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International Socialism, Spring 1967


Mathew Curtis

No Change


From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Britain and South Africa
Denis Austin

This book is the work of a Chatham House study group of unimpeachable academic respectability aided by ‘the presence of members from government departments and commercial firms.’ Unlike the Penguin, Sanctions Against South Africa, it is not strained and unworldly, its trade and investment sums are more relevant and better researched and it also reveals, though through no fault of its own, why sanctions will not be applied against South Africa. To enter the group mind which produced this book and to understand the audience to which it is addressed is a way of learning far more about British foreign policy than its attitude to South Africa alone. In the beginning Austin makes it clear that while he Is not concerned to pass judgement on South African policies he is not very happy about them. And yet he is unable to see, even in theory, what ends could be gained by international action against South Africa. But what is a just solution in terms of the plurality of South African society? ... is a question to which he has no answer. This is obstacle number one. We are then inducted into the Austinian World Scene. It figures those two heroic world policemen – the UK and the US. How, Austin asks, will they ever be free to turn away from Malaysia, Vietnam, Cyprus, the Dominican Republic, Aden or Cuba to create a whole ‘new area of responsibility where today a relatively prosperous society exists, however harsh the laws ...’ We are then told about the Commonwealth, that ‘extraordinary association’ of Asian, African and Caribbean states, and of the UN a ‘strange world of resolutions, vetoes, abstentions, verbal manoeuvres ...’ These two abnormal institutions, to be sure, cannot be trusted always to behave in the interests of that other invoked arbiter – ‘western man.’

In the beginning Austin says that the touchstone by which Britain’s attitude to South Africa must be measured is that of ‘British interests.’ Are the ultimate dangers of inaction to the ‘West’ greater than those of the chaos – the conjured images are very harrowing – which would follow a full scale application of sanctions? This is a fair question, but to be consistent an argument from morality must then be foresworn throughput. However it is used; because the unstable international situation prevents intervention, it would be ‘morally wrong’ for Britain to isolate white South Africa by a withdrawal of social contacts or diplomatic representation, particularly because of the need to sustain hope amongst a handful of white liberals.

Austin tells a harrowing tale of the predicament of the three ex-Protectorates, arguing that there is little Britain or the US could do if Pretoria took reprisal action against them. How this powerlessness fits in with the ambitious peace-keeping role described earlier is not clear, not least because a later chapter discusses the potential usefulness of South Africa strategically in relation to Britain’s role in resisting pressures all the way from Arabia to China.

t is not even worth looking at this book for anything acute about the nature of British investment in or trade with South Africa. Only total figures are given – ‘British interests’ remain anonymous and indivisible. All that we can learn here is that as long as the ‘East’ is the main enemy of the ‘West,’ South Africa’s Western allies will not disturb her.

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