1970-1979 | Arms exports | Backing Apartheid

Cabinet – Uranium more important than ending Apartheid

Harold Wilson (Gerald R. Ford Library – Wikimedia), Shirley Williams (Nationaal Archief – Wikimedia) and Jonas Savimbi (Ernmuhl – CC BY-SA 3.0 – Wikimedia).

15 May 1975

Throughout 1975, Harold Wilson’s Labour government supplied Apartheid South Africa with ammunition, military spares and other critical equipment for their armed forces. Britain’s backing helped the South African army enforce internal repression and prevent anti-imperialist insurgencies across southern Africa, as the regime increasingly resorted to extreme means to pacify the region. In August, South African soldiers crossed the Angolan border in a major raid in support of Jonas Savimbi’s terrorist UNITA army, which willingly acted as a proxy for South Africa and during the subsequent two decades, to cite an Africa Watch report, it ‘systematically and indiscriminately’ attacked Angola’s civilian population.1

The British decision to continue assisting Apartheid South Africa’s military was made after a few minutes of discussion at a Cabinet meeting on 15 May. Roy Mason, Secretary of State for Defence, and Eric Varley, Secretary of State for Energy, argued strongly for maintaining British military support. Varley was jittery that the regime would ‘threaten our uranium supplies from the Rossing mine in South West Africa if we don’t go ahead.’  Two other ministers, Roy Hattersley and Shirley Williams, also favoured an unsentimental pragmatic approach. Harold Wilson nodded approvingly.  Tony Benn, Minister for Trade and Industry, protested that ‘nothing should go,’ but he was the only dissenting voice. Summing up the Cabinet’s clear inclination to prioritise business over human rights, Wilson declared ‘spares are all right.’  Benn noted in his diary: ‘It is the most reactionary Cabinet.’2

Two months earlier, thousands of activists had gathered for an anti-apartheid demonstration in London’s Trafalgar Square and had delivered a petition to Downing Street requesting the government to end its military and economic support.3  Wilson’s government, however, was indifferent to the growing anger among the public and within the Labour movement at British collusion. In November, Benn observed in his diary that ‘our whole movement is against apartheid, it is a burning issue,’ but after attending an Overseas and Defence Policy Committee in which it was agreed that Britain would provide vital technical assistance to the South African Atomic Energy Board, he commented: ‘I came away feeling absolutely sick because there is no common thinking at all. They don’t believe in any of the ideas which inspire the movement.’4

FOOTNOTES

  1. Elaine Windrich, reviewing Edward S. Herman, The Selling of Savimbi in Fair, 1 November 1993, accessed online at url https://fair.org/extra/the-selling-of-savimbi/
  2. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), Tony Benn: Against the Tide, Diaries 1973-1976, Hutchinson, London, 1989, p. 377
  3. ‘End Support for South Africa,’ The Birmingham Post, 24 March 1975, p. 7, ‘Apartheid Demo,’ The Newcastle Journal, 24 March 1975, p. 11. and ‘Apartheid’, The Belfast Telegraph, 24 March 1975, p. 7.
  4. Ruth Winstone ( editor ), op. cit., pp. 454-455.

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