It is with sadness that the Royal Commonwealth Society joins South Africa and the international community in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela. The Commonwealth has lost an extraordinary and inspirational champion of the values that are its strength . He will be remembered for his innate dignity, his compassion and his unbounded capacity to draw a quality of forgiveness out of hatred
As we reflect on Mandela's passing, many Commonwealth commentators will remember the association's opposition of the apartheid movement, and its support for inclusive democratic elections in South Africa as its finest hour. Writing in the RCS publication 'The Commonwealth at 60: Past, Present and Future', FW de Klerk, President of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and Mandela's fellow Nobel Peace Prize awardee wrote:
"...apartheid policies...were, understandably, anathema to the new multiracial Commonwealth. South Africa reluctantly withdrew and set its lonely course toward stormy international isolation and embattlement.
Although South Africa left the Commonwealth, the Commonwealth did not leave Southern Africa. Rhodesia and Britain’s continuing ties with South Africa continued to dominate the agendas of many subsequent CHOGMs. In 1986 the Commonwealth despatched an ‘Eminent Persons Group’ to South Africa to see what they could do to help to resolve the country’s deepening crisis. However, the EPG was unsuccessful primarily because the then government believed quite genuinely that its demands would mean the end of white South Africans’ right to self-determination and the imposition of an ANC/SA Communist Party dictatorship.
Times changed. The Berlin Wall came down. A new generation of Afrikaner leaders came to the fore and all South Africa’s major internal and exiled parties reached the conclusion that neither revolution nor continued white minority rule were viable options. The stage was set for the process of inclusive constitutional negotiations that I was able to initiate in February 1990. In the subsequent process, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (in particular) and the Commonwealth (in general) played a constructive role. The talks culminated in our first inclusive democratic elections on 27 April 1994 - which, among many other benefits, enabled us to rejoin the Commonwealth the same year.
I was personally very happy about the restoration of full and normal relations with Britain and with the Commonwealth. When I was a student, I had had the opportunity of visiting Britain as an Abe Bailey Scholar. I was able to travel extensively in Britain and developed an affection that has grown over the years for the country, for its people - and for the values that have been incorporated into the Commonwealth’s ethos. There is a place for a grouping of states that shares some common history, values, language and tradition (including cricket) and that cuts across the first world/third world divide. The challenge for the Commonwealth in future years will be to tackle the need for fairer trading relations and the challenges of poverty and governance with the same enthusiasm that it was always able to muster in its opposition to apartheid."
The Royal Commonwealth Society itself played a part in the Commonwealth's opposition of the apartheid moment. When many, including the British government under Margaret Thatcher, still considered South Africa’s Africa National Congress (ANC) to be a terrorist organisation, the RCS supported its struggle and provided the party with an informal base from which to work in London. Anti-apartheid supporters, Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Dr Allen Boesak were often to be seen sharing a drink in the RCS bar with Thabo Mbeki, then in charge of the ANC’s press relations. Following his release from jail, in recognition of the Commonwealth’s brave fight against apartheid and the RCS’s support for the ANC, Nelson Mandela chose the Club as the venue for his first press conference in Europe.
As we reflect on this history and on Mandela's extraordinary life, we hope that his courage and compassion will continue to inspire the Commonwealth and wider international community.