Montalbano: Even the Smallest Voice Can Have the Greatest Impact

Luke Montalbano ’27 argues that Canada’s leadership in the international campaign against South African Apartheid showed that even the “smallest” can make fundamental change.

by Luke Montalbano | 11/14/23 4:20am

The first thought you may have about this article is that the title leans on cliche. I would agree with you. But unfortunately, this cliche — that even the smallest can make fundamental change — must be repeated in our present day. It seems too often that students forget how important their voices can be. Indeed, we have a great privilege to be attending one of the greatest educational institutions in the world, and we have an obligation to act on that. I’m sure your professors have told you so numerous times over. Today, I want to illustrate a historical example of this cliche to show that it is absolutely true. 

In 1984, the government of South Africa was coming under increasing pressure from Eastern European and Nordic states to dismantle the regime of Apartheid. Decades earlier, upon the request of Canada, the Commonwealth of Nations expelled South Africa in response to its segregationist system of governance. However, major states — namely the U.S. and U.K. — refused to act, fearing, in large part, the economic and ideological damage that might have come as a result of severing economic and diplomatic ties with South Africa.

The 1980s were a period of time that saw a surge in conservative attitudes, with the elections of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl. Indeed, Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney was a part of this wave, leading the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada to victories in 1984 and 1988. But Mulroney set himself apart from the neoconservative leaders of other states in that he was willing to set aside ideological differences in the name of the advancement of human rights.

In 1985, Mulroney’s government announced a wave of sanctions against South Africa, demanding the destruction of the Apartheid regime. Two years later, Mulroney would go on a tour of African nations, promising to be the “African representative” at future summits between Western states if there was not to be an African nation present. Unlike many leaders, Mulroney made it a priority to meet with leaders of the African National Congress, such as Thabo Mbkei and Oliver Tambo, and follow through with their demands. These actions were a substantial departure from the traditional view of engaging in moderated diplomatic pressure against South Africa, which had been almost entirely removed by Mulroney’s conservative counterparts. 

This is not to say that Thatcher or Reagan were neutral on the issue of Apartheid. In fact, Thatcher made great efforts to block Mulroney’s attempts to convince Commonwealth allies to support the sanction effort against the South African government. When Thatcher’s blockage attempts failed at the Vancouver Commonwealth summit of 1987, the U.K. sent no delegation. It was in this conference that, without the support of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth committed to expanded sanctions. Canada, a relatively small country in the Commonwealth, had leveraged all the diplomatic might it had at its disposal to ensure that the international campaign against Apartheid persisted, even in spite of the leadership of the Commonwealth in opposition. 

In September of the next year, Mulroney stood in front of the United Nations and became the first middle power Western state to commit to the total elimination of diplomatic and economic ties with South Africa if the system of Apartheid wasn’t abolished. Over the next six years, the system of Apartheid would buckle under extensive internal and external pressures. In 1990, Nelson Mandela would be released after decades of imprisonment. Only four months later, he would visit Canada, delivering an address in the Canadian House of Commons, thanking the country for its continued leadership in the fight against South Africa’s racist regime.

Although individually, Canada’s sanctioning efforts would not have made any significant difference to the South African government’s decision to eliminate the system of Apartheid, it was the use of the bully pulpit that enabled Canada to have outsized influence in convincing other Western states to join in on the dismantling effort. In 1988, Canada was a country of less than 27 million people. The U.S. and the U.K. combined had around 300 million people. By all measures, Canada should not have been an economic or diplomatic leader in this international campaign, and yet, they were. This is, in large part, because Canada’s leadership was willing to go against the grain and use what tools it did have at its disposal to amplify its voice. 

College students should take a lesson from this history. It is understandable to feel as if you are a singular voice in a sea of millions. However, it is not the number of voices that matters, but rather, how loud your voice is. Just because one is outnumbered or relegated to the sidelines does not mean that one cannot create change. So long as one’s time and stamina allows for it, minds can change and heads can turn. We have a responsibility to leave this world better than we found it, so don’t be scared of what may seem like a daunting task ahead. Take a page out of the history books of Canada. Even the smallest voices can have the greatest impact. 

Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.