Amnesty International's stance on South Africa

Kirsten Sellars writes in her book about Peter Berenson's partial measures and reports on South Africa during the early 1960s:

Although Dr Verwoerd's regime was notoriously brutal, Benenson was at great pains to stress that this project was not intended to provide shelter to active opponents of apartheid. 'I would like to re-iterate our view that these [neighbouring British] territories should not be used for offensive political action by the opponents of the South African Government', he wrote. 'Indeed,' he added, 'it is a matter of importance that Communist influence should not be allowed to spread in this part of Africa, and in the present delicate situation, Amnesty International would wish to support HMG in any such policy.' Lansdowne, one of the last Conservative ministers to preside over Britain's shrinking empire, would doubtless have been gratified to hear this. (Sellars, op. cit., p. 99).
Amnesty backed up its words with deeds. The Colonial Office was at that time under heavy fire at home for their hounding of two self-proclaimed communists, Jack and Rita Hodgson, who had sought shelter in Bechuanaland after escaping house arrest in South Africa. When they arrived in the territory, the Hodgsons refused to obey the territory's draconian ban on all political and trade union activity, and tried to foment a strike at Bechuanaland's sole 'industrial' site, the local abattoir. In response, the authorities quarantined them in the Kalahari Desert and then deported them to Britain. :Before the Hodgsons' expulsion from Bechuanaland, a delegation of representatives from Amnesty, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the African National Congress, and members of all major political parties, appealed to the Colonial Office to effect some kind of compromise. After all, its treatment of the Hodgsons was embarrassingly reminiscent of that meted out to them in South Africa. But behind the scenes, Benenson was more in sympathy with the Bechuanaland authorities than with the communist Hodgsons. 'I have made further enquiries [o]n this case, and would say privately that I am quite satisfied that it was in the best interests of the population of the Protectorate that they should be asked to leave', he wrote to Lord Lansdowne. Amnesty had communicated their 'present views' to the International Commission of Jurists, and, as a result, the latter had 'agreed to withdraw [the case] from any further publications to the United Nations'. By this means, the Hodgsons' plight was effectively frozen off the human rights agenda.

While Benenson was busy cultivating Whitehall's senior officials (and they him), Amnesty was tying itself in knots over the African National Congress prisoner, Nelson Mandela. The organisation had taken up his case before, but when he was gaoled again in 1964, this time for sabotage, many members felt that Mandela should be dropped as a 'prisoner of conscience' because he had used violence. At the same time, they felt uneasy about forsaking him during his life sentence on Robben Island. Eventually, an assembly was convened at Canterbury. The leadership argued that 'Amnesty International would be applying a double standard if it insisted that the police and prison authorities abstain from any act of violence or brutality yet maintained that those on the other side should be allowed to commit such acts and yet be unpunished.' This argument was accepted by the membership. Delegates voted overwhelmingly against giving the 'prisoner of conscience' tag to anyone involved in violence, and Mandela was dropped.

Amnesty was active in Southern Africa in the early years. In 1963, Benenson wrote a report entitled Now in the Future is it Peace or War? about the plight of refugees fleeing from South Africa to the British territories. Amnesty's vaunted reputation for factual accuracy got off to a slightly shaky start - as the High Commissioner pointed out, he had wrongly stated that Basutoland was a protectorate, when it was in fact a colony.60 Aside from such errors, though, Whitehall was pleased with his largely positive conclusions about colonial policy. Benenson meanwhile sent a secret 'annex' to this report to four people: Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas Home, Labour leader Harold Wilson, Liberal leader Jo Grimond, and, for reasons unexplained, to Christopher Barclay, the head of the Information Research Department (the Foreign Office's propaganda warfare section). In this annex, he assessed the scope of South African incursions into neighbouring territories, and the strength of the opposition to the regime.(Sellars, op.cit., p. 100)

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