study medicine.
There he came into contact with ANC stalwarts Professor ZK Matthews and Govan Mbeki, who motivated him to get involved in student politics.
He became secretary of the ANC Youth League for the Fort Hare branch and the student representative council before joining the National Union of South African Students and being elected to the body’s executive.
In 1960 Nusas wanted him to attend a conference in Switzerland, but he was afraid that his political activities had made him a marked man and that he would be arrested if he applied for a passport.
Believing his arrest was imminent, the ANC suggested he apply for an overseas scholarship.
The student union at Lund University in Sweden organised one for him to study medicine there, and he crossed the border to Bechuanaland.
He made his way to London via Tanzania with the help of a Swedish missionary who organised a plane ticket for him.
While studying at Lund he began mobilising students against apartheid and networking for the ANC.
He started the South Africa Committee in Lund, which produced pamphlets and posters and lobbied parliament and the trade unions to support a boycott of South African products.
He spread the message in Denmark and Norway and attended the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli in Oslo.
His lecturers told him to choose between his medical studies, which he’d been neglecting, and politics, and so he switched to sociology.
He started the development studies programme at Lund University and took students to East Africa for research purposes.
He found the Swedish more receptive to the anti-apartheid cause than countries such as Britain and France, which he ascribed to the fact that Sweden had never been a colonial power.
While his ANC counterparts in those countries had to contend with racism, he found himself up against what he called “positive racism”, where he was treated preferentially because of his race.
He found this brand of racism equally offensive because he was not treated as an equal but as “a pampered little child”, he said later.
The reason for this, he suspected, was that black people were a complete novelty in Sweden and people didn’t know how to behave with them.
Children in smaller towns would ask him why he was so dirty.
In 1976, after 16 years in Sweden, he became assistant director of the UN Institute for Namibia in Lusaka.
His time in Sweden, with its strong culture of nonviolence, made him ambivalent about the armed struggle. Although he still supported it, “basically, at the bottom of me there was that nonviolent position”.
He returned as ANC chief representative to Sweden in 1988 and was shocked by the change.
The youth had become more interested in getting a better house, a better car and better clothing than in political activism.
He spent two years in Sweden as the ANC’s No 1 man without getting one invitation to address a university.
The anti-apartheid struggle had lost its lustre. The Social Democrats had become weaker and their donations to the ANC were subject to scrutiny.
“They had to be seen to handle public funds, donations to ANC, in a responsible manner.”
The people wanted to know exactly what was being done with the public money donated to the ANC.
Questions had been asked about the ANC’s links to terrorism and the nonviolent Swedes wanted to be sure their money was not funding bomb attacks on civilians.
There were also new concerns about corruption, he found.
Suddenly, the government had to produce receipts to ensure the money was not being stolen.
“The government of the Social Democrats used to give straightforward support and understood why receipts in a township perhaps had not been kept,” said Modise.
“The controls that normally any lender of money exercises were not set that strongly. Now they had to check how every krona was used.”
This interfered with the ANC’s political work, “because it was in fact true that many of the activities were funded in a manner where there were no receipts. It just had to be based on trust.”
He arranged meetings between ANC leaders, including Oliver Tambo, and the Swedish government, which wanted assurances about the aims of the struggle.
“Sweden was able to influence them how they should handle things,” said Modise.
“In the minds of our leaders Sweden helped to confirm that the basis of the struggle was to create democracy.”
These interactions “strengthened the democratic urge of the ANC leadership”, he said.
Modise returned to South Africa in 1991 and headed the Matla Trust which was set up to plan for the 1994 elections.
He was the high commissioner to Canada from 1995 to 1999, and chief of state protocol from 1999 until his retirement in 2006.
He was awarded the National Order of Luthuli.
He is survived by his wife, Yolisa, and a daughter.
In the minds of our leaders Sweden helped to confirm that the basis of the struggle was to create democracy
Billy Modise, former high commissioner and chief of state protocol.
Billy Modise with former president Thabo Mbeki.