Mandela credited sanctions as a major factor leading to the fall of apartheid.

Mandela credited sanctions as a major factor leading to the fall of apartheid. Photo: STRINGER

ON LEAVING Australia to attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that both sides of Australian politics campaigned for an end to apartheid and very much supported the new South Africa that Mandela, more than anyone, brought into being.

It is true that former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser and former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, demonstrated a strong commitment to action to bring down the apartheid regime.

But Fraser's commitment did not have the wholehearted support of his side of politics.

In the crucial years of the 1980s, the Coalition, led by John Howard, paid lip-service to its opposition to apartheid, while doing everything it could to see that nothing was done to bring it to an end.

In the decade when the co-ordinated international campaign to free Mandela and introduce democracy reached its peak, conservative leaders around the world rallied to support the white-supremacist regime and oppose any threat to its welfare.

First and foremost among these was British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. She was joined by US president Ronald Reagan, who actually vetoed a bill in 1986 that would have imposed sanctions on the pro-apartheid regime. Congress ultimately overrode the veto and the sanctions were imposed.

Howard and the Coalition were members of the anti-sanctions club. While proclaiming opposition to apartheid, they gave no teeth to their policy on it.

Speaking in Parliament on August 21, 1986, for example, Howard said the proposition that the white regime could be removed by the imposition of economic sanctions, or that the imposition of sanctions would bring about a major change in the attitude of that regime, was a very questionable one.

"I do not believe that economically isolating South Africa will bring about a change of heart in that country," he said.

Whatever the stated goal, he said, punitive economic sanctions were designed to cripple the South African economy, unless there was a policy change to the satisfaction of those imposing the sanctions.

"We have been, we remain, and I dare say that we shall always remain, opposed to the imposition of sanctions of that sort."

Other members of the Coalition were even more outspoken. In 1987 Peter Slipper - a man who in recent years has generated his fair share of media interest, but then a mere National Party backbencher - told Parliament that the African National Congress did not have the support of the majority of black people in South Africa. (We do not know which poll he was relying on for this statement.) He warned that the ANC was led and supported by communists and pointed out that several pro-communist papers written by Mandela were handed to the court when Mandela stood trial for sabotage in 1964.

The South African regime took heart from the sympathetic speeches conservatives delivered in the 1980s.

Thatcher had a direct, British self-interest for opposing sanctions. They threatened to seriously damage British economic interests and no principle of racial equality was going to override those interests.

At Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings in the 1980s she stood alone, defiantly and sometimes dishonestly, arguing against sanctions. In a forum where consensus communiques are the norm, on six occasions the 1987 statement was agreed by 47 of the 48 countries. "With the exception of Britain, we [Commonwealth leaders] believe that economic and other sanctions have had a significant effect on South Africa and that their wider, tighter and more intensified application must remain an essential part of the international community's response to apartheid," a typical section of the communique read.

The leaders who joined in their support for sanctions included not only radical Africans but also non-aligned leaders like the late Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Canadian conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Mandela was a strong supporter of sanctions and after becoming president, credited them as a major factor leading to the democratisation of the country.

But the Australian Coalition leaders sought out and quoted every possible alternative African leader who expressed opposition to sanctions.

It is widely agreed that the sanctions played a part in bringing down the regime. Financial sanctions, which began in the mid-'80s and which saw banks in Europe and the United States sever ties with the country, hit particularly hard. South African finance minister Barend du Plessis(1984-92) said investment sanctions were ''the dagger that finally immobilised apartheid''.

But sporting isolation also affected the white community.

Some in Australia sought to undermine this campaign. Alan Jones, then coach of the Australian Wallabies rugby team and now Sydney radio jock, was a high-profile defender of the white-minority government. He debated rivals and tried to arrange an Australian team tour of the pariah country.

It has to be remembered that during the South African transition the Cold War and fear of the spread of communism dominated conservative thinking.

Few could have foreseen the leader who emerged to not only reject racism, but also to forgive his white oppressors and call for reconciliation.

It may seem as if it was inevitable that the apartheid regime would topple and Mandela would be released.

But those who are too young to recall should know that was not how it seemed at the time. Those fighting for minority causes which appear to have little chance of success should take heart from Mandela's struggle.