A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth

By W. David McIntyre | Go to book overview

6
Apartheid and the Crisis of the
1980s

The end of UDI and the admission of Zimbabwe into the Commonwealth in 1980 removed the most bitter bone of contention of the previous 15 years. But it brought little respite for Britain. In his report for the 1981 Chogm, Secretary-General Ramphal said that the resolution of the Rhodesia issue had not taken Southern Africa off the agenda. If the Commonwealth were to be true to its principles, it had to bring apartheid in South Africa to an end. Therefore the 1980s were years of further crises for the association. If disintegration never seemed likely (as it had in the 1960s), consensus was now breached – and by none other than Britain.

Denis Austin once quipped that South Africa ‘helped rescue the Commonwealth from boredom but at the cost of rather too much excitement’. 1 It is ironical that a state which had quit the Commonwealth in 1961 was the continuing focus of attention and source of friction. However, Oliver Tambo, president-in-exile of the African National Congress, told a London audience in 1986 that ‘we never left the Commonwealth’ – that had been done by the Afrikaner regime. He looked to the day when South Africa would return. 2

That apartheid gave the Commonwealth such a stormy passage through the 1980s was largely due to Britain’s attitude. We have seen how at Mrs Thatcher’s first Chogm in Lusaka, shortly after she came to power in 1979, she had been prevailed upon by influential voices to withhold recognition of the new Zimbabwe-Rhodesia regime and to go for a settlement involving free and supervised elections. The headline ‘The Day Mrs Thatcher Wept’ may or may not have been accurate reporting, but it probably registered the impact that the Lusaka Chogm made. The next time such pressures were put on Britain, she was more entrenched in power, more ready to ward off her antagonists. At

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