The United Nations and Sanctions against South Africa, 1946-1965

Our guest blog-post this week is by our research seminar speaker next week, Dr. Simon M. Stevens. Thanks Simon!

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First Phase Digital

Special Committee on Policies of Apartheid Resumes Meetings. Here, Miss Makeba, who appeared as a petitioner, is seen conversing with Sir Hugh Foot (United Kingdom), member of the Expert Group on South Africa. 9 March 1964. UN Photo by Teddy Chen, reproduced under fair use rules, courtesy the author.

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Next week in Birmingham I’ll be talking about the shifting role of the United Nations in the strategies of opponents of white minority rule in South Africa. Reflecting widespread interest in and excitement about the new international organisation, South African opponents of segregation were one of the first non-governmental groups to attempt to use it to advance their domestic political struggle. Domestic campaigns were carefully coordinated to influence UN deliberations, and representatives were sent to New York. Through the efforts of the delegation of decolonising India, South African issues dominated the General Assembly’s first session in 1946.

Within three years, however, the refusal of the Indian delegation even to propose a a UN sanctions regime left South African activists disillusioned with the “weakness” of the UN and its domination by “imperialist powers.” Though the General Assembly continued to debate South African issues every year throughout the 1950s, South African activists accorded little strategic significance to these deliberations and concentrated on their own domestic campaigns.

 

anti-apartheid-poster-copy

Anti-Apartheid Movement Poster. Copyright AAM Archives Committee, reproduced by kind permission.

In 1960, however, anti-apartheid interest in the United Nations was reignited by African decolonization and the consequent transformation of the UN’s membership. South African activists and their allies in the emerging global anti-apartheid movement now accorded central significance to securing a UN sanctions regime. In 1962, the new “Africa Group” at the UN secured the first General Assembly sanctions resolution.

But the high hopes entertained in the early 1960s that the emergence of a postcolonial majority in the General Assembly would be sufficient to transform the UN into a vehicle for promoting African states’ interests and agendas were dashed on the rock of the vetoes held by the permanent members of the Security Council. Disillusioned by the inability of the African states to generate sufficient leverage to compel the veto-wielding great powers to accede to their demands, anti-apartheid activists disengaged from the United Nations after 1965. Annual debates in the General Assembly would continue. But never again would the anti-apartheid movement see the United Nations as such a central actor in the struggle for South African liberation.

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Dr. Stevens’ talk takes place in association with DASA, at 16:30h, Wednesday 9 November, Danford Room, Arts Building and details can be found here – all are welcome!

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