The Commonwealth of Nations

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with leaders of member countries at the
1961 Commonwealth of Nations conference. Diefenbaker is the 3rd from
the left in the front row

In 1931, Britain formally established legislative equality between all self-governing dominions and the United Kingdom. The resulting Commonwealth of Nations, with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as its head, consisted of countries that had once been colonies of Britain. The leaders of these states met to discuss issues of mutual and international importance. Although these nations have diverse social, economic and political backgrounds, they also have identified shared common values and goals. These include the advancement of multilateralism, individual liberties, egalitarianism, democracy and human rights – concepts that the Diefenbaker government promoted and supported.

A commitment to domestic independence put the members of the Commonwealth in an awkward position with regards to South Africa’s practice of racial segregation. Following a referendum in 1960 (in which only whites could vote) South Africa became a republic. This change in status required a reapplication for membership in the Commonwealth of Nations, and brought the question of apartheid to the forefront of the discussions at the 1961 Commonwealth conference.

Opposing Apartheid in South Africa

Following World War II, countries around the world began to move away from policies of racial discrimination and segregation, but this was not the case in South Africa.

Beginning with the election of the National Party in 1948, the government of South Africa took formal steps to separate people of color, including politically and physically segregating South Africans based on race. This strategy of "apartheid" (an Afrikaans word meaning "separateness") was a legalized system designed to keep those of European descent politically and economically dominant, while institutionalizing racial intolerance.

Under the Diefenbaker government, Canada was one of the first countries to take the lead in openly opposing Apartheid.

Disproportionate Treatment Table, ca. 1978BlacksWhites
Population 19 million 4.5 million
Land Allocation 13% 87%
Share of National Income <20% 75%
Infant Mortality Rate (Urban) 20% 3%
Infant Mortality Rate (Rural) 40% 4%
Annual Expenditure on Education per Pupil 45 rands ($57.15 CDN) 696 rands($883.92 CDN)
Teacher to Pupil Ratio 1 per 60 students 1 per 22 students
Doctors to Number of Patients 1 per 44,000 1 per 400 patients
Minimum Taxable Income 360 rands ($457.20 CDN) 7,500 rands ($9,525 CDN)
Ratio of Average Earning 1/14  
Source: Leo80

Standing Apart on Apartheid

Diefenbaker seldom backed down on matters he considered moral imperatives. In 1961, the Diefenbaker government stood with its Asian and African counterparts in condemning apartheid and formally opposing the renewal of South Africa's membership in the Commonwealth. Ultimately, rather than face the judgment of member states, South Africa withdrew its application for readmission into the Commonwealth of Nations.

"Apartheid has become the world’s symbol of discrimination. I took the position that if we were to accept South Africa’s request [for readmission] unconditionally, our action would be taken as approval or at least condonation of racial policies, which are repugnant to and unequivocally abhorred and condemned by Canadians as a whole."

(House of Commons, 17 March 1961)

International Impact

Following the Conference, non-Commonwealth countries and independent organizations followed the Commonwealth of Nations in condemning South Africa’s policies. 

The United Nations placed trade sanctions on South Africa, thereby limiting trade between that country and UN member states. However, these actions proved ineffective in halting the South African government’s institutionalized practices of repression, banishment, torture, imprisonment for life, and executions

Although trade embargoes gradually isolated South Africa from the rest of the world, the nation's government refused to eliminate their Apartheid policies until 1994.

John Diefenbaker with The Right Hon. Harold Macmillan,
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the 1961 Conference.
John Diefenbaker speaking at the UN.