Mr. Mole is a PhD Student at the University of Exeter. He was Special Assistant to the Secretary-General (1984-1990), Director of the Secretary-General’s Office (1990-2000), and Director General of the Royal Commonwealth Society (2000-2009).
Nowadays, Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal – lawyer and international diplomat – is well settled into retirement, though still a giant figure in his native Caribbean and still able to stir the memories of older generations who remember his boundless activism on the world stage.
From 1975 to 1990 he was the longest-serving Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations, and for six of those years I was lucky enough to be his Special Assistant. It was an exhilarating time, now given new immediacy by the recent publication of his memoir Glimpses of a Global Life (2014).
This weighty and enthralling record demonstrates a contribution to international affairs which was multi-faceted and never less than exceptional. He served on a string of international commissions, including Brandt, on development and the North-South divide; Bruntland, pioneering the notion of sustainable development; and Palme, on peace and international security. There were other issues where his intellectual leadership and courage stood out. He was among the first to warn Africa and the world of HIV/AIDS – and among the first to speak of sea-level rise and climate change, many decades before such talk became common currency.
But perhaps he is best remembered for his titanic struggle against racism in Southern Africa – in the eventual vanquishing of white minority rule in Rhodesia and, more than a decade later, in helping bring to an end apartheid in South Africa.
Keenly aware of how his own family was caught up in slavery in the West Indies (through his great-grandmother’s bondage as an indentured labourer on the sugar plantations of Demerara, in what was then British Guiana), Ramphal sees apartheid as slavery’s modern day equivalent. In the inhumanity and brutality of systemised ‘otherness’, and in the voices of those who were apartheid’s apologists, he hears the echoes of an earlier crime against humanity. Its destruction became a driving passion from his earliest days as Foreign Minister of Guyana.
But it was as Commonwealth Secretary-General that he recognised how central the issue of race was to the future of the modern, multi-racial Commonwealth. His relationship with Margaret Thatcher – one of the UK’s longest-serving Prime Ministers, and overlapping his fifteen-year tenure by all but four years – was at the heart of the matter. Their battles characterised a wider conflict between the UK government and the Commonwealth as a whole. On Zimbabwe, Ramphal was outraged by what he saw as a British policy riven with double-standards and constantly teetering on the edge of the betrayal of the black majority. On South Africa, in Mrs Thatcher’s fervent opposition to sanctions, he perceived the UK providing aid and comfort to apartheid, long after the world had expressed its condemnation and whatever the UK’s own protestations.
However, regardless of their deep disagreements, Ramphal knew that he needed to work with Mrs Thatcher wherever he could, bound not only by duty to a prominent Head of Government but drawn by the necessities of realpolitik. He saw this as a Manichean struggle to engage her formidable intellect and to supress her natural instincts. He was also aware that confrontation with Thatcher, and her isolation – though sometimes necessary – was not the best ways of winning her round.
On Zimbabwe, with the newly-elected Thatcher government poised to recognise the flawed ‘internal settlement’ and its figurehead, Bishop Muzorewa, Ramphal skilfully brought Commonwealth opinion to bear and laid the groundwork for agreement at the 1979 Commonwealth summit. That eventually resulted in the Lusaka Accord, leading directly to the Lancaster House talks on Zimbabwe’s independence, including the parties of the Patriotic Front.
Even so, Ramphal recalls a conversation with Thatcher as they walked on the lawns of Government House in Lusaka, the Accord now effectively sealed in President Kaunda’s study. “You realise, of course, that we have given it to the Communist”, she told him, suggesting that her instincts we not always so unreliable (and far ahead of the intelligence she was receiving through the Foreign Office).
There were other instances when Mrs Thatcher worked with the grain of Commonwealth opinion, rather than against it. In 1986, she played a decisive part in persuading the South African President, PW Botha – the ‘Old Crocodile’ – to reverse his decision to bar the mission of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, tasked with the difficult challenge of negotiating the end of apartheid.
That much Ramphal readily recognises. He also recalls other moments of united resolve, such as when the Commonwealth mobilised diplomatically to stand resolutely behind the UK in the Falklands War. Out of that conflict – as well as the crisis in, and invasion of, Grenada a few years later – developed the Commonwealth’s lasting concern with the special, and multiple, vulnerabilities of small states.
Even so, for much of the time, particularly over sanctions, it was a fundamentally bruising relationship which generated animosity and suspicion in both camps. Ramphal recalls the remark of the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, that he was prepared “to swim the Atlantic twice” to frustrate Ramphal’s candidacy as UN Secretary-General. Ramphal said of Thatcher: “She avowed disapproval of apartheid but, in the eyes of most, she became apartheid’s steadfast protector”. Their relationship, unsurprisingly, was ‘always cordial … never consistently warm”. Yet, when the time came for Ramphal to relinquish office, she tried to persuade him to stay. When that proved to no avail, she recommended him for one of the UK’s highest honours, hosted a splendid dinner for him in Downing Street and repeated her description of him as ‘a superb Secretary-General’.
Despite the scar tissue, Ramphal was genuinely touched by such a handsome tribute.
Some months before, Nelson Mandela had stepped into the sunshine outside Victor Verster prison, at the end of his 27 long walk to freedom, and at that point the prime agent of his nation’s liberation. In the anxious and fraught years that followed, leading up to the 1994 ‘freedom’ elections in South Africa, Ramphal was no longer directing the work of the Commonwealth (though the organisation remained fully employed in its task). But he was among those that Nelson Mandela had in mind when he said: ”You elected not to forget… Even through the thickness of the prison walls… we heard your voice demanding our freedom”.
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