Chapter 1: Malcolm Fraser
The following text is part of a short biographical essay written by journalist and author Dr Margaret Simons. Use the navigation bar or the 'Next' and 'Previous' links below to view other parts of the essay. Chapter 1 comprises the full essay.
Malcolm Fraser was only 52 when he lost power. He was not ready to retire and made a few abortive attempts at a corporate career, before turning to international affairs. He joined the American Enterprise Institute think tank, and was appointed a senior adjunct fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. Later he became a Menzies scholar at, and a fellow of, the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He was also active in the InterAction Council – an international organisation of progressively minded former heads of government. At home, he at first restrained himself from speaking out on politics.
Fraser was at Harvard when, in October 1985, he took a call from Prime Minister Bob Hawke who was attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Nassau, the Bahamas. Once again there was a schism. Most Commonwealth countries wanted to impose tough sanctions on the racist regime in South Africa. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was alone in arguing for a policy of 'constructive engagement' with the South African Government. Hawke had brokered a compromise under which a group of eminent persons would seek to begin 'a process of dialogue across lines of colour, politics and religion with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government'.32
Fraser became Co-chair of the Eminent Persons Group, with former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Most commentators dismissed this as an impossible mission, yet against the odds the group was able to establish that a peaceful change for South Africa was within grasp.
Image 18: Olusegun Obasanjo, 'Sonny' Ramphal and Malcolm Fraser on tour with the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons against Apartheid in South Africa, 1985.
UMA, 2005.0071, PA/221
The Eminent Persons were the first international figures to be allowed to meet imprisoned leader Nelson Mandela, who used them to send a message that he was prepared to negotiate with the South African Government. The group devised a 'possible negotiating concept' that they put to both black African leaders and the government. It laid out a map for negotiating the end of apartheid. It was rejected by the South African Government, and the attempt to open negotiations towards an end of apartheid foundered. Nevertheless, the Eminent Persons' report was influential in shifting international attitudes, not least because it proclaimed Mandela was not the violent terrorist portrayed in South African Government propaganda, but 'a man who had been driven to armed struggle only with the greatest reluctance'.33
Of the seven countries that had commissioned the Eminent Persons Group, six agreed to adopt broad sanctions, including strict financial ones, but the United Kingdom agreed only to maintain existing bans on new investment and tourism promotions. Thatcher also frustrated attempts within the European Economic Community (EEC) to impose broad-ranging sanctions.
Fraser began a worldwide lobbying effort. In October 1986, partly as a result of his lobbying efforts, the US Congress voted to overturn Reagan's veto on sanctions. This was the biggest foreign policy defeat of Reagan's administration. Once the United States had moved, the EEC, Japan and other countries followed suit.
The imposition of sanctions was crucial in persuading the South African Government to begin negotiations – with the starting point being that laid out in the Eminent Persons' negotiating concept years before. In 1994 Mandela was elected President by an overwhelming majority in South Africa's first multiracial elections. Fraser undoubtedly played a role in helping to bring about an end to apartheid.
32 'The Commonwealth Accord on South Africa (The Nassau Accord) Lyfod Cay, Nassau, 20 October 1985', in Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons, Mission to South Africa: the Commonwealth report, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1986.