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  • Zac Francis

Britain and Apartheid

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

The UK and South Africa have a long history, with the UK playing a significant role in the establishment of the modern Republic of South Africa. Occupied by the British as early as 1795, and colonised in 1806, South Africa was under British rule for over 100 years.

On May 31st 1910, the Union of South Africa was founded and declared a dominion of the British Empire. Now a self-governing nation with full sovereignty, South Africa remained loyal to the UK, fighting for the Allies in both World Wars. On May 31st 1961, South Africa declared itself a Republic, and withdrew from the Commonwealth.

britain and apartheid

Although now fully independent, South Africa maintained a strong relationship with the UK, due to British investments in the country and a mutually beneficial trade relationship.

However, because of South Africa’s apartheid system, this relationship faced condemnation from the international community and the UK faced increasing public pressure to sever ties with the African nation. For decades, the British government was divided on how to approach the issue of South Africa, criticising the Apartheid regime but aware of South Africa’s financial benefit.

Apartheid sign in Durban

What is apartheid?

Apartheid was a system of institutionalised racial segregation used to govern the relations between South Africa’s white minority and non-white majority. Adopted in 1948, all South Africans were classified as either Bantu (all black Africans), coloured (those of mixed-race), or white. Later, an Asian category was added. Those not considered white consistently faced economic, political, and social discrimination.

The Group Areas Act of 1950 established residential and business sections in urban areas for each race. Members belonging to the other racial groups were unable to live, run businesses or own land in the area. Further laws and acts were passed that overwhelmingly favoured the white minority. Public facilities were segregated, educational standards varied dependent on race, and non-white participation in the national government was forbidden. Over 80% of land was set aside for those classified as white.


Commonwealth response to apartheid

The Commonwealth response to apartheid could be described as inconsistent. When the apartheid regime was first rolled out, many Commonwealth nations agreed that racism within South Africa was an internal issue and did not require the concern of the international community.

However, in 1960 this passive stance on apartheid changed following the events later known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Police opened fire on a crowd of black people, killing or wounding some 250 of them. This tragic event was met with international condemnation, causing increased tension between South Africa and the rest of the world.

South Africa further isolated themselves when they severed ties with the British monarchy, thus becoming a Republic. As a result of this change, they needed to reapply to the Commonwealth. However, it became clear that many of the member nations would oppose South Africa due to its apartheid policies, resulting in SA withdrawing from the Commonwealth on May 31st 1961—the same day the Republic came into existence.

Apartheid was becoming increasingly viewed as a threat to global harmony, causing many Commonwealth nations to suggest the implementation of economic sanctions. The UK, by far the most influential commonwealth member, opposed this strategy due to its financially beneficial trading relationship with South Africa.

Trafalgar Square Anti-Apartheid Protest

The Anti-Apartheid movement

The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) was a British organisation that spearheaded the international effort opposing the South African apartheid regime. Founded in 1959 by a small group of South African exiles and African students, the movement received increased support following the Sharpeville massacre and, for 35 years, worked tirelessly to ensure apartheid remained on the agenda of the international community.

Much of AAM’s energy was spent on trying to encourage continuous British governments to change their strategies regarding South Africa. Their pleas for change often fell on deaf ears, regardless of whether Labour or Conservative were in power. This can be attributed to the vast investments of British business in South Africa as well as the beneficial two-way trade relationship between both nations. Furthermore, South Africa’s location was considered important to the West’s anti-Soviet alliance. It was a valuable military outpost and acted as a deterrent to Soviet naval expansion. Although apartheid was an important issue for the international community, it benefitted from the larger threat posed by the Cold War.

With little success changing government policies, the AAM focused on influencing public opinion via sports and cultural boycotts, in hopes of gaining public support and pressurising the government. In addition, the AAM built alliances with religious organisations, trade unions and local authorities, working collaboratively to try and change the stance of the British government.

Thatcher vs The Queen

By the 1980’s, public opposition to apartheid had intensified to the point where government action needed to be taken. In 1986, the commonwealth leaders came together to agree on a plan for economic sanctions against the South African government. 48 of the 49 nations signed off on a plan, with Britain the only nation to oppose the idea.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher strongly opposed economic sanctions, believing they would not accomplish their objective and prove detrimental to Britain’s economic ambitions. This didn’t mean she supported apartheid, with multiple sources confirming she disliked the apartheid system and opposed the detainment of ANC party leader, Nelson Mandela.

Queen Elizabeth was said to disagree with Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions, and worried that the Prime Minister’s actions could lead to the dissolution of the Commonwealth. Additionally, the Queen understood the future implications of Britain being on the wrong side of history.

On July 20, 1986, The Sunday Times ran an article saying exactly that, per The New York Times:

“The Queen has been described in recent press reports as worried that Mrs. Thatcher’s firm opposition to sanctions threatened to break up the 49-nation Commonwealth."

“The Queen reportedly also believes that Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Party Government lacks compassion and should be more caring toward less privileged members of society, The Sunday Times reports.”

Maragret Thatcher

Sanctions and the end of apartheid

Despite Thatcher’s objections, in 1986 the UK voted to impose limited sanctions on the South African government. Finally, all members of the Commonwealth were in agreement. In addition, the US Congress overrode Reagan’s decision to veto the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986.

The combination of international sanctions caused substantial economic pressure on South Africa, which was at war with neighbouring nations.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and perceived end of the Cold War may also have played a part in the ending of Apartheid, as South Africa were no longer needed to fight communism and lost its strategic value amongst the western allies.

Increasing international pressure led to the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11th 1990. His release triggered discussions for the ending of the apartheid regime, and four years of negotiation resulted in South Africa’s first non-racial election. The ANC emerged victorious, with Nelson Mandela named President.

For more information on this topic, head over to our section on British History & Revisionism.

Edited by Cathi Westall

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