Download Interview Transcript: Part One (31 January 2013); Part Two (12 March 2013).
Biography: Wright, Carl. European Commission, advisor, 1973-1974. International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, Secretary, 1974-1980. Commonwealth Trade Union Council, founding Director, 1980-1988. Commonwealth Secretariat, Assistant Director, 1988-1994. Commonwealth Local Government Forum, Secretary-General, 1994-present.
SO: Sue Onslow (Interviewer)
CW: Carl Wright (Respondent)
Transcript Part One:
[Click here to jump to Transcript Part Two]
SO: This is Dr Sue Onslow talking to Mr Carl Wright, Secretary General of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum, in Northumberland Avenue on 31st January 2013. Carl, thank you very much indeed for agreeing to talk to me. I wonder if you could begin by saying, please; where does the CLGF sit, within the broader framework of Commonwealth associations?
CW: It’s a pleasure to meet up and make a contribution. We’re called what’s termed a ‘Commonwealth Associated Organisation’, which is relatively new terminology that came about after the Coolum CHOGM; and it’s distinct from civil society on the one hand, which covers a number of professional and NGO bodies in the Commonwealth, and the IGO or the Intergovernmental Commonwealth, like the Secretariat and the Foundation and the Commonwealth of Learning. What it really means is that we are quasi-governmental. If you look at my own membership, it’s primarily elected local councils and governments which are part of government. Of course, we are also a bit hybrid in the sense that we have ministries of local government as our members as well, so we do bring in central government in our structures. If you take my board for which I am responsible, we have senior ministers even at cabinet level as well as elected mayors and council leaders. So it straddles central and local government. We don’t have formal IGO status. And associated status, which is similar to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, for example, means we have delegations at CHOGM; we have other closer links with the Secretariat than civil society bodies.
SO: So those other civil society bodies really have much closer affiliation with the Commonwealth Foundation than you yourselves. You, as you say, are quasi-governmental.
CW: Exactly. We have good working links with the Foundation, but we don’t get any support or subsidies from them and we’re quite separate from them.
SO: You say that this emerged at the Coolum CHOGM; were you part of a particular move to encourage this development?
CW: Yes. We’d been lobbying it for quite a while. Since we were set up in 1995, which was after Auckland, and we got endorsement at the Auckland CHOGM, we had to readjust the civil society status and we’ve always had the view that we were different – not necessarily better or worse but just different in our structures and our functioning, being quasi-governmental. So we were lobbying for this for quite a while and we were pleased that it got some significant recognition after Coolum, although it’s an on-going process and we’re currently still trying to develop that status and relationship further.
SO: When you say ‘we’, obviously you’re speaking of your particular forum but was there particular governmental backing for your project?
CW: Yes, because as I mentioned we had ministers on our board, so there were some major Commonwealth countries, whether it’s India or the UK at that time. So of course we did get some support from our central government members of the board.
SO: So this is not the classic ‘ABC countries’ within the Commonwealth initiative; this had a much broader input then at diplomatic level across the Commonwealth?
CW: Absolutely. Like any Commonwealth body, I hope we reflect the modern Commonwealth which is very much multi-cultural and even the small states have a significant role in our structures.
SO: Were the small states particularly supportive of this initiative?
CW: Well, I think you can’t totally divorce it from things that happen outside the Commonwealth. We were part of a broader international movement. Maybe if I just put it into context: the major reason why we were set up back in the mid-90s was as a response to some developments which were beyond the Commonwealth. One was the whole move towards multiparty structures after the end of the Cold War and changes in Africa and elsewhere; and very closely linked to that is what’s called ‘public sector decentralisation’, which really meant local empowerment and bringing things more down to grassroots, reflected in having multiparty local governments and also more decentralised power. We were part of that wider trend but obviously within a Commonwealth context.
SO: Yes. So I’m just wondering whether there were any particular countries, any particular leaders of countries who were significantly supportive of this particular initiative.
CW: I think we certainly had strong support from some of our African members which we were very close to, with some of the newer members like South Africa in the early days. I would certainly say some of the Caribbean countries like Jamaica, but also we had good links with some of the ABC countries; Australia certainly was always very supportive. In fact the original funding for the organisation of course inevitably came from two of the richer countries, Canada and the UK, but it soon broadened out from that.
SO: Was there any resistance; were there those who felt that this was in fact a digression from where the Commonwealth’s energy and focus should be?
CW: Oh, it took a lot of time and I think there still is resistance. It’s by no means totally settled. I think the traditional diplomatic set and I worked at the Secretariat previously at diplomatic level. I think they were prone to be a bit nervous about other actors coming onto the stage and I’ll include national governments within that. The foreign offices don’t like their ministers of local government, which are our members, interfering in international affairs. So, I think it did take a lot of time for people to get used to the idea that there is a broader agenda than just the traditional diplomatic set.
SO: Yes. But do you now have delegation status at CHOGM so that it’s not simply observer status; you have a degree of formal representation?
CW: Yes. We can sit in, it doesn’t go all the way, we can sit in at, for example, the meeting of the Foreign Ministers although there are some sensitive items which we are excluded from in the discussions. We don’t participate in the actual CHOGM executive sessions but those are pretty restricted anyway. But the great thing is it gives us access as delegates to all the delegations, and we can circulate papers and have interactions with the people there. So, I think we’d like to see it develop further. For example, we’ve been arguing for the right to make a submission to the Foreign Ministers and report on our activities, which we currently don’t do.
SO: I was about to ask you, are you allowed to make written and oral submissions to the Foreign Ministers?
CW: Written, yes. Oral, there has been a precedent once but it’s been a bit ad hoc so we’re trying to make that a bit more of a regular feature in the future.
SO: You mentioned South Africa: how much has South Africa proved a test case for you?
CW: It was always very important for us and one reason that it was important is that South Africa, when it got its freedom in ’94, leapfrogged a lot of democratic models. One of the areas which really emerged very strong, certainly in the African context, was local democracy and local government decentralisation. They’re able to go forward to quite a progressive model, and we did advise them a little bit at the time of that transition. For example, in their constitution I believe they refer to ‘spheres of government’ which is a totally different concept from the traditional levels of government. You have a level of local or provincial and central government which implies hierarchy and one being more important than another, whereas the concept of ‘spheres’ implies that each sphere of government, whether local, provincial or central has its own areas of responsibility. Central government might have responsibility for foreign affairs and trade, but local government might have responsibility for health, sanitation and other key issues, although there’s obviously always some overlap.
SO: So you were providing advice on drafting of documents?
CW: Yes, I think at that time we gave a little bit of input and provided one or two experts, certainly on the local government thinking when the South African new dispensations were being formed.
SO: I know that public sector service delivery has been a consistent and on-going problem in South Africa; is this something for which they have drawn on your advice, or you have provided influence if asked, since ’94?
CW: Yes, we have engaged with them strongly and I know there are still huge problems on account of all sorts of reasons. I think sometimes it’s a little bit overplayed in my view. I was looking at some of the statistics on South Africa and actually there has been huge improvements in housing and health and sanitation, but of course, like a lot of countries, there’s been an influx of populations and migrants, and I was recently in Johannesburg looking at some of the huge slum areas around Johannesburg, but one has to see it in context. So, the answer is ‘yes’, we have been engaging with them, we are engaged with them and we have a small office in the local government headquarters in Pretoria, in Tswane, which is a regional office; so we do work very closely with our South African colleagues but it’s in fact for the whole region not just South Africa.
SO: So, is this a question of them drawing upon your skills, advice and training, or that you as a forum can only be reactive when one of your members solicits help?
CW: It’s a bit of both. I think we do take a proactive view as well, and I think particularly on policy formulation. Maybe just jumping ahead a little bit, one of the achievements which we’re pleased about was something we got out of the Malta CHOGM in 1995 which was called the Aberdeen Principles on Local Democracy and Good Governance, which were originally agreed by our membership and endorsed by CHOGM. They were endorsed by subsequent CHOGMs and now form a part of the new Commonwealth Charter. And what’s important about these principles is that we are trying to use them in a proactive way in getting our members in different countries to observe those principles, to follow them. And even at the level of CMAG, the Ministerial Action Group, where, for example, we recently – at the last meeting – raised the principles in the context of the Maldives. So, they’re very much operational principles, a bit like the Latimer House Guidelines.
SO: So implementing then the Aberdeen Agenda is very much part of your mission statement?
CW: Very much, very much. We have three core areas. One is promoting local democracy and good governance, which is the advocacy work. Second, is international knowledge sharing, which covers promotion of best practices in local government decentralisation, and the third is capacity building, which is helping our members – the kind of thing you touched on a minute ago, in improving their own capacity, training and so forth. So those are the three prongs of our work.
SO: I know that you, in 2006, elaborated the Aberdeen Agenda into the Kampala Agenda; is this just being regional specific and related to Africa with its particular challenge of urbanisation and population growth?
CW: Yes, we do quite a lot at regional level and we do link up at regional level. Even at national level we’ve tested the Aberdeen Agenda in a number of countries, like Uganda and Tanzania, to see how far it actually translates into national legislation and national principles, so it’s just another way in which we try to make use of it, in this case on a regional level.
SO: Yes. You used the word ‘lobbying’ earlier, but I know that, after all, as a quasi-governmental association, lobbying can be a sensitive issue. It raises the question, how proactive should you be? Should you be reactive, and guided by your membership or by your board? Obviously there’s a constructive tension between those two points.
SO: Where would you place your organisation on the spectrum of being establishment/reactive/proactive?
CW: Well, we have a very supportive board and I think, certainly in the past, they’ve always endorsed our political initiatives. But I would say, on a scale of one to ten, where ten is the most proactive, I think we’re definitely at the seven or eight end of being proactive in, I’d say, ‘advocacy’ rather than lobbying! [Laughs]
SO: What’s your view then of the fate of the Charter that was presented by the EPG to Perth?
CW: I think it wasn’t the happiest experience but I think the final version that’s now emerged is much more concrete. We were not very impressed by some of the earlier drafts but the one that’s been adopted, for example, does have reference to the Aberdeen Principles which the earlier drafts didn’t. So from our maybe slightly more narrow point of view, we think that the current Charter is a much more relevant document.
SO: Had you anticipated the resistance that the 2011 Charter encountered at Perth; you said that you had been unhappy with the earlier drafts. Had you gone to Perth with [laughs] shall we say, something of a sinking heart thinking, “This isn’t gonna fly”?
CW: I suppose we were more focused on the other EPG recommendations than the Charter per se if I’m absolutely honest, and I’m not sure we’d seen the final draft at that time so I think when we did see it, as I said a minute ago, we weren’t terribly impressed. We did some representations to make sure that things like Aberdeen were inserted into the new drafts.
SO: Carl, just speaking more broadly of your personal experience, your involvement in trade union activity and workers’ rights, solidarity in promoting political rights associated with those: how much would you say that you yourself have acted as a quasi-diplomatic actor over the course of your professional career?
CW: A lot of my Commonwealth colleagues think I’m probably not very diplomatic although I did have, as I say, a stint of about six years as a diplomat at the Secretariat at diplomatic level, at least as Assistant Director. I guess I’ve probably always been a bit influenced by my activist past, if you like, but I think as you obviously progress into more governmental structures you have to temper a little bit of that and I guess sometimes my colleagues now think I’m being too diplomatic [laughs] so maybe it’ll change as I get older!
SO: An uneasy balance to reach!
CW: Uneasy balance, yes.
SO: But from your insights when you went to the Commonwealth Secretariat, how as an entity has it evolved; obviously as an organisation it takes its tone from the persona, the particular authority of office and the selected initiatives that individual Secretary Generals push forward –
SO: – and any organisation takes its tone from the top. How would you reflect upon those aspects from your time there?
CW: Well, I was there at a very sort of heyday time. I was recruited by Sonny Ramphal who obviously is very highly regarded. I then served under Emeka Anyaoku, who’s a good friend, and of course that was the tail-end of the unfinished business, the heyday on South Africa. And I was very involved in some of those issues, both in my trade union work and then subsequently at the Secretariat. In fact the last thing I did there before I left in ’94 was to help organise the first post-apartheid big International Donors’ Conference together with the UN in Cape Town, in late ’94, which was a joint UN-Commonwealth initiative. I was involved in the Mozambique Fund and some of the work on Namibia and other things, so it was a very heyday time if you like. It was a time when the Secretariat had significantly more resources and staffing than it does now so it was, in that sense at least, stronger.
Anyaoku of course made a powerful transition I think, to moving the agenda forward to looking at things like elections, human rights and democracy and I think that’s resulted in the creation of CMAG, and I guess in some respects also support for organisations like the Commonwealth Local Government Forum as an actor. So, I think it was a very vibrant time. Inevitably I think there’ve been two developments since then when I look back on the last 10 -15 years maybe. One is of course reduction in the resources and ability to access the funding and other things which it has to deal with. The second one, I think again I come back to something I said right at the beginning, I think it’s difficult to see the Commonwealth in isolation from other international bodies. If you look what’s happened especially since the economic crisis of 2008 and the world recession, a lot of international organisations have taken a real battering, whether it’s the UN, the European Union’s in crisis, and I don’t think some of the difficulties the Commonwealth is currently facing as an international institution you can see in isolation from those broader international trends. It’s part of a, to my mind, very worrying reversal of some of the post-war consensus on international cooperation. So I just wanted to put it in that context.
SO: Picking up on this point, in that the Commonwealth is a unique organisation: as Derek Ingram has described, it has the extraordinary ability to reinvent itself at times of crisis, it doesn’t have the more formal structures of other international bodies and institutions and has not been identified as being particularly culpable in the global financial crisis. So, I identify what you’re saying, that this is a commonality of crises for international organisations, but the Commonwealth surely has been further away from the epicentre of eruption?
CW: Yes that’s true, but the commitment to international work I think has decreased in all countries and not only Britain which is perhaps the obvious example, although the present government of course places more emphasis on the Commonwealth. I think you can say that there’s been perhaps a declining interest as opposed to greater cooperation at regional level within South Africa, within South Asia, within East Africa, and I think again the Commonwealth has to reinvent itself. We’re trying to do it by operating more at regional level, having regional offices, regional programmes linking up with regional institutions. I think you’re right; the Commonwealth is very good at reinventing itself. I think the EPG exercise is another example of that.
SO: But when you’re talking about having regional offices, for instance in Southern Africa you have SADC, you have the East African Community, in West Africa, ECOWAS which is of course extraordinary in its military willingness but also of course it’s an economic foundation. So the Commonwealth is fragmented more at local level; entities such as ECOWAS include non-Commonwealth national governments. So, is the Commonwealth now being overtaken by other forms of regional organisation?
CW: Well, that’s the danger and I think we have to address that danger and the way we are doing it of course may be slightly easier at our level than at a purely governmental level for the Secretariat. The way we’re doing it is, for example, in SADC and East Africa where most of the countries are, the Commonwealth is working with those structures and we’re helping the SADC countries develop a forum for local governments in SADC. We’ve recently had a meeting in Arusha where we brought together the East African countries and they’ve set up an East African local government forum which is designed to input into the EAC, so we’re actually working with our members in those regions to further their regional objectives as a Commonwealth institution bringing expertise, bringing know-how, and linking up maybe with other partners like the UN.
SO: That’s much more of a ‘bottom up’ approach.
CW: Yeah, which in a sense, is easier than if we were doing it, as I say, obviously at the Secretariat level.
SO: Yes. This fits in very much with, as you say, the drive for good governance as providing a key adjunct then to development.
If I may go back to your personal points about your trade union activity and your involvement while you were Assistant Secretary at the Secretariat leading up to the UN Commonwealth aid conference post-apartheid. Trade union activity in South Africa was a key part of the struggle, with the South African trade union organisation looking very much to Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland as its particular model. Was also your point of input of trade union support fundamentally different from those trade unions with a particularly left wing agenda, in terms of political transitions in South Africa?
CW: It wasn’t I would say necessarily left wing; it was more fundamentally liberationist if you like and supporting freedom movements. If you go back a bit further, if you look at the history of the independence struggle in most Commonwealth countries, whether you’re talking about India or whether you’re talking about Kenya or Ghana. A lot of those had a trade union base because trade unions were where political leaders could be active, trade unions and ironically local government I guess. Those were the two elements prior to liberation where political leadership could express itself and marshal support, so I think it’s not necessarily a left/right thing. It was helping, and in Zimbabwe as well, the freedom struggles of those countries. Obviously subsequent to that you can argue about which direction the country takes. And maybe just another point: I do think the things are very closely linked and we had a very good rapport with Sonny Ramphal when I was working in the Trade Union Council. Sonny was very gracious at a recent meeting of the CA/B when they looked at the anniversary of the Eminent Persons Group that went to South Africa. And if you look at the record he very graciously – I think it’s also in his biography – attributed that idea to the Commonwealth Trade Union Council because we originally came up with the idea of linking negotiations with sanctions. Then Bob Hawke, who was one of our close friends at the time, and Salim Salim of Tanzania took it up with at CHOGM and it evolved from that, and Sonny should have the main credit for making it happen but he did attribute the original idea to us.
So what I’m trying to say is that there’s always close linkages between certainly political ideas. I think you can’t say there’s a strict diplomatic sphere and an NGO sphere and I think the two are very closely linked, especially in the Commonwealth. I think one of the Commonwealth’s strengths is it’s able to draw on these outside actors, whether it’s trade unions, whether it’s the magistrates, whether it’s local government, whether it’s broader NGOs, for its work and it’s been open to that and I think one of its strengths is that it does have the door open to those influences.
SO: So, in complete contrast to the diplomatic and bureaucratic silos that seem to operate in, for instance, Whitehall, the Commonwealth is altogether a different beast?
CW: Absolutely and I think that’s one of its greatest strengths. Maybe that’s something where certainly sometimes Whitehall or the more traditional diplomats haven’t understood the value of that and certainly in some of the ABC countries.
SO: To take this a little further: in those countries which have, shall we say, limited manpower, a relatively small bureaucracy, small administration just by virtue of a small national budget, can Commonwealth affiliation and networks help to substitute for straitened national budgets which limit how much governments are able to spend on their foreign ministry, treasury, or law ministry?
CW: I’d have thought it can’t ultimately substitute for full national sovereignty but it can certainly make a significant contribution and assist the process. I think particularly in small states where there’s very limited capacity I think that’s the case, and even in regional bodies – we referred earlier to SADC and ECOWAS – some of those structures are quite weak in many ways and the Commonwealth can offer a lot of expertise and experience in helping even those regional intergovernmental structures.
SO: Carl, you were at the Commonwealth Secretariat for six years?
CW: About six years from ’88 to ’94.
SO: Yes. Were you a governmental appointee while you were there?
CW: Well yes, in a sense. Not appointed by any government, I was recruited more independently, directly from the Commonwealth Trade Union Council.
SO: Yes, and you’ve talked about it being a particular time of change at the end of apartheid in South Africa, and referred to your contribution in terms of the nuts and bolts of transition and then the aid conference afterwards. You also stressed Chief Anyaoku taking the Commonwealth in a different direction, emphasising good governance through ‘good offices’. Could you comment on his particular style and approach as a diplomat?
CW: Well, of course he’s always very much an insider because he came through the Commonwealth Secretariat ranks, apart from a short time he had as the Foreign Minister of Nigeria, so he was somebody who knew the system, who knew the Commonwealth structures intimately well, and was I think somebody who was very sensitive to concerns for example in Africa, and his own country Nigeria caused him much grief at this time. So I think he was very suited for that task because he was aware of some of the fears that might be involved in external interference in internal affairs, and also had the knowledge of how far the Commonwealth could take things.
SO: Yes. As you say, the particular sensitivities of a high ranking Nigerian diplomat as Commonwealth Secretary General who was challenged by the particular problems in his own country: his good offices and the discreet diplomacy that he is able to exercise depends precisely on it remaining discreet. But then the Commonwealth is caught in a bind because it cannot in fact take credit for what it’s genuinely doing.
CW: I think in a sense it’s an evolution. In 1994 there was still a huge amount of goodwill from the whole South Africa and Zimbabwe exercises, so the Commonwealth was in a very strong position to push forward its agenda and I think CMAG was a revolutionary thing. Very few, if any, intergovernmental bodies have that mechanism to expel or suspend members and criticise them in the way the Commonwealth does. So I think maybe, and then perhaps following the establishment of CMAG, there was this long period when it only restricted itself to military regimes; but now, since Perth, very recently the agenda is much broader so one would hope that the next ten years would see a much more active engagement in all areas of political and human rights issues.
SO: I know Chief Anyaoku had conceived of CMAG, of good offices, long before the Auckland CHOGM, but was the crisis over Ken Saro-Wiwa the tipping point which enabled the adoption of CMAG?
CW: Yes, and I think it was the tipping point. Mandela was very upset and all the rest of it which you know has been documented, so I think that gave him the opportunity to move it all forward and maybe have a bit of a breakthrough on it.
SO: If it hadn’t been for that do you think it would have been even harder?
CW: It would have been even harder, I think. In a sense the thing got a bit bogged down in subsequent years: obviously there was Pakistan, there was Fiji and so on, but in a sense it could have done more in the last few years maybe.
SO: But inevitably initiatives go in stops and starts and spurts and –
CW: Sure, and then many countries got nervous about it and then they resorted to closed door diplomacy which I think now is probably a little bit discredited.
SO: Yes, I think so. Where do you advise me to start to go to look to tease out the diplomacy?
CW: In what sort of sense?
SO: This project is designed to open up, and really to explore the nuances of good offices, to explore the role of the Commonwealth as an assistant to peaceful reconciliation, to conflict management and mediation.
SO: How do you advise me to start to tease out actually what was going on, as you say, around the Pakistan issue, around Nigeria’s suspension but then return to the Commonwealth, around the Fiji issue, around the Maldives?
CW: Well, it depends how far you want go back I guess. I think maybe one thing that hasn’t been documented quite so much, apart from the EPG, is some of the transition that took place with South Africa and Namibia, which obviously I was particularly involved with so I suppose I’m focusing on that. Then of course what’s happened since then. Just one example: one area I had responsibility for directly is that we must have organised something like a dozen or more workshops and seminars in places like Zimbabwe in the period ’88 to ’94, for people from the ANC from outside South Africa, SWAPO and their counterparts like UDF and COSATU from inside the country. They were meeting in Zimbabwe there to decide their strategy, to develop their ideas. This was in the period when it was very rough before De Klerk liberalised things. Then in the subsequent transition period, which was highly critical between ’90 and ’94. So I think this was important at a very practical level. Just as one concrete example: Cyril Ramaphosa, on his first foreign trip – I think it was something I’d organised in a meeting in Zimbabwe when he was wearing his trade union hat at that time. So, what I’m really trying to say is that the Commonwealth did a lot of things behind the scenes, facilitating transitions and movements, the same with Namibia, and it can play quite a powerful role in that sense.
SO: How much did the Zimbabwe experience provide a key learning curve for the Commonwealth? I know that Sonny Ramphal really provided the diplomatic backing for the Patriotic Front – both ZANU and ZAPU – precisely because he feared that when as liberation movements, they went into negotiations with the British about transition they didn’t have the administrative skills, the knowledge or the capability. They were liberation fighters, they weren’t toughened diplomats. They knew they wanted power, but they didn’t know necessarily quite what they wanted to do with it.
SO: It strikes me that as you’re describing here, the advice, the workshops, to COSATU and to UDF was precisely along the same lines.
CW: That, and also to allow them to meet with their counterparts in exile and to get the two together and agree common policies because at that time they were quite divergent in many areas. I think it did cement a common position which then meant that when De Klerk and others came to negotiating they had, there was a clear negotiating position.
SO: So, it’s a question of knowledge and skill transfer but also that they shouldn’t be operating within their own silos and so the ‘in-xiles’ and the ‘ex-iles’ were genuinely going to be speaking.
CW: Exactly and I feel in a sense the Commonwealth could play a bigger role, jumping ahead to the future maybe in some post conflict situations. Burma would be a classic case where I think the Commonwealth should get engaged.
SO: It remains to be seen.
CW: Indeed! [Laughs]
SO: Going back then to the Commonwealth as a critical assistant in helping to develop formal policies from which then South African liberation movements could negotiate with the National Party, did it accelerate between 1988 and ’94? Was there a particular high point, so once Mandela was released in February 1990 then the Commonwealth necessarily was obliged to take a back seat, or did the Commonwealth continue to act as a key adviser?
CW: No, we very much continued to act although the agenda changed. There was obviously a lot of interaction to help on the negotiations in providing some information. I was less involved with that directly myself, but the area I was responsible for was the whole issue of how would you facilitate black empowerment after ’94, which would affect obviously the public sector where it was totally white dominated. It would affect the schooling and the education system, local government, you name it. And one thing we did was we did a fairly intensive exercise at that time at the Secretariat which resulted in something you may have seen called the Report on Post-Apartheid Human Resource Development.
SO: No, I haven’t.
CW: Which is worth looking at because it was published and it was an interesting exercise. It was one of these group things where we had some prominent Commonwealth experts but for the first time we also had some South African experts, a black South African and white South African who were both respected by the respective communities. That report really got to grips with how do you create affirmative action in the civil service, how do you address inequalities in education, and it was quite a broad holistic report but it provided I think some valuable guidelines for the ANC government to manage the transition post ’94. And it was also the basis of what I mentioned earlier which was a joint Commonwealth UN Donors’ Conference which mobilised resources for the immediate post-apartheid transition, and that report provided the framework of that event which happened in December ’94 in Cape Town.
SO: So, you were primarily responsible for drafting that?
SO: Were there tensions between the Secretariat and the varying political actors in South Africa, such as the SACP with its particular agenda of driving forward a socialist transformation – the ‘national democratic revolution’?
SO: I appreciate that the Secretariat was providing assistance and advice in that they should resolve their own difficulties, but if there’s a particular developmental strategy and agenda that’s being pushed forward by an alliance of liberation movements; did the Secretariat take a position on this?
CW: Probably not, but what we try to do and if I can limit it to this particular example – it’s quite a good case study I think if you probe into it – is (a) we had a good expert group with prominent Commonwealth experts from Africa and other countries which were respected by most of the certainly black South Africans. We had two respected experts from inside South Africa, one was Professor Francis Wilson who was also very respected among the ANC and others and what we then did, which I think was the critical thing, was we went to South Africa. I remember almost commuting there [laughs] at one stage between ’90 and ‘94. We met with the key groupings, the Council of Churches, the universities, the Black Consciousness Movement, because at that time of course PAC was also an actor, we talked to them, the trade unions obviously and so we did try and engage with the key groupings and as far as possible reflect their views in our final report.
SO: Was the Commonwealth of Learning in any way involved in giving advice on how to deal with the tertiary sector in South Africa post-apartheid?
CW: I think it has been since then. It wasn’t at that stage I don’t think. I think it had just been set up I believe when we did this exercise, I can’t quite remember.
SO: Yes, because it was set up at Vancouver.
CW: At Vancouver, it would have just been operational so it wasn’t really engaged because I think we maybe even started the exercise around the same time or just afterwards.
SO: No, I’m just thinking of the enormous trauma of merging the apartheid university sector with the black university sector –
CW: Sure, of course, of course.
SO: – and the problems that that’s caused.
SO: I just wondered if the Commonwealth had in any way provided expert advice.
CW: I honestly don’t know. You may need to check on that and maybe the Association of Commonwealth Universities I’m sure would have been involved in some way. I haven’t really been involved in all those other areas but I’m sure there has been involvement in that area. However our expert group did address that issue too.
SO: So, in addition to providing advice on post-apartheid human resource development – on the question of the selection of expert groups outside, did individual countries volunteer? Were these selected by Chief Anyaoku’s Secretariat, identifying particular elements; how was the composition of the group chosen?
CW: It’s like most expert groups. There has to be some geographical balance so that different parts of the Commonwealth are represented, you have to be sensitive to the political issues so I think maybe there was a strong African component. I think ultimately we identified people in consultation with key countries, so it was a bit of both really I guess, but probably most of us being proactive from this end in selecting people.
SO: Staying on Southern Africa: what’s your particular view of the Commonwealth as a diplomatic actor in its various guises – at top level and then at the quasi-governmental level – in terms of Zimbabwe?
CW: In terms of the recent developments?
CW: Well, it tried to, as you know, play that big role up to the time Mugabe pulled out (in 2003) because that’s a whole exercise in itself and I think it did try very hard to see if it could move things forward. I think it was running into all sorts of barriers, not least the position of other South Africans at that time and other people in the region and it comes back to, in a sense, the earlier business, the fact I mentioned, just that Zimbabwe was hosting lots of Commonwealth Secretariat meetings to help the ANC and others and that intimate connection between Mugabe and the ANC, so clearly it was always going to be a very difficult task.
If you ask me what’s happened since then I think it should have been perhaps a little bit more proactive; but one of the positive developments was, and again it’s something I was a bit personally involved with because I chaired an initiative a couple of years ago which brought all the key non-Secretariat Commonwealth bodies together on Zimbabwe, which resulted in the establishment of something called the Commonwealth Committee on Zimbabwe which tried to really re-establish linkages with key bodies within the country, whether it’s education or trade union or others. Perhaps without blowing my own trumpet too much, the Local Government Forum was the only Commonwealth body that maintained its links with Zimbabwe after Mugabe pulled out. We were just about to start a major local government programme in the country when Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth.
After obviously careful consultation, we decided to continue with that programme and it was quite an important programme because it involved councillor training, it involved other areas, but of course, you know the thing that happened with Zimbabwe was that certainly the MDC had a very strong base again in the trade unions with Tsvangirai, Head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Although the programme, and I should emphasise this, wasn’t in any way meant to be party political and we wouldn’t have been able to do the programme [laughs] if it had been, the reality was that when the very contested general election took place in Zimbabwe in 2005, which was generally decried as being not very [laughs] shall we say, accurate. At the same time there were local government elections when Mugabe clearly had his eye off the ball and the MDC won nearly every single seat in the urban areas. The extreme case was Harare where 47 out of 48 wards went to the MDC, at the same time as the national election went to ZANU.
SO: So that’s why ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ was pushed forward?
CW: Yes, I guess. So there has been this very strong MDC presence, certainly in the urban areas and even some of the rural areas which were ZANU strongholds. The whole programme, as I emphasised, was non-party political but obviously we were working with whoever was in control so it had the indirect effect of helping councils address their local service structures. We maintained an engagement with Zimbabwe throughout that period and I think it’s since a shame that other Commonwealth bodies weren’t able to do the same, although for very good reasons. I think there’s now a case for re-engaging stronger again with Zimbabwe I believe.
SO: Kenya has been another Commonwealth country, particularly since 2007, which has hit the headlines because of its own political problems. Has the CLGF’s involvement in Kenya been comparable to trying to boost Kenyan local government capacity as an adjunct to having a vibrant, effective political culture and improving service delivery?
CW: We haven’t been involved as much as I would like and one of the difficulties we have had in Kenya, and being very open about it, is that it’s probably had the most centralised system in East Africa. So the local government structure has been very much under the control of central government; we’ve been obviously trying to help them to move forward and with the new constitution I think there’s now some opening up, but we haven’t been as engaged perhaps as we might have been.
SO: Were you aware of any Commonwealth input in conflict resolution around that post-election crisis from 2007 to 2008? As far as you’re aware, has the Commonwealth tried to contribute to constitutional reconstruction, or local government reorganisation?
CW: A little bit. There were a couple of CFTC experts and certainly one of them we had contact with at some stage was contributing towards a discussion about the greater decentralisation which is now under the new constitution. However, I’m not sure it’s the most ideal system that’s been adopted under the new constitution because it basically creates a middle layer of counties or almost provinces, which is positive, with new decentralised powers; but the other side, if I understand it correctly, is that they’ve taken away the right of individual towns like Nakuru and Kisumu to elect their mayors and to elect people directly, so they can only be appointed top down from the new provinces. So it’s a bit of a mish-mash; perhaps things could have been better structured but overall it’s a step in the right direction. And I guess the simple answer is we haven’t been engaged enough with it. Some of the Commonwealth bodies and CFTC experts were helping and advising, and we fed a little bit into that, but I guess it’s a question also partly of our own resources and how much we can do at any one time.
SO: In two other problem areas: the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Where has your quasi-government organisation or the Commonwealth been behind the scenes. The Maldives to begin with: has the CLGF been in there as providing training, information, and expert advice in the Maldives?
CW: Again it depends what time period you’re talking about. I think on the Maldives we’ve got quite a strong track record. We were involved prior to the democratic transition in advising the then minister (who now happens to be the Vice-President under the new dispensation), Mr Mohamed Waheed Deen, on local government structures; he was quite an advocate for decentralisation. And again, to put it very crudely if you have a little tiny island 1,000 miles from Male, why should it need to get its authorisation to purchase a new boat or a new jetty from somewhere 1,000 miles away? So I think that’s the rationale of decentralisation in a country like the Maldives.
So yes: we were involved, we were involved both at a practical policy level advising the previous government and then the Nasheed government after the transition. We also took part in a joint observer team of the Secretariat for the first ever local government elections which were held as the last stage of the democratisation process and we’ve since been engaged in trying to develop the new local government structures.
Obviously since the events of February 2012, we’ve been very worried about what’s been happening. I think I may have mentioned it earlier, we actually put a submission to CMAG in September 2012 expressing our worries, the extent to which the new regime seems to be clamping down on Male and other city councils; I think even now there’s some suggestion that they might abolish the elected structures there which we think would be a serious infringement of CMAG and the Commonwealth Charter. So, I guess our position has shifted from being very linked into facilitating the process, to being concerned about the political developments with the current government.
SO: On Sri Lanka; at what point did your organisation become more formally involved? I’m just trying to fill out some details of your engagement in that particular country.
CW: Well, we’ve never not been involved! I have a personal engagement with Sri Lanka and that goes back to my trade union days to the year dot when I was running around tea estates trying to promote workers’ rights, but that’s wearing a very different hat way back in the ‘70s. In terms of the Local Government Forum we’ve had on-going work in Sri Lanka since we were set up. Probably more in terms of regional engagements, for example, we did some events there even when the war was on.
Now, since the end of the war which is the critical issue, we’ve tried to, in a very modest way, facilitate post conflict reconciliation between the Tamils and the Singhalese local government leaders. And again this is perhaps not generally realised, there were, we feel, quite open and fair local government elections in Sri Lanka in 2011. I think part of it was finished in 2012 which did result in Tamil mayors being elected in Jaffna and other places, we feel, in a fairly organised way. What we’ve tried to do since then is to make sure that whenever we have Commonwealth activities certainly in Sri Lanka the two sides are there. One example was we did quite a high level event with the Secretariat in Colombo in April last year, 2012, and I specifically ensured that we had people like the Mayor of Jaffna and the Tamil Mayors who came to the event, to encourage that kind of coming together. More recently in August last year, we sent a joint CLGF Secretariat Mission to Sri Lanka for about two weeks to look at the possibilities of us developing a more substantive in country programme to promote reconciliation, local democracy and grassroots respect for Commonwealth practices, but I appreciate it’s all a bit overshadowed by the wider [laughs] developments!
SO: I’m consistently struck by what hits the headlines doesn’t give necessarily a true picture of what’s going on on the ground. What you’re describing is really, as you say, a degree of local level organisation which says that actually the Sri Lanka story is ‘good in parts’, rather than a disaster case.
CW: Exactly, and obviously you know what’s happened with the legal appointments and so on, it’s very disturbing. But I think there are other positive developments which one has to look at, and even looking at it on a very superficial level, I remember when we did our events at the Taj Hotel in Colombo. The beach outside was full of barbed wire, with patrolling police and bombings, and all the rest of it. The last couple of times I’ve been there, I’ve seen families there with their kids having their picnics and enjoying themselves; and thriving beach scenes, so one has to see it all in context. As we know, it was a very bloody, nasty war and for the bulk of the population it has brought peace.
SO: Carl, thank you very much. I think I should stop there because I’m very conscious of your limited time. But thank you very much indeed.
CW: A pleasure.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART ONE]
Transcript Part Two:
SO: This is Sue Onslow talking, again, to Mr Carl Wright at the Commonwealth Local Government Forum on Northumberland Avenue on Tuesday 12th March 2013. Carl, thank you very much indeed for agreeing to talk to me again. I wonder if you could begin by saying, please, how did you come to be involved in things Commonwealth in the first place?
CW: Well it goes back a long time. I think my very first Commonwealth engagement, if I remember correctly, was about April 1980 when I attended the Zimbabwe independence celebrations on the splendid occasion with Bob Marley. But how did I get engaged? Well, at that time I was just taking up my new post in a brand new Commonwealth body called the Commonwealth Trade Union Council, which had just been newly set up. I was the founding Director of that organisation back in 1980. How I got involved with that was I was previously working at the World Trade Union Organisation based in Brussels called the ICFTU, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, which was the main western world body on trade unions. This obviously got me involved in quite a few Commonwealth countries – like Sri Lanka and others at the time – and that organisation, where I was the Economic Secretary, had a lot to do with the International Labour Organisation, ILO, in Geneva, and ran conferences. For some years I was the Secretary of that annual conference at the ILO. During that ILO conference the British TUC used to organise a meeting and a dinner for Commonwealth delegates, which I got increasingly drawn into. I guess that was through my first formal contact. You’re talking about informal Commonwealth trade union meetings in the mid to late ‘70s.
SO: Yes, so had you been involved at a much more grass roots level in organising protection for workers’ rights, etc?
CW: In so far as I was quite engaged at the international level, but I involved myself in doing things like running around tea estates in Sri Lanka and other places in the world, trying to help with labour rights and grass roots issues. But it was always from the international angle, as it were.
SO: You said that the British Trade Union Council was particularly influential in helping to set up the CTUC.
CW: CTUC, yes. In fact we were based at Congress House headquarters in the UK, but others were influential as well. I think the other organisation which was very instrumental was the Canadian Labour Congress, which was the equivalent body in Canada, and CTUC was a Commonwealth body. The other trade union organisations from Africa and Asia all took part in it, and Australia, and places like that.
SO: Did you have any ‘below-the-radar contacts’ with South African trade union organisations at this particular point?
CW: We did at the ICFTU in Brussels. There was already a committee in the mid-‘70s which was already doing some early stuff on sanctions and at that time I was very actively involved in the whole sanctions campaign; and that then naturally led us to continue that engagement when we established a Commonwealth Trade Union Council.
SO: So how was this funded? Was this funded by dues from national trade union councils?
CW: Yes, primarily, and we did get a little bit of programme money from the old ODA, which was of course the old DFID, for actual training work and activities of that nature.
SO: What were your principal responsibilities for organising international – or, rather, transnational – collaboration? To ensure that there was a degree of standardisation of protection of workers’ rights, trade bargaining mechanisms?
CW: Yes, it was linking in. I mean, as I say, the world body I was working with previously was heavily involved in ILO labour standards, which are formal conventions on child labour and that kind of thing, and trying to enforce those and make sure that those were duly respected. But, being a Commonwealth body, our focus was really establishing links with the Commonwealth Secretariat: getting advocacy underway, making sure that trade union policies and inputs were taken into account by the Secretariat. And we were very successful in that. I’ll give two examples. I served on two quite important expert groups that the Secretariat set up in the ‘80s: one was on youth employment issues globally, which reported to CHOGM, and then the other one, if I remember correctly, was at the time quite a revolutionary group. It was on new technologies, and you’re talking now about the mid-‘80s when that was still a very pre-internet age. It was quite an inventive working group and I put the trade union views to both those groups – which were official expert groups set up by, I think, the Economic Affairs Division. Then what we were able to instigate as a result of that advocacy – I think we set it up within a few years – was a formal meeting of Commonwealth Ministers of Labour which took place, again, during the ILO conference in Geneva. That was obviously the time when all these ministers were together and we were able to up the ante from what was purely a trade union meeting to a formal meeting of Labour ministers convened by the Secretariat.
SO: This must have been a challenging time in political terms for you, because this is the 1980s – the heyday of the Thatcher/Reagan “revolution”.
CW: Indeed, it didn’t help matters. But, of course, Britain was only one of many countries in the Commonwealth and, of course – as we found out fairly imminently on the whole South Africa business – it was very much isolated in the Commonwealth. We had some strong allies like Bob Hawke of Australia who, at one stage, when he had been a trade union leader, before he became Prime Minister, had served on my board.
SO: So you had particularly good links with a key political persona?
CW: Exactly. And other Labour leaders from other countries who went in to Parliament or became ministers. Another example of somebody quite prominent who served on my CTUC board was Joseph Rwegasira who, after being Trade Union Leader in Tanzania, went on to become the Foreign Minister of Tanzania.
SO: At this particular time, then, did you also try to foster good links with the Trade Union movement here in this country? Because the mid-1980s is the time of the miners’ strike. It was very much the agenda of the Thatcher government to “roll back” the position of the unions.
CW: Yes. We didn’t, I guess, get too involved in what was obviously a very domestic issue in the UK. It did have ramifications, of course, for the wider engagement, but there was always a very strong commitment, even at that difficult time, for the British Labour movement to international work, whether it was in South Africa, whether it was all the Labour rights. A lot of the top Labour leaders at the time – from individual unions, apart from the TUC itself – were very engaged internationally. There was a TUC International Committee which I sat on and which I reported to, and so, although all this business was going on domestically with the miners and the anti-trade union legislation, our focus all the time really was on the international side. And I must say, to the credit of British trade unions, they were heavily supportive of the international work throughout.
SO: Dennis MacShane has commented that the South African Labour movement looked – particularly in this time – to the model of Polish Solidarity as a particular form of non-state Labour organisation. Is that your recollection as well?
CW: Solidarity, of course, was very much in the news. I’m not sure how far the South African trade unions were necessarily copying that. I mean, there were two major strands, as I’m sure you know. One was the UDM internal structures which, I think, had some elements perhaps similar to the Solidarity movement. But, of course, they were also very closely linked to the exiled ANC, more Moscow-orientated trade unions, and that was a problem at that time. This was still the days of the old Cold War and there was a division in the International Trade Union Movement between the West and the Eastern blocs. Being very frank, one of my problems as a Commonwealth body was [that] we didn’t discriminate between any kind of ideological groupings. So we had, for example, some Communist unions from India who were members, although the majority were western – what we would class as, perhaps, more ‘normal’ trade unions. But ultimately, as a Commonwealth body, we didn’t differentiate between ideological blocks and that occasionally ran into some difficulties, not least when – certainly in Britain – there was still quite a strong western orientation and nervousness about Communist links and the East.
SO: In what ways were these tensions manifested?
CW: Let me give you an example. One thing, I guess, I can claim personal credit for…well, with help from some other friends…was that I was able to engineer what was the first official meeting between Oliver Tambo, who was then of course Head of the ANC, and the British trade unions. I think it would’ve been about 1985 and things were really hotting up in South Africa and the reason there had never been any links between Oliver Tambo and the ANC and the trade union wing of the ANC – called SACTU – was because the British TUC regarded them as being too close to Moscow.
SO: Because of the South African Communist Party’s close cooperation with the ANC?
CW: Yes, exactly. And so what we were able to do was to overcome some of those fears and say: “Look, what we’re concerned about is the apartheid problem. We’re not playing international politics in terms of East and West”. I think we were able to have an opportunity of overcoming that a bit.
SO: You then acted as a facilitator or as a bridge?
CW: Yes. And it gives me the chance to give you the famous quote which I got from Oliver [Tambo] at the time, which was something I remember when he said to me, it was about ’85 in Geneva: ‘Of course, comrade Wright’ – as he used the ‘comrade’ term of course – ‘South Africa is still a member of the Commonwealth’. Which I was a bit perplexed by. And then he qualified about saying…because I then said to him, ‘I thought we’d kicked the bastards out!’
SO: In 1961, indeed!
CW: Indeed and then he qualified this saying: “Oh no, that was just the regime. The people are still members of the Commonwealth”. Which I thought was rather nice, coming from him ,and also there was a political message there to the Commonwealth.
SO: That was a political message he’d given Sonny Ramphal, as well.
CW: Indeed, he used the same terminology.
SO: Yes and Ramphal was enormously relieved to have that message from Tambo.
CW: Yeah. The other little episode…I don’t know if you want to go on to the EPG… Well, again, without blowing my own trumpet, the CTUC trumpet I should say, if you read Sonny Ramphal’s memoirs, he’s very, very gracious in attributing the original context of the EPG to the Commonwealth Trade Union Council, because it was something which we had conceptualised as a compromise between sanctions and negotiations and linking the two together as an alternative to ‘only sanctions’ or ‘only negotiations’ which, of course, the British wanted. We came up with the idea just before the CHOGM in the Bahamas in1985. We talked about it with our friends – who happened to be Bob Hawke, who was then Prime Minister, and Salim Salim of Tanzania, the Foreign Minister – who then talked to Sonny. And then, of course, Sonny picked up the ball and ran with it and he deserves full credit for making it happen. But in his memoirs, he does actually attribute the idea to us, which was rather gracious of him.
SO: If I could go back to just where this idea of an EPG came from. Was it something that you discussed over an informal meeting that then acquired shape and form over these informal and discreet discussions? Or was it like Anthony Eden, in his bath, coming up with the idea of German rearmament in NATO by expanding the West European Union in 1954?
CW: Oh no, it was something done in close consultation with our South African friends and clearly there were different views there – particularly the ANC and SACP who would be much more insistent on sanctions. I think the UDM group also were keen on sanctions but saw there was maybe some case for having some pressures and negotiations linked to that. What we wanted to do was to have a compromise which would allow us to move forward, and if the EPG failed, then sanctions would clamp in, which is exactly what happened of course.
SO: You’ve mentioned the ANC. I know this is very much the era when the ANC was pushing to be recognised as the sole voice of black South Africans. However, there were tensions with UDM, as you’ve mentioned, from its formation in 1984, and also the long standing animosity between the PAC and the ANC. How did you deal with all of this?
CW: With great difficulty. But we actually were the only body – certainly trade union-wise – that managed to bring everybody together. So, we were able to bring together the ANC trade union wing, of course very closely allied, as I mentioned already, at the meeting with Oliver Tambo. We managed to bring together the PAC trade union wing and also, obviously, the UDM and organise joint meetings where we were able to meet and that continued subsequently into the late ‘80s, when I moved on to the Secretariat, with some resources from the Secretariat. So, the Commonwealth, whether in the shape of the Trade Union Council or the Secretariat, was playing quite a major role in bringing together the different factions in South Africa and outside South Africa and allowing them to develop joint strategies. Which, incidentally, is the same thing we were doing within Namibia, as well with SWAPO.
SO: With SWAPO and SWANU?
SO: How did you go about this? Did you invite them to meet you in Lusaka? Did you invite them to meet you in Gabarone? After all, you’d have to get the political personalities together.
CW: Well the easiest, of course, was – as I mentioned a minute ago – Geneva, because everybody came to Geneva. The ILO had a standing committee, if I remember correctly, which was looking at the whole apartheid thing like all of the UN bodies. So, they had been inviting and the ANC came to Geneva; so, that was the initial place where we got people together, and then from that we had meetings elsewhere in London and other places, and eventually as we moved towards the late ‘80s then we were using a lot of Front Line States. I remember we must’ve done at least a dozen trade union workshops in Harare where we brought people from Lusaka and from inside South Africa: people like Cyril Ramaphosa, Sydney Mufamadi and Jay Naidoo.
SO: Was the British government, in any way, trying to use these transnational networks as a way to make discreet contact with the ANC? After all, governments talk to governments. I’ve listened to Jonathan Powell emphasising this, and I understand that particular approach. However, junior officials have responsibility to talk to all sides, so, was there a degree of exploiting your particular lines of contact?
CW: Not at any political level. If anything, don’t forget, this was the heyday – as you rightly said – of Thatcher and her position was very clear on the ANC being a terrorist organisation. I always remember a wonderful little anecdote… Receiving a letter from Number 10, where we’d written on behalf of the CTUC calling for sanctions, and we’d had the standard Foreign Office reply signed by Thatcher back about why they didn’t support sanctions. But there was a nice little personal touch because the key sentence was: “… therefore, the British government does not support sanctions” and the word ‘not’ was underlined about three times in red ink.
SO: What about the British Labour Party at this particular time? Up to 1983-4, of course, its leader was Michael Foot, and then Neil Kinnock. Was Kinnock particularly active and politically supportive?
CW: Very much so and, of course, Glenys Kinnock also. Both very involved in the anti-apartheid movement, so there’s that very strong link with the anti-apartheid movement. I certainly recall about ‘86/’87, having various meetings where he took part in Congress House, and there was – from the opposition, certainly – a lot of support for some of this work.
SO: You mentioned the difficulty of getting the differing elements of the PAC, UDM and ANC and the varying trade union organisations wings together in the same room. To what extent do you think that that, in those early days, helped to establish contact between them, with a view to moving to the negotiations post-1990?
CW: I think it was significant. Let me give you examples of what we concretely did in the Commonwealth context. When we had CHOGMs, and certainly by the time we had the CHOGM in Vancouver in ’89, we had a delegation which was composed of the different sort of trade union wings – certainly PAC and UDM wings. We also had meetings in London, as I said earlier, and I think it did bring them together quite a bit and allowed them to develop joint strategies, and that obviously continued subsequently. Maybe I’m delving too much into anecdotes, but my other interesting little story was when we had Jay Naidoo – who, you may know, was a senior minister in the Mandela government, but at that time led the trade unions. When he came to London, we put him up in a little hotel in Russell Square and the very first evening he was there we went out for dinner and came back to find his hotel room totally ransacked in a very obvious way. It was clearly the South African security who were telling him, as a message, ‘You’re maybe with your mates but we’re keeping an eye on you.’ So, things like that went on, even in London.
SO: Carl, when you joined the Secretariat in 1988, did you continue with these trade union contacts through the Commonwealth Trade Union Council or did that side of your responsibilities lapse?
CW: No, very much so. I did other things, as well, on Mozambique and other areas of work, but no, if anything, it has continued in quite a substantial way. I think, between ’88 and maybe ’92, I would say the Secretariat must have funded anything up to about 20 trade union events in Front Line States which were designed exactly to develop those kinds of policies, which I helped to coordinate.
SO: The story of South Africa is, of course, much better known and researched than the story of Namibia. The December of 1988 agreement between South Africa and Cuba stipulated there should be a mutual withdrawal from Angola and also the associated parallel negotiations for Namibian independence. Were you intimately involved in that side of things?
CW: Not directly in the negotiations, but again, gently, through the trade union wings. So, again we were bringing together the exiled wing and the internal organisers and we were doing the same sort of thing in two ways. We were, through the Secretariat, funding scholarships for key people in places like Tanzania and other Front Line States, but also we had exactly the same strategy on a smaller scale as we subsequently did for South Africa, where we organised events in places like Harare, where we allowed the two to come together and, basically, although there was a formal agenda of course, it allowed them the opportunity to do a lot of their joint strategies and exchange views and come closer together.
SO: I do know that, between 1991 and 1994, Moses Anafu at the Secretariat was intimately involved in trying to contribute to the discussions and, particularly, to persuading Inkhata that it shouldn’t withdraw totally from the negotiations. Were you in any way supportive of these efforts? And, did Inkhata have a particular trade union wing or affiliation?
CW: Well, certainly there were meetings I attended in various country houses in the UK where Inkhata and others were present. So, I was a little bit on the periphery of some of these goings on and I was invited to various events.
SO: So are you talking about Mells Park?
CW: No, this is more in Wilton House and places like that, or at separate meetings. I wasn’t involved in the Mells Park one. So, it is a bit on the periphery, I guess, but at that time, of course, there was the push from British government to support Inkhata as an alternative, and they were being promoted. But, again, there was an attempt to try and, I guess, bring the different factions together.
SO: So, obviously, you paid close attention to the observer group team that went down there. Did you provide any briefing paper to support the CODESA team or anything like that? I just wondered if, in any way, that you were aware of the CODESA meetings with Mandela, De Klerk, and the contribution of the Secretariat?
CW: Only in very general term. I can’t say we were involved in the intimacies of it. I mean, we were more really acting as a facilitator to continue the outside pressure as much as anything and continue. I did go to South Africa once or twice in that time – both in my CTUC days and subsequently, of course – and had links with various people.
SO: What was your particular opinion of Cyril Ramaphosa as, after all, a leading trade unionist?
CW: Very high opinion. At the time, he was probably the leading light and, of course, subsequently – as you know, [when he was] Secretary General of the ANC – did most of the negotiations with Rolf Meyer and I think, certainly as far as I can see, he really drove that whole exercise in a very big way. So, yes, I have a very high opinion of Cyril.
SO: Did you, in any way, provide supporting briefing material? Or, in these negotiations, was he able to draw on his own particular negotiating skills, his own intellect, his own experience?
CW: No, we didn’t directly. Go back a step: a few years earlier, I think I can say, I organised Cyril’s first overseas trip which was one of our trade union meetings in Harare and some of the initial – maybe, if you like – background which then led on to a bit later to CODESA stuff; [this] was probably where we made a contribution. But I wasn’t directly involved in the CODESA things in any way.
SO: I was talking to Ambassador Abdul Minty on Friday. His comment was that he felt that the Commonwealth played a significant and unrecognised role in the transition of South Africa to black majority rule, and that this was not simply in the International Solidarity Movement to try to exert pressure on sanctions and also disinvestment, etc., but that there was a much more positive role between 1990-1994.
CW: In a sense I have skipped quite an important chapter, and again it depends how much this was directly used in CODESA – I’m not sure. But I think we touched last time, already, on the Commonwealth report on human resource developments for post-apartheid, which I think gave some useful resource material to the negotiators. When it came to issues around black empowerment and the public service, or even in education and universities, the report tried to document as far as we could at the time what were the issues, how they could potentially be overcome, and we also did actually do some number-crunching. I don’t know if you had a chance to look at the report, but at the time I think it was quite a detailed document which Penguin published as a paperback. What it was really meant to do was to set out the agenda for the post-apartheid transition. That work, I think, started around ‘91/’92, and then I was commuting to South Africa very regularly while the CODESA process was going on. As I said, I didn’t input into it directly, but I think indirectly, I’m sure, some of the work that came out of the group contributed – although it wasn’t really finished until about ’93 or thereabouts, so it was really a bit late in the negotiations. But it was meant to provide the basis for the post-apartheid transition and I think it was used quite a bit. Indeed, the main use of the report – which was done in collaboration with the UN, but it was a Commonwealth initiative which I was basically the Secretary to – was the convening of the post-April ’94 International Donors Conference in Cape Town, in late 1994, which brought resources from different donors for the post-apartheid transition, of course, which was still very important for those early years.
SO: Did you have an official view when South Africa changed from its socialist agenda immediately post-black majority rule and then went much more for an economic liberalisation and market reform strategy?
CW: Well that kind of happened – or, should I say, I think it happened over time. I think there was quite a strong period in ‘94/’95 when there was quite a lot of affirmative action, when there was the RDP, Jay Naidoo was responsible for [this] as Minister of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, which did have quite a strong interventionist element to it and the liberalisation didn’t come until a little bit later. There were some elements of it – and it was partly to reassure the Afrikaaner, of course. But I think the real stronger liberalisation, I think, maybe came a bit later.
SO: Did the Commonwealth, as far as you were aware, continue to offer expert advice? Or was this now an era of South Africa financial and economic sovereignty?
CW: I changed hats, of course, at that time. I finished the Secretariat in ’94 just after we’d completed this exercise on post-apartheid and switched over to the Local Government Forum. One of the first things we did was to take experts to the South Africans to help them with their local government system and the local government structures.
SO: Or lack of local government structures?
CW: Well, lack of them. Still very much apartheid-based, with a lot of white structures and parallel black structures, and trying to bring them together and… To give you one concrete example – which, actually, I’m very pleased it found its way in to the new legislation… We had a colleague from Australia at the time, a local government colleague who was involved and we sent him out. He had this, I think, rather nice little concept which he always said there are no such things as ‘levels’ of government because levels implies tiers and hierarchy and why should local government be at the bottom of the level? You know, it has its own sphere of responsibility, and so we don’t believe in levels, but we believe in ‘spheres’ of government, where each sphere – local, provincial, central or federal, if you like – has its own area of responsibility. Sure enough, the concept of ‘spheres of government’ found its way into the legislation and is reflected in the South African constitution. So, we did have an input.
SO: But one of the key challenges, it strikes me, with South Africa’s transition from apartheid is to address this lack of local government, particularly in the form of “Bantustans”…
SO: …and so if there isn’t a strong state at local or indeed regional level, how do you begin to build the political cultures that support this?
CW: Exactly. And if you go back to the report of the Commonwealth post-apartheid, we did have a chapter already in there on local government as well as central government and the importance of having that transition from the apartheid structures and having more integrated, non-racial local government structures. And that transition took a long time and you could argue that some of it is still with us.
SO: You’ve mentioned a number of key personalities today. I’m going to suggest to you that the Commonwealth is very much a personality and network political organisation.
CW: It has its role.
SO: You’ve mentioned Neil Kinnock and Glenys Kinnock, Cyril Ramaphosa. Also, Bob Hawke, of course. But were there any other particular leading lights within the International Trade Union movement that contributed to South African transition through the Commonwealth?
CW: Not to forget I mentioned Jay Naidoo. The other key South African personality, was Sydney Mufamadi who, of course, became subsequently, much later, the Minister of Local Government. But he was a leading trade unionist as well. I think he was on the CTUC delegation, we had in Vancouver at the CHOGM back in ’87 together with Jay Naidoo, but that’s on the South African side. On the international side, I mean, there were lots of people who were very engaged. There was a guy from Barbados who was probably one of the most senior trade unionists in the Caribbean called Frank Walcott – not the cricketer, but anyway… He was very engaged in all this work. We had a very strong delegation at the Bahamas CHOGM, obviously, when the EPG was being formed. I think I organised one of the first, certainly, ANC-led delegations to Jamaica back in the ‘80s which was one of the first links they had with Jamaica. So, I think the Commonwealth played quite a role in making those links. But, coming to your question about personalities… I think on the PAC side it probably would be unfair not to mention Piroshaw Camay, who you may have come across in a new incarnation. He now does a lot of work on NGO in civil society in South Africa where he was the leading PAC trade union person at the time.
SO: You mentioned helping to arrange for Sydney Mufamadi and Jay Naidoo to come to Vancouver. It strikes me as another example of a Commonwealth organisation providing a reason for opponents of apartheid South Africa to meet Commonwealth leaders, rather as Abdul Minty used the Commonwealth Journalist Association – because he was the Editor, of course, of Anti-Apartheid News. In that guise he was able to attend CHOGMs and, although obviously not intimately involved in discussion with leaders, was able to use the space around meetings.
CW: We did actually have a meeting with Geoffrey Howe in his official capacity as Foreign Secretary where myself and colleagues let him know, in no imprecise terms, what their view was of the British policy at the time.
SO: And do you recall how Geoffrey Howe handled that?
CW: With great caution. No doubt duly briefed.
SO: I’ve also heard it said that – for all Mrs Thatcher’s passion ‘to play the pantomime villain with relish’ – Geoffrey Howe, in fact, deliberately adopted a much more cautious and pragmatic, but also approachable, style as Foreign Secretary.
CW: He was there, he would listen, he wasn’t confrontational and – [though] I am not sure the meeting achieved a lot – at least there was an opportunity for our South African colleagues to present their views to him on behalf of the black trade union movement.
SO: And then there was of course Mrs Thatcher announcing that Britain hadn’t, in any way, compromised its stance. Mrs Thatcher certainly had robust views on the issue of sanctions whereas she was no supporter of apartheid. And yet she’s held up as the villain of the piece.
CW: I think sometimes her public pronouncements were a bit different than what was going on behind the scenes, obviously, as we saw subsequently in the later years.
SO: Yes. Did you remain in very close touch with the Labour Party figures? You have made reference to Neil and Glenys Kinnock, but what of other leading Labour Party figures?
CW: Obviously, less in an official capacity when I moved to Secretariat because I was technically in a diplomatic position, so, I had to be a little bit more neutral. I had various private contacts and, indeed, at one stage I was Treasurer of something called One World Action which was a charity of which Glenys Kinnock was the Chair. But that was doing work on charitable things throughout the world.
SO: So one of a number of organisations that contributed or added its pebble to the pile of transition in South Africa?
CW: Well, I hope so.
SO: Yes, indeed. Carl, thank you very much indeed for helping with this oral history project.
CW: I’ll give you one last little quick story which may be worth mentioning, on some of the interplay that went on behind the scenes. I was invited in probably about ’86, I think, for my first ever visit to South Africa and at that time, of course, the official policy of trade unions was to boycott. The invitation had come from UDM – COSATU, in fact – which was our main partner. And I was asked to speak at the COSATU Conference which was at Wits University in ’86 and it was at a time – just to set the scene a little bit – when COSATU headquarters had just been bombed by the regime. Various officials were having car bombs, the President of COSATU had his arm in a plaster where he’d been beaten up by the police, so it was pretty rough days. It was intimated to me by the South African Embassy here that, although having a British passport, it was highly unlikely that I’d get much beyond the gates of Jan Smuts airport. I was also travelling with Norman Willis, by the way, from the TUC.
SO: Well it was a state of emergency there then, wasn’t it.
CW: Yes, exactly. So very, very tough, difficult times. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a behind the scenes intervention by the British government to make sure that we got a limited three day visa by the regime and we were duly allowed entry for a very short period – spent sort of 24 hours a day running around doing things and then went back again.
SO: So this is 1986?
CW: I think it was about ’86, yeah. The second COSATU Congress.
SO: So the British Ambassador would have been, I think, Patrick Moberley. So it was just before Robin Renwick came in.
CW: I think so, yeah. But the intervention, I think, came from Linda Chaulker at this end. So, there was a case where the British government was playing – behind the scenes – a positive role to allow, on the quiet, something that they wouldn’t do normally …
SO: Trying to create policy space, yes. Mr Wright, thank you very much indeed.
[END OF AUDIOFILE PART TWO]