Returning to the Fold
Hamill, James, Contemporary Review
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. …