The Commonwealth and Apartheid

Probably the best example of the Commonwealth’s commitment to principles of equality and empowerment was the continuous effort that was made over a period of more than 30 years to bring about an end to apartheid – white minority rule – in South Africa.

Dialogue and debate on apartheid and how it could be opposed took place in every Heads of Government Meeting after South Africa quit the association in 1961, until it rejoined in 1994 after its first non-racial elections. While there was universal abhorrence of the apartheid policies, not every state had the same view on the solutions that would be effective in promoting change.

Most Commonwealth states strongly supported strict economic, trade and military sanctions, including in particular those states in Southern Africa who were most affected by economic sanctions. Even strong disagreement in regard to sanctions on the part of Britain, the former colonial ruler and largest contributor to the Commonwealth’s budget, could not interfere with the clear consensus on this matter among the other members, reflected in the Okanagan Statement and Programme of Action on Southern Africa, from the 1987 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

There is no question that the vocal and principled stance of Commonwealth countries was instrumental in encouraging other countries like the United States to uphold the sanctions, which was essential to ensure their effectiveness.

While state-to-state contact with the apartheid regime was severely curtailed, the Commonwealth continued to promote dialogue and to try to create space for change. For example, an ‘eminent persons group’ was established to try to urge the South African government to begin negotiations, and another expert group formed to have a close look at the impact of economic sanctions on the South African economy. In addition, training programs were established to provide educational opportunities for South African refugees.

Finally, a Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa was put in place in 1992, shortly after the National Peace Accord, which worked actively to stop violence, reconcile communities and initiate social and economic reconstruction. And the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) moved in quickly with technical assistance on community policing, building the capacity of the free press and strengthening the election machinery, all of which were intended to help the transition to majority rule in 1994.