A common purpose: the Commonwealth's support for the AAM

TitleA common purpose: the Commonwealth's support for the AAM
AuthorPatsy Robertson
CollectionThe Anti-apartheid Movement: A 40 year perspective

I am grateful for the opportunity to be here and give a short synopsis of the Commonwealth's relations with the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

If ever there was an organisation which could be said to have found not only a role, but its soul, because of its support for freedom in Southern Africa, it is the new Commonwealth. I use the word new advisedly, because until the sixties the mores of the old Commonwealth of white Dominions prevailed. One of its main tenets was non-interference in internal affairs, which allowed the South African government to deflect early attempts by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to introduce discussion of what was happening in South Africa.

In the 1960s, however, things changed dramatically in the Commonwealth. From a rich white club of six members, the Commonwealth had grown, by the end of the decade, to 31 members. The Commonwealth Secretariat was established in 1965 to coordinate activities on behalf of member states because many newly independent governments were less than happy that the UK was still in control of the Commonwealth's agenda. Many countries were also outraged about South Africa and were determined that the association should be in the forefront of international opposition to apartheid. In May 1960, Commonwealth Prime Ministers told South Africa, which had indicated its intention to become a republic, that it would have to seek the consent of other Commonwealth governments if it wished to remain a member. That meeting also, for the first time, held informal discussions with the then South African Foreign Minister Mr Louw about the racial situation in his country.

By this time the Anti-Apartheid Movement had begun its campaigning. The Commonwealth struck its first blow in support of the campaign when in March 1961, with new members joining Asian members in condemning apartheid, Dr Verwoerd withdrew his application for South Africa's continued membership.

This was the period when the AAM was making contacts with the newly established High Commissions in London and winning them over to the struggle. One of the first international actions of my country Jamaica, which became independent in 1962, was to ban South African passport holders from entering the island - one of the first countries in the world to do so.

The AAM also established a regular presence at Commonwealth summit meetings, organising lobbies of leaders and holding vigils to draw attention to what was happening in South Africa. In 1964, it produced a memorandum calling for a Commonwealth policy on apartheid which was circulated to all Heads of Government.

In 1965, the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat helped Commonwealth governments to intensity their activities in relation to Southern Africa. Governments had already challenged the British government in 1964 on Southern Rhodesia and stated that they would not recognise any unilateral declaration of independence. The declaration of UDI, five months after the Secretariat was established, galvanised the Commonwealth.

At the Lagos meeting in January 1966 - the first ever to be held outside the UK - the Commonwealth began devising ways and means to support the majority populations in both Rhodesia and South Africa. It set up ministerial committees to maintain pressure for sanctions and to keep the situation under review, as well as to co-ordinate assistance to those forced to flee their countries. These committees of Foreign Ministers, High Commissioners or other officials maintained close contacts with the AAM, which was always in the wings at their meetings.

The Commonwealth Secretariat became a conduit for information which the AAM was gathering about such issues as arms sales to South Africa. The AAM supplied valuable information which was helpful to the Commonwealth delegation led by Kenneth Kaunda which called on British Prime Minister Ted Heath in 1970 to argue for a ban on arms sales. It is the received wisdom in Commonwealth circles that this delegation was given short shrift by Mr Heath who then advised the Queen not to attend the Commonwealth summit in Singapore in January 1971. The arms issue precipitated a tremendous row at the meeting, with sessions lasting until the early hours, but it cleared the air, demonstrating to a British government reluctant to act on either Rhodesia or South Africa that the Commonwealth was determined to fight for change.

The good relations which developed between the AAM and the Secretariat enabled the AAM to lobby Commonwealth leaders on its call for general UN sanctions against South Africa, for the release of political prisoners in South Africa and for the ending of the Simonstown Agreement. The AAM's Hon. Secretary, Abdul Minty, was able to be in Singapore to present to conference chairman Lee Kuan Yew petitions with 10,000 signatures against the sale of arms to South Africa.

Throughout the 1970s the AAM maintained pressure through its contacts with the Secretariat and with Commonwealth member countries. Representatives of the Movement were welcome at Commonwealth summit meetings and were encouraged to lobby Commonwealth leaders. The Commonwealth was then primarily concerned with Rhodesia, but it was clear that as soon as that business was completed it would move on to South Africa and Namibia.

The Commonwealth had also changed, from an organisation where, in 1966, the Prime Minister of Australia left the summit to brief British, Australian and New Zealand journalists that he sitting at a table with 'people who had just come down from the trees', to one where another Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, played a leading role in the emergence of a free Zimbabwe, and where his successors in the 1980s provided the fullest possible support for Commonwealth action on South Africa.

The communiqués and other written records tell the remarkable story of the Commonwealth and its relations with the AAM. But what they do not tell is how changes came as a result of relationships between people. Both the AAM and the Commonwealth were fortunate in their leaders. The Commonwealth's first Secretary-General, Arnold Smith, a Canadian, was totally opposed to racial discrimination and he was fully backed by Canadian prime ministers like Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau. They supported him in his initiatives on Rhodesia and rejected the label of terrorist pinned on such leaders as Robert Mugabe, Joshua Nkomo, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.

Arnold Smith helped the Commonwealth define ways in which it would pursue its campaign for democracy in Southern Africa; his successor Shridath Ramphal went even further, persuading the Commonwealth to support the struggle, armed and otherwise, for independence. He worked closely with leaders who pushed Commonwealth action to its boundaries, such as Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Michael Manley, Malcolm Fraser, Pierre Trudeau, Olusegun Obasanjo, Mohammed Mahathir, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi and Brian Mulroney and worked ceaselessly to come up with ideas on how to realise their objectives.

By the beginning of the 1980s the Commonwealth had achieved success in Zimbabwe and could turn to the question of South Africa. This was a much more formidable battle, against very powerful interests. The Secretariat began to suffer what the AAM had always suffered - outright hostility from many sources, including the British media which attempted to discredit the Secretary-General and other Commonwealth leaders. The Times commissioned a reporter to scour London for material to denigrate Shridath Ramphal and in the run-up to the crucial Commonwealth meeting in Nassau in 1985, the then Prime Minister of the Bahamas, who as host would chair the meeting, was accused by the Sunday Times of benefiting from drug trafficking. The Sunday Telegraph also attacked Shridath Ramphal, accusing him of creeping over the walls of Buckingham Palace to give the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, poisonous advice about the issues at stake.

The 1980s also provided the Commonwealth with a most formidable opponent of change in South Africa, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her defence of the apartheid regime, and her determination to delay change, energised the relationship between the Commonwealth, the AAM and the ANC. Shridath Ramphal had by then developed a warm relationship with Trevor Huddleston, Oliver Tambo and Abdul Minty, who attended practically all Commonwealth summit meetings in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as with the indefatigable Mike Terry and Bob Hughes. They provided the Secretariat with invaluable information and insights into the struggle and helped the Commonwealth maintain its principled stand despite all efforts to denigrate its initiatives.

These contacts greatly facilitated the Commonwealth's final push to help end apartheid. At the Nassau meeting, the Commonwealth decided to send a delegation to South Africa, a decision which Mrs Thatcher reluctantly agreed to support. Immediately after the agreement had been announced, she called in the British press to denigrate it. On television she told the British people that she had made only a 'tiny, tiny' concession to the Commonwealth. That concession was the Eminent Persons Group, which made history by being the first international delegation to meet with Nelson Mandela in prison, and by setting out a negotiating position which was accepted by both the South African government and the ANC.

The first point of that negotiating position was the release of Nelson Mandela, which finally came about in 1990. In the intervening years the Commonwealth agreed a sanctions package against South Africa which was adopted by the US Congress. The end was at last in sight.

This is not the whole story of those years. But those of us who lived through them and were deeply committed to the struggle owe a huge debt of gratitude to the AAM which kept the feet of the great and good of so many governments to the fire. We must also be resolved to continue to fight to prevent the truth from being smothered by those who are now so busy re-writing history, and who now have the gall to aver that the British government, with perhaps a little help from the Scandinavians, did it all.

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Patsy Robertson