Canada’s unwavering leadership in the anti-apartheid movement was hailed by former Commonwealth secretary-general Sir Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal during a recent visit to Toronto.
In the early 1960s, late Prime Minister John Diefenbaker opposed South Africa’s membership in the Commonwealth and Conservative Brian Mulroney – in the face of opposition from his caucus, cabinet and the government bureaucracy – challenged White minority rule in the republic when he became PM.
In his first year in office in 1985, Mulroney implemented sanctions by restricting official contacts between the two countries, cancelling export aid, scrapping a tax agreement and tightening an arms embargo.
At the Commonwealth Conference in Nassau that same year, he led the campaign to persuade late British PM Margaret Thatcher to strengthen her country’s position against apartheid, played a leading role in the drafting of the 1985 Nassau Accord that provided Pretoria (South Africa’s administrative capital) with six months to respond to economic measures and used his maiden speech at the United Nations to condemn the racist regime in South Africa and warn of stern reprisals unless there was “fundamental change”.
“Sitting here in this room in Canada is the right place to say how great a role Canada played at that moment,” said Sir Shridath at a recent event at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs to unveil his new book, Glimpses of a Global Life. “There were no votes for Mulroney in having a foreign policy that stood against Britain and South Africa and stood for a Black majority against a White minority.
“But Mulroney was steadfast in an anti-apartheid policy. Canadian historians can examine why, but my own instincts led me to think that his own beginnings at St. Francis Xavier University may have played a part in his morass. But for the Commonwealth, his stand and through him Canada’s stand, was seminal in the victory that the Commonwealth scored. I pay tribute to Canada, I pay tribute to Brian and to those who succeeded him. Joe Clark, when it came to be his turn, followed that line too. So that is a big plus for Canada.”
It was no coincidence that Canada was one of the first countries Nelson Mandela visited just four months after his prison release in February 1990. In an unusual move, Mulroney – who was not involved in politics prior to entering St. Francis Xavier University in 1955 – invited Mandela to address a joint session in parliament even though he was yet to become an elected head of state.
In his memoir, Sir Shridath addresses the Commonwealth’s role in ending the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of Southern Rhodesia by a minority White regime, Zimbabwe’s emergence as an independent nation, the fight against apartheid and his tenuous relationship with Thatcher, who was persuaded by Commonwealth leaders in Lusaka in 1979 to try to end the war in Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe.
Replacing late Canadian, Arnold Smith, as the second Commonwealth secretary-general, Sir Shridath spent 15 years in the role until 1990. Eleven of them were with Thatcher as PM.
“She is all you know she is,” he said. “I have attempted to set down my dealings with her faithfully and it produces a picture of several Margaret Thatcher’s. There were several sides to this woman, some quite despicable because what clearly emerged from it was an element of racism in the fact that while she joined the crowd calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, she never joined the anti-apartheid sentiment. She had comfortable relations with (former South African presidents) Pieter Botha and F.W. de Klerk.
“I have expressed the view, some may contend, that had she pursued a policy which I had helped her develop in relation to Rhodesia – if she had pursued that in relation to South Africa – Mandela could have been released at least five years earlier and what a difference that would have made in so many ways. Rhodesia, the UDI and ultimately Zimbabwe produced a Margaret Thatcher which allowed for the movement away from what was becoming close to apartheid.
“The factor, I think in her mind, was not race relations so much as was that Rhodesia and the UDI represented a defeat for Britain, a snub for the Crown because basically Ian Smith had disowned the Crown and declared unilaterally independence.
“That rankled with her and helped me to encourage her to vindicate the position of the Crown. I think that contributed a great deal to her eventual acceptance that Britain had to intervene. That was a big, big decision for her and the Conservative Party in Britain because the party was not for it and she had to prevail over the right wing of the party. But she did it and she took credit for it. I take no credit for it in that I think that the policies of the secretariat helped a great deal.
“Getting there meant the secretariat being firmly on the side of the Patriotic Front of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo and so on. And of course, that has the downside that, in my judgment, Mugabe let us down, let himself down and let Zimbabwe down by entering the realm of megalomania. But that had nothing to do with what was right in 1979 at Lusaka, ending UDI.
“What I wanted was to transpose that into South Africa and to bring that same sense of Black majority rule to the ending of apartheid.”
The late British PM was not the only Thatcher that Sir Shridath had to contend with in his quest to get her to support tougher sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s. Her husband, Sir Denis, who died in June 2003, was a wealthy businessman with hard-right views.
“I haven’t said a lot about Denis in the book but he had quite strong feelings about me,” said Sir Shridath. “He thought I was interfering and turning his wife against South Africa which he knew well because, as a businessman, he was involved in South Africa and with the South African government.”