They posed for the usual photographs: seven Commonwealth leaders smiling together on the manicured lawn of London's
Marlborough House, the grand 18thcentury residence that serves as the organization’s headquarters. After the two-day mini-summit ended five hours later, a few delegates even issued the usual statements about the Commonwealth remaining as unified as ever. But neither the pictures nor the platitudes were convincing. At last week’s special session on South African apartheid, six of the leaders decided to impose 11 economic sanctions against the white minority regime. But the seventh and most controversial delegate, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, agreed to only two token measures—and then, in her words, “only with reluctance.” The British stand, said Zimbabwe Prime Minister
Robert Mugabe, left him “utterly dismayed and dissatisfied.” And Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi added: “Britain is not the leader anymore, not in the Commonwealth. It is compromising on moral principles for economic need.”
The meeting brought to a head one of the most serious crises in the modern Commonwealth’s 37-year history. But in one sense the meeting was a limited success. Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda did not carry out his threat to withdraw from the Commonwealth over Thatcher’s antisanctions stance, avoiding the serious rupture some analysts had predicted. And the six countries—Canada, Zambia, Zimbabwe, India, Australia and the Bahamas-imposed the punitive sanctions they threatened at a full summit in the Bahamas last October, including bans on air links and agricultural im-
ports. The rest of the 49-nation group is expected to adopt at least the bulk of the package. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who won praise from black Africans for his prosanctions stand, even found solace in Britain’s mild measures—voluntary bans on new investment and the promotion of tourism in South Africa. Those concessions, said Mulroney, represent “some serious movement, which I heartily applaud.”
Blunted: But the fact remained that Britain, which last year earned $7.6 billion in trade, investment and services in South Africa, badly blunted the impact of the measures by refusing to accept most of them. That was a clear setback for Commonwealth countries, which will have to make significant economic sacrifices to impose sanctions. Mulroney said his government is only beginning to
calculate how severely Canada will be affected by its own sanctions, which are expected to take full effect by Oct. 1. But the hardest hit will be the frontline states bordering South Africa.
Shift: Less than 24 hours after the London meeting ended, Pretoria’s foreign minister, Roelof (Pik) Botha announced a series of countermeasures aimed at neighboring nations. And South African customs officials began stopping trucks from Zambia, Zimbabwe and Zaire for long border inspections to help implement a new levy on goods passing through South Africa to Zambia (page 22). Said Allan Cowell, executive director of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders: “The screws are being tightened.”
The outcome of the London meeting
underscored the extent to which Britain has drifted apart from its former colonies in the Commonwealth. As a result, a perceptible power shift is taking place within the association. In the words of one senior Canadian official, “Britain’s participation is declining, and other countries are gradually coming into a leadership role.” Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the Canadian delegation in London was careful not to assert publicly that Canada would seek a more dominant role in the organization, perhaps in partnership with one or more of the other members. But David Steel, leader of Brit-
ain’s opposition Liberal party, declared: “Britain has lost the political and moral leadership of the Commonwealth. That leadership has now passed to Australia and to Canada.” But that pronouncement may be premature. Clearly, the Commonwealth— a unique holdover from the days when Britannia ruled not only the waves but a sizable portion of the earth as well (page 19)—is undergoing change. In recent years the London government has aligned its foreign policy less with the eclectic club of mostly Third World excolonies and more with the European Community (EC) and the United States. Still, British officials deny that they have any intention of abandoning the organization their predecessors created. Lynda Chalker, a minister of state in the British Foreign Office, called the organization “a family of
nations” and added: “That family, like any family, has its stresses and strains. But that family is one family, may it long remain.”
Violence: The London showdown was the most serious step yet in a growing Commonwealth campaign against South Africa, where five million whites rule 24 million disenfranchised blacks and violence has killed more than 2,100 people over the past two years. At the October Bahamas summit the leaders of 46 nations, including Thatcher, imposed vol-
0 untary trade restric5 tions against Pretoria,
1 including bans on gov5 ernment loans and sales
of gold Krugerrand coins. They also agreed to consider a list of “further measures” if a seven-member Commonwealth committee named the Eminent Persons Group could not persuade the South African government to move toward ending apartheid. On June 11 the group reported back: Pretoria, it said, refused to negotiate with black representatives and the Commonwealth should take “concerted action.” The following day, South Africa declared a national state of emergency and began arresting thousands of people without charge.
But Thatcher continued to resist calls to impose harsher sanctions, despite the fact that more than half of the Commonwealth countries protested her stand by withdrawing from the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, which closed two weeks ago.
Thatcher pinned her hopes on a sevenday, EC-sponsored mission to southern Africa by Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe. But most South African black leaders would not even meet with Howe, and two weeks ago President Pieter Botha again refused to make any concessions, setting the stage for what promised to be a heated London mini-summit.
The Commonwealth leaders arrived in Britain hopeful that the Iron Lady would finally bend. A pre-meeting poll in The Sunday Times of London found that 65 per cent of British respondents were dissatisfied with Thatcher’s handling of the sanctions issue, at least partly because she had isolated Britain internationally. “It is getting to the point,” said one Canadian official, “where Thatcher is going to have to act, if only to avoid domestic accusations of mismanagement.” But at the
start of the closed-door session on Sunday, participants said that Howe repeated a familiar British argument. He claimed that strong sanctions would actually punish blacks in South Africa and neighboring countries far more than the Pretoria government. He also said that there was the possibility of “economic warfare” in southern Africa. On the other hand, according to one Commonwealth official, Mulroney made a forceful prosanctions speech in which he said: “This meeting has nothing to do with balance sheets.
It has to do with human dignity.”
Flare-ups: All seven leaders did manage to pass a first-day resolution declaring that South Africa had not made “adequate progress in dismantling apartheid.” But at the Monday morning session the opposing positions quickly hardened.
All the leaders except Thatcher agreed that Pretoria’s intransigence left them no choice but to impose sanctions. Thatcher said that she still opposed a limited embargo but would adopt two limited measures “for the sake of Commonwealth unity.” She also g said Britain would ac£ cept any future EC deci| sion to ban the import | of South African coal, z iron and steel. Accord£ ing to a Canadian official who attended the discussions, both Mugabe and Kaunda sharply rebuked Thatcher for insisting that her prime concern was the welfare of South African blacks, a position which Kaunda had earlier called “paternalistic.” Said the Canadian official: “There were a few flare-ups and moments of tension when the meeting could have turned less productive.”
After a working lunch at 10 Downing Street, Thatcher’s official residence, the six leaders nominated Mulroney and External Affairs Minister Joe Clark to stay on for an hour-long private session with Thatcher and Howe. “There was one particular measure we were trying to get the British to agree to,” Clark said afterward. “But they wouldn’t change their position.” That measure was likely a ban on air links with South Africa, a concession which Australian Prime Minis-
ter Bob Hawke also tried to wrest from Thatcher without success. During the closing afternoon session the leaders briefly considered issuing two separate communiqués but eventually decided on one: a cosmetic attempt to diminish the impact of the internal split.
Read at a midnight conference by Bahamian Prime Minister Sir Lynden Pindling, the meeting’s chairman, the
communiqué expressed “concern and regret” that Britain had refused to accept the sanctions package adopted by the other six countries. In addition to banning air links, the promotion of tourism in South Africa and farm imports, the package included prohibitions on new investment in South Africa or the reinvestment of profits earned there.
Also on the list: the termination of double taxation agreements with Pretoria, a ban on government procurement in South Africa and on government contracts with majority-owned South African companies.
Those sanctions were
all proposed in the Bahamas, but in the London communiqué the leaders added three more. Those were: an end to new bank loans, a ban on imports of uranium, coal, iron and steel, and the withdrawal of all consular facilities except those dealing with a country’s nationals. The communiqué added that further unspecified sanctions could follow unless Pretoria acted “in a reasonable time” to release Nelson Mandela,
the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress, and to drop its ban on the ANC.
Jolt: As Pindling was announcing the sanctions, Thatcher held a separate news conference to explain her own solitary position. She declared that “no one can claim that the British government is not setting an example,” adding that the measures will “give a considerable jolt to the South African economy.” In fact, she told a television interviewer later, because of Britg ain’s close trading relate tionship with South Af* rica, even the limited i British measures would o have more impact on
the longer list of sanctions approved by the rest of the Commonwealth. “A lot of these countries have no financial interests there,” Thatcher said. “So it won’t matter a penny piece to them.” Howe added, however, that the Commonwealth sanctions would not shake South Africa’s resolve. “If the world was to throw the book at South Africa,” said Howe, ‘‘South Africa would throw the book back.”
Publicly at least, the Canadian delegation presented the mini-summit in the best possible light. Mulroney acknowledged that he was “less than ecstatic” about the Commonwealth split, but he insisted that the final communiqué represented “an impressive degree of unity.” The Prime Minister added, “There is little solace in this document for Pretoria.” For his part, Clark told Maclean's: “One of the strengths of the organization is that people’s positions around the table are a little less combative than they are outside. The text of the communiqué could have been a lot more offensive than it was.”
But the black leaders were less diplomatic. Zimbabwe’s Mugabe said that Thatcher had become “an ally of apartheid,” and he added that Britain’s limited measures “amount to nothing, zero.” Mugabe even said that
Zimbabwe might show its disapproval by acting against British interests within its borders. He hinted at one possibility when he told Maclean's: “Must we allow British aircraft to continue to have landing rights in our country, or to overfly our territory?” At a press conference, Zambia’s Kaunda accused Thatcher of “worshiping platinum, gold and the rest.” But he said that he did not make good on
his threat to withdraw altogether from the Commonwealth because he was “impressed” by the British people. “There is no way I could take this decision on the basis of Margaret Thatcher alone,” he said. “She is prime minister, but she is only one person.” In contrast, Kaunda heaped praise on Mulroney, Hawke and Gandhi, whom he called “our stars as usual. I praise them, I thank God for them.”
Wars: The dispute over South Africa is strikingly similar to a 1966 controversy over proposed sanctions against the white minority government in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. On that occasion Kaunda also threatened to withdraw, but he backed down after a summit compromise in which Britain agreed to impose sanctions by the end of that year. The U.S.-led invasion of Grenada in October, 1983, also provoked a split at the subse-
quent New Delhi Commonwealth summit. There, Kaunda and Mugabe led several African nations and India in condemning both the United States and the six Caribbean Commonwealth islands which supported the invasion. Three times Commonwealth countries have even squared off against other members in open combat. There were wars in 1965 and 1971 between India and Pakistan, which left the Commonwealth in 1972. And in 1978 Uganda invaded Tanzania, which resulted in Tanzanian troops overrunning Uganda a few months later and overthrowing its ruler, Idi Amin.
Hostility: Accounts of Britain’s declining role in the Commonwealth may be exaggerated, but the British people do seem decidedly disinterested in the Commonwealth. According to a poll in The Observer newspaper last June, 59 per cent of British respondents were indifferent to the prospect of individual countries leaving the organization. And the boycott of the Commonwealth Games helped to transform apathy into outright hostility. In a presummit article headlined, ‘‘Who the hell needs the Common| wealth?” the once firmu ly pro-Commonwealth « Daily Express claimed Ü that the prospect of a split in the association was probably not alarming to Thatcher or the British electorate. And the London-based tabloid The Sun declared in an editorial that Britain should no longer tolerate abuse from such “Afro-Asian upstarts” as Kaunda and Gandhi. Added the newspaper: “Why doesn’t she simply tell the whole wretched pack of them to get lost?”
Those comments led inevitably to charges that the British attitude toward the Commonwealth countries is racist. Last week in London Gandhi told reporters that it was “very difficult to say” whether racism played a role in Britain’s stance on South Africa today. But a senior Canadian official said: “Racism is an inescapable fact of life in Britain today, and you can see how that influences foreign policy. Politicians know that there aren’t many votes to be won by doing something that is only going to
help blacks in southern Africa.” Britain has also been drifting away from its Commonwealth partners economically. The share of British exports to Commonwealth countries dropped to 11 per cent in 1985 from 34 per cent in 1960. And Britain has grown increasingly dependent on the EC, which it joined in 1973. London contributes 18 per cent of the EC’s total budget for Third World aid—money which is just as likely to go to former French, Dutch and Belgian colonies as to Commonwealth countries. But British officials claim that London’s membership in the EC is on balance beneficial to members of the Commonwealth, since it provides a bridge between industrial-
ized Europe and the developing world. In 1975 Britain helped to ensure that exports from countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean were guaranteed access to Europe under an EC trade agreement.
Conflicts: British officials say that they are not alone in forming political and economic ties with nations outside the association of ex-colonies, which can lead to conflicts with Commonwealth countries. The 13 African countries in the Commonwealth are also members of the 50-nation Organization of African Unity which, at a summit last month in Addis Ababa, condemned Britain’s policy on South Africa. Many Third World members of the Commonwealth, including India, belong to the Non-Aligned Movement, a group which frequently criti-
cizes the policies of Western industrialized countries. And the Canadian government, by trying to negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States, has signalled that Canada’s economic future will depend more on close relations with its southern neighbor than with the rest of the world.
Influence: Some British politicians have said openly that London should consider pulling out of the Commonwealth. Enoch Powell, a right-wing Unionist MP from Northern Ireland, said that in recent years some Commonwealth countries have abused their membership by trying to force changes in British foreign policy, turn-
ing the organization into “an instrument for external duress.” But the London Financial Times, in an editorial last month, said: “The Commonwealth is a blessing to Britain because no other former imperial power—and no superpower either—maintains such a range of contacts around the world. Membership enables people to talk to each other in a way that they might not otherwise do.” Sir Shridath Ramphal, the Commonwealth’s Guyanese secretary general, wrote recently in The Times that the association enlarges Britain’s “role and influence in the world.”
The Commonwealth is clearly valuable to its smaller members. One economic consultant to the Third World said that in the most cynical sense membership in the organization
“boosts the vanity” of the leaders of tiny states. “After all,” said the consultant, “if you are president of Sierra Leone, what else is there?” More vital is the economic relationship. Hugh de Santis, senior fellow with Carnegie Endowment in Washington, said the Commonwealth is unlikely to “come apart at the seams. Where would people like Kaunda go economically? There is a relationship there that is pretty important to some of these countries.”
The association’s summits, held every two years, often produce agreement on nothing more than broad generalities, such as the need to reduce the risk of nuclear war. But the group
has made important political decisions, notably at the Lusaka summit in 1979 when Commonwealth leaders drew up a plan under which Zimbabwe gained majority rule. Now, the organization has taken on South African apartheid. Gandhi said last week that he believes the sanctions package, despite Britain’s limited participation, “will have a substantial psychological impact on South Africa.” It has already had a substantial impact on the Commonwealth itself, touching off a bitter family feud between the former mother country and its onetime colonial wards. By the time the fighting is over, the Commonwealth could be permanently altered.