An inaugural lecture in honour of the late Professor Anthony Low, former Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University and historian of the Commonwealth, was given by the University's current Chancellor and Australia's former Foreign Minister, the Hon. Gareth Evans, to a packed audience in the ANU’s Hedley Bull Lecture Theatre in October 2016.
Professor Evans’s lecture concentrated on what has become one of the Commonwealth's proudest achievements: its role in hastening the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the central part—from the beginning—played by Australia in the Whitlam and Fraser governments of the 1970s and later by the Hawke government, in which Gareth Evans served.
Principally through the use of sporting and trade sanctions— which were progressively lifted as the apartheid system ‘unwound’— as well as international pressure for change, and what Professor Evans described as ‘the ever-mounting internal tension’ combined with ‘white political leadership clearheaded enough to grasp the moment’, opportunity came in February 1989 when FW De Klerk replaced hardliner PW Botha as President. One year later, the dismantling of apartheid had begun, with the new government willing to negotiate on democratic and non-racial constitutional reforms, lift the bans on the African National Congress and importantly, release from prison, after 27 years, Nelson Mandela.
‘I am sometimes still asked,’ said Professor Evans, ‘why it was that successive Australian governments … committed so much effort to resolving a South African situation so little of our making. My short answer has always been that it lies in that instinct for good international citizenship which I continue to believe is part of our national psyche…
‘The enforcers of apartheid, proclaiming their superiority to others on the basis of race alone, were not just another unpalatable regime, but beyond the civilised pale. If we had washed our hands of the struggle against them, we would not only have failed in our humanitarian duty, but would have debased the very values which are at the core of our sense of human dignity.’
The biennial Commonwealth Lecture, sponsored by the Commonwealth Round Table in Australia of which Professor Low was Founding Convenor, will now be known as the Anthony Low Commonwealth Lecture.