South Africa and the Commonwealth

By 1948, the Commonwealth had only five members – Australia, Britain, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa – but it was on the brink of becoming the multi-country association we know today. South Africa had joined the Commonwealth in 1931 when its independence was recognised under the Statute of Westminster.

Over the years that followed, black voters were removed from the electoral roll and land acts limited the rights of blacks to own land in certain areas. All this steadily became internationally unacceptable and, across the Commonwealth, opposition built up to South Africa’s continued membership. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan did not want South Africa to leave the association, and in January 1960, he did his best to push the country in a more democratic direction when he delivered his famous “Wind of Change” speech in the Cape Town parliament.

In 1961, ruled under the apartheid system with Hendrik Verwoerd as prime minister, South Africa sought to become a republic and so was required to re-apply for Commonwealth membership. On the day before the 1961 Commonwealth Prime Ministers Meeting in London, Julius Nyerere, leader of about-to-become-independent Tanganyika, said: “To invite South Africa in is to vote us out… Tanganyika needs the Commonwealth more than the Commonwealth needs us. For us to remain outside would be an unhappy thing for this country. But it is a sacrifice we must be prepared to make in our fight to preserve the dignity of men in Africa and to wipe out racialism.”

The 1961 meeting was to play a major role in eventually transforming South Africa. The consensus was clear: the policies being pursued by the Pretoria government were unacceptable. Commonwealth Heads now included such figures as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus and Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaya, all of whom had firm views about apartheid. Most importantly, a key figure, Canada’s new prime minister, the Conservative John Diefenbaker, had flown into London determined that South Africa must leave.

Prime Minister Verwoerd had no alternative but to withdraw his application for the country to continue its membership of the Commonwealth. As South Africa left, it was said that a lighted candle would remain in the window against the day the country would return.

Oliver Tambo who became President of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1967, led the party with great skill, building a following for the ANC as he tirelessly criss-crossed Africa for more than 20 years. He was always supportive of the Commonwealth, arguing that South Africa never left it because the African people had not been asked whether they wanted to stay or leave.

South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994 following the election of Nelson Mandela as President, in the country’s first truly democratic ballot.


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