Leading Article: Reason to celebrate as South Africa rejoins

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ENGLISH-SPEAKING South Africans of a certain age remember the sense of foreboding with which, just 33 years ago, they heard the news that their country was becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth. They knew all too well what to expect from the government of Hendrik Verwoerd. Those same people, and many more, will feel a corresponding glow at the news that South Africa, in its new, multi-racial garb, is today returning to the fold. The move is another symbol of the country's near-miraculous conversion to democracy.

Ironically, the outcast did much to bind the Commonwealth together during its three decades of exile. Divided on many other issues, the Commonwealth was united in its loathing of apartheid and its determination to punish those responsible for implementing its racist laws. The Gleneagles agreement of 1977, banning sporting contacts, paved the way for economic and other sanctions. Successive governments in London were much less punitively inclined, especially under Margaret Thatcher. More was at stake in Great Britain in terms of exports and old links - and there was greater awareness here that many Commonwealth member states busy pointing accusing fingers at South Africa were themselves grossly abusing human rights.

Since the heads of government meeting in Harare in 1991, much has been done to focus attention on democracy as the basis of good government: there are now only two military governments among 50 members, in Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Membership could now even provide a measure of reassurance to those who fear a slide towards authoritarianism under President Mandela or his successor.

Amid the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world, the Commonwealth is coming to seem a valuable force for stability and promoter of dialogue, co-operation and human rights. It can now help foster contact with South Africa's neighbours, like Zimbabwe and Zambia, and with countries that shunned Pretoria with especial piety, like India (whose caste system is a form of apartheid, even if one disapproved of by the government). The re-attachment of the umbilical cord to the former British empire will be distasteful only to the most nationalist Afrikaners: another reason for all those in favour of multi- racialism to welcome it.