Marlborough House"The establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat was highly significant because it marks the beginning of the contemporary, multiracial Commonwealth". [Marlborough House photo: Alamy]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

This article contends that involvement in the search for a constitutional settlement in Zimbabwe helped to catalyse the evolution of the contemporary Commonwealth through three interrelated developments, which collectively moved the organisation past its Anglocentric origins. First, it accelerated the establishment of the Secretariat, which is the central institutional machinery of the Commonwealth. Second, alongside the fight against apartheid in South Africa, it crystalised the shared values that infuse the moral purpose of the Commonwealth and help to promote cooperation between its members. Third, it offered a platform for African statesmen – especially Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – to give meaning and direction to the organisation even as it grappled with the issues that threatened its very existence. Ironically, although Zimbabwean independence elevated the reputation of the Commonwealth, it also established the genesis of a credibility gap that has unfortunately widened over time. This is a legacy that the Commonwealth could never have anticipated at the time, as Philip Murphy (2018) put it in his recent critical study: ‘The problem is that an organization in decline can only survive on its glorious memories for so long before the dysfunctional present starts to shape perceptions of that cherished past’ (p. 69).

Rhodesia’s UDI and the Commonwealth Secretariat

It is widely acknowledged that the establishment of the Commonwealth Secretariat was highly significant because it marks the beginning of the contemporary, multiracial Commonwealth (Akinrinade, 2010; Doxey, 1989, McIntyre, 2000). The origins of the Secretariat stretch back to the beginning of the 20th century. Australia first put forward a proposal for a coordinating body at the 1907 Colonial Conference and again floated the idea in 1924, 1932, and 1944, but it never met with Canadian approval (Garner, 1978, p. 351; McIntyre, 2000, p. 138; Smith, 1981, pp. 7–8). The founding of the Secretariat in 1965 resulted from the process of British decolonisation and impending administrative consolidation within the British government, but the specific timing was also associated with the Commonwealth crisis that was induced by the failure of the British and Rhodesian governments to agree terms on which Rhodesia could become independent within the Commonwealth. As one study of Canada’s role within the Commonwealth has recognised: ‘The reason for creating this new Commonwealth agency was because many of its new members questioned Britain’s dominance over Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings and its handling of the Rhodesian matter’ (Kennair, 2011). The significance of the Rhodesian crisis for the organisational history of the Commonwealth has recently attracted more scholarly interest (Arens, 2020).

The process of Commonwealth evolution into a multiracial organisation began with the admission of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon in 1948, but it was British decolonisation in Africa that generated the greatest scepticism among some of the older, white members of the Commonwealth. David McIntyre has commented: ‘when Kwame Nkrumah demanded Dominion Status for the Gold Coast in 1951 there were shudders, especially in Pretoria, at the prospect of a “Black Dominion”’ (McIntyre, 1999). The British government flirted with the idea of a two-tier structure for the Commonwealth, which would preserve the intimate atmosphere for the older members, whilst confining new members to an outer circle. However, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, the last governor of Gold Coast, warned that Nkrumah would not be satisfied with second-class status, and failure to admit Ghana as a full member would be likely to alienate future independent African states from the Commonwealth (McIntyre, 1999). Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech to the South African Parliament in February 1960, and the Sharpeville Massacre that occurred the following month, shone a spotlight on the issue of apartheid. It came to a head at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference in March 1961, when South Africa applied to retain her membership of the Commonwealth after becoming a republic. Several African and Asian leaders vociferously opposed continued South African membership. The Commonwealth avoided a disastrous split only because the South African Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, withdrew his government’s application and South Africa left the Commonwealth. Yet this did not lessen the impact of racial issues on the Commonwealth:

Even after its departure from the Commonwealth in 1961, apartheid South Africa’s absent-presence exerted a powerful hold. Over the course of the next quarter century South Africa’s salience as the global exemplar of institutionalised racism helped to shape the Commonwealth as a multi-racial organisation with strongly defined ethical values and principles. (Dubow, 2017)

After South Africa left the Commonwealth, the number of African member states increased rapidly, which had a transformative effect on the character of the Commonwealth. The new members wanted to distance themselves from what they perceived as neocolonial influence and therefore sought to challenge the accepted notion of British leadership that had guided the evolution of the Commonwealth up to that point (Chan, 1988; Doxey, 1989; Watts, 2012). The African impulse to circumscribe British freedom of action coincided with a British recognition that there was scope for greater Commonwealth cooperation, notwithstanding the considerable cynicism about the organisation among the British public, the media, politicians, and officials. At the 1964 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Meeting the British Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, presented several schemes for functional cooperation and technical assistance.

However, this ‘Way Ahead’ programme was overtaken by proposals from African and Caribbean prime ministers for a Secretariat (McIntyre, 2000). Although the idea had been ‘in the air’ for some time, this development came as a surprise to the British (Garner, 1978; Smith, 1981). The Commonwealth prime ministers remitted the matter for official study. Although British officials were from the beginning concerned that a Secretariat could develop into a mechanism for African pressure on Britain’s handling of sensitive racial matters, it was nevertheless clear that the proposal had generated a great deal of enthusiasm, and a Secretariat could serve a valuable coordinating role. The proposal therefore found its way into the formal communiqué at the end of the conference, which suggested it would be regarded as ‘a visible symbol of the spirit of cooperation which animates the Commonwealth’ (Doxey, 1989; McIntyre, 2000; Smith, 1981). This endorsement helped to ameliorate African criticism of Britain’s handling of the Rhodesian crisis and created a more positive outcome to the 1964 conference than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed, even Sir Robert Menzies – who had done little to ease tensions with African members of the Commonwealth – commented publicly that the decision to establish a Secretariat was ‘quite a remarkable achievement and a very powerful answer to the pessimists’ (cited in Watts, 2012).

Carl P. Watts is with the Air Command and Staff College, Montgomery, Alabama, USA.