South Africa and the Commonwealth Part One: The Years of Acrimony

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

South Africa and the Commonwealth Part One: The Years of Acrimony


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


On 1 June 1994 the Republic of South Africa was officially readmitted to the Commonwealth of Nations after a hiatus of 33 years, becoming, in the process, the organisation's fifty-first member. A ceremony celebrating the country's return to the fold was subsequently held at Westminster Abbey on 20 July 1994 and South Africa was formally welcomed back by the head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth II, during the course of her state visit to the country from 19-25 March 1995, the first royal visit since that made by her parents in 1947. These events finally brought to an end some three decades of acrimony which had poisoned a previously harmonious relationship in which South Africa had stood as one of the pillars of the 'old Commonwealth'. The return of the new, democratic and non-racial, South Africa provides an opportunity to ask some general questions about the significance of the Commonwealth - hitherto a rather peripheral organisation in world politics - in the post-Cold War international environment. It also allows us to ask some specific questions about the organisation's importance to a South Africa now emerging from the international pariah status which was the consequence of four decades of separate development or apartheid. Simultaneously, however, it provides analysts with an opportunity to look back and to trace the breakdown in South Africa-Commonwealth relations from the country's de facto expulsion in 1961 through to the nadir of the mid to late 1980s. That period - the era of stagnation in South African politics - was only terminated by the vision and courage of the former State President, F. W. de Klerk, when he delivered the most important speech in South African history before the Cape Town parliament on 2 February 1990. In this, the first of two articles, the period 1961 to 1986 will be reviewed - dark years in South Africa-Commonwealth relations - before turning in the second article to an exploration of that relationship during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the period which saw the death throes of apartheid and the gradual emergence of a new South Africa.

1961: Did South Africa jump or was it pushed?

Despite its long association with the United Kingdom, and its influential role within what had previously been a white run club, South Africa's position within the Commonwealth was effectively doomed when the organisation's character began to change as decolonisation gathered pace in the late 1950s and early 1960s (in 1960 alone 16 African colonies gained their independence). Decolonisation was a trend which white South Africa could rage against but was powerless to prevent and it immediately placed the country on the defensive on the question of its continued Commonwealth membership. By 1960, three specific factors were both complicating South Africa's relations with the Commonwealth and placing a question mark over its continuing presence within the organisation. First, the growing African and Asian membership felt that the white regime's apartheid policies were an affront not only to black South Africans but also to their own dignity and were, in addition, wholly incompatible with the principle of racial equality which was central to a now multiracial organisation. While particular hostility was reserved for apartheid - official dogma since the victory of the white supremacist National Party (NP) in 1948 - it is clear that the more informal segregation, coupled with undisputed white political control, which was the hallmark of the previous United Party government of Jan Smuts, would have been no more palatable to Afro-Asian opinion by the early 1960s. This bloc, unofficially led by India, was effectively calling time on white minority rule in Africa and, at the very least, was indicating its unwillingness to tolerate the presence of officially sanctioned racism within the mainstream of international politics.

Second, opinion within the 'old Commonwealth was now divided on the South Africa question and the Pretoria government could no longer count upon the automatic solidarity of the white states. …

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