In 1979 the African National Congress launched an attempt to receive international recognition as the “sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa.”  It was a title which had been given to SWAPO of Namibia in 1973. The United Nations, fed up with the endless prevarications by South Africa over the status of the territory, had bestowed it on the liberation movement. [1] The ANC, which regarded itself as the senior liberation movement in southern Africa, felt it should receive a similar title and used its contacts within the British Labour Party to push for this recognition.

This happened to coincide with my appointment as the Labour Party’s Africa and Middle East Secretary, in November 1979. My role was to advise the party on these areas and to service two committees composed of MPs and academics who had expertise in the area. Almost the first issue I had to confront was a resolution that I discovered had been passed by the Africa Committee, at the behest of my predecessor, Michael Wolfers. [2] The resolution was to be considered by the International Committee and – for a moment – I thought no more of it.

Then the significance of the measure dawned on me. The Labour Party, in line with the UN and the Organisation of African Unity, recognised both the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. [3] If the party recognised the ANC as the “sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa” this would mean abandoning our recognition of the PAC. It would also mean that the ANC would be able to veto the Labour party’s work with the emerging black trade union movement, or contacts with Helen Suzman or the Progressive Party. This was something the Labour Party could not countenance and I made my views clear to my boss, the International Secretary, Jenny Little. [4] She had not given this issue any thought and was rather taken aback that I should question a suggestion that had come from the ANC, but since I had circulated a note to the chair of the International Committee, Joan Lester MP, the issue could not simply be buried. [5]

 In the end a meeting was convened and I found myself confronting the ANC, with Joan Lester and Jenny Little participating more or less as independent observers. The ANC, which was clearly furious that its plans might be derailed, sent a powerful delegation, led by Abdul Minty, the honorary secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, with whom the Labour Party had excellent relations. [6]

I was required to explain my position and forced onto the defensive. Feeling isolated and vulnerable I explained that there was no suggestion that the ANC was not the most important South African liberation movement and that the Labour Party should acknowledge this. But, I argued, the ANC did not have exclusive ownership of the title of ‘liberation movement.’ For the Labour Party to pass the resolution would put us at odds with the OAU and UN, since both recognised the PAC. I argued that the decision of who represented the people of South Africa was one that only South Africans themselves could take, in a free election, after liberation.

A rather awkward silence followed, since the case was pretty unanswerable. The ANC said it was not at all happy, but left it at that. The resolution was withdrawn from the International Committee, but the fallout continued. Soon dark rumours began circulating about me. This was very uncomfortable for me, since white South Africans were not exactly popular in London. Nonetheless I continued to work with the ANC and to represent the Labour Party on the Anti-Apartheid Movement, but the relationship was cold and sour. I got on with individual members of the exile community (including the Pahad brothers) but henceforth I was regarded with suspicion by the ANC and its allies. It was only years later revealed that it was Samuel Khanyile (better known as Solly Smith) the ANC official London representative (and not I) who was the South African spy in Britain! [7]

It is interesting that this issue still rankles with the ANC. As recently as 2011 Cassel Mathale, Limpopo chairman complained that it had been “western nations…who failed to recognise our African National Congress as the sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa during the time when the apartheid government was killing and torturing us.” [8] Mathale, like many others, forgets that it was the UN and the OAU that took the lead on this issue, and not ‘western nations.’  In any case, only the people of South Africa, and no outside body, who had the right to settle who did (and did not) represented them.

There has certainly been a tendency within the ANC to regard itself as the only party that can truly be considered to represent the majority of the people. This has been underlined by President Jacob Zuma’s repeated claims to have the right to rule until the second coming of Christ. [9] The ANC’s confidence was dented by the loss it sustained during the August 2016 local government elections. [10] The question now is how the party responds to these setbacks in the run up to national elections in 2019.


[1] Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements: A to F, by Edmund Jan Osmanczyk, p. 1506


[3] W. P. Esterhuyse, The international political status of the African National Congress, Africa Insight, Vol 19, no 1 , 1989




[7] Paul Trewhela, State espionage and the ANC London office, Searchlight South Africa, Number 12,June 1995