Annica van Gylswyk (1930-2012) in memoriam

by Mai Palmberg

Annica van Gylswyk died on July 14 this year in her home in Cape Town. She worked at the Nordic Africa Institute from 1987 to 1996.   Those who had the privilege of meeting her and working with her were inspired by her experiences and joy of life. Despite she was not there by choice. It was apartheid that brought Annica van Gylswyk to the Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).

She was arrested and imprisoned 15 June 1986, just a few days before the tenth commemoration of the Soweto revolt. "Who would think that car lights coming up the driveway could change your life forever", Annica said at the time. She was first placed in solitary confinement in the central prison of Pretoria, near death row. Later she was given the agonising choice between remaining in prison for an indeterminate period, or being extradited and leave South Africa immediately. She was a Swedish citizen, and the government accorded a special position for her at the NAI library in 1987.   A year later a special position as researcher was accorded her husband, Niek van Gylswyk, at Ultuna, the Swedish University of Agriculture. Their three children, Thomas, Elisabeth, and Pieter, also left South Africa.

No reasons were given for Annica's arrest in 1986. The apartheid regime was shaky after its total fiasco two years earlier, when powerless parliaments were set up for Coloureds and Indians, but no political rights whatsoever were recognised for the black majority. The black townships were full of anger. Annica's, and Niek's, activities provoked the white minority regime, as most whites loyally defended racism. In Pretoria both Annica and Niek were active in the Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice.

Since the early 1970s Annica van Gylswyk had been drawn into the work of the Black Sash, which had been launched by white middle class women to assist black people, especially in the cities. It was one of the best things that happened to me, she told me.

With a myriad of laws and regulations black people were kept outside the cities, only work for the white economy could give limited access. Annica worked in the Black Sash Advice Bureau in Pretoria. We learnt a lot, she said, and so did the Black people we tried to help. They often understood only then that their problems were part of a larger oppression.

Annica's work for justice nurtured her work as a librarian documenting the lives and struggle of ordinary South Africans. Many archives were created during her time. When interviewing people they felt trust in her, because they knew her political work. In Pretoria she was part of the creation of the African Studies Documentation Centre at UNISA, the University of South Africa. She was one of the founding members of the Vienterweld Action Committee, which assisted people dumped by the Bophuthatswana bantustan north of Pretoria.

In her down-to-earth work against apartheid Annica van Gylswyk differred from most others in South Africa from the Nordic countries. Annica was born in Finland 18 August 1930 in a family of the country's Swedish-speaking minority. Her father, Håkan Tollet, was a journalist and writer. Before the second world war the family moved to Sweden. Annica graduated from the co-ed school in Saltsjöbaden, and ventured into journalism. She visited South Africa in the beginning of the 1950s, invited by an aunt with a research position in Pretoria. It turned out to be a long visit, since she met Niek van Gylswyk, also a scientist, and fell in love. After a year back in Sweden she returned to South Africa for their marriage in 1956. It turned into a life-long love and tenderness. And a new country.

After the exile in Sweden Annica and Niek were able to return to South Africa in 1999, five years after the first free elections, which dismantled the apartheid laws. They settled in Rondebosch, a suburb of Cape Town. Annica continued, despite retirement age, with her work on documentation. In Mayibuye Centre at the University of the Western Cape and Robben Island Museum she worked with ANC archive material. In Fort Hare University she trained librarians in archive organising. In Cape Town she had main responsibility for the Ruth and Ray Alexander archives. Already on her way to Sweden in 1987 she had been asked to put Ruth First's papers in order for the Ruth First Memorial Library at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies in London.

Annica van Gylswyk had an infallible instinct and energy for justice. That was foundation. For those who met her and had the privilege to get to know her, there was also much more: her generosity and hospitality, her good humour and happy loud laughter, her refusal to complain, her love of nature and animals, her warmth for family and friends. I shared her eagerness to organise a small picknic whenever the opportunity arose.

Mai Palmberg
(worked at NAI 1984-2010)

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