Sue Onslow reflects on how the Commonwealth opposed apartheid and the impact Nelson Mandela had on the organisation when he became leader of South Africa.
In the cascade of tributes to Nelson Mandela following his death on 5 December, personal friends, liberation fighters in the struggle, fellow politicians and commentators have addressed Mandela’s complex personality and political outlook, his charisma and astute diplomatic skills, legacies for South Africa and the region, and Mandela’s relationships with other heads of state.
No mention has been made of his contribution to the evolution of the Commonwealth as a voluntary values-based association of sovereign states: i.e. Mandela’s contribution to the cohesion and scope of a multinational organisation, not simply to the South African domestic scene, or bilateral relations.
Commonwealth support for the international struggle against the apartheid government, and the associated campaign for South West Africa/ Namibia’s independence was a consistent ‘good news’ story for the association in the 1970s and 1980s. Commonwealth activity, both bilaterally and in the multilateral forum of the biennial Heads of Government meeting consistently sought the end to Apartheid and agitation to secure Mandela’s release gathered momentum in these decades: through collaboration and support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Commonwealth Sanctions Committee followed by the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa from 1987, the many initiatives taken to persuade Mrs Thatcher to adopt financial and economic sanctions, as well as its sensitisation of other governments. (The Gleneagles 1977 Agreement banning international sporting contacts with South Africa was a significant Commonwealth initiative.) This sustained anti-apartheid campaign, and the associated drive to secure the release of ANC ‘prisoners-of-conscience’ – Mandela had become the most well-known by the 80s – helped to give the Commonwealth cohesion and wider sense of identity. This was not withstanding the very public spats between Mrs Thatcher and other Commonwealth heads in the mid-late 1980s on the issue of economic sanctions. (Critics of Thatcher frequently forget that her government supported sport sanctions and observed the compulsory United Nations’ arms embargo against Pretoria.)