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Abbott, 1979: “South African terrorists”

Benedict Brunker investigates Tony Abbott’s reformed feelings for Nelson Mandela.


Upon the death of Nelson Mandela in December last year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had this to say of his legacy:

“The world mourns the passing of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela will forever be remembered as more than a political leader, he was a moral leader. He spent much of his life standing against the injustice of apartheid.”

Retrospective praise for Mandela is not difficult. He is now almost universally hailed as a secular saint and a model of moral courage. There was, however, a time when South African Apartheid was a contemporary question. Support groups for Mandela’s African National Congress proliferated internationally, including at our own university.

Abbott may not have been Prime Minister when the argument over Apartheid was still raging, but he did hold some positions of power and authority. In April 1979, when Abbott was President of our own Students’ Representative Council, he wrote in the pages of this publication that Voluntary Student Unionism “would finally stop all students being taxed so the SRC can fund groups such as International Socialists, South African Terrorists, the Spartacists, Lidcombe Health Workers Collective etc. which are quite irrelevant, not to say obnoxious, to student purposes.”

Abbott’s “South African Terrorists” were the members of Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) political party, to whom the SRC had previously been giving money.

The near-ubiquitous modern approval of Mandela’s legacy shouldn’t write his opponents out of history. Though active support for the Apartheid system was rare outside of South Africa, support for the South African government itself and opposition to Mandela and the ANC was reasonably common. This was despite widespread condemnation of the South African system.

Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal Party, and its associated Liberal student groups at universities, supported the Commonwealth campaign to abolish Apartheid. Abbott did not join these efforts. He was President of the University of Sydney Democratic Club, an affiliate organization of B.A. Santamaria’s militantly anti-Communist National Civic Council and Democratic Labor Party.

These organisations actively supported South Africa’s Apartheid government, if not the Apartheid system itself. Abbott wrote and published the club’s bulletin, The Democrat, and was a close friend of Santamaria. The Apartheid government was seen in Western conservative circles as an important bulwark against Afro-Communist tendencies, which the ANC was thought to exhibit.

Anti-Apartheid activity was alive and well in Australia at this time. Many Australians supported fundraising efforts for the ANC, and participated in anti-Apartheid demonstrations throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The racially exclusive Springboks were banned from playing in Australia between 1974 and the end of Apartheid in 1994. In 1981, the Fraser government refused permission for the aircraft carrying the Springboks to a tour of New Zealand to refuel on Australian territory. Abbott, however, accepted a rugby scholarship to tour South Africa in what former Federal Labor Minister Barry Cohen described as a “universally acknowledged… promotional tour of Apartheid”.

There is no record of Abbott making any speeches condemning Apartheid while it was ongoing throughout his political career.

Platitudes regarding lionised figures like Mandela are to be expected from Western leaders of any political leaning. But there was a time when Apartheid was a live issue, one whose endurance depended to some significant degree on the actions of states like Australia, which shared ties of trade, commonwealth and geostrategy with South Africa. For some, the possibility of communist influence was a preoccupation that outweighed concern for a system of racial totalitarianism practiced by a major allied state. Abbott’s record on the issue is riddled with sins of omission and commission.