Nelson Mandela Left His Mark on the Commonwealth

Dr Sue Onslow
Dr Sue Onslow
Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Associate of the LSE IDEAS Africa Programme

In the cascade of tributes to Nelson Mandela following his death on 5 December, 2013, personal friends, liberation fighters in the struggle, fellow politicians and commentators have addressed Mandela’s complex personality and political outlook, his charisma and astute diplomatic skills, legacies for South Africa and the region, and Mandela’s relationships with other heads of state.

No mention was made of his contribution to the evolution of the Commonwealth as a voluntary values-based association of sovereign states: i.e. Mandela’s contribution to the cohesion and scope of a multi-national organisation, not simply to the South African domestic scene, or regional bilateral relations.

Commonwealth support for the international struggle against the apartheid government, and the associated campaign for South West Africa/Namibia’s independence, was a consistent ‘good news’ story for the association in the 1970s and 1980s. Commonwealth activity, both bilaterally and in the multilateral forum of the biennial Heads of Government meeting, consistently sought the end to Apartheid. Agitation to secure Mandela’s release gathered momentum in these decades: through collaboration and support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Commonwealth Sanctions Committee followed by the Commonwealth Committee on Southern Africa from 1987, the many initiatives taken to persuade Mrs Thatcher to adopt financial and economic sanctions, as well as its sensitisation of other governments (The Gleneagles Agreement in 1977 banning international sporting contacts with South Africa was a significant Commonwealth initiative). This sustained anti-apartheid campaign, and the associated drive to secure the release of ANC ‘prisonersof-conscience’ – Mandela had become the most wellknown by the 80s – helped to give the Commonwealth cohesion and a wider sense of identity...

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