"The Commonwealth makes the world safe for diversity" - Nelson Mandela, 1996 The recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II has reignited the debate about the role of the Commonwealth in Africa, and Africa's perceptions of the Commonwealth.
These debates are often based in the imperial history associated inextricably with the Commonwealth, and the effect that this history has had on the region's development. Conversely, there are those who say that Commonwealth has grown into a space that fosters friendship, provides avenues for critical engagement and cultivates cultural and intellectual exchange.
In order to understand how the Commonwealth is viewed in Southern Africa in 2023, it is important to understand how it has been perceived historically.
In 1949, leaders from Commonwealth states such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and Canada decided to accommodate the newly-independent republican India. This encouraged African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah to follow suit, with the understanding that Pan-Africanist, multicultural ideals were compatible with Commonwealth membership. African members have continually helped to shape the mission and purpose of the organisation ever since. This is perhaps most evident through the approach that the Commonwealth took in relation to the emancipation of Southern Africa from white minority rule (Henshaw 1994). The clearest examples were its opposition to the Apartheid regime of South Africa and to Rhodesia, which was largely believed to have illegally declared independence in 1965 (Akinrinade 1989). In both instances, the Commonwealth was a vocal opponent of the oppression taking place in these states.
An important milestone for the Commonwealth was the creation of the Secretariat at Marlborough House, at the insistence of African leaders such as Ghana's Nkrumah and Uganda's Obote. The inclusion of post-independence Zimbabwe was also touted as a victory, given the role that the Commonwealth played in the relatively orderly transition to democracy in the country, though it is important to note that this relationship is not without its critics, who often cite the initial Commonwealth response to Rhodesian independence in 1965 as a low ebb.
According to the Africa Report there is a growing perception that the “The Commonwealth amplifies the voice of African nations, providing it with an additional means of lobbying major donors and diplomatic players like the UK, India and Canada”. Moreover, there is an emerging sense that the Commonwealth is developing into a framework for dispute resolution among its African member states.
In an address to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in 2015, former Ugandan Foreign Minister Martin Aliker celebrated the fact that “the beauty of the Commonwealth is that its member states feel that they can approach each other [when serious tensions arise between them]”.
Despite perceptions of an imperial connection, it is important to note that the Commonwealth has historically played a prominent role in condemning racial discrimination, clear as early as the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles in 1971. This positive activism continues today - the Commonwealth now seeks to raise awareness about global issues such climate change and human rights, using technology to revitalise these networks and connect grassroots activists across its member states.
In addition to this, the Commonwealth Fund For Technical Cooperation (CFTC) offers training to government officials which improves skills in attracting investment, economic development, and contesting illegal activities such as corruption. Moreover, the Commonwealth's Debt Management Programme, in particular the Debt Recording and Management System (DRMS) which has been used across 21 different African countries to alleviate debt for developing states. The DRMS software tracks the domestic and external debt of a country, helping with more effective measurement and management. In terms of debt management, the majority of the Commonwealth's resources have been dedicated towards its African Members.
Similarly, the Commonwealth seeks to bolster trade among its African members. This is most evident in the Hub and Spokes project which is conducted in partnership with the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) and the European Commission (EC). This project offers advice on trade negotiation at the national and regional level, as well as guidance on relations with the WTO.
The principles behind these programmes were illuminated in 2009, when Professor Ade Adefuye, former Head of the African section at the Commonwealth Secretariat, wrote that “most of the African member countries fall in the category of least developed countries of the world and the continent has the potential for political instability. Africa therefore presents the Commonwealth with the greatest challenge”.
This support goes beyond economics. As of 2015, the Commonwealth has observed more than 44 elections in more than 30 countries, most of which took place in Africa. The work isn't finished when the election results are counted, though. Commonwealth missions follow-up, and establish mechanisms which implement the recommendations of the observers and further encourage governments to align with democratic best practice. The Commonwealth Secretariat provides direct assistance to civil services, electoral commissions, and other electoral institutions through training workshops. The Global South - and Southern Africa in particular - have been some of the clearest beneficiaries of this institutional strengthening.
Perception of the Commonwealth in Southern Africa remains divided. Some retain a scepticism, largely rooted in the imperialism that pre-dated the modern Commonwealth. On the other end of the divide are those who approach the Commonwealth with optimism, based on the role that it has played in the betterment of Southern Africa. This perception has been shaped by the role that the Commonwealth has played since independence and democratisation, as well as the role that the Commonwealth continues to play today. It is
important to critically analyse and engage the Commonwealth Secretariat on its ongoing initiatives, and make use of the multilateral platform that it has provided for the betterment of member states. Remain mindful of the 1991 Harare Declaration: “We recognise the importance and urgency of economic and social development to satisfy the basic needs and aspirations of the vast majority of the peoples of the world, and seek the progressive removal of the wide disparities in living standards amongst our members”. For those of us in Southern Africa, the parallels with the Harare Declaration on South Africa that was adopted on the 21 of August 1989 by the Organisation of African Unity are hard to ignore.
The Commonwealth is a space for the development of ideas, the nurturing of friendships and the facilitation of multilateral dialogue on important global issues. The increasingly positive perception of the Commonwealth amongst many in Southern Africa is rooted in a growing awareness of its strengths, values, and advantages. Despite the criticism, it's widely accepted that the organisation plays an important role in the international arena, providing a platform for engagement, reflection, activism and cooperation - whatever you think of it, you must remain aware of it.
David Kabwa is a student at the University of Pretoria, completing a PhD in International Relations. He was the first African elected as Prime Minister of the Commonwealth Youth Parliament, and has served for two terms on the National General Council of the South African Union of Students. He is an African Union certified expert in transitional justice and international law. He is also the Centre for Commonwealth Affairs' Head of Operations in Southern Africa.