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South Africa out of the Commonwealth

For almost 50 years, South Africa was ruled by apartheid — a brutal system of racial separation that kept the nation's black majority in poverty while a white minority held the wealth and power. As unrest grew, South Africa seemed destined for a bloodbath. Canada — like many nations — was slow to react but, by the 1980s, assumed a leading role in forcing economic sanctions against South Africa. Canadian business people, activists and clergy also played parts in bringing about all-race elections in 1994, and a surprisingly peaceful end to apartheid.

Apartheid is just a policy of good labour practices, South African Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd tells the 1961 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference. But the assembled Commonwealth leaders -- the majority of whom are non-white -- don't agree. They're in London to consider readmitting the newly-declared Republic of South Africa into the Commonwealth. As we see in this clip, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker uses the opportunity to finally take a stand against South Africa's apartheid regime.
• Verwoerd's government declared South Africa a republic on May 31, 1961, after a winning a referendum on the topic (only whites were allowed to participate). South Africa then had to apply to remain a member of the Commonwealth.
• Commonwealth leaders including Diefenbaker used the conference to denounce apartheid and uphold racial equality as a cardinal principal of the Commonwealth. In response to Commonwealth criticism of apartheid, South Africa withdrew its application.

• The Commonwealth is a voluntary organization of nations that were once part of the British Empire. In 2003 there were 54 members with a combined population of 1.7 billion -- 30 per cent of the world's population. According to its website, the Commonwealth, "helps to advance democracy, human rights and sustainable economic and social development within its member countries and beyond."

• CBC Radio News surveyed international reaction to South Africa's decision to withdraw from the Commonwealth on March 16, 1961.
• John Diefenbaker recalled his involvement in the conference a decade later on CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup.
• South Africa was readmitted to the Commonwealth on June 1, 1994.
Medium: Television
Program: CBC Newsmagazine
Broadcast Date: Dec. 27, 1961
Guest(s): John Diefenbaker, Hendrik Verwoerd
Host: Earl Cameron
Duration: 1:36

Last updated: July 9, 2013

Page consulted on March 25, 2014

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