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South Africa and the Commonwealth: A historical allegiance or catalyst for change?

17th January 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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The Commonwealth of Nations, commonly referred to as the Commonwealth is defined as “a voluntary association of independent sovereign states consulting and co-operating in the common interests of their people and in the promotion of international understanding and world peace.”(2) Its membership compromises 54 diverse member states (including 2 suspended members) from every continent.(3) Over the past few decades, this multilateral association has assumed a backseat as the effects of globalisation have created power shifts resulting in the emergence of new powers, alliances and forums. A consequence of these changing dynamics has been a limited interest in the operations of this historical association. However, in an attempt to ensure its survival and effectiveness, the Commonwealth embarked on a journey of transformation with an aim of reflecting the realities prevailing in the international environment.

The Republic of South Africa (SA) has a long historical association with the Commonwealth dating back to 1917.(4) In light of the fact that the membership of this association is voluntary, this article examines the relationship between SA and the Commonwealth. Given the present realities with the new emerging powers, why does SA continue to remain a member of the Commonwealth? This article attempts to answer these questions by firstly taking a closer look at the Commonwealth as it has evolved over the years and whether it truly reflects the current realities. Secondly, it will track SA’s post-1994 record as a member of the organisation by looking at its contributions and the benefits of the membership. Lastly, this article will conclude by determining whether it is in the country’s interest to remain a member of the association.


The Commonwealth - early and modern developments

The concepts of the Commonwealth have its roots in the 19th century, stemming from the transformation of the British Empire with the softening of its imperial rule. The term “Commonwealth of Nations” was coined when some British colonies acquired dominion status, which allowed self-Government and extensive independence in foreign affairs, thereby reshaping the relationship with the British Empire.(5) However, the defining moment arrived in 1931, when the Balfour Report of 1926 was incorporated into British Law as the Statute of Westminster, giving legal recognition to the de facto independence of the Dominions.(6)


The birth of the modern Commonwealth is symbolised by the London declaration of 1949, which led to a revision of the criteria for membership.(7) These revisions(8) allowed India to remain a member of the association as a republic and paved the way for newly independent countries to become members of the Commonwealth. As British rule ended(9) in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and Pacific, the Commonwealth became the natural association of choice, as the vast majority of newly independent states chose to join the association, thereby rapidly expanding the membership.(10)

The Commonwealth in the 21st Century and beyond

At the turn of the century, the Commonwealth continued to adapt to the changing times. Key declarations(11) in this regard were the 2002 Coolum Declaration on the Commonwealth in the 21st Century and the 2003 Aso Rock Declaration on Development and Democracy. Emanating from the biennial gathering of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in the Port of Spain in 2009, was as a decision to form an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), a proposal for the development of the Commonwealth Partnership Platform Portal (CP3), the creation of a “Good Offices for the Environment” role for the Secretary-General and a review of the mandate and working methodology.(12)

It is evident that over the years the Commonwealth has deepened its mandate. Today, the work of the Commonwealth covers a wide range of cross-cutting issues, ranging from those dealing with democracy, economics, education, gender, governance, human rights, law, small states, sport, sustainability, and youth.(13) In order to fulfil its mandate and deliver its programmes, the association provides assistance to its members in the form of policy development, technical assistance and advisory services.(14) The work of the association(15) is carried out through the three intergovernmental organisations (The Secretariat, The Commonwealth Foundation and The Commonwealth of Learning) and specialised Sub-Committees which operate at an international, regional, national and community level.(16) In fulfilling its duties,(17) the Commonwealth further collaborates with other international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) and in partnerships such as the G20.

By reinforcing its principles,(18) reaffirming its core values, deepening its mandates and widening its membership, the Commonwealth has attempted to adapt to the changing times to ensure its relevance and effectiveness in the 21st century. Credit can certainly be given for the strides made by the association in this regard. The adaptation of the association to the changing times has by no means ended as it continues to review its action plans and the structure of its various institutions.

These plans will take shape when the Commonwealth convenes the CHOGM in Perth in October 2011. However, whilst the association has developed and continues to develop an ambitious mandate, a true measure of its effectiveness and relevance can only be determined objectively by analysing the benefits to its members. This paper now examines the relationship between SA and the Commonwealth and investigates why the country remains a member of this association.

SA in the Commonwealth

South Africa became a member of the Commonwealth in 1931 in accordance with the Statue of Westminster.(19) The Commonwealth’s resistance to the apartheid policies resulted in SA’s expulsion in 1961.(20) During the anti-apartheid struggle, the association played an important role in lobbying for the end of institutionalised racism. In 1977, the leaders of the Commonwealth unanimously supported the Gleneagles Agreement banning sporting competitions with SA.(21) In 1989, through the Kuala Lumpur Statement, the association further strengthened its attack on racism in SA.(22) These decisions taken by the association certainly contributed to the mounting international pressure placed on the apartheid Government.

Thus, despite the expulsion of SA from the Commonwealth, the association’s role in the global campaign to isolate the minority Government must be acknowledged. The role of the Commonwealth during these years is explicitly recognised by the current Government, as former President Thabo Mbeki noted that “this community of nations painstakingly brought massive pressure internationally, in many different ways to bear on the racist and repressive state.”(23) To this effect, one can view this legacy of support as an important determinant of SA’s decision to rejoin the Commonwealth following the election of the first democratic Government in 1994.

SA’s contribution to the Commonwealth

Since rejoining the Commonwealth, SA has been an active participant in the various governing bodies and ministerial meetings of the association. In terms of funding, SA is also one of the major voluntary contributors to the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) and consequently occupies a seat on its Board of Governors.(24) In addition, scholarships and fellowships are awarded by South Africa to citizens of member states under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan. SA also hosts the Secretariat of the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management.(25)

Since 1994, SA has further played host to four Commonwealth meetings, including the biennial summit of CHOGM in 1999.(26) In addition, several South African citizens have served senior positions in the Commonwealth serving as President, Directors and Deputy Chairs of the various Commonwealth associations.(27) Hence, the country’s financial and resource commitments towards the Commonwealth are indicative of the significance it has attached to this association.

In return, SA too has benefited from the membership of the association through various development projects funded by the Commonwealth. These are namely, the Development of Mpumalanga Province Tourism Growth Strategy in 2007/2008, Benchmarking of South Africa's Fruit Export Trade Logistics Chain in 2007/2008, an E-Learning and Website Designer/ Developer in 2005/2006, a study tour to India by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa in 2004 and an advisor to the Commission for Gender Equality in 1999.(28) Through its assistance of such initiatives, the Commonwealth fulfils its development mandate, proving that it is an effective multilateral association.

Overall, whilst the Commonwealth has successfully contributed to development in SA, it may seem that SA’s contribution to the Commonwealth outweighs the benefits of membership to the association. However, such a conclusion is premature as it is only gives consideration to the financial and resource dimensions of the association. In order to address the questions posed at the onset of this article, notably why SA remains a member of the association; one has to scratch below the surface. This will be done by tracking back to the point of departure of SA’s foreign relations and foreign policy.

The Commonwealth and SA foreign policy

SA’s foreign policy is defined as a multidimensional set of policies, principles, objectives, strategies and plans that stem from the State of Nation addresses, budget vote speeches, addresses to international and regional bodies, as well as various foreign policy discussion documents.(29) According to the 2010-2013 Strategic Plan of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), these principles entail a commitment to human rights, democracy, justice and international law, peace, the African Agenda and economic development.(30) Many of these principles are shared by the Commonwealth. Hence, it is these shared values and principles that unites SA and the Commonwealth. One can say that the Commonwealth is a natural association of choice for SA due to the similarities between its national interest and the interests of the association.

The work of the association and programmes of action are essentially focused on addressing issues that are in line with SA’s national priorities. In this regard, SA and the Commonwealth view capacity building, economic and social development, the removal of disparities in living standards, and the alleviation of poverty and illiteracy as some of the pressing challenges of the current decade.(31)

Furthermore, the programmes of the Commonwealth are cross-cutting and address two of the most fundamental issues strongly supported by SA - the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). To this effect, SA has made numerous contributions on issues related to the MDG’s, the African Agenda and NEPAD at various meetings of the Commonwealth.(32) SA has also advocated strong positions on pressing challenges of the decade, namely trade liberalisation, climate change and terrorism.(33)

One can now see that the similarities between SA’s national interests and the agenda of the Commonwealth are certainly not subtle. Recognising the significance of cooperation in the era of globalisation, SA favours multilateral diplomacy as one of the means of advancing its foreign policy, as stated in the DIRCO Strategic Plan. Membership of the Commonwealth not only serves as a platform in this regard, it further serves as a point of engagement for North-South and South-South Cooperation due to the diversity of its membership. Thus, whilst the notion of historical allegiance is evident, it is the similarities between the country’s norms, values and interests and those of the Commonwealth that provides the key rational for SA’s membership of the association in the 21st century. The common values, principles and interests create unity and a favourable working environment by fostering co-operation. Hence, this paper is of the view that SA should remain a part of this association.


As illustrated above, the Commonwealth has continued to evolve and adapt over the years to reflect the changing environment, in order to ensure its relevance at a specific juncture in time. This journey has by no means ended as the association is once again reviewing its action plans and the structure of its various institutions. Whilst the Commonwealth may not be at the forefront of international politics, it is an important association that not only unites and serves its member countries, but also provides a lobby on global issues.


Considering the historical allegiance and the shared values, principles and interests, one can deduce that it was only natural for SA to rejoin the Commonwealth in 1994 and become an active member of the association. Without dismissing the criticisms levelled at the association, one can say that the Commonwealth is an effective association as it serves the interest of the country. Therefore, the Commonwealth of the 21st century is a fundamental association due to its contribution in advancing the country’s national interest and in providing a platform for SA to create a “better Africa and better world”(34) that it seeks to build.


(1) Contact Pratiksha Chhiba through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Africa Watch Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ).
(2) Parry, RJ., 2008. Introducing the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Yearbook 2008, p.66.
(3) ‘Members’, Commonwealth website,
(4) Ibid.
(5) Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Irish Free state acquired dominion status. ‘History,’ Commonwealth website,
(6) ‘Timeline,’ Commonwealth website,
(7) ‘Modern Commonwealth,’ Commonwealth website,
(8) ‘The Commonwealth at 60: Serving a New Generation,’ 2009,
(9) Parry, RJ.,2008. History of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth Yearbook 2008, p.70.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Parry, RJ.,2008. Biennial Summits. The Commonwealth Yearbook 2008,pp.20-44
(12) Sharma, K., 2010. Commonwealth Ministers Reference Book 2010, pp.8-9.
(13) ‘What we do,’ Commonwealth website,
(14) ‘How we do it,’ Commonwealth website,
(15) ‘The Commonwealth at 60: Serving a new generation,’ 2009,
(16) Ibid.
(17) The Commonwealth Secretary-General was provided with a mandate to engage with the G20 during the 2009 CHOGM. The association also has permanent representatives in New York to promote the Commonwealth perspective and contribution at the UN level. Briefing Notes from DIRCO.
(18) Parry, RJ., 2008. The Commonwealth and its members. The Commonwealth Yearbook 2008. p.73.
(19) ‘South Africa and the Commonwealth,’ 13 February 2004,
(20) Parry, RJ., 2008. History of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Yearbook 2008. pp.68-71.
(21) ‘The Commonwealth at 60: Serving a new generation,’ 2009,
(22) Parry, RJ., 2008. Biennial Summits,’ The Commonwealth Yearbook 2008. p.31.
(23) Thabo Mbeki, ‘Welcome speech,’ The Commonwealth of Nations,
(24) ‘South Africa,’ Commonwealth of Nations
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Strategic Plan 2010-2013, The Department of International Relations and Co-operation,
(30) Ibid.
(31) 2009. Foreign Relations. The South African Yearbook 2008/09, p.272
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Strategic Plan 2010-2013, The Department of International Relations and Co-operation,

Written by Pratiksha Chhiba (1)


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