Peter Young: Bahamas’ Contribution To The Struggle Against Apartheid


Peter Young

By Peter Young

Press reports of remarks by the Prime Minister in New York last month in praise of the Nassau Accord ought to stimulate renewed interest in the role played by The Bahamas in the eventual ending of apartheid some 25 years ago. This agreement, which called for sanctions against South Africa and demanded it should dismantle apartheid and negotiate with the country’s black majority, was the outcome of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Nassau in 1985 attended by The Queen.

There has now been a proposal locally to erect a statue to mark what has been claimed was the start of the process of forcing the white minority government to abandon apartheid and hand over power to black majority rule. However, before pursuing such an idea, it might be helpful to test the validity of this claim and to understand the significance of the Nassau Accord by examining the long and well-documented history of the struggle against apartheid. Having served in the British Embassy in South Africa during the 1970s, I have to confess to a special interest in the subject.

Apartheid – defined as the separate and parallel development of people according to their colour and race -- was introduced in South Africa by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party following its election victory in 1948. This was in response to public concern about a large influx of black people into the country’s urban areas immediately after the Second World War.

In a nation where whites made up about 14 percent of the population and owned almost all the wealth including the best land, apartheid developed into a way of protecting the privileges and way of life of the white community and of reserving the land for themselves. Black people were stripped of their rights as citizens and their dignity as human beings by being systematically dispossessed of land and homes and denied the opportunity to work except to provide cheap labour for whites in their designated areas.

Condemnation of such a system soon followed. Imposed by brute force, it was widely regarded overseas as being morally repugnant and unacceptable in a civilised world. It was also opposed by many within the white community in South Africa itself.

Britain’s stance had been made clear as early as 1960 in the “Wind of Change” speech in Cape Town by then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan which included a veiled criticism of apartheid. The Sharpeville massacre in 1961 – the shooting by police of many black demonstrators -- attracted international opprobrium, and opposition to apartheid grew rapidly while an anti-apartheid movement became active with its headquarters in London which also became the base of the banned African National Congress.

It is significant that, as the former colonial power, Britain, whose interests lay in maintaining economic and trade links and promoting peaceful change, was resolute in condemning apartheid including allowing London to become a centre for overseas resistance. Arms sales to South Africa were banned in 1964 and the Royal Navy base near Cape Town was later closed down. A Commonwealth sporting boycott was imposed and there was gradual economic disengagement by private sector UK companies through reduced trade and investment.

Thus, pressure on the South African government was systematically ratcheted up. According to observers at the time, even in the late 1970s it was becoming apparent to the white elite within the country that the grand apartheid plan was failing.

The policy of creating theoretically independent homelands for black people based on tribal affiliation and “native reserves” did not work as planned because their leaders refused to accept such nominal independence.

The illusion that whites could be the majority in areas they had claimed for themselves faded as white control over the rapidly growing black urban population was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The unravelling of apartheid now became inevitable.

Following the bloody Soweto riots in 1976, political violence grew in spite of steps to share power between whites, coloureds and Indians in a tricameral parliament. But there was gradual acceptance that the key to the future was negotiation with the ANC and the black majority and that the government would have to consider a new constitutional framework to accommodate their political aspirations without bringing about majority domination and suppression of the white minority.

So, by the early 1980s the government had decided to abandon the policy of apartheid and agreed to work for a unified nation. Nonetheless, in the face of rioting and continuing unrest a state of emergency was declared. As a result, concerns remained about the government’s commitment to real reform. Meanwhile, Britain had successfully negotiated the end of white minority rule in neighbouring Rhodesia which became an independent Zimbabwe in 1980 only later to suffer under the increasingly tyrannical rule of Prime Minister, and later President, Robert Mugabe.

Against this background, the Nassau CHOGM was important because its outcome added to the pressure on South Africa to continue on its path to reform. It also established an Eminent Persons Group, which included Sir Lynden Pindling, which later visited South Africa but turned out to be largely ineffective as genuine dialogue between the government and the ANC was beginning to stall. Meanwhile, Sir Lynden had set out his government’s position on apartheid in a speech at the then College of The Bahamas.

At the Nassau meeting, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was isolated over her stance against imposition of sanctions which she believed would weaken the South African economy and slow down reform while damaging the living standards of the poorest in society. She also considered sanctions - rather than maintaining dialogue and encouraging reform - would be counterproductive at a time when the government was taking steps to get rid of apartheid.

She was opposed in Nassau by Commonwealth leaders as well as by critics inside South Africa – including no less a luminary than the nation’s Nobel Prize winner for literature, Nadine Gordimer. Eventually, after separate sanctions by the US government, some measures by the European Community and by Commonwealth countries were put in place following a Special Commonwealth Conference in 1986 which it had been agreed at Nassau should review progress.

It is interesting that during this period Margaret Thatcher was engaging in a direct dialogue with President P W Botha. They met during his 1984 tour of Europe which included Britain, and soon after the Nassau CHOGM she wrote to him urging a public announcement of specific steps towards the ending of apartheid including the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. This fascinating correspondence was highly classified at the time but can now be found online.

Following further negotiations, South Africans went to the polls in 1987 and the outcome was seen as a turning point. The election was won by the National Party and was regarded as an endorsement of the accelerated reform programme that constituted substantive change.

A year later most of the apartheid laws were scrapped. Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 by new South African president F W de Klerk and this set in train a chain of events which led to the first fully democratic elections in South African history in 1994.

It is clear from all this that the ending of apartheid was a gradual process over many years involving negotiation and international pressure on the white minority government to bring about meaningful reform. The 1985 meeting in Nassau was one element of the process of intensifying that pressure. It was not the start of the process, as has been suggested, but it helped to maintain the momentum of an anti-apartheid struggle that was long and tortuous and ultimately successful.

Since the use of force to end apartheid had been ruled out, tools like sanctions and a sports boycott had to be deployed. Although action by the international community was important, the significance of the diplomatic role and personal interaction between politicians, officials and individuals on both sides should not be underestimated as those concerned sought to convince public opinion within South Africa that apartheid had to be brought to an end in the face of worldwide condemnation.

Thus, in the view of some historians, the realisation that eventually dawned within the white community that apartheid was not only fundamentally wrong but also unworkable in practice was crucial – and it was this which originally sounded its death knell.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment