AAM and the United Nations

Paper presented by E.S. Reddy to the symposium on "The Anti-Aparthied Movement: a 40-year Perspective," London, June 26, 1999.

I think of "anti-apartheid movement" as a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations and individuals, as well as a growing number of governments which, in the 1960s, were able to secure active involvement in this coalition by the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Non-aligned Movement, the Organisation of African Unity and many other international organisations.

This was a coalition which encompassed the world and consisted of international, regional, national and local bodies. It developed a broad range of actions from public boycotts to United Nations sanctions, from provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees to military and non-military assistance to the liberation movement.

I can think of no other coalition of this scope, of no other campaign that was carried on so long with persistence, and no other cause for which so many people in so many countries made sacrifices.

This broad coalition played a crucial role in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid. Recognition of this fact does in no way detract from the struggle of the South African people because this great international movement could not have developed without the vision and statesmanship of the leaders of the liberation movement and without the struggle led by them.

In this solidarity movement, it can be said without any exaggeration, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain and its leaders played a very significant role, at the national and international level and had a greater impact than its members perhaps realise. That is why the AAM became the target of South African intelligence and terrorism more than any group other than the liberation movement.

The meeting at Holborn Hall on June 26, 1959, received little media attention, but the spread of boycott actions in Britain helped make South Africa a major political issue within a few months.

AAM started international work early in its life - developing contacts and promoting the establishment of anti-apartheid groups in other West European countries; lobbying the Commonwealth in 1960-61 and the International Olympic Committee in 1962 to exclude South Africa; launching the World Campaign for the Release of South African Political Prisoners in 1963; and organising the International Conference on Sanctions against South Africa in 1964. Its campaigns for people's boycotts, governmental sanctions and the arms embargo soon spread far beyond the borders of Britain.

London was an important centre for many reasons. Because of traditional links and the Commonwealth connection, there was greater awareness in Britain than elsewhere of the situation in South Africa; opposition to racism and apartheid had developed over the years, despite collaboration with apartheid by the government and vested interests. There was greater access to news from South Africa, and more personal contact with South Africans. Some of the British churchmen who served in South Africa became fervent opponents of apartheid and South African exiles in Britain were active in seeking support for the freedom movement. Britain was by far the most important economic partner and supplier of arms to South Africa, so that public opinion in Britain was particularly important. And London was an important centre for dissemination of information, especially to Commonwealth countries, and for approaches to Commonwealth governments.

The development of relations between AAM and the United Nations since 1964 or 1965 - leading to what I would call a "partnership" - enhanced the impact of AAM internationally, during a period when AAM had hardly any resources to devote to international work. It helped AAM in developing close relations with the Organisation of African Unity and contacts with many governments. AAM, in turn, contributed significantly to the effectiveness of the United Nations, especially its Special Committee against Apartheid, in its activities against apartheid.

The UN Special Committee against Apartheid was established by a General Assembly resolution of November 6, 1962, and held its first meeting on April 2, 1963. That was a few days after Harold Wilson, the leader of the Labour Party, called for an arms embargo against South Africa at an AAM rally at Trafalgar Square. None of the Western countries accepted membership in the Special Committee because it had been created by a General Assembly resolution which had called for economic and other sanctions against South Africa: it was the first Committee boycotted by the West.

The Special Committee, however, was able to utilise its composition to become an activist, rather than a deliberative, organ and a lobby for the liberation movement - and, with persistence and determination, build up wide support for a programme of action against apartheid. It enjoyed the confidence of a large majority in the General Assembly, so that it was often seen as the voice of the United Nations though the UN could not take effective action on sanctions.

It was during the Sanctions Conference in April 1964 that a delegation of the Special Committee against Apartheid first met the leaders of AAM. [The members of the delegation included Diallo Telli of Guinea, Chairman of the Special Committee who later became Secretary-General of OAU, and Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, later Commonwealth Secretary-General; both of them maintained close contact with AAM.] It held hearings at Church House, where Barbara Castle, then President of AAM, spoke, and was accompanied by Abdul Minty.

The Special Committee made a detailed report on the Sanctions Conference to the General Assembly and the Security Council. Ronald Segal, the Convenor of the Conference, appeared before the Special Committee in New York on October 20, 1964.

International Campaign against Apartheid

In the general elections of October 1964, the Labour Party was returned to power with a slight majority, and Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. The new government announced an arms embargo against South Africa, as the United States had done in 1963.

It soon became clear that the major Western Powers were not prepared to take any further action against the South African regime. Britain and the United States were not even prepared to exert pressure on France and other countries which profited by replacing them as sources of military equipment for South Africa. We were faced with a deadlock on sanctions - and paralysis if sanctions were our only objective at the United Nations.

I was not convinced that all our efforts should be focussed on sanctions, and was trying to get progress on different fronts - and promoted information activity, assistance to political prisoners and families, scholarships for South Africans, etc.

In 1966, I formulated the concept of "an international campaign against apartheid under the auspices of the United Nations." It was approved by the Special Committee and endorsed by the General Assembly , and served as the broad framework for action since then.

The strategy was to press for a range of measures to isolate the regime, support the liberation movement and inform world public opinion; to continue pressing for effective sanctions as the only means for a peaceful solution, and at the same time to obtain action on other measures which can be decided by a majority vote in the General Assembly (promoting of humanitarian and educational aid to the oppressed people and assistance to the liberation movement, publicity against apartheid etc.); to isolate the major trading partners of South Africa by persuading other Western countries to cooperate in action to the extent feasible; and to find ways to promote public opinion and public action against apartheid, especially in countries which were the main collaborators with the South African regime.

This also meant that we would build broadest support for each measure and specific actions, thereby welcoming cooperation rather than alienating governments and organisations which were not yet prepared to support sanctions or armed struggle.

I had been in frequent consultation with ANC and AAM and this strategy emerged from the consultations though the formulation was entirely mine and the text was not cleared with them.

Development of Co-operation

In June 1968, the Special Committee held its first session away from the Headquarters - in Stockholm, London and Geneva. AAM helped in organising the London meetings at Friends Meeting House, arranged for the participation of many British organisations and individuals, and presented memoranda. The proposals which emerged in the consultations were reflected in the General Assembly resolution later that year, and in the programme of the Special Committee.

Since that time, the British AAM became, in effect, the closest non-governmental associate of the Special Committee.

This co-operation was without precedent in relations between the United Nations and non-governmental organisations.

The Special Committee sent letters of support to campaigns of AAM, whenever requested. It sent representatives to conferences and other events of AAM - and often sent representatives to London for consultations with AAM. The UN was a convenient place for the AAM to send petitions.

The Special Committee not only granted hearings to representatives of AAM, but invited them to its conferences, seminars and other events, providing fares and expenses. They were allowed full rights of participation, along with government representatives, and were often elected officers of conferences and seminars.

These events enabled the anti-apartheid movements to meet and consult on internationalising campaigns. The contacts made with governments were often useful. The major conferences also occasionally provided an opportunity to confront the governments of major Western powers.
A number of the publications of the United Nations Centre against Apartheid were prepared by AAM or by consultants recommended by AAM. Many of the provisions of resolutions of the United Nations originated from suggestions by AAM.

AAM in Britain helped us to meet other British organisations and develop contacts with anti-apartheid groups in other countries. As AAM was in closer contact with South Africa than the United Nations Secretariat, it was a useful source of information.

I must make special mention of Abdul Samad Minty. He was invited to many conferences and seminars of the United Nations, and even to assist missions of the Special Committee, as his advice and contributions to discussions were highly valued. He became one of the few individuals who was invited to speak in the Security Council and its committee on the arms embargo. I believe that close association with the Special Committee enabled Mr. Minty to widen his contacts with governments. AAM was able, through him, to make an input into the decisions and work of United Nations agencies, OAU, the Non-aligned Movement and the Commonwealth on many occasions.

In 1979, Mr. Minty established the World Campaign against Military and Nuclear Collaboration with South Africa, with the support of AAM and encouragement of the Special Committee. The World Campaign was the main source of information to the United Nations on violations of the arms embargo. Without it, the arms embargo would have been much less effective.

On other issues, our day-to-day contact with AAM was from about 1977 through Mike Terry. That was the time when the UN and AAM cooperated in organising seminars and conferences, and producing publications and other campaign material.

Mike spoke at the last meeting of AAM Archives Committee on how the UN and AAM co-operated on the observance of the 60th birthday of Nelson Mandela in 1978 and on the "Free Mandela" campaign.

I have been in consultation with Mike on many other campaigns and he was responsible for several UN resolutions and actions. Sometimes suggestions came from me and AAM responded with imagination. Sometimes suggestions came from AAM and we tried to do all we could to obtain action by the UN and to internationalise campaigns.

UN Commendation of AAMs

From 1968, the Special Committee has often commended the anti-apartheid movements for their contribution and, on its proposal, the General Assembly has commended them several times.

The following are extracts from some of the resolutions:

Resolution 2396 (XIII) of December 2, 1968:

"9. Commends the activities of anti-apartheid movements and other organisations engaged in providing assistance to the victims of apartheid and in promoting their cause, and invites all States, organisations and individuals to make generous contributions in support of their endeavours;"

Resolution 2923 E (XXVII) of 15 November 1972:

"15. Commends the activities of anti-apartheid movements, trade unions, student organisations, churches and other groups which have promoted national and international action against apartheid;"

Resolution 3151 E (XXVIII) of December 14, 1973:

"5. Requests the Secretary-General and the Special Committee to take appropriate steps to encourage public action against apartheid:

(a) By facilitating consultative status for organisations actively engaged in support of United Nations resolutions against apartheid;…"

Resolution 34/93 M of December 12, 1979:

This was a separate resolution commending the role of anti-apartheid movements and other non-governmental organisations in the international campaign against apartheid; and calling for encouragement and support to them.

Resolution 36/172 L of December 17, 1981:

"1. Commends all anti-apartheid and solidarity movements… and other non-governmental organisations that have made a vital contribution to the international campaign against apartheid;"

 The United Nations awarded a gold medal to Canon L. John Collins in 1978 in recognition of his contribution to the international campaign against apartheid "in cooperation with the United Nations and in solidarity with the South African liberation movements."

It awarded a gold medal to Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, President of AAM, in 1982 in recognition of his contribution to the campaign for sanctions against South Africa, and invited him to deliver the keynote address at the meeting where the awards were made.


United States crucial at later stage

Before concluding, I would like to refer briefly to a few matters.

I mentioned that Britain was the main area of anti-apartheid action in the 1960s.

In the 1970s, it became clear that the United States policy was the main hindrance to international action against apartheid because it viewed the South African problem in the context of the cold war. It was essential for a peaceful solution or a solution with the least violence to persuade the United States to revise its policy and, as the leader of the Western countries, to promote concerted action. Some hopeful trends during the Carter administration (1977-1981) were followed by a virtual alliance with the apartheid regime during the Reagan administration under the guise of "constructive engagement."

 The Botha regime found it possible to "destabilise" neighbouring African States with impunity, causing enormous losses in human life and infrastructure.

Even during this period, AAM continued to play an important role because of its experience and international contacts. The United States was increasingly isolated when it tried to protect the apartheid regime. A turning point was reached in 1984, precisely the year when P.W. Botha felt victorious after the Nkomati Agreement - with the resurgence of the movement in South Africa, the massive demonstrations against Botha in Britain and Western Europe - and the launch of the Free South Africa Movement in the United States.

United Nations assistance to AAM

The Special Committee received a letter from Tony O'Dowd, treasurer of AAM, in 1967, requesting financial assistance. I replied, in a private letter to AAM, that there was no possibility of a grant - and that in any case, I would not support a grant. AAM had relied mainly on volunteers and I felt that if it got large grants the spirit would be lost and the organisation might collapse when the funds stopped. That was my personal view or prejudice based on my experience in India and on what I had observed in the United States.

In those days AAM had hardly any funds. I found on one of my frequent visits to the AAM office that they had a table with only three legs. The UN documents we supplied them had substituted for the fourth leg. And distribution of our publications had become a burden on their finances.

More than ten years later, we found a way to make small grants to AAMs or other organisations for publicity material and for conferences and seminars organised by them in cooperation with the Special Committee against Apartheid. The British AAM was given funds for arranging several conferences and seminars and for producing pamphlets, posters etc. This was no subvention as the AAM staff contributed its labour, and the costs were, therefore, far less than if the United Nations undertook the task.


One of the problems in carrying on the international campaign against apartheid was the recognition by the OAU of two liberation movements - ANC and PAC - and the demand of the PAC for equality in every respect with ANC. This affected discussions on many projects after the two movements were granted observer status at the United Nations and began to participate in meetings of the Special Committee. The PAC tried to use the Special Committee to exert pressure on AAMs. Though this retarded cooperation between the Special Committee and AAMs in the 1980s, fortunately more serious problems were averted as it became increasingly clear that the ANC was the main force in the struggle for liberation.

Some concluding remarks

  1. The UN Special Committee against Apartheid and AAM both recognised that the primary role in the struggle for liberation belongs to the national liberation movement and that their own work was supportive. They have both tried to build broadest support to the liberation struggle.

    They were able to establish very intimate relations because of special circumstances: (a) the Special Committee could act unlike other committees because of the absence of Western and some other members; (b) it was allowed leeway because of the general opposition to apartheid; and (c) the Special Committee showed great wisdom in utilising the opportunities.

  2. The partnership between UN and AAM influenced other UN bodies to develop closer and more meaningful relations with non-governmental organisations. The importance of these organisations is now increasingly recognised by the UN and governments.
  3. The Special Committee and AAM played an important role in isolating the South African regime, challenging its legitimacy and securing world-wide support to the liberation movement.

    In the course of a long struggle - when the situation in South Africa was constantly getting worse - they were not frustrated or dispirited, but persisted in their campaigns with faith in liberation.

    They helped keep the issue alive during a difficult period - the decade after the Rivonia trial - when the movement had to re-establish underground structures shattered by repression and organise open and clandestine action in South Africa.

    They countered moves in major Western countries to assist the South African regime after the collapse of Portuguese colonialism and the resurgence of the liberation struggle in South Africa.
    Solidarity involved sacrifices. People who made sacrifices or significant contributions to the movement should be recognised. [e.g. Ivor Montagu, Jeremy Thorpe to mention but two examples.]

  4. Without the work of the anti-apartheid movements, and their cooperation with the UN Special Committee, OAU etc., support for the liberation movement might have been confined to non-aligned and communist countries. The struggle would have been much harder and would have required enormous sacrifices.

    Progress made in international action was often due to anti-apartheid movements in Western countries. The abrogation of the Simonstown Agreement, the only military agreement of South Africa, was, for instance, mainly due to campaign by AAM. Because of the development of public opinion, governments changed their attitudes and cooperated in international action, or were at least prevented from veering to the other side. This process gradually changed the balance of forces against apartheid.

     The Special Committee derived much strength from the cooperation of the AAMs and other NGOs which were closer to public opinion. Appeals of the Special Committee to governments were backed by threats of action by public organisations.

    AAMs also derived strength from their association with the Special Committee, as they had ready access to the United Nations and to many friendly governments.

  5. Comparison AAM with the movement of solidarity with the struggle of India for independence and with the movement against the Vietnam war may be instructive

     The struggle of the Indian people lasted many decades and the international support it received helped develop a movement of solidarity with the South African people. But the latter was much wider in scope because of the victories of the colonial revolution, the nature of apartheid and resistance to it, etc.

    The movement against the Vietnam war had a great sense of urgency, with a threat of broader conflict, and directly affected many people (draft-age youth in the United States). But the anti-apartheid movement lasted much longer, developed a very wide range of actions, spread wider in the world, and involved many more governments. It received more direction from the liberation movement.


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