Jean-Jacques Cornish

Commonwealth goes full circle naming Prince Charles as its next head

By Jean-Jacques Cornish

By determining that Prince Charles will succeed his mother Queen Elizabeth as head of the Commonwealth when the 92-year-old monarch steps down, the 53-nation organisation has gone full circle.

It remains a mystery why the heads of state gathered in London last week elected to do this, rather than introduce a rotational system of filling this position like other multilateral organisations do.

Admittedly the post occupied by the Queen and ultimately her son is purely symbolic.

Nevertheless, the decision taken in London will fuel the criticism that the Commonwealth, which is pretty much a symbolic organisation,  is a hangover of British imperialism.

I have been following Commonwealth summits since 1971 when Idi Amin took advantage of President Milton Obote’s absence  in Singapore to seize control of Uganda.

Six years later France-Albert Rene mounted a coup against Seychelles President James Mantham while he was attending the Commonwealth Summit in London, underlining that no deed is so onerous that it does not bear repeating.

So apart from being grist to the tabloids’ mill, and cannon fodder to the anti imperialists, what are the Commonwealth’s major  achievements?

No doubt it concentrated heavily in its early days in bringing down apartheid.

Having covered the adoption of  the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement banning sporting relations with the racist regime at its 1977 London summit, I was refused entry to Zambia for CHOGM in Lusaka two years later.

Nothing would keep me from Melbourne in 1981 where pro-apartheid New Zealand premier Robert Muldoon endeared himself to his supporters by referring to Zimbabwe’s debutant President Robert Mugabe as a jungle bunny.

Ten years later Mugabe hosted the CHOGM that made the Harare Declaration mapping out the organisation’s course into the new millennium.

By 1993, however, Mugabe led his country out of  what he called an evil organisation that took him to task for stealing an election.

So, no shortage of colourful rhetoric to be sure.

At one stage in my career,  I was shortlisted to become media  spokesman for the Commonwealth.

I was asked in my interview: If the Commonwealth did not exist today, would it have had to be invented? 

Of course, I replied. Why else would we have the Francophonie?

As an inveterate multilateralist, I find myself defending both these talk shops and others like the United Nations and the African Union  with the argument that it is better to be negotiating and deliberating than making menace and, worse,  engaging in armed conflict.

As Winston Churchill put it: jaw jaw  is better than war war.

But one must beware  or over-egging the pudding.

Some of those steering Britain’s perplexing path out of the European EU are saying the Commonwealth could replace the EU as a rating partner.

With the Commonwealth currently comprising 9% of trade with Britain compared with  44% with the EU, this is patent fantasy for the next century.

Certainly, the Commonwealth plays an important role furthering the goals of smaller nations that make up the majority of its members.

And there is something to be said for using the soft power of cultural and  historic ties to maximum effect in an often unfriendly world.

Thusfar the Commonwealth has adopted one laudable feature of its founding  ethos: understatement.

It should preserve and cherish this.

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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.