Obituary: Patsy Blair Robertson, diplomat, born 28 August 1933; died 17 August 2020

Influential media spokesperson for the Commonwealth whose skill and charm helped to galvanise opposition to apartheid

Patsy Robertson

Patsy Blair Robertson, diplomat, born 28 August 1933; died 18 August 2020

Victoria Brittain | The Guardian UK 

Jamaica-born, Patsy Robertson, who has died aged 86, was a prominent figure in the historic turning of the tide against Margaret Thatcher’s support for apartheid South Africa by the Commonwealth leadership, headed by Guyana-born, Sir Shridath (Sonny) Ramphal.

As Ramphal’s trusted confidante Robertson helped to shape a new UK mainstream narrative: That apartheid could not be reformed, but instead had to go. Official spokesperson for the Commonwealth from 1983 until 1994, and also director of information at the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1988, she was a brilliant communicator whose clarity and charm came to be trusted by the media, politicians and Buckingham Palace.   

She was poached into working for the Secretariat by the first secretary general of the Commonwealth, Arnold Smith of Canada, and when he was succeeded in 1975 by Ramphal, a former foreign minister in Guyana, a significant shift in outlook began to play out.

A web of subtle defiance of UK policy emanated from the Secretariat’s grand Marlborough House offices in London. Staff visited South Africa, and Patsy’s vast network of journalists were briefed on the realities hidden beneath misinformation by South African officials. She was also the facilitator par excellence of discreet meetings for journalists and politicians ready to listen to other narratives from opposition leaders risking their lives, and to anti-apartheid voices from Scandinavia to Hollywood.

At Commonwealth summits, with her facts and her gentle charisma, Patsy proved a devastating rival to Thatcher’s tough spokesman Bernard Ingham. While Thatcher spoke of the African National Congress as “terrorists” and refused to meet any of the internal opposition who came to London, the Commonwealth led the English-speaking media into turning the tide of opinion.

By 1986 Thatcher had been slowly ambushed, with the UK in a minority of one within the Commonwealth in its opposition to economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. In short order her ally Ronald Reagan also found himself isolated as he saw his presidential veto of a sanctions act over-ridden by Congress, thanks to the work of the Congressional Black Caucus and black celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, whom Patsy knew from her early New York civil rights days.

That year a team of Commonwealth leaders called on the apartheid authorities to put in train four actions: Free Nelson Mandela, unban the ANC, release political prisoners and hold free elections. The following year the South African government began secret negotiations with the ANC, while Thatcher was still publicly stating that the idea of Mandela’s party ruling in South Africa was absurd. However, by the time she left office in November 1990, Mandela and other political prisoners had been released and the ANC was unbanned. Democratic elections were held in 1994, and the Commonwealth viewpoint had prevailed.

Patsy was born in the Malvern district of Saint Elizabeth parish in Jamaica, the fifth child of eight. Her mother, Ina Weston, was a teacher. Her father, Austin Pyne, was headteacher of Glengoffe secondary school, but also started a loan bank and spent his spare time coaching children of poor families for the chance of college in the US. Patsy went to Woolmer’s high school for girls in Kingston.

All the Pyne children went on to further study in the US or the UK, and in the early 1950s Patsy chose New York University, where she studied journalism and English, graduating with a liberal arts degree. Her circle in New York included James Baldwin, and her memories of him and admiration of the rage in his writing always remained with her.

Outrage against racism as Robertson witnessed it in New York, in the UK, and above all in apartheid South Africa gave her a passion for action for change. Her vehicle was the rather staid Commonwealth Secretariat, the administrative hub of the Commonwealth, which, after a three-year period performing general duties at the newly formed Jamaican High Commission in London, she joined as press officer on its establishment in 1965. With an influx of 49 newly independent countries into the old white club of the Commonwealth, the newly formed Secretariat needed a new kind of administrator for its ambitious economic and social development plans, and Patsy fitted the bill.

After South Africa’s majority rule was overthrown, Patsy turned her formidable energy into trying to change another narrative – on the role of women. She was poached again, this time by the UN, to become senior adviser for the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, using her media skills to highlight topics from women’s leadership roles to women’s poverty and the status of widows. She did it again for children in 2001 as senior adviser for UNICEF at a UN special session on children.

In her final years Patsy was still active in her old areas of influence. She was chair of the trustees of the Ramphal Institute and the Commonwealth Association, and a trustee of the Thomson Foundation for training journalists, and the Commonwealth Press Union Media Trust.

At her home in Belgravia, central London, she nourished a Caribbean profusion of orchids, bougainvillea and hibiscus in her sitting room and conservatory, and with her Scottish husband, Calum Robertson, whom she married in 1964, she entertained friends from every continent. She was also a regular attender at her local church, St Peter’s in Eaton Square, and often read the lesson there.

Calum died in 2012. Patsy is survived by their children, John, Sarah and Neil, and a grandson, Jesse.

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  • kamtanblog  On 08/30/2020 at 2:04 am

    Hope someone writes a book of Patsy’s
    life which highlights her anti apartheid
    struggle v Thatcherism …have read Thatchers
    biography so this would make as good if
    not better read !
    Will check out google/amazon if there
    is already book of Patsy’s life.

    Thanks to GOL for highlighting this Guardian article.

    RIP Patsy

    Kamtan uk

  • guyaneseonline  On 08/30/2020 at 8:27 pm

    Comment from Frederick Collins:

    Thanks for the article on Patsy Blair Robertson. I never knew about her and I consider myself very knowledgeable in Caribbean , Guyanese , and world affairs. The extrication of Africa and her children from the spiritual, economic, and political net that has been cast around her is an ongoing epic and anyone that helped so significantly is a hero or heroine in this case.

    Thanks again and keep up the good work.

    Frederick Collins

    • Brother Man  On 08/31/2020 at 2:16 am

      You are not alone, Brother Cyril.

      I too have never heard of this great West Indian and formidable human rights heroine before now.

      Brother Man

      • kamtanblog  On 08/31/2020 at 2:36 am

        Book on Patsy is available on Amazon

        Have ordered mine

        Next day delivery

        All on my I phone
        Technology is changing our world !

        Hopefully for a more “informed” one

        Kamtan uk

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