When discussing the most important bands of nations across the globe, we often think of the G8, the G20, the European Union and all of the other organisations that bring countries together encouraging trade and communication. But how often do we think of the Commonwealth?
With its member states making up around 1/3 of the world’s population, it is safe to say that the Commonwealth of Nations, as it is more formally known, is extremely important for a great number of reasons.
Whilst the politicians at the G8 may think an informal meeting is defined as sitting around a table with your sleeves rolled up, things are much different at the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings. Yes, politicians meet to discuss important matters, but the most significant conversations are often had over a cup of tea, or lunch.
This group of largely former British colonies are countries with whom the United Kingdom has some of it’s strongest bonds. United by a past that has, at times, been blighted by problems, these countries have moved on, proving that forgiveness for past wrongdoings is a key to success.
G8, G20, the EU, or any other organisation that you can think of may focus on shared trade, or the movement of citizens, but not the Commonwealth. This particularly special group is united by culture, history and the shared values that are enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter. Values of democracy and human rights are all important to this league of nations, and it is the friendship that allows such values to continue.
Over the last few days, the world has been united in its mourning the loss of former South African President Nelson Mandela. Widely acknowledged as the first President of a new, democratic South Africa, Mandela was determined that life in South Africa had to change.
In 1961, South Africa – a former British Colony – was expelled from the Commonwealth having been criticised over the treatment of its black population. The apartheid regime in South Africa completely undermined the principles of the Commonwealth of Nations and its value that countries should respect racial equality. Other member states publicly criticised the behaviour of the government, calling on changes to be made.
With many other bodies of nations, when a member state leaves, it would usually be extremely difficult for them to return, but not the Commonwealth.
Following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, and his election to the office of President in the first democratic elections the country had seen in 1994, South Africa was welcomed back with open arms into the Commonwealth. The most loved man in world politics had managed to rebuild the country in which he had always dreamt of living.
The forgiving, welcoming nature of this Commonwealth of Nations, that had championed racial equality, human rights and democracy, had welcomed back one of its founding members. Would we see other organisations behave in such a way? Possibly, you may believe. But it is impossible to deny that the Commonwealth is a unique group.
As Head of the Commonwealth, The Queen has visited almost all of the member states. It is believed that she has particularly strong memories of her visit to South Africa following Mandela’s election, and was extremely keen to visit. When, in her statement following his death, she said that she ‘remembers with great warmth her meetings with Mr Mandela’, we can certainly believe that!
Though the role of Head of the Commonwealth isn’t certain to be passed on to the Prince of Wales upon his accession, it is beginning to look a lot more likely. As he flies to South Africa next Sunday to represent his mother at the state funeral of Nelson Mandela, he will again meet some of the Heads of Government that will have a role in the selection of The Queen’s replacement. These discussions that he may have over a cup of tea, and the bonds he will build with these leaders, may well be the first steps towards the future King, becoming the future Head of this special, unique group of friends.
“Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement.” - Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela
photo credit: Commonwealth Secretariat via photopin cc