WILPF, the anti – apartheid movement and Nelson Mandela

December 10th, 2013 by Carys Lewis, Assistant Archivist

Following the news of Nelson Mandela’s death I’ve decided to write about the stance the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) took against apartheid in South Africa. From my previous blog posts you might be surprised that WILPF were involved in the anti – apartheid movement as until now I’ve focussed on their peace and disarmament achievements. However WILPF also campaigns for the freedom of those whose Human Rights are being abused or who are living in undemocratic countries – both of which applied to apartheid South Africa.

Nelson Mandela giving a speech at LSE (IMAGELIBRARY/575)

Nelson Mandela giving a speech at LSE (IMAGELIBRARY/575)

British members of WILPF were informed on the situation in South Africa through regular updates in the publication ‘Peace and Freedom’. The October – December 1963 edition reports that London WILPF members had been given an account of life in South Africa by Leon Levy, the exiled white President of the South African Congress of Trade Unions. The article contains the following passage revealing the tensions in South Africa and what Levy thought could be done to stop it:

“There was serious danger of a race war… since all methods of peaceful change were denied to Africans, and intervention by African states could not be ruled out… He believed that a rigorous boycott of South Africa and the imposition of sanctions could destroy the present regime”.

The treatment of South Africa’s black population was a concern for WILPF members worldwide. WILPF’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland had its own publication, ‘Pax et Libertas’, which was distributed to members on a global scale and contains several articles highlighting inequality in South Africa.

In 1971 the British government began selling arms to South Africa despite there being a voluntary U.N. embargo on arms sales. WILPF were worried that the arms would be used against the black population and wrote to Conservative politicians in protest over this. The archive contains several replies many of which justify the government’s stance, one letter states the sale of arms would not be condoning apartheid but in the defence interests of Great Britain.

WILPF continued to campaign against apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s with articles frequently appearing in its publications. In 1990 WILPFs South Wales branch held a meeting on ‘Children and Apartheid’, which was reported on in ‘Peace and Freedom’. The article describes the violence inflicted on black South African children and the lively discussions on the changes needed before South Africa could be a free and just society. The article concluded with this:

“The weekend after the meeting, Nelson Mandela was released, and already his appeals… have taken effect.”

In 1994 South Africa held its first democratic elections when all races were allowed to vote, to observe this historic event six WILPF members travelled to South Africa. The June 1994 edition of ‘Pax et Libertas’ contains the following observation of what the ability to vote meant:

“The joy of people voting for the first time was palpable. Dancing and celebrations accompanied the feeling many people had that voting had helped them to become fully human.”

On Nelson Mandela’s victory WILPF sent him a congratulatory message and wished the country success in building a new South Africa for all of its people. 

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