Since December 5, that fateful day when Nelson Mandela left the world bereft of a leader the like of whom mankind had seldom experienced, much has been written and spoken in deserving tribute to him. But, it should not be forgotten that he was once called a “terrorist”; and apartheid – the system of institutionalised racism against which he fought, losing 27 years of his freedom – was justified by many governments for whom the Cold War alliance with the racist regime that controlled the country was more important than the rights of non-white South Africans.
The purpose of this commentary is to recall the role played by Caribbean people in freeing Mandela and ending apartheid. No Caribbean people or leader played bigger roles than the Cubans and Fidel Castro. Much Cuban blood was spilled and many hundreds of Cubans were buried in Angola over a 13-year period in a war against South African forces for the liberation of Southern Africa. Mandela did not forget that sacrifice.
Other Caribbean people played important roles too. Despite the antagonism of the United States government, which then stood beside the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Prime Ministers of Barbados and Guyana, Errol Barrow and Forbes Burnham, opened up their countries’ airports in the mid-1970’s for Cuban planes to refuel to and from Angola transporting Cuban military advisers and equipment.
Long before this – in the 1950’s – English-speaking Caribbean countries, though still British colonies, boycotted the importation of South African products to protest the institutionalisation of apartheid in South Africa as well as a series of laws that stripped non-whites of rights, corralled them into concocted reserves, exploited them as cheap labour and banned their political parties.
Some contributions were overt, such as the financial support given to Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) by the governments of Guyana and Jamaica under Forbes Burnham and Michael Manley in the 1970’s. Other contributions were not in cash but significant nonetheless – like the government in Antigua under V.C. Bird Snr giving its passports in the 1980’s to ANC exiles who were deprived of travel documents by the apartheid regime and were otherwise stateless.
The sporting boycott of South Africa initiated in 1977 by Commonwealth Heads of Government proved painful to white South Africans and was one of the sanctions that helped to end apartheid. The small Group of leaders at Gleneagles in Scotland that negotiated the boycott included prominently, Michael Manley The Group had as support the deft hand of another Caribbean man, Guyana-born Sir Shridath Ramphal, who by then was Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.
The sports boycott of South Africa hit the apartheid regime hard where it counted most – at home, and amongst white people whose teams could no longer participate in the Commonwealth Games or play international rugby and, worse of all, could no longer compete in cricket.
Other Caribbean men stood-up then as well. Between 1982 and 1984, South Africa lured cricketers from many countries to play in South Africa to break the sporting ban. Some West Indian cricketers went without the consent of their governments and their cricket authorities, but not the most outstanding ones the South Africans most desperately wanted to parade – among them Clive Lloyd (Guyana), Vivian (later Sir Vivian) Richards (Antigua), Joel Garner (Barbados) and Courtney Walsh (Jamaica) who stood firm in their solidarity with the oppressed in South Africa.
The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1985 in Nassau, The Bahamas, is remembered by historians as the turning point of the Commonwealth’s struggle with Britain’s Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, in her obdurate opposition to ‘sanctions’ against apartheid South Africa. Thereafter, she no longer held a veto on Commonwealth sanctions.
The Bahamas Prime Minister Lyndon Pindling, as Chair, steered the meeting to that end. It was sanctions – started by the Commonwealth and pushed into the United Nations – that eventually crippled the apartheid regime, drying up loans from the international market and deterring investment.
But the Nassau Meeting also established the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) with a mandate to promote a process of dialogue for change, for ending apartheid and establishing a genuine non-racial democracy in South Africa. Seven Commonwealth countries, The Bahamas among them, would consult with the Secretary-General, on their nominees. Sir Shridath wanted Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados and Prime Minister Pindling agreed that she would be his nominee from the Caribbean.
As a member of the EPG, Dame Nita would be the first West Indian to see Mandela – in prison. She was a vital member of the Group – the first among them to enter the grim Soweto – dressed as a local woman accompanying Winnie Mandela. The EPG’s Report Mission to South Africa exposed the iniquities of apartheid, became the catalyst for sanctions, and produced a negotiating concept to which the regime turned in the end to surrender its apartheid apparatus – including Mandela’s release.
Shridath Ramphal’s engagements were central and manifold as he acted for the Commonwealth in its crusade to free Mandela and end apartheid. His efforts, over 15 years, to end a system of inhumanity that besmirched the 20th century entailed constant mobilisation of Commonwealth governments and use of contacts with leaders in Europe, Asia, Canada and even Washington to bolster the crusade of frontline African States; even using at some times conduits in the religious community to get messages to Mandela in prison.
Mandela never forgot that tireless and determined work. In a memorandum (now public) Ramphal recorded that five days after Mandela was released, they spoke by telephone. Mandela was at Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s residence in Pretoria, and he made it clear that despite the prison bars that confined him, he was always aware of all of this support. Later, he acknowledged fulsomely the Commonwealth Caribbean’s special solidarity when receiving an honorary degree from the University of the West Indies in the first months of 1991.
The Caribbean’s drive for Mandela’s freedom and the end of apartheid came in other forms – like from the region’s leading musical icons, for example, 1976 Jamaica’s Bob Marley (War) and 1977 Peter Tosh (Apartheid), and in 1988 Guyana’s Eddy Grant (Gimme hope, Jo’anna). Those songs formed part of the anti-apartheid battle cry and helped to arouse popular outrage around the world.
In memorialising Mandela, Caribbean people can proudly say that they stood with him in the time of the great struggle against apartheid – and he showed his appreciation.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Research Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)