The Commonwealth and Apartheid: Myth and Reality

Dr Stuart Mole (right) with Professor Kingsley Abbott, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies

“The modern Commonwealth’s long campaign against apartheid and racial injustice is totemic and goes to the heart of its claim to be a post-colonial, multiracial international organisation, bound by common values. And yet that history is riddled by myth and misconception.”

That was the view of Dr Stuart Mole, at a seminar at the University of London in November, organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Stuart Mole was launching his recently published book on “The Commonwealth, South Africa and Apartheid” and he explained its background. “I joined the Commonwealth Secretariat in 1984 and was appointed the Special Assistant to the then Commonwealth Secretary-General, Sir Sonny Ramphal. These were momentous times – South Africa’s growing isolation, conflict on its borders and the rise of internal dissent and township violence were placing increasing burdens upon its military and its budgets. The clamour for international sanctions was growing and a negotiated solution was a distant prospect. It was the beginning of apartheid’s final decade.”

In 1990, with Nelson Mandela released from prison and irreversible change underway in South Africa, Stuart became the Director and Head of the Office of the next Secretary-General, the Nigerian Chief Emeka Anyaoku. In 1994, he was to witness Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first popularly elected President and his years as a Commonwealth Statesman.

He told the seminar that the first myth – of the Commonwealth’s own making – was that the organisation was an implacable opponent of apartheid since its beginnings in 1948. In truth, it was only after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 and South Africa’s ejection from the Commonwealth in 1961 that the Commonwealth’s campaign began to gather strength. Dr Mole added: “For apartheid’s first decade, the ‘imperial’ Commonwealth’s silence on apartheid was no more than the unity of the graveyard.”

The second myth was that the Commonwealth’s actions in helping bring about the ending of apartheid were variable and insubstantial, being “at best very marginal.”  Iin responding, Stuart Mole referred to the 1986 Mission of the Eminent Persons Group and its attempts to kick-start a negotiation process; its failure to do so; and the subsequent impact of its celebrated report on galvanising the imposition of further economic and financial sanctions on the apartheid regime. “This was an intensive and multifaceted diplomatic demarche, beyond the scope of any individual government and on a scale unusual for a multilateral, global organisation, outside the United Nations itself,” he explained. “As a negotiation, it ultimately failed,” he conceded. “But the Group’s report, a Penguin best seller, echoed around the world and provided a powerful boost to the international campaign for increased sanctions on South Africa. And it laid the groundwork for a negotiated solution. As South African activist, Mkhuseli ‘Khusta’ Jack, put it: “the Commonwealth gave us the language of negotiation.”  

A recording of the seminar will be posted when received from the Institute.