At its October 1985 summit in Nassau, the 49-member Commonwealth decided "to establish a small group of eminent Commonwealth persons" that would attempt to encourage the process of political dialogue in South Africa. The mandate of the Eminent Persons Group, as it is known, was set out in the Commonwealth Accord on Southern Africa, or the Nassau Accord. This accord called on the South African government to, among other things: "initiate, in the context of a suspension of violence on all sides, a process of dialogue across lines of colour, politics and religion, with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government." The EPG’s mission was to encourage this process and "to leave nothing undone that might contribute to peaceful change. . . ."

Over the course of six months, members of the group met with a uniquely wide range of members of the government (with whom more than 20 meetings were held) and almost all the significant leaders of the black population, including Nelson Mandela, other leaders of the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress (PAC), and the Frontline states. On the basis of these meetings and the guidelines set out in the Nassau Accord, the group developed a "possible negotiating concept" for getting a dialogue between the South African government and the black majority under way. The concept was presented to the government in March 1986, and subsequently to the ANC, the United Democratic Front and other groups in South Africa.

After meeting with the South African Cabinet Constitutional Committee on May 19, 1986, the EPG returned to London to frame its final report, made public on June 12. It concluded that the South African government is "not yet prepared to negotiate fundamental change, nor to countenance the creation of genuine democratic structures, nor to face the prospect of the end of white domination and white power in the foreseeable future."


The Commonwealth Group on South Africa reluctantly but unequivocally came to the conclusion that at present the South African government is not ready to and has no intention of negotiating in good faith. Its concept of negotiation is not one that can meet the escalating problems of South Africa. The group reached this conclusion on the basis of the government’s own communications and discussions with it.

In addition, recent actions of the government have further fouled the possibility of negotiations and have confirmed our group’s view that we are not dealing with a government that wishes to negotiate. On the May morning on which the group met with the eight government ministers of the cabinet committee in Cape Town, South Africa attacked three neighboring Commonwealth countries, two of which had nominated General Obasanjo and John Malecela to the Commonwealth group. This was a significant provocation. Even so, the group continued with its meeting, wanting to press to the ultimate the possibility of achieving negotiations. The government subsequently introduced new and draconian security legislation, which was passed by the President’s Council over the objections of Parliament; this was quite unnecessary, given the panoply of powers already available. The comments of State President P. W. Botha were uncompromising. Renewed attacks on the credibility and character of the ANC were launched.

It is important to understand why the government turned its face against negotiations when they were within its grasp on the basis of the "possible negotiating concept," which the EPG had put to it some three months earlier. The concept proposed specific actions by the South African government to create a climate of confidence, namely: "removal of the military from the townships, providing for freedom of assembly and discussion and suspension of detention without trial; the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners and detainees; the unbanning of the ANC and PAC and the permitting of normal political activity." The concept also proposed reciprocal measures by the ANC and others, to be announced simultaneously: suspending violence and entering negotiations.

The government had earlier accepted the idea of a suspension of violence, but then returned to its insistence on renunciation of violence "as a means of attaining political goals," a demand which was not capable of being achieved and which, in the group’s common judgment, was unreasonable. The Commonwealth report explains our view that it was neither possible nor reasonable to have people permanently forswear the only power available to them should the government walk away from the negotiating table. In a situation in which people have no rights and no participation in their government, ultimately they cannot be denied the right to take up arms.

The government did not pick up the suggestion of enabling Nelson Mandela to communicate with other black leaders, whether in jail or elsewhere in South Africa. After our group left the country, an attempt was made by the government to have Mandela meet Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, but Mandela had insisted, quite justifiably, on being able to meet with his own people first so that a group view could be properly formed. Discussions between Mandela and Buthelezi would necessarily have had to take place at a later stage.

The government may well have been unwilling to face the prospect of negotiating with a united African opposition led by Mandela. From the discussions we had with Nelson Mandela, which had been fully reported to the government, that prospect was a likely one. In Buthelezi’s view, Mandela’s release is necessary to defuse violence and to bring about a solution.

The government has reiterated throughout that the exercise of economic and political rights in its constitutional dispensation would have to be through racial groups and would require the maintenance of the Population Registration Act, which stipulates that all individuals be classified by race. In all of our group’s discussions with it, the government emphasized that any dispensation would only be negotiated within the context of its reform program, which has at its heart "group" rather than individual rights. That is, it "would give expression to individual aspirations only within the confines of their ethnic groups," as the EPG report puts it; group rights would "take precedence over individual rights, with built-in assurances of no one group being dominated by others." This primacy of group, as opposed to individual, rights excludes the establishment of a truly democratic structure and is designed to perpetuate white control of power. Other nonnegotiable government positions are that the homelands policy remain in place, and that the present tricameral constitution be the vehicle of future reform. It would seem that the government has decided to proceed with its program and, if necessary, to impose it by force, believing, falsely, that a sufficient number of blacks will in the end support it.


On the basis of existing policies, our group is unanimous in holding the view that a much greater descent into violence is inevitable. Black leaders were always skeptical of the government’s intention to negotiate in good faith. They will take our report as confirming their skepticism, though of course the group did not set out to do so. Other things being equal, the more radical elements will use the report to push through decisions involving full-scale guerrilla warfare of a kind that the blacks would inevitably win over time, but at enormous cost in terms of black and white lives as "soft targets" (i.e., civilians) came increasingly to be attacked by both sides. To that would have to be added great destruction of property and real assets.

There is only one factor remaining which might prevent that kind of destruction. If the major Western states that have trade weight with South Africa really seek to bring pressure to bear on the South African government, those decisions toward greater violence may be deferred and may even be made unnecessary. That pressure can only be evidenced through sanctions. Without such actions, the view of black leaders that they are without fundamental support from the West will again be confirmed.

The kind of government that would emerge from increased violence through much larger-scale civil conflict, whether it is eight or ten years hence, or even longer, would be totally radical, owing its allegiance to those countries from which it would obtain arms and support. The politics of the whole of southern Africa would be soured. Such a government would nationalize all major corporations. The strategic, economic and commercial interests of the West would be destroyed.

We reject completely the argument that international pressure will force the South African government to withdraw into itself. That commonly held view is masterly disinformation. It has hitherto been successful in persuading major states not to take substantive measures or impose sanctions against South Africa. The Afrikaners have, in fact, only changed course when under extreme pressure. Any minimal change which has been achieved in South Africa recently has been as a result of substantial pressure, mostly from within South Africa, not as a result of quiet persuasion. Over the last five or six years, the two most powerful leaders in the free world—President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher—have attempted, by diplomacy, by "constructive engagement," to achieve change. At this time, the condition of the blacks is worse than it was at the beginning of this approach because of the successive emergencies and the use of punitive powers. Why would anyone expect words alone to be successful tomorrow or next year?

Proposing policy toward South Africa was beyond the purview of the Eminent Persons Group, but the group did offer the judgment that if the South African government comes to believe that no economic measures will be taken against it, the process of change will stall and the descent into violence will hasten. It stated further that the current absence of measures has in fact deferred change. Concerted, effective action, it suggests, "may offer the last opportunity to avert what could be the worst bloodbath since the Second World War."

While the Commonwealth group’s report did not go into the details of measures that might be undertaken, we, as co-chairmen, have a common view. The South African government is most vulnerable to actions in three broad categories and would be most likely to respond to pressure in these areas.

The first involves measures that will deliver a direct message to white South Africans by serving as irritants because of the inconvenience they would cause. It was the Commonwealth group’s firm impression that international action that hurts the white constituency has been and can be extremely effective. In this category, we have in mind the banning of airlinks and the removal of consular facilities, in particular.

We believe that there should be a ban on airlinks with South Africa so that people wanting to travel there would have to do so via Harare or Lusaka. At one stroke, the traditional dependency of the Frontline states on South Africa would be reversed. The United States would have it in its power to ensure that everyone complied with such a measure by making continuing landing rights in the United States dependent on compliance.

The removal of consular facilities from South Africa so that South Africans would be required to apply to embassies in other countries for visas, etc., would, in our view, be an effective measure in conveying international opposition to apartheid. Governments would, of course, continue to provide consular facilities in South Africa for their own nationals. Measures such as these would help convey directly to whites in South Africa the extent of international opposition to apartheid, because it is primarily whites rather than blacks who use the airlines and consular services.

The second category relates to the tightening of restrictions in the banking and financial area. Obviously, new investment will not take place in the current circumstances, so there are some commercial pressures operating already. They could be significantly reinforced by the denial of trade credits and the freezing of South African individual and corporate bank accounts held outside South Africa. These are areas of major concern to South Africans.

The third category concerns a ban on the import of South Africa’s bulk commodities—minerals, food and agricultural products. South Africa is very vulnerable in regard to its exports. Even so-called strategic minerals could in our view be banned without harm to the West or without requiring purchase from the Soviet Union. Supplies are available in other countries, and technological change is reducing the demand for some minerals.

With the exception of clearly defined items such as armaments, merchandise exports from other countries are relatively easily shipped on by a third party to South Africa. While we have no problem with calling for restricting merchandise exports to South Africa, we suspect that it may be harder to get the agreement of major states, and we have doubts as to how effective such a restriction could be because of the possibility of involvement of third parties.

On the other hand, restrictions on South Africa’s own export sales would be easier to apply and supervise. It would obviously be important to achieve the compliance of major industrial countries in addition to the United States and Britain, especially Japan and European countries, because they are significant importers of South African goods. We believe that there would be a good deal of support in Europe for such a program, and we know that Japan would implement any policy adopted by the United States.

Another advantage in limiting the purchase of South African exports is that they would involve commodities that are nearly all in over-supply. As a consequence, importing countries would-not find themselves penalized if they had to purchase from other sources. Even the Frontline states have called for economic sanctions, in full awareness of the risks to them.

The Nassau Accord noted steps that Commonwealth countries had already agreed upon to demonstrate their opposition to apartheid, and stated that further measures would be considered if significant progress had not been made in six months. Among the measures it suggested for consideration were the bans that we have mentioned in this article on airlinks and imports of agricultural products. The accord spelled out a number of additional steps that could be taken, namely: the termination of double taxation agreements with South Africa; the termination of all government assistance to, investment in, and trade with South Africa; a ban on all government procurement in South Africa; a ban on government contracts with majority-owned South African companies; and a ban on the promotion of tourism to South Africa. While we support such steps, we do not believe that they would in any way be sufficient. They would not go to the heart of the economic structure of the country, and we believe that the South African government would feel that it could live with them.

Furthermore, the accord’s suggested ban on new investment or reinvestment of profits earned in South Africa may serve some purpose, but, as a result of internal political developments, there is unlikely to be much new investment in that country in any case. Such measures are therefore largely symbolic.


As a general comment, we would make the point that the claim by opponents of sanctions that sanctions will destroy South Africa is a false argument. It is rather the continuation of apartheid, which will lead to increasing violence, that will destroy the country’s economy. Sanctions, of themselves, could lead to the closure of factories or mines, but these could be reopened once the political situation has been resolved. But if there is conflict involving growing guerrilla or civil warfare, the damage to the economy could be massive and far more difficult to repair than any effects of sanctions.

The argument is also made that sanctions will not work. We do not accept this view. For example, the decisions of international banks last year to refuse to rollover short-term credits and to begin calling in their long-term loans had real impact on South Africa. Even in the case of Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), in spite of South African efforts to thwart sanctions against that country, politicians across the political spectrum in Zimbabwe would now accept that sanctions did have some effect. In South Africa’s case, if sanctions were to be applied by all major industrial countries, there would be no neighboring country willing to provide the conduit to circumvent international sanctions, as South Africa did in Rhodesia’s case.

It is important to understand also that the South African government believes in economic sanctions as an instrument of national policy. It has applied such measures against its neighbors on a number of occasions, and its discussions with us have made clear that its ministers fear the imposition of sanctions against their own country.

It is quite clear that gentle diplomacy and quiet persuasion have failed. It is our very firm view that the South African government will never be moved by such approaches; that it will, in fact, only be moved by pressures; and that what it has done so far, little as it is, has been achieved primarily as a result of internal pressure. There is no guarantee that sanctions will work, but greatly increased international pressure involving the use of sanctions offers the only chance to avert the tragedy of which we speak involving the destruction of all Western interests in South Africa.

We emphasize that the time is very short. Black leadership has been patient for many decades, but that patience is running out. Without substantive and effective sanctions from the United States and Britain, which would give a lead to the rest of the industrial world, the black leaders will decide that they are on their own and must greatly intensify their fight for political rights. That would involve the commencement of a total guerrilla conflict, with consequences for all of southern Africa. If the West has not shown substantive support by this fall, the black leadership will in our view take these irreversible decisions. Once a guerrilla struggle has commenced, it will be almost impossible to return to the negotiating table until one side becomes exhausted by long years of conflict.

At that point it will be important for the United States and Britain to be in a position of influence. Even if we knew that sanctions would not work (and nobody can make that assumption with any validity), we would still be in favor of the West applying sanctions. The West would then be on the right, the just side of history. That is important for the conduct of American and British foreign policy in many different parts of the world. In addition, the effect of sanctions would have been to shorten the conflict considerably, compared to what would have been the case in the absence of sanctions.

If America and Britain do not act, and once guerrilla war has broken out in a major way in South Africa, people will say: if only America had acted, if only Britain had acted. The consequences of inaction now would remain with the United States and Britain for many years and would severely limit their influence in many parts of the world. Both countries have been among the great liberalizing forces through the last 50 years. It would be a tragedy for that reputation to be besmirched by inaction now.

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  • The Rt. Hon. Malcolm Fraser, proposed by the Australian Prime Minister for appointment to the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons, was Prime Minister of Australia 1975-83.
  • General Olusegun Obasanjo, proposed jointly by the Zambian President and the Zimbabwean President, was the head of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria 1976-79.
  • The findings of the Commonwealth group were published under the title, Mission to South Africa: The Commonwealth Report, Penguin, 1986.
  • More By Malcolm Fraser
  • More By Olusegun Obasanjo