No, Bob Hawke didn’t free Nelson Mandela

In The Hawke Memoirs, published in 1994, former Prime Minister Bob Hawke described Nelson Mandela’s visit to Australia in October 1990 and the adoring public reception he received.

The key paragraph read:

Nelson Mandela’s generosity of spirit was quickly evident as we settled down in my office. He said, ‘I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today, at this time, because of you’.

Hawke continued:

He then thanked me for my leadership and initiatives in CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) which, he said, had accelerated his release and the collapse of apartheid. I was deeply moved, both for myself and my country; we were entitled to feel great pride in these more than generous words from this great man.

A second book, Hawke: The Prime Minister by his wife Blanche d’Alpuget, was published by Melbourne University Press in 2010. It also referred to Mandela’s 1990 visit to Australia:

In October that year a tall, graceful African stepped into Hawke’s office in Canberra, a smile on his face, his arms open to embrace the Prime Minister. Taking a seat he said, ‘I want you to know, Bob, that I am here today, at this time, because of you’.

The words were a direct echo of what had appeared in Hawke’s own book 16 years earlier. In the foreword to his book Hawke expressed his gratitude to d’Alpuget saying:

Lastly, I thank Blanche d’Alpuget, whose excellent biography gave the fullest account of my life. In March this year she put aside her own book to work as my editor as the deadline approached. Her expertise and professionalism were invaluable.

D’Alpuget has been associated with all three Hawke books: writing two of them herself, Robert J Hawke: A Biography in 1982 and Hawke: The Prime Minister in 2010, and editing The Hawke Memoirs in1994. They formed a relationship during the writing of the 1982 biography and married in 1995, the same year that d’Alpuget became a director of Robert J Hawke & Associates.

Over the years Hawke, who was a former president of the ACTU before becoming federal MP for the Melbourne seat of Wills, has made other references to his meeting with Mandela.

At the 2009 ALP national conference Hawke nominated the overthrow of apartheid as one of the crowning achievements of his four prime ministerships between 1983 and 1991. After receiving the party’s highest accolade of life membership, he choked with emotion during a 30-minute speech to delegates at Sydney’s Darling Harbour Convention Centre:

If I think of all the proud moments in my career as prime minister, there’s nothing that would beat Nelson Mandela walking into my office … he took my hand and said, and he wasn’t only talking about me, ‘Bob, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here’. That we, a small country, could be so instrumental in bringing to an end that vicious, unfair, unethical regime is something that this great party should forever be proud of.

On 6 November, 2013, the day after Mandela’s death, Hawke was interviewed by Leigh Sales on ABC TV’s 7.30 Report. Planned as a tribute to the former South African president, the interview became a reaffirmation of the greatness of Bob Hawke.

Asked why Mandela had visited Australia is 1990, Hawke replied:

Well, Australia was the first country outside of Africa that he visited, and he came to thank us for what we’d done to help bring about the end of apartheid. [Wrong. Mandela visited Canada in June 1990 and didn’t visit Australia until October that year.]

Hawke continued:

It was recognised that I’d taken the leadership in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Toronto in ’87. [Wrong. It was in Vancouver.] I said to them, tried sanctions and it’s not working. The only thing that could possibly work was investment sanctions.

They agreed and we called Jim Wolfensohn up from New York and discuss with him and he agreed. I got my best people from Treasury and we working on it. The investment sanctions worked.

The last Finance Minister, Barend du Plessis, said publicly it was the investment sanctions that brought an end to apartheid. So he [Mandela] was coming not just to thank Bob Hawke personally but for what I represented.

Sales later asked Hawke about his private conversations with Mandela – a perfect invitation for him to share his ‘Bob, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here’ moment. Instead, he told another anecdote from that meeting:

I said to him, ‘Nelson, I know it’s going to be difficult, but if you’re going to optimise the chances of growing South Africa and lifting your people, you’re going to have to hold the hand out to those who’ve been so terrible to you.

You need their capital, their expertise, their experience. And I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Bob, I can never forget but I can forgive, and I’ll do that’. And I thought it was just marvellous.

It was also an unforgettable TV moment: Hawke had just claimed responsibility for post-apartheid South Africa’s decision to stage a truth and reconciliation process.

On 12 December, 2013, at a memorial service in Canberra paying tribute to Mandela’s legacy, Hawke once again referred to their 1990 meeting which he described as ‘an enormously moving moment for me’.

But the reference to Mandela saying, ‘Bob, that I am here today … [is] because of you’ was not included in the speech delivered to a wide gathering of foreign diplomats from Africa, Europe, Asia and South America, academics and politicians.

Perhaps Hawke thought the retelling of the private conversation with Mandela to this seasoned Canberra audience was a step too far.

The memorial, organised by the South African Embassy, was held at the Australian National University’s Llewellyn Hall where Mandela had received an honorary doctorate of laws in 2000.

Nonetheless, Hawke recalled another moment from their private conversation not included in his memoirs or his wife’s biography. He said he asked Mandela about how he could possibly ‘hold out his hand’ to those who had imprisoned him for 27 years:

He looked me in the eye and he said, ‘Bob, I can never forget, but I can forgive’ … To hear that man say that, what an impact it had on me.

The simple-minded media played and re-played Hawke’s recollections of Mandela without fact-checking nor making the most routine background research.

In 1994 Mandela published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, telling the story of his life and the epic struggle to defeat apartheid. The name Bob Hawke does not appear once in the book’s 768 pages.

Mandela’s memoirs are filled with generous references to his comrades-in-arms and to world leaders who, in one way or another, gave impetus to the downfall of the hated racist system. But Hawke is not among them, nor is the Commonwealth nor the CHOGM meeting in Vancouver.

Other accounts of CHOGM’s meeting in Vancouver in 1987 don’t mention Hawke’s initiative. It isn’t included in the official report of the gathering. When Britain’s Margaret Thatcher addressed the Commons on her return she scarcely concealed her delight that moves to adopt a binding sanctions regime had again been scuttled. ‘Heads of Government also agreed a statement on South Africa,’ she told MPs. ‘This reiterated the Commonwealth’s determination to work for the total elimination of apartheid and confirmed our commitment to see this goal achieved by negotiation against the background of a suspension of violence on all sides. However, no specific additional measures or sanctions against South Africa were adopted.’

New Zealand’s Prime Minister David Lange was more scathing of CHOGM’s slothful attitude to isolating the apartheid state, writing:

In October 1987 I went to Vancouver for another pointless meeting of the upper echelon of the Commonwealth. I could not walk around the beautiful waterfront because security measures were so tight, and at the mountain resort where the retreat took place we frittered the time away surrounded by hundreds of mounted police.

At a South Pacific Forum meeting in Tuvalu in 1984 Lange formed a scorching view of his trans-Tasman counterpart:

Hawke and I always had a strained relationship. His language was frequently obscene and he was steeped in the culture of mateship, which for me was never a good starting point. He saw his success in overcoming his own party’s support for a nuclear-free policy as a tribute to his statesmanship. There was no end to his vanity.

In Hawke: The Prime Minister, Blanche d’Alpuget devoted six pages to her husband’s involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle, the Vancouver CHOGM and his initiative to strangle international lending to the racist republic. She gave detailed attention to Hawke’s recruitment of Sydney-born, New York-based merchant banker, James Wolfensohn, later to become president of the World Bank (1995­­­–2005), to mobilise Wall Street banks to support the plan. She described how Wolfensohn flew from New York to Vancouver on his private jet for a briefing on the Hawke plan and agreed to act as an unofficial recruitment officer among US bankers.

After the secret meeting Hawke was so concerned about Wolfensohn’s security – ‘not only could Wolfensohn’s own business be attacked, his life could be at risk’ – that he sent Michael Codd, of the Prime Minister’s Department, on a mission from Vancouver to New York to warn him of  the dangers he might face.

Codd explained to d’Alpuget for her book:

I wanted Jim to be absolutely clear what sort of stuff goes on in the real world when these big issues are at stake: he needed to get his head around just what he had let himself in for, because he had generously volunteered to put his own reputation at stake with the American banks he needed to deal with.

The cloak-and-dagger diplomacy breathlessly recorded by d’Alpuget does not rate a mention in Wolfensohn’s autobiography published in 2010. In the 462-page book there is no reference to Hawke, the secret mission to Vancouver or the life-endangering diplomacy which he undertook at Hawke’s request. For ‘a major league name-dropper’ (as the Washington Post‘s Simon Johnson described Wolfensohn), these are remarkable omissions and probably indicate the significance that the episode represents in Wolfensohn’s global career – zero.

Hawke’s claims to anti-apartheid glory can be compared with the role of another white Commonwealth leader, Brian Mulroney, Conservative Party Prime Minister of Canada between 1984 and 1993.

In his biography published in 2007, Mulroney wrote:

The very notion of South Africa’s apartheid was anathema to me, and while I was under no illusions about Canada’s economic strength in the world, I also knew that Canada’s role was not unimportant. I viewed apartheid with the same degree of disgust that I attached to the Nazis — the authors of the most odious offence in modern history. I was resolved from the moment I became prime minister that any government I headed would speak and act in the finest traditions of Canada.

In his first speech to the UN General Assembly in New York in 1985, Mulroney called for ‘stern reprisals’ against the racist republic unless there was ‘fundamental change’ and warned that Canada would invoke total sanctions if changes were not forthcoming.

‘If there is no progress in the dismantling of apartheid, our relations with South Africa may have to be severed completely,’ Mulroney told the assembly. ‘The way of dialogue starts with the repudiation of apartheid. It ends with the full and equal participation of all South Africans in the governing of their country.’ He received thunderous applause, and it reverberated all the way to Canberra.

On 18 June, 1990, 127 days after his release, Mandela entered Canada’s House of Commons in Ottawa to thank Canadians from all walks of life for supporting the anti-apartheid struggle.

Speaking of the future of the multi-racial republic, Mandela said:

Never should racism in our country, from whatever quarter, raise its ugly head again. All of us as South Africans, both black and white, must build a common sense of nationhood in which all ideas of vengeance and retribution are impermissible.

Hawke did not meet Mandela until October – some five months later – so it is clear that he did not influence the South African leader in taking the path of reconciliation with his previous oppressors. Mandela had already decided on a multi-racial approach, a philosophical and political conclusion he had reached during his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island.

After Mandela’s death in December 2013 Mulroney told an interviewer:

The day or so after he was released he called me to say that he had heard while he was in jail that a young prime minister from Canada had made his case the No. 1 priority for the government and that he had followed it all those years and appreciated what we had done. And most of all [he] appreciated the tremendous solidarity of the people of Canada. And so he said, in recognition of that, he would be delighted to make his first speech at a democratically elected Parliament in Ottawa.

The revelation of a post-prison phone call from Mandela is illuminating: Mulroney received one, Hawke didn’t.

Alex Mitchell

Alex Mitchell is former state political editor of Fairfax Media's Sunday newspaper in Sydney, The Sun-Herald, and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir (NewSouth Books, 2011).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. A worthwhile bit of digging. Proper journalism that.

    When talking of the deceased most people do so in reference to themselves – ” I’ll never forget the first time I met…” Human nature I suppose but trust Hawke to take it to a whole other level of arch narcissism.

    1. Thanks Dan. I rather like David Lange’s view of the “narcissistic” Labor hero. Lange said one of his favourite obscure words was “solipsistic,” used to describe people who believe the solar system revolves around them. Lange remarked that it may not be adequate to describe Bob Hawke, who believes the universe revolves around him.

  2. Truly great story. Thanks so much for talking like a human being. Hawke was many things, but reticent and retiring were not words we think of. Such ego and buffoonery, very embarrassing.

  3. What a puff piece the great man is! Crosschecking the inconsistent details and overall judgement with Hawke would make for nice melodrama, like we see every night on tv, and like a lot of us, he’d probably doubt his memory but not his judgement.

  4. Rob Chalmers (1929-2011), the longest serving member of the Canberra Press Gallery, wrote: “Almost no one in Caucus admired or liked Hawke when he came to power. He was regarded as arrogant, boastful, self-indulgent and a bad drunk. This was the near-unanimous view of friend and foe alike.” (Inside the Canberra Press Gallery, P 207). Instead of this stark assessment, the public has been saturated with “Hawkie the Larrikin” who still can skol a schooner at the SCG.

  5. Thanks for this exposing Hawke, that I found where else but shared to the website of the organiser of Harmony Day 2014- Nelson Mandela’s Legacy where Bob Hawke will be guest speaker and no doubt bragging again about how he freed south africa.
    No questions will be allowed, so I cannot ask him why his govt allowed the company I worked for to export shiploads of raw product to at least one company in melbourne (I will withhold names for now)whilst the poor dockworkers were fooled into thinking the product came from Singapore.Our company also imported its raw materials from oilfields all over the world…we had no shortage of it.
    The reality is that Australia as an ally of USA and Britain actually ‘kept’ the Apartheid govt in power until the threat of communism was out of southern africa.So called sanctions such as multinationals withdrawing but only through a sham ‘management buyout’eg IBM et al. When the coldwar ended they walked away from the problem and the internal struggle was won.

    Yeah right the wallabies didn’t tour and students marched down the streets …the apartheid govt must have been quivering. Those simple token things without actually caring or doing something. Now they take credit for everything…how disgusting.

  6. Terrific comment, Colin. The unmasking of Hawkie’s phoney opposition to apartheid is underway and it has to be welcomed. His government was dragged kicking and screaming into symbolic acts of opposition but behind the scenes he was following the line of Washington, London and Tele Aviv which was to preserve the whites-only regime.

  7. Thanks Alex,
    Funny thing is after I pointed out this mob’s duplicity your link was removed from their FB page…for the record they call themselves Australasian South African Alliance.
    Keep at it unmasking Hawkie and these supporters, most who are lving in a past they were not even a part off already living here at the time. Wonder what the real motive is.
    The truth is that when ‘sanctions’ was imposed in 1985 the SA stock market soared as divestments-sorry management buyouts- were aplenty and SA businesses made between $5B and $10B , and the National Party vote soared.
    Of the four big US companies that announced withdrawal in 1986 – GM, IBM, Coca Cola, Kodak…the only one that broke off trade was Kodak, with the others continuing under licence agreements.
    One can excuse these supporters of being ‘useful idiots’ of both the west and east in the 80’s, but this ASA Alliance shows that they are either still useful idiots, or after some monetary gain…where there is an institution forming I smell govt grants…who better to cosy up to than hero Hawke.
    ps feel free to email me Alex

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