The first part of this article in the July issue traced South Africa's problematic relationship with the Commonwealth from the country's de facto expulsion in March 1961 through to the political upheavals of the mid-1980s. It concluded with an assessment of the attempt by the Commonwealth's Eminent Person's Group (EPG) to promote a dialogue between the Pretoria government and its principal opponent -- the African National Congress (ANC) -- in the first half of 1986. Despite its constructive approach, and the initial optimism surrounding its work, that mediating initiative foundered in May-June 1986 when the Botha regime turned its back on diplomacy, launched bombing raids on three neighbouring Commonwealth states and declared a nationwide state of emergency. This second article will consider the stalemate which subsequently developed in the mid to late 1980s both in South Africa itself and within the Commonwealth as the British government steadfastly refused to yield to the international campaign for punitive sanctions. In his historic speech on 2 February 1990 -- now `Red Friday' in the country's folklore -- F. W. de Klerk broke the log-jam and launched an entirely new era in South African politics with his decision to unban the black opposition, release political prisoners, and commence multi-party negotiations on a new constitutional dispensation. The article will also explore the Commonwealth's role within the post-1990 transition before concluding with an appraisal of democratic South Africa's prospects now that it has finally been re-admitted to the Commonwealth family: what can it gain from membership and, perhaps of equal importance, what can it bring to the organisation?
1986: the post-EPG atmosphere
In retrospect, the failure of the EPG to broker an agreement should have surprised few serious observers of the South African political scene. Despite its impeccable diplomatic conduct, the Commonwealth mission was always labouring under the burden of history. A refusal to capitulate to international pressure had been an article of faith for every National Party (NP) government since 1948 and, consequently, the outlook was bleak for almost any external initiative. However, the Commonwealth was particularly ill-suited to the task of mediation and agreeing to terms dictated by this organisation would have been unthinkable for any Afrikaner politician of senior rank. This, after all, was the organisation which had made it impossible for South Africa to remain a member in 1961 before moving on to campaign vigorously for the country's economic, diplomatic, military, and sporting isolation. In short, the Commonwealth was firmly -- perhaps fatally -- identified with the agenda of the exiled ANC.
It was also clear that the South African government, and its white constituency, took serious exception to being lectured on human rights abuses by an organisation containing numerous military and one-party regimes of varying ideological complexion. This was the historical back-drop to the mission and, in the eyes of the Pretoria government, the EPG could never quite erase the Commonwealth's strong anti-South African (for which read white) image. Moreover, Botha baulked at the idea of a modus vivendi with the ANC when its military wing -- Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) -- was of such insignificance and when, internally, the state had barely deployed a fraction of its full strength against the insurrection in the townships. To have accepted the Commonwealth's `negotiating concept' in such circumstances risked demonstrating weakness and it would certainly have provided a propaganda windfall for the fundamentalists of the far-right Conservative Party (CP) who were ever vigilant against possible `sell outs'. It was a defining characteristic of Botha's, deeply unimaginative, leadership that he was acutely sensitive to the threat on his right flank and was prepared to regulate the tempo of reform in order to manage that threat. Thus, parochial Afrikaner political considerations comfortably eclipsed factors such as international opinion in Botha's strategic calculations. By June 1986, with Botha having chosen a repressive internal policy, coupled with a robust defiance of external pressure, the whole issue of sanctions against South Africa was thrown back into the Commonwealth's lap.
Mrs. Thatcher was immediately aware that the EPG's failure risked giving new momentum to the Commonwealth's sanctions bandwagon as well as placing her firmly on the defensive. Her initial response was to play for time by dispatching her Foreign Secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to the region with the task of breathing new life into the diplomatic effort. The British government hoped that its special relationship with the Pretoria regime -- the fact that it had held the line against sanctions -- would give it an influence with Botha which other Commonwealth and European states obviously lacked. The initiative was viewed less charitably by Commonwealth members who regarded it as a transparent stalling device by a British leader unwilling to face up to the grim reality of the South African situation so vividly described in the EPG report. As it turned out, Howe's trip -- in July 1986 -- proved to be one of the most miserable and humiliating ever undertaken by a British Foreign Secretary. In his subsequent memoirs, A Conflict of Loyalty, Howe described it candidly as `mission impossible'. With the exception of Mozambique -- which was virtually on its knees and desperate for any kind of international support -- Howe was snubbed in the region's key capitals. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe dismissed the mission as `reprehensible, futile and useless'; President Kaunda of Zambia, in a typically histrionic display, rebuked him on live national television; and, in South Africa itself, P. W. Botha, appearing to dismiss subtle distinctions between international friend and foe, berated him at length without the merest hint of a concession. At a later press conference, a belligerent Botha declared that he would `never commit suicide by accepting threats and prescriptions from outside forces in disguise and hand South Africa over to the communist forces in disguise'. Ever the master of understatement. Howe conceded that the responses he had received `do not as yet enable me to proclaim that I have made the progress I would like'. Once again, Botha had demonstrated that he was more interested in perpetuating white hegemony -- albeit in slightly modified form -- than in making a genuine break with the past.
1986-1989: from London to Kuala Lumpur
The failure of both the EPG and Howe initiatives placed Mrs. Thatcher in a rather exposed position at the special London mini-summit on 4-5 August 1986 which had been convened to discuss the EPG report (the conference was attended by the heads of government of Australia, Bahamas, Britain, Canada, India, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). The summit proved to be the most bitter in the history of the Commonwealth, even surpassing, in its rancour, the gathering twenty-five years earlier in London when Verwoerd had taken his leave. Ahead of the summit, media commentaries had speculated openly about the possible disintegration of the Commonwealth; the danger of a British expulsion; and about a tension between Downing Street and Buckingham Palace on the South African issue.
Mrs. Thatcher, however, took an uncompromising line at the summit. It was now difficult, indeed impossible, to argue that sanctions should be opposed because the situation in South Africa was improving. With the failure of both the EPG and Howe missions, and the brutal crackdown on black opposition after 12 June 1986, that prop had been kicked away by President Botha himself. The British Prime Minister, therefore, chose to concentrate on the argument that whilst the situation was indeed bad -- and not one which the government could in any way condone -- sanctions would only make it worse. Despite the personal, pro-sanctions, testimony of the EPG's co-chairmen, Malcolm Fraser and General Obasanjo, Mrs. Thatcher stuck rigidly to that position and the conference broke up in disarray. Prodictably, a further trading of insults ensued. India's Rajiv Gandhi declared that Britain had lost any claims to moral leadership within the Commonwealth while Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda claimed that Mrs. Thatcher had `cut a very pathetic figure'. What particularly irked the Commonwealth majority was Mrs. Thatcher's determination to ignore the results of diplomatic missions which she had been instrumental in establishing. For her part, Mrs. Thatcher believed that the Commonwealth had too little appreciation of Britain's economic stake in South Africa as well as too simplistic a belief in the sanctions weapon as an agent of change. This was the definitive dialogue of the deaf and the Commonwealth decided to press ahead with additional sanctions without Britain. These included a ban on air links, and a ban on the import of coal, iron and steel and agricultural products. Britain was only prepared to implement the measures agreed to at Nassau such as the voluntary ban on tourism, a voluntary ban on new investment, and a halt to the import of gold coins. These were the same measures which Mrs. Thatcher had scornfully dismissed at the time as `tiny', to the dismay of her Foreign Secretary who had always recognised the need for the `utmost sensitivity' when handling this issue.
This stalemate persisted throughout 1987 and polarisation was again evident at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Vancouver, Canada, from 13-17 October. Britain excluded itself from a communique supporting sanctions and refused to participate in a new Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Committee designed to co-ordinate the sanctions effort. In truth, this was always a rather hollow exercise sustained only because its collapse would have sent the wrong signal to both Britain and South Africa, namely that the organisation's sanctions campaign was flagging (which, of course, it was although the Commonwealth had no desire to encourage British or South African triumphalism). By 1987, the South African issue was beginning to lose some of its international salience due to the success of the emergency measures in stifling black dissent and because of the blanket censorship which had curtailed media coverage of unrest scenes. Consequently, Britain felt the time was right for a new approach and, at Vancouver, Mrs. Thatcher began pressing the idea of `positive measures' as an alternative to sanctions. In essence, this would entail the channelling of resources to the black ruled states of the region to assist their development and to reduce their dependence upon South Africa. This, too, failed to impress wider Commonwealth opinion, the general consensus being that it was pointless seeking to relieve the symptoms of South African destabilisation whilst taking no action against the destabiliser itself. Kenneth Kaunda put it rather more bluntly when he described it as `fattening us for the slaughter'.
By the time of the Malaysia CHOGM, in Kuala Lumpur, from 18-24 October 1989, P. W. Botha had given way to F. W. de Klerk (Botha's stroke in January 1989 offers another example of the role of the unforeseen in helping shape the destiny of nations). President de Klerk offered some early signs of new thinking with a more relaxed approach to public demonstrations and by the pre-summit release of some veteran political prisoners. These included many of Nelson Mandela's old Robben Island comrades such as Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, and Andrew Mlangeni. For virtually the first time, a South African government had shown some appreciation of Commonwealth opinion rather than crassly ignoring it. To the chagrin of other member states, Britain issued a separate statement at Kuala Lumpur welcoming the South African thaw and arguing that encouragement rather than the maintenance of sanctions was now the best way forward. By this stage there was also some evidence of growing tension within the Commonwealth's sanctions lobby with the Afro-Asian members seeking to introduce new sanctions whilst Australia and Canada were in favour only of widening the application of existing measures. This could have led to a new racial split in the organisation but that debate was soon rendered obsolete by the scale of F. W. de Klerk's changes from February 1990 onwards -- changes which would take South Africa into a post-apartheid and a post-sanctions era.
1990-1994: the Commonwealth and the South African Transition
While it was generally understood that South Africa's post-1990 transition would be largely driven by internal dynamics, the precise role which external actors should be permitted to play became a contentious issue between the two principals: F. W. de Klerk's NP and Nelson Mandela's ANC. President de Klerk was keen to minimise their influence insisting that his government was fully sovereign and would steer the process through to its conclusion. This was unacceptable to the ANC as it flatly refused to recognise the legitimacy of the incumbent regime. Instead, it argued for both an interim government of national unity and for maximum international input to help achieve a fair transition -- a `level playing field' in the fashionable jargon -- and not one open to manipulation by the NP through its control of state coffers, the security forces, and broadcasting output. The NP was well aware that any international involvement would dilute its power to the advantage of the ANC and it remained deeply suspicious of organisations such as the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and even the United Nations (UN), each of which had a long track record of support for ANC positions (although the ANC would doubtless have been opposed to an extensive role for those western powers sympathetic to NP constitutional thinking). This issue was never definitively resolved and, although solutions could not be imposed on either party from outside, a variety of international organisations, governments, non-governmental organisations, and individuals all played a modest role in the transition. They were particularly prominent in violence related issues as well as occasional attempts at mediation of the vexed constitutional questions which, intermittently, produced deadlock in negotiations (it was, of course, the Kenyan academic, Washington Okumu, who talked Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), into his eleventh hour participation in the elections). The Commonwealth itself wisely opted for a relatively low key, grassroots role in which it sought to defuse conflict situations through a small monitoring and mediating presence in various unrest areas as well as assisting with the mechanics of electoral preparation. This culminated in April-May 1994 when it deployed several hundred observers at polling stations and counting venues around the country. This approach played to Commonwealth strengths and kept it out of the realm of high politics where it had conspicuously failed in the past.
Certainly, the transition in South Africa had confronted the Commonwealth with an entirely new situation; one in which old postures and attitudes had to be quickly re-examined. The Commonwealth was anxious to assist the democratisation process in South Africa but, equally, it did not wish its involvement to be characterised as partisan. Thus, it had to open lines of communication to all political players rather than being seen purely as a `cheerleader' for ANC positions. This was complicated by two factors. First, the Commonwealth initially appeared to support the ANC's campaign for a conventional majority rule solution on the Zimbabwean and Namibian models. The NP, by contrast, was arguing for a power-sharing, consensus approach to post-apartheid government. Ultimately, this problem was resolved by an implicit Commonwealth commitment to support the outcome of the negotiating process rather than peddle its own ideas as to what did or did not constitute an acceptable form of democracy. Something of a hybrid of ANC and NP positions was eventually to emerge (see `A New Deal for South Africa' Contemporary Review, May 1993). While this formula had its detractors in ANC, NP and IFP ranks, the Commonwealth Secretariat had no difficulty in enthusiastically endorsing it as a great leap forward.
Second, the sanctions issue still had some mileage left in it. The debate was no longer about the imposition of new measures -- de Klerk's changes had seen to that -- but about the pace at which existing sanctions should be removed. Britain campaigned for their immediate removal arguing that South Africa had now fully met its international obligations, a stance supported by the new Prime Minister, John Major, following Mrs. Thatcher's resignation in November 1990 (this difference apart, Mr. Major proceeded to take a more orthodox Foreign Office approach to the Commonwealth which eschewed his predecessor's taste for open confrontation). The wider Commonwealth view was that sanctions should be removed gradually as the country progressed towards democracy and only fully removed when that goal was achieved (which was also the majority view in the US Congress). These differences surfaced again at the October 1991 CHOGM in Harare, Zimbabwe, and threatened to draw the Commonwealth into the maelstrom of South African domestic politics as the NP government favoured the Thatcher/Major view and the ANC backed the majority Commonwealth position. The ANC viewed sanctions as one of two useful weapons -- the other being strikes and demonstrations or `mass action' -- to prevent the government adopting a minimalist approach to political change which would seek to entrench white privilege and preserve the fruits of apartheid.
However, even on this issue a compromise eventually took shape with Mandela finally calling for the removal of sanctions in a September 1993 address at the United Nations. This was technically a retreat by the ANC as sanctions were lifted in advance of full democratisation as represented by the elections scheduled for April 1994. However, the ANC was motivated by two considerations. First, by this stage, the NP had largely conceded ANC demands for majority rule, albeit after a five year transitional national unity phase, and had abandoned its convoluted 1991 proposals to emasculate all future governments. Second, Mandela had been given a number of confidential briefings by the Finance Ministry on the precarious condition of the South African economy. The ANC -- already preparing for government and not wishing to inherit an economic `basket case' -- decided to relent and to promote the cause of renewed economic engagement. At the October 1993 CHOGM in Limassol, Cyprus, the organisation decided that there was little point to further delay on this issue and quickly followed Mandela's lead. It endorsed the lifting of all sanctions with the sole exception of the arms embargo which would remain until a democratic government was established. The Commonwealth's long, tortuous and bitter sanctions debate was finally over.
1994-1995: The Prodigal returns
One thing which had emerged during the transition was a growing consensus across the political spectrum that South Africa should return to the Commonwealth at the earliest possible date. This was an outcome which the Commonwealth Secretariat was anxious to encourage as a democratic South Africa was viewed as a natural, indeed indispensible, member. At the Cyprus CHOGM, it was made clear that South Africa would be welcomed back `at the earliest possible opportunity' following the April election. The organisation's constructive and unbiased role between 1990 and 1994 had helped improve its standing within the Afrikaner community where the prospect of rejoining was greeted if not with acclaim then at least with equanimity -- something of a triumph for the Commonwealth given its image in the 1980s. Within the white foreign policy elite, there was also a new zeal for cultivating international contacts and jettisoning the pariah image which had inflicted such damage between 1948 and 1990. Restoring international respectability had always been the central pillar of President de Klerk's so-called `new diplomacy' and Commonwealth membership was a logical extension of that thinking. This left only a rump of die hard oppositionists gathered around Ferdie Hartzenberg's CP, and a cluster of paramilitary groups of whom Eugene Terreblanche's Afrikaner Resistance Movement was the most prominent. However, if the election period had demonstrated anything it was that these groups, wild rhetoric apart, were now a busted flush.
For the ANC, Commonwealth membership was something of a returning home. Indeed, in declaring that `we never left', Mandela was reminding a local and international audience that the 1961 withdrawal was considered the act of an illegitimate government which had never spoken for a majority of South Africans. The ANC may also have viewed Commonwealth membership as a necessary gesture of recognition for the organisation's leading role in helping to mobilise international resistance to the apartheid regime. In this sense, membership may be as much about the past as about the present or future. That is not to suggest, however, that membership is meaningless or of purely symbolic importance. The Commonwealth is not a leading international force but nor is it an irrelevance and, as with membership of any multilateral organisation, the opportunities for fruitful bilateral contacts are plentiful if the diplomats and politicians are astute enough first to recognise the possibilities and then to exploit them (particularly in an organisation of fifty-one states embracing one quarter of the world's population).
A post-apartheid South Africa will be seeking to build productive economic and political relationships on a global level by drawing upon the reservoir of international goodwill which undoubtedly exists towards the new democratic state. That said, two particular areas will demand attention as the government establishes its foreign policy priorities. The first is the Southern Africa region as chronic instability here will certainly rebound to South Africa's disadvantage as refugees, arms and economic migrants flow across the country's porous borders. South Africa is well aware that it cannot flourish as an island of prosperity in a region afflicted by conflict, poverty and disease. The second priority is the relationship with the West. Ultimately, the level of investment and aid from North America, Western Europe and Japan will determine the success or failure of the government's blueprint for a new South Africa, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). However, these concerns are entirely compatible with Commonwealth membership and may be actively pursued within the organisation. Nine of the eleven Southern African Development Community (SADC) states are Commonwealth members and it has been suggested that these states might be more comfortable dealing with South Africa within a Commonwealth framework as opposed to a purely regional one where South African dominance is inevitable. Clearly there is a need for a more balanced approach to regional development in order to avoid a situation in which South Africa becomes the sole engine of growth and thus acts as a magnet for the region's peoples.
The presence of Canada and Britain within the Commonwealth also gives South Africa regular and intimate access to two important Western states who, as well as being economically significant in their own right, are also members of two key trading blocs, the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA) and the European Union (EU). It is already abundantly clear that the new government is not going to base its foreign policy on grudges or resentment at past behaviour. That is regarded as a luxury South Africa can ill afford. Thus, Mandela has been remarkably quick to establish a good working relationship with Britain and he has portrayed the 1980s dispute over sanctions as a difference over means rather than ends (although a new occupant of 10 Downing Street may have accelerated the speed of that rapprochement). Finally, in terms of contacts, the Commonwealth contains five of the ten fastest growing economies in the world and South Africa can only benefit from an extension of ties with dynamic Asian economies such as Malaysia and Singapore. Thus as the Secretary-General, Chief Anyaoku, has noted, the Commonwealth is ideally placed to offer South Africa a `ready gateway to the wider world' following decades of isolation.
On a less exalted level, Commonwealth membership will offer South Africa a range of practical benefits such as access to the Commonwealth Scholarship Programme which will enable thousands of students and academics to attend universities in other member countries (black educational upliftment being, of course, a key priority of the new government). South Africa will also be able to re engage with a host of Commonwealth professional, scientific and sporting associations -- precisely the type of cultural interaction destroyed by apartheid and the `people to people' sanctions to which that system gave rise. This exposure to new influences can only help the country overcome, what Jack Spence has called, its `stultifying insularity'.
South Africa: a major player?
If South Africa now stands to reap modest. if unspectacular, benefits from Commonwealth membership what, in turn, can it offer the organisation? As the sixth largest state in the organisation it is clearly destined for a prominent role even if there are some exaggerated expectations circulating as to what it can deliver. Sceptics have suggested that, in the absence of apartheid, the Commonwealth has now lost its sole unifying issue. However, that is to underestimate both the adaptability of the organisation and the determination of the Commonwealth Secretariat. under Chief Anyaoku's leadership, to develop a new, forward looking, agenda. The `big idea' currently dominating Commonwealth politics is its commitment to a so-called `global humanitarian order' which is rather less ambitious than its name might suggest. The campaign has two specific objectives and the new South Africa will have an important role to play in the pursuit of each. The first is the call for more equitable global economic arrangements. As it contains some of the world's richest states (Britain, Australia, Canada) and some of the poorest (Malawi, Lesotho) the Commonwealth is a natural forum for North-South discussions. South Africa may be well placed to play a pivotal role in this dialogue as its own internal inequalities make it a virtual microcosm of the wider North-South divide.
South Africa may also wish to use some of the moral capital it has built up within the Commonwealth to make the case for a global RDP along the lines of its own domestic programme. This is not to argue that South Africa will become a zealous crusader on behalf of the under-developed South as the new government will remain acutely conscious of the need to keep the West `on side' in order to attract investment. All of the indicators, thus far, point less to South Africa adopting an ultramilitant posture and more to it positioning itself as a potential `bridgebuilder' between North and South. At the New York negotiations in April-May 1995 on the extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPI), it was a compromise proposal from South Africa which eased the fears of the non-nuclear Southern states and allowed them to agree to an indefinite extension of the treaty -- an outcome which had been in considerable doubt. That episode has clearly raised South Africa's diplomatic profile and enhanced its international stature.
The second aspect of the campaign for a more humanitarian order focuses upon the Commonwealth's own internal character. The Secretariat is now anxious to promote an image of the Commonwealth as an association of democratic states committed to human rights and the rule of law. The number of one party and military regimes has been steadily declining but democracy remains a fragile, even sickly, plant in many Commonwealth states and the situation is not irreversible. South Africa has much to offer in this area. It is an example of a state whose political elites opted for a historic compromise in preference to the winner takes all, `zero-sum game', approach to politics which has badly destabilised life in so many African countries (Algeria, Angola, Gambia. Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone all come immediately to mind). This does not mean that the South African model can simply be exported -- each country must ultimately find its own route to political salvation -- but the country does have a substantial body of experience of both negotiations and the general techniques of conflict resolution into which other fractured societies can readily tap. As well as the power of its example, South Africa may seek to be diplomatically pro active by leaning on autocratic regimes and encouraging them to embrace civilian government and pluralist structures which accommodate different shades of political opinion. President Mandela has already been prepared to use his authority as Africa's leading statesman to pressure the military in Lesotho to restore civilian government and to coax the parties in Angola towards acceptance of a powersharing formula. The next target will be the discredited military regime in Nigeria which is rapidly becoming the Commonwealth's new pariah state. There have been calls from within the Commonwealth for a `Mandela Doctrine' in which South Africa would take the lead in warning the regime to democratise or else face both expulsion from the organisation and the possible disintegration of the Nigerian state.
This will hopefully add up to a mutually supportive relationship in which South Africa assists democratic expansion within the Commonwealth while the Commonwealth supports democratic consolidation in South Africa. Given its attachment to racial harmony, the Commonwealth has a vested interest in the success of the South African project and failure here would undoubtedly send shock waves reverberating throughout the organisation. For now, however, it is safe to say that South Africa has come a very long way from March 1961, the withdrawal from the Commonwealth and Verwoerd's truculent retreat into isolation. This journey has been described by one commentator -- Greg Mills -- as an example of a country moving from `pariah to participant'. That is to understate the position for such a development is not without precedent. Instead, what we are witnessing here is nothing less than the transformation of a state's image -- in a mere five years -- from pariah to moral beacon and, in the annals of international politics, that is truly unique.
[James Hamill is a lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Leicester.]…