Wearing a white dress, Queen Elizabeth II cast a pale figure amid the joyful colors of African fashion swirling across the burned lawns of London’s Marlborough House one afternoon last month. She had made the pilgrimage to the home of the Commonwealth Secretariat for a short ceremony and a cocktail party welcoming South Africa back into the Commonwealth after a 33-year hiatus. Well-known for her devotion to the Commonwealth, the Queen had to be pleased with the occasion. Earlier, in one of his first acts of international diplomacy, South African President Nelson Mandela had reached out to rejoin a family of nations that is often dismissed as a colonial hangover. But in eloquent remarks to the assembled guests, South Africa’s deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, thanked Commonwealth diplomats for their moral support during the struggle against apartheid. Now, said Mbeki, “South Africa looks forward to playing a leading role as the Commonwealth embarks on new ventures and seizes new challenges.”
But what to do? The Commonwealth has welcomed the collapse of apartheid with plenty of self-congratulation, but is also suffering great unease at what comes next. For two decades, the biannual forum of Commonwealth summits had been little more than a debating society on South Africa and, with that issue now off the table, the 51 governments that make up the organization are seeking a new role. The last time that Commonwealth leaders gathered, in Cyprus in October,
1993, the meeting adjourned angrily after Secretary General Chief Emeka Anyaoku tried to recast Commonwealth members as shock troops for international humanitarian aid. His ambitious Big New Idea ran up against empty pockets. Strapped for cash, the member governments made it clear that they have no desire to establish a parallel United Nations. They told Anyaoku to tone down his aspirations and slim down the bureaucracy at the secretariat.
In fact, the Commonwealth’s future appears almost certain to be modest. For one thing, some members are not shining examples of peace and good government: Sri Lanka has suffered from decades of ethnic strife, for example, and Anyaoku’s native Nigeria is ruled by the military. Meanwhile, the quieter, productive work of the Commonwealth goes on: transferring technology from rich nations to poor; providing monitors to ensure free elections; acting as a catalyst for parliamentarians and businessmen, youth leaders and scientists to mingle; and, of course, staging the Commonwealth Games, which get more ink and TV time than all of its other activities combined.
Even the South Africans, for all their enthusiasm, see limited uses for the Commonwealth. “We want to play a meaningful regional role in the Commonwealth, but we haven’t been keen to jump into places like Rwanda, boots and all,” says Bruce Knoefel, a spokesman in South Africa’s London High Commission. “We look to the Commonwealth on cultural and developmental issues. Political issues are too divisive and tend to split people off into blocs.” The British, perhaps tired of lectures from other Commonwealth states over their reluctance to impose sanctions on South Africa during the 1980s, remain guarded. “Its limited aspirations have been its strength,” said Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in a speech on the Commonwealth’s future last fall. “We will get the most from the organization by working with the nonconfrontational grain of its character rather than trying to turn it into a different type of creature.”
But are modest goals enough to ensure the organization’s survival at a time when governments are scrambling to join regional trading blocs? “The Commonwealth is only as good as the effort that people put into it,” says Britain’s Richard Bourne, who has worked for various
Commonwealth bodies since the early 1980s. “And right now, countries like Canada seem to be less interested. What’s been lacking is a core group of prime ministers who care about the Commonwealth, and who bring their imagination to bear on it”
Bourne is among those eager for the Commonwealth to forcefully reassert its 1971 statement of principles: a commitment to human rights, democratic ideals and economic development. The leaders paid lip service to those concepts at their Harare summit in 1991, but the words will be sorely tested now in West Africa, where democracy is under fire in three of the four Commonwealth countries, including Ghana and Nigeria. There have been some calls to suspend Nigeria from the Commonwealth because its military rulers have imprisoned Chief Moshood Abiola, a businessman who won last year’s aborted presidential elections. And the youthful brigands who just toppled the Gambian government in July recently rejected personal appeals
from Anyaoku to surrender power. A political failure in West Africa would squander much of the moral capital the Commonwealth accumulated during the years of battling apartheid.
For its defenders, that would be unfortunate. In many ways, the Commonwealth is valuable for more than simple nostalgia. It remains a unique club of nations, a tapestry of cultures, religions and races united by history and the English language. Rather than dying, the non-bureaucratic Commonwealth is alive and well: consider the expanding body of literature from writers out of Britain’s former colonies, such as India’s Vikram Seth and Nigeria’s Ben Okri, who are using and modifying the English language to tell their stories and describe their worldview. If the world really is growing ever less trusting of other cultures, a network that offers a chance to reach beyond tribal boundaries or regional power blocs is needed more than ever. It is precisely because it makes such little sense, because it defies modern logic, that the Commonwealth is worth saving. □
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