Eminent success

Derek Ingram

The Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group’s abortive mission to South Africa in 1986 was judged by many at the time to have been a failure, but, writes Derek Ingram, it was an important step on the road to reform

By 1984, the apartheid system of racial segregation introduced in South Africa by the white National Party 36 years earlier seemed to be as deeply entrenched as ever. Most of the key African National Congress (ANC) leaders were still locked up in Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, while South African President P. W. Botha was defying mounting international pressure to change the system.

The question of how to eliminate apartheid had been a perennial problem for the Commonwealth since the first British African colony to gain independence, Ghana, joined the association in 1957. The Commonwealth stepped up its pressure to end racial discrimination in South Africa and elsewhere, but was far from united as to how this could be achieved. In the years that followed the 1965 Unilateral Declaration of Independence issued by Southern Rhodesia’s white minority government, tensions between member states increased.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Lusaka, Zambia, in 1979, helped pave the way for the independence of Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe) in 1980, and was the first to be attended by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK. Lusaka marked the beginning of her attempt to lift international sanctions against South Africa which was to culminate in an extremely tense CHOGM in Nassau, the Bahamas, in 1985.

Thatcher had found herself increasingly isolated in her stance on South Africa, gradually giving ground, but always trying not to admit it publicly. However, in Nassau, she held a press conference after a tough session of Heads and admitted that she had softened her position on economic sanctions, quickly arching her thumb and forefinger with the words: “Teeny, teeny”. Despite this concession, she went back to calling the ANC “terrorists,” much to the annoyance of Foreign Office officials who thought they had finally weaned her off the term.

In Nassau, Thatcher had in fact gone along with a plan, put forward by Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, to send to South Africa what would be called the Eminent Persons Group (EPG). This was a high-powered team led by Nigeria’s former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and Australia’s former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. The overall aim of the EPG was to impress on South Africa the compelling urgency of dismantling apartheid and erecting the structures of democracy. Such a process, the Heads stressed, would have to involve the true representatives of the majority black population. Other demands were for the end of the state of emergency, the release of Mandela, and the unbanning of the ANC and other political parties.

On returning to London, Thatcher caused more problems by wanting her foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, to lead the Group. However, this was contrary to the concept of the mission, which the other Heads insisted should be made up of people acting in their personal capacities. In the end, she settled for nominating Lord Barber, the chairman of Standard Chartered Bank and a former chancellor of the exchequer.

Somewhat surprisingly, President P. W. Botha agreed to let the EPG into the country. Between February and May 1986, he allowed the Commonwealth team to meet several ministers and to visit Mandela in Pollsmore prison no fewer than three times.

The Group travelled extensively around South Africa, thanks to the use of an aircraft provided by the Canadian government, and the mission attracted much attention. At one point, Fraser and Obasanjo were pictured walking across the notorious segregated beaches in Durban prominently signposted “Reserved for whites only”.

The mission seemed to be going well, and talks were held with Botha and several of his ministers, including the more liberal and amenable foreign minister, Pik Botha. But all came to an abrupt halt on the morning of 19 May when South African planes crossed the border to the north and bombed alleged ANC targets in Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Although Thatcher thought the EPG should stay and continue talking, the raids prompted Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal to immediately call off the mission with the agreement of Fraser and Obasanjo. Within hours the team was back in London. It seemed at the time that the Group had failed. Thatcher called it a fiasco.

A review meeting held in London in August 1986 was chaired by Prime Minister Lynden Pindling of the Bahamas and attended by seven heads of government, including Thatcher, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India, and presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia. Again Thatcher was difficult, and for the first time the cherished Commonwealth tradition of consensus was broken. The communiqué contained a paragraph setting down the British position on sanctions separately from the rest. At one point, the British accused Ramphal of writing a preface to the EPG report that called more strongly for sanctions than did the report itself. This period has often been seen as the toughest months in Ramphal’s 15 years as Commonwealth Secretary-General. The review meeting in London stirred the British press. The Sun asked: “Who cares if every single black nation walks out [of the Commonwealth]?”

Stormier days were to follow. At the next two CHOGMs, Vancouver in 1987 and Kuala Lumpur in 1989, Thatcher was as combative as ever. In the Vancouver communiqué, paragraphs on South Africa were prefaced five times by the phrase “with the exception of Britain”. Hawke, Kaunda, Gandhi and Mugabe called a press conference to denounce Britain for what they called “a process of disinformation… or misinformation”. Thatcher held a separate press conference and again referred to the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”.

By now, the Commonwealth had become seriously divided and Thatcher did not hesitate to take the view that although she stood alone she was right and all the others were wrong.

However, by the time of the next CHOGM in Harare in 1991, much had changed. Thatcher had been replaced by John Major, Mandela had been released after 27 years in prison, and F. W. de Klerk was now President of South Africa. At the 1987 CHOGM in Vancouver, the Heads had set up a Committee of Foreign Ministers to monitor progress in South Africa – again against Thatcher’s wishes – and within weeks of his release in February 1990, Mandela had been welcomed to a meeting of the Committee in Abuja.

Although the EPG mission had been cut short in 1986 and had been seen, at the time, as a failure, in the end the exercise proved to be a major step on the road to a new South Africa. The subsequent mission report received great international attention – it was even published as a Penguin paperback and became an unexpected bestseller – and its impact proved to be profound. Many of its ideas were fed into the ten-month-long constitutional talks attended by 26 political groups that led to the birth of today’s democratic South Africa. The constitution that finally emerged is still regarded by experts as being among the best in the world.

The magnificent seven

Co-chairman: Malcolm Fraser, Australia. Prime Minister of Australia 1975–83. Founding chairman of CARE, humanitarian aid organisation fighting global poverty with special emphasis on empowering women.

Co-chairman: General Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria. A career soldier before serving twice as head of state, once as military ruler. Held in prison by General Sani Abacha 1995–98.

Lord Barber of Wentbridge, UK. Chancellor of the Exchequer under Edward Heath. Chairman of Standard Chartered Bank until 1987.

Dame Nita Barrow, Barbados. Governor-General of Barbados from 1990 until she died in 1995. During EPG mission she entered restricted Alexandra township disguised in African garb.

John Malecela, Tanzania. Prime Minister of Tanzania 1990-94. Representative to the UN 1964–66. High Commissioner to UK 1989–90.

Sardar Swaran Singh, India. Foreign minister of India from 1964–66 and again in 1970-74. Singh is also his country’s longest serving cabinet minister.

Archbishop Ted Scott, Canada. Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada 1971-86.

About the author:

Derek Ingram is a journalist specialising in Commonwealth affairs.


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