Sweden's lesson for its African soulmate

In Foreign Parts: Alex Duval Smith
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In Johannesburg

In Johannesburg

IT IS a journey I make at least once a year - straight up the 18th parallel from South Africa, where I work, to Sweden, where I grew up. Travelling just the other day from winter in the "rainbow nation" to summer in the "people's home" took me once again on a journey of contrasts - from this fledgling democracy which does not quite know where it is going to that self-confident welfare state where people have stopped asking questions about their place in the world.

It is useful being Swedish in Africa because, by and large, we are liked. Sweden was the main source of the African National Congress's funding in the Seventies and Eighties. In Tanzania, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Eritrea, I have used Swedish to interview both eminent men and scumbags who studied in my home country while I was growing up there in the Seventies.

Sweden, in common with the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway - the only four countries in the world whose aid lives up to the 0.7 per cent of GNP agreed by the United Nations - has for a long time given generously to the Third World. In the years of the prime minister Olof Palme, Sweden saw fit to support its own share of African liberation fighters. The Cuban doctors who are now, cheaply, taking their skills to many Third World countries were trained by Sweden.

Just the other day, Swedish socialists quietly organised a bridge-building meeting between South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, and the Zimbabwean opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Yet Swedes, individually and in common with the 300 million other people occupied with constructing a fortress around Europe, do not care about Africa. They have turned the recycling of their own waste into a science - containers for bottles (green, brown or clear), newspapers, milk cartons, cans (washed), plastic packaging (hard or soft) - but when it comes to the very issue of the plight of 600 million people living further south, they leave it to the government.

Now a small group of intellectuals in Sweden is trying to start a debate into the use of the country's aid. "We have stared ourselves into a state of blindness" by looking at the images of poor Africans, wrote four Swedish ambassadors in a joint opinion piece for the daily Svenska Dagbladet. Every Swede, they wrote, pays an average 2,000 kronor (£175) in aid through their taxes every year, and much of it ends up in African leaders' Swiss bank accounts or as grease in bureaucrats' palms.

Trade rights, they concluded, are what Africa needs. What a triumph of logic. A hand-out is not a hand up. Just ask President Mbeki, an economist. Every fibre of his being is occupied with levelling the global playing field so that Africa can get access to global markets. At home, his new mantra is to create a "black bourgeoisie" which is not embarrassed by wealth and, presumably, will forge on to that playing field.

Less than 200 years ago Sweden was such a poor and dreadful place that anyone who could went to America. One hundred years ago, 90 per cent of the population lived by manual work. Like Japan, Sweden industrialised at breakneck speed in the first half of this century. Today, 90 per cent of the population has white-collar training.

South Africa is only six years into its freedom and has a long way to go before it subdivides its recycling waste (if indeed that is a desirable objective). But if the world, perhaps led by Sweden, allows President Mbeki to shift the global trade order, then the TV misery clips of Africa could gradually diminish in number.

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