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Australia's Role in the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of the Australian National University and Foreign Minister of Australia 1988-96, of the Australasian South African Alliance Photographic Exhibition, Australia’s Role in the Struggle for Democracy and Bilateral Cooperation Since 1994, Customs House, Sydney, 11 September 2014

This exhibition has triggered for me a flood of happy memories. How could I ever forget standing alongside Nelson Mandela on the steps of the Opera House in 1990, in front of tens of thousands of cheering Australians, all of us ecstatic at the birth of the new democratic South Africa that we were witnessing, after so many years of dark struggle, and so many fears that the price of democracy was going to have to be terrible further bloodshed?

How could I ever forget my first meeting with Madiba, eight months earlier, 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, and where I was one of the very first international figures to meet and talk with him?   How can I forget being then captivated then, as so many others have been since, by that huge luminescent smile, by the unending charm and grace, by 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?  Of all the meetings with all the international leaders I have had in all my years of public life, there is no question as to the one which has given me most joy.

This exhibition reminds me, and all of us, of so many other things.

For a start, the passion with which so many of us in the student generations of the 60s, 70s and 80s fought the anti-apartheid cause. For me that passion was ignited, as was the case for so many others around the world, by the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, while I was still at school. At Melbourne University in 1965 I led a student protect, not recorded here but certainly etched in my photographic memory, against the arrival of the Springbok rugby team, out at the old Essendon airport, where the only security between us and the aircraft door was a low wire fence and a short stretch of tarmac. We wore rugby jumpers and black face paint, jumped over the fence and held up placards saying ‘Why Won’t You Play with Us?” Thankfully the coppers got to us before the Springboks did, and all I suffered was the indignity of a headlock and being thrown back over the wire fence. But I think 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.

And we’re reminded in multiple ways by these photos of the role of Australian government policy in helping to bring about change, with a real difference being made by the Hawke Government coming to power in 1983 being willing to play every possible card in the international repertoire to put pressure on the apartheid regime.

I don't claim that we were the first or only Australian government to do so. The Whitlam Government played a leading role in launching the Commonwealth sports boycott, with the Prime Minister announcing in December 1972 that sporting teams selected on the basis of race would not be allowed to enter Australia. 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. I think it should be acknowledged that Malcolm Fraser personally deserves real credit for the political risks he took with this issue, which was 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.

But 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, and in this Australia under Bob Hawke’s deeply committed leadership played a quite major role. In particular he moved 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 a scholar friend of mine, 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 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. 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 want to pay tribute to the important role during the whole transition process that was played by a number of  non-government individuals, support groups, and NGOs like the trade-union based APHEDA, some of whom we were able to help with government funding but many of whom were just dedicated self-starters. I also want to pay tribute to the role played by Eddie Funde, a friend of many of us here, as the ANC representative in Australia during the whole relevant period.

I first visited South Africa in June 1991, in the early days of the transition process. It is a trip which generated quite a lot of public controversy as result of a carefully contrived set up of me 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 given to the press by them of a robust description I had offered of South African security officials who I believed, during an intended low-key visit to Khayelitsha, were putting at risk the safety of one of my township-contacts: in short, that they were ‘fucking useless’. This generated highly critical press reports, including back in Australia, where the media then as now were much happier criticising a minister for starting a foreign row than asking whether he might have had good cause to.  But while it all caused me considerable embarrassment at the time, it 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 (including as recently as last week here in Australia, where I shared platforms with him in Melbourne and Sydney) 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  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. I am proud that we played our part in it. And I am delighted that so much of the spirit and atmosphere of the time is captured by this  splendid photographic exhibition, and I congratulate the curator Angus Leendertz and everyone else associated with its preparation and presentation for a job superbly well done.