University of Exeter
If the first casualty of war is truth, the last act of a tyrannical regime is to attempt to expunge all evidence of its crimes. In 1992, with apartheid’s end in sight, South Africa’s President, FW De Klerk, authorised the destruction by the National Intelligence Agency of 44 tonnes of incriminating material. This was incinerated at night at a location outside Pretoria. Vast amounts of other sensitive records have also disappeared, in what Verne Harris has called a “large-scale and systematic sanitisation of official memory”. But Hennie Van Vuuren and his team of researchers from the not-for-profit organisation ‘Open Secrets’ have been driven by the firm belief that apartheid’s secrets must be exposed, and that truth will out. Over five years of meticulous research they have examined around 2 million documents in over two dozen archives across the world. In South Africa itself, through fifty freedom of information requests, they were able to access recently de-classified papers in eight government departments.
The result is a 600-page blockbuster, now available in the UK (Apartheid, Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit, London C. Hurst & Co 2018). With a focus on the last fifteen years of apartheid, the author argues that the apartheid regime went to increasingly covert and illegal lengths to defend its position in the face of international sanctions and growing unrest in the townships and on its borders. A war economy was built, and around one-third of the state budget was spent on security and the military (though the scale of the expenditure was concealed). Externally, a network of political, business, intelligence and criminal links were constructed in over fifty countries so that South Africa could evade the oil and arms embargo, launder money and circumvent sanctions. Those nations accused of giving succour to the regime are not only those of the West – such as the USA, France and the UK – but, surprisingly, countries such as East Germany, Russia and China who proclaimed their support for the liberation movements. In the case of China, van Vuuren’s remarkable accusation is that while ostensibly backing the Pan-Africanist Congress and, later, the African National Congress, the People’s Republic supplied arms to the South African regime throughout the 1980s (while also continuing to arm its liberation partners). Continue reading “Apartheid’s Secrets and Lies”
University of Exeter
April 2018 saw unaccustomed media coverage of the Commonwealth. At the beginning of the month, the XXI Commonwealth Games opened on Australia’s Gold Coast. There were an equal tally of medals won by male and female athletes and the integration of able and Paralympic athletes was striking. Though far from being a global Games, world records tumbled. Unusually, politics has featured, with English diving champion, Tom Daley, urging changes to the archaic and oppressive laws which deny equal rights on LBGT issues in many Commonwealth countries.
A few days after the Games’ closing ceremony, the biennial intergovernmental summit convened in London (the first such gathering in the UK for over twenty years). The high turnout of Heads of Government was less an indicator of the organisation’s contemporary vitality and more a sign that the Queen’s offer of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle for significant parts of the summit had proved particularly attractive to Commonwealth leaders and their spouses. At the end of the week, the Commonwealth’s presidents and prime ministers dutifully agreed that Prince Charles would succeed his mother as the organisation’s next Head – though no vacancy is currently in the offing.
Among this calculated pomp and splendour came publication of Professor Philip Murphy’s latest book: The Emperor’s New Clothes: the Myth of the Commonwealth (2018, C. Hurst & Co, London). Murphy is a distinguished historian and Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London. As a Commonwealth sceptic, why he should have taken on his current role is one that even he struggles to explain. There was no gap year spent cycling across Malawi, no father in colonial service in Malaya. His childhood was spent in Hull and “overseas” was summer holidays on the Isle of Man. Continue reading “Exploring Commonwealth Myths”
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. Continue reading “Sonny Ramphal’s Global Life”