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Australia, Nelson Mandela and the End of Apartheid

Nelson Mandela Day Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and Foreign Minister of Australia 1988-96, Government House, Sydney, 17 July 2012

Of all the meetings with all the leaders and other international figures around the world I have had during all the years of my public life, there is no question as to the one which gave me most pure joy. That was my first meeting with Nelson Mandela, just a few days after his release from prison in February 1990, in Lusaka where he had flown to meet his ANC colleagues in exile.

Partly it was a matter of coming face to face  –  sitting across a table, just the two of us  –  with a man who had long been a personal hero to me since my days as an anti-apartheid student activist, and being simply overwhelmed by the personal qualities that so quickly came to be recognized and applauded so universally around the world.

Madiba is simply the most impressive and humanly decent statesman I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet. I was captivated then, and have remained captivated since, like so many others – including every Australian he met during those  wonderful visits here  –  by that huge luminescent smile, by his unending charm and grace, the lucid intelligence with which he discussed his country’s transition problems, but above all by that extraordinary, almost unbelievable, lack of bitterness toward his Afrikaner gaolers of 27 years.

But another big part of my joy at that meeting back in 1990 was Madiba’s willingness to meet me, as an Australian minister   –  and I was one of the very first foreign officials to greet him  –  to thank Australia for the significant role we had played, despite no pretensions on our part to be a major power, in South Africa’s transformation, and I want to spend a little time this evening tracking back over some of the perhaps now largely forgotten things that we did.

My personal understanding of and commitment to the anti-apartheid cause was triggered, as was the case for so many others around the world, by the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, while I was still at school. When I went to Melbourne University a couple of years later, and became intensely involved in student politics in the mid-‘60s, no issues mattered more on our and other campuses than racism: the need to overturn the White Australia policy once and for all, to get some redress for Aboriginal Australians, and to end the scourge of apartheid.

In 1965 I led a student protect against the arrival of the Springbok rugby team, out at the old Essendon airport. We wore rugby jumpers and black face paint and held up placards saying ‘Why Won’t You Play with Us?”. We were pushed back by the police beyond a wire fence, too far away to be actually noticed by those great burly players with shoulders almost wider than the doorway of the plane from which they emerged. So in my first act of protesting heroism, I jumped over the fence and ran towards the plane with my team of protesters following a little more hesitantly – only to be crash-tackled to the ground by an equally huge policeman, held in an agonizing armlock, and thrown back over the fence. It was at that stage that I decided that the rest of my life was going to be devoted to peaceful protest rather than the more adventurous kind.

International pressure on the apartheid regime began slowly in the 1960s, with oil and arms embargoes and other sanctions gaining some momentum in the 1970s.  The Commonwealth, with the Australia very much in the lead, played a vital role in launching the sports boycott. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced in December 1972 that sporting teams selected on the basis of race would not be allowed to enter Australia, and this position was further strengthened by the Fraser Government which supported the UN General Assembly resolution on apartheid in sport in 1976 and became party to the Gleneagles Agreement in 1977.

While most of my focus will be on Labor Government initiatives, because we were in power at the crucial time, it should be acknowledged that Malcolm Fraser deserves real credit for the political risks he took with the anti-apartheid issue, a deeply unpopular cause in his own party room and among conservative voters during the whole transitional period: there is absolutely no doubt that his personal convictions on matters of race, in South Africa as elsewhere, were absolutely genuine and heartfelt.

Given the breadth and profile of the contacts forbidden it is fair to say that Australia – closely followed by New Zealand – suffered more pain with the sports boycott than anyone else. Or at least anyone else than the cricket and rugby mad white South African community: the sense of isolation and deprivation was not in itself enough to bring down apartheid, but it unquestionably played a psychological role.

It was not until 1985-86, in reaction to the further cycle of violence and repression then occurring that really wide ranging and substantial economic sanctions were put in place by the international community. The Commonwealth, then European Community, U.S. and individual Nordic countries led the way, each drawing successively on precedents set by the others and so creating a ‘wave’ phenomenon.
The new Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who very deeply committed to the anti-apartheid cause, became deeply engaged with the issue at successive Commonwealth meetings during this period, and took the campaign forward in a whole new direction at the 1987 Vancouver Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), suggesting that a major new emphasis be placed on financial sanctions as the best way of putting the screws on the South African regime.

As the 1980s wore on the international community had been gradually coming to the realization the sanctions on trade in goods and services, like the sports and cultural boycotts, were going to be insufficient, and that there had to be some real additional discipline in the form of drying up the sources of trade credit and investment funds, and general support through the banking system. A movement to apply such sanctions had been initiated in city and local governments in the U.S., through the black caucus in the Congress, and pressure on corporate private lenders.  But until 1987 this trend did not really have coherence or focus, and no serious analytical work had been done to establish whether a worldwide financial strike could be sustained, and if so what difference this would make to the South African economy.

Bob Hawke’s particular contribution was to get the Commonwealth to take a leading role on this, beginning by initiating a ground-breaking study, by an expert committee chaired by Tony Cole, who later headed the Australian Treasury, which made clear that financial sanctions were indeed the key to success, and laid all the foundations for their systematic international implementation. To ensure that this work did not just languish in the Commonwealth bureaucracy, we then followed this up – I had by this time become Foreign Minister – by sponsoring the publication of a highly influential Penguin book by Cole and the scholar and author, Keith Ovenden, called Apartheid and International Finance: A Program for Change, which we ensured was circulated among policymakers worldwide.

Another Hawke/Australia initiative at the 1987 CHOGM was the establishment of the Commonwealth Committee of Foreign Ministers (CFMSA), in which I became very closely involved over the next few years, chaired by Canada’s former prime minister Joe Clark and including among others from around Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, a future prime minister of India, Narasimha Rao, and president of Tanzania, Ben Mkapa. Its role was to monitor the evolution of Commonwealth policy, including in particular the new financial sanctions, and to develop a strategy not only of relentlessly increasing sanctions but also winding them back to the extent that particular benchmarks of policy change were achieved by the South African government.

These were years when I and other members of the group consolidated close personal and policy links with the key African National Congress players, particularly Thabo Mbeki, later to become President, and the Mandela generation leaders Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. The CFMSA was a group that developed a very close internal esprit de corps, and gave me some of my most close and long-lasting international friendships, as well as laying the foundations for some very treasured friendships with key players in post-apartheid South Africa.

The Foreign Ministers Committee also gave me but also some of my more memorable diplomatic experiences. One was at the 1989 CHOGM in Malaysia, when a major confrontation developed with Margaret Thatcher’s UK government over its then extremely reluctant approach to applying sanctions pressure, with her very newly appointed Foreign Secretary (and later to be Prime Minister) John Major the man in the middle, neither very well informed about the issue nor any more inclined than any of her other cabinet ministers to take on the Iron Lady.

Things got off to a rather bad start when I suggested to him on behalf of the group that he join us for an informal dinner the night before the formal meetings started, to explore ways of finding common ground, and he replied that he was available, but “did not choose to” have any such discussion. Things got worse when I reported this back to my colleagues, and we had next day – in what diplomatic parlance would describe as a “robust exchange”, and anyone else as a full-scale verbal brawl  –  some extended exchanges across the table on the adequacy of UK policy. I can’t report that we made much difference to the UK attitude on this occasion, but at least the story had a rather charming sequel.  Very soon after the Malaysia meeting, when Major had still only been Foreign Secretary a few weeks, an unexpected resignation elsewhere led to him being appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer.  I sent him a rather cheeky note saying “Dear John, I know we had our differences in KL, but Maggie didn't really have to move you that quickly.”  He replied with splendid grace: “Dear Gareth, Thank you for your message. I did indeed learn something about the language of diplomacy when I was in KL. Maybe that’s why I am now Chancellor. “

The relentless international pressure for change and the ever mounting internal tension had created all the necessary conditions for change, but there was still need of white political leadership clear-headed enough to grasp the moment. That came at last with succession to the Presidency in February 1989 of FW De Klerk, replacing the ailing hardliner PW Botha. The speech he made to launch the reform process in February 1990 was genuinely historic, announcing as it did the Government’s willingness to enter into serious negotiations on a wholly new democratic and non-racial constitutional dispensation, the unbanning of the ANC and other political organisations, and above all the release from imprisonment, after 27 years, of Nelson Mandela, whose life and achievements we celebrate today.   Whatever his past may have been, De Klerk saw the light at the right time, delivered in full on the expectations he  created, has been an influence voice for peace and reconciliation around the world ever since, and fully deserved the Nobel Peace Prize he shared with Madiba in 1993.

Although in a sense once this breakthrough had been made, the rest was history, the transition process was long and gruelling, and with many ups and downs along the way before the country’s first genuinely democratic election was held in 1994. Not all the government’s actions matched its rhetoric, with particular concern being the outbreak of major violence in major Black townships, with apparently well-founded allegations of overt security force incitement. 

The Commonwealth, with Australia again playing a central role, responded by using sanctions again, this time with their lifting as a carrot rather than their application as a stick.  Sanctions were in fact progressively lifted as the apartheid system was unwound, non-racial sports administration achieved, a new constitution adopted and elections held. Australia played an active nuts-and-bolts role throughout this process, instituting a $30 million program to help with infrastructure and human resource development, and providing members to Commonwealth and UN observer groups involved in observing and defusing violence throughout the country, and in assisting in the electoral process.

I first visited South Africa in June 1991, in the early days of the transition process. It is a trip which has assumed a certain legendary status of its own as a result of a carefully contrived press leak (by old guard forces in the South African Foreign Minister who hated what Australia had been doing to undermine their regime). A highly coloured account was put out of another (putting it gently) “robust exchange” I had with a South African security official who I believed was putting at risk the safety of one of my township contacts during an intended low-key visit to Khayelitsha. The highly critical press reports caused me considerable embarrassment at the time, but seems to have done no harm to my reputation among Black South Africans, those of whom with long memories occasionally say to me “man, you really stuck it to them”.

What was much more important than that incident in my 1991 trip was the very clear statements made to me by a number of ministers and officials, subsequently  confirmed in public statements by the Governor of the Reserve Bank and Finance Minister, and years later in conversations with FW De Klerk himself, that the really decisive factor in creating the conditions  for the transition – for the end of apartheid – was the impact of the financial sanctions, from the mid 1980s on, but with much more accelerated impact in the last two years before the De Klerk speech.

The whole process was self-reinforcing in a way that trade sanctions never were and never could have been. Every new financial institution in some part of the world refusing credit, or setting tougher terms, increased the risk for other suppliers still in the field. By 1990 the denial of access to new international capital was dramatically and comprehensively strangling the economy.  South Africa could fund internally growth of no more than 2 per cent a year, but it needed to grow at least 4 per cent or more to create jobs for its expanding population and to maintain existing standards of living. If nothing had changed, the country would have exploded.

So Australia was, I believe, a prominent and effective international voice on the anti-apartheid issue over many years. The sports boycott conceived and led by Australia was psychologically important in creating a sense of isolation and vulnerability, and the financial sanctions – in their fullest application again a significantly Australian initiative  – were profoundly practically important in their economic and ultimately  endgame political impact.

Why did successive Australian governments  – at least from the 1970s on  – commit so much effort to resolving a situation so little of our making? I think the short answer lies in that instinct for good international citizenship which, despite periodic lapses by various governments (and oppositions) which ought to know better, is part of our national psyche. The enforcers of apartheid, proclaiming their superiority to others on the basis of race alone, were not just another unpalatable regime, but beyond the civilized pale.  If we had washed our hands of the struggle against them, we would not only have failed in our humanitarian duty, but would have debased the very values which are at the core of our sense of human dignity.

It’s a fight that had to be won, and I am proud that we played our part in it. And there is no better occasion to recall that fight, and our part in it, than a day like this, celebrating the life and achievement of Nelson Mandela. There is no single person on this planet who could remind us more, by the dignity of his bearing and the humanity which shines through everything he has said and done and is, of what was at stake in this struggle.