From the Archive: Sanctions agreed against apartheid-era South Africa

25 January 2017

From the Archive: Commonwealth leaders agreed a programme of economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa in 1986.

Commonwealth leaders agreed a programme of economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa in 1986, helping to galvanise international action against the apartheid regime.

Sanctions included a ban on both air travel and investments in South Africa, as well as a bar on agricultural imports and the promotion of South African tourism.

Bank loans to South African companies were banned as well as imports of coal, iron, steel and uranium from the country. Consular facilities were also withdrawn under the agreement.

In their communiqué, the heads of government called for “the dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of a non-racial and representative government in South Africa as a matter of compelling urgency.”

“The Commonwealth cannot stand by and allow the cycle of violence to spiral, but must take effective concerted action,” the leaders said. “We trust that the authorities in Pretoria will recognise the seriousness of our resolve.”

‘Not adequate concrete progress’

The leaders of seven Commonwealth member countries were present at the mini-summit in London between 3 and 5 August 1986.

Those attending were President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Prime Ministers Robert Hawke of Australia, Lynden Pindling of The Bahamas, Brian Mulroney of Canada, Rajiv Gandhi of India and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, as well as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Billed as a ‘review meeting’, the mini-summit was convened following the previous year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in The Bahamas, at which the Commonwealth had demanded South Africa dismantle its system of white minority rule.

A taskforce of Commonwealth observers known as the Eminent Persons Group was formed by then Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal following the meeting in Nassau to meet with the government and opposition groups in South Africa.

The Eminent Persons Group was aborted in May 1986 however after an upsurge in violence, after concluding that “at present there is no genuine intention on the part of the South African government to dismantle apartheid.”

Piling on international pressure

Meeting in London, six of the seven leaders present signed up to the sanctions, concluding: “There has not been the adequate concrete progress that we looked for.” The United Kingdom, led by Mrs Thatcher, declined to sign up in full to the agreement and instead offered a “voluntary ban” on investment in South Africa and tourism promotion.

Besides adopting the sanctions, the six heads of government agreed to recommend them to other governments with significant economic links with South Africa. The Commonwealth leaders then appealed directly to the USA, Japan and the European Community to follow their lead.

Not punitive – but corrective

Secretary-General Ramphal, speaking at a conference a few weeks later, insisted that the sanctions were intended as “not punitive but as corrective”.

“[It is] a programme to impress on Pretoria, and those in South Africa who support the regime,” he said, “that apartheid must be dismantled and a future for all South Africans that is truly non-racial and democratic within a united and non-fragmented country.”

The white minority rule government of South Africa had first withdrawn from the Commonwealth in 1961, after being pressured by member states over its apartheid policies.

South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth in 1994 following the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as President.

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