Footprints in Time: Remembering the Visionary, Mrs Patsy Robertson

Tribute to Mrs Patsy Robertson, Chair, The Ramphal Institute
A visionary, a mentor, leader and friend

By Uday Nagaraju and Global Policy Insights (GPI)

 

Mrs Patsy Robertson has had a distinguished and illuminated career, working closely with the Commonwealth Secretariat as its Director of Information to being the official spokesperson of the Commonwealth at international conventions. As a woman of colour in leadership, Patsy has honoured her roots throughout her life as a harbinger of equality across gender, race, educational background, nationalities and more. Her life is a guiding example to innumerable young people who remain inspired by her remarkable commitment to her work, passions, principles and her unfettered commitment to rights, justice and development that she maintained all her life, and that which shall continue to remain with us as a vision, even after her demise.

We at Global Policy Insights were introduced to Patsy and her undaunted vision in her most recent role as the Chair of the Ramphal Institute. In my interactions over almost the last two years, Patsy taught us lifetime lessons on life, public service and democratic governance, while effortlessly bringing into conversation anecdotes of her times next to Lee Kuan Yew or Indira Gandhi. To us, she too belongs in a league of leaders who impacted the world in unprecedented ways, in the most testing times for humanity and with unquantifiable humility and grace.

The Commonwealth Project at GPI immensely benefited from not only her expertise in the field but also from her profound wisdom and knowledge with which she greeted everyone who visited her. GPI’s Commonwealth Project Lead Neha Dewan and I were so lucky to record Patsy’s life in an interview in 2019, with little knowledge that we were archiving the life and work of a visionary in the process. GPI and the Ramphal Institute are hosting an international conference on 11-12 September 2020, and one of my last conversations with Patsy was days before her passing, discussing our journeys together and how far we had come in our efforts to leverage the true power of the Commonwealth, its people. We hope that our work is the real tribute we can offer to Patsy, for no words can do justice to the respect and admiration we hold for her. At GPI, we are deeply saddened by her loss but go forward imbued with the spirit and passion that Patsy shared with us, our only hope to share it with generations below. Personally, I have lost a dear friend and a mentor and memories with her can only serve as an inspiration toward our work in the Commonwealth.

 

Uday Nagaraju, Co-Founder and Executive President, Global Policy Insights. Project Director, The Commonwealth Project Conference Chair, The Commonwealth: Advancing towards the future with Emerging Technologies & AI.

Patsy Robertson obituary

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

Tue 25 Aug 2020 17.56 BST original source of the article The Guardian

 

Patsy Robertson was at the centre of moves to defy UK policy on South Africa.

Patsy Robertson was at the centre of moves to defy UK policy on South Africa. Photograph: Colin Patterson

 

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 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 Wolmer’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 she 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 minority 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. She is survived by their children, John, Sarah and Neil, and a grandson, Jesse.

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

• This article was amended on 27 August 2020. Patsy Robertson died on 18 rather than 17 August, and her husband was Calum rather than Callum Robertson. It was minority rule, and not majority rule, that was overthrown in South Africa.

Special Announcement by the Executive Director David Gomez

It is with deep sense of loss that the Board of Trustees of the Ramphal Institute announce the death of their Chair and long time colleague Ms. Patsy Robertson.

Patsy was much loved and recognised for her commitment to the Commonwealth, and she served as Chair of the Ramphal Institute from 2007 until the time of her death. Patsy was in every sense a devoted friend, colleague and professional and was a source of inspiration for many both within and across the Commonwealth.

Over the past year Patsy spoke much about her desire to write her memoirs … unfortunately she didn’t get a chance to fulfil that dream but she has nonetheless penned many chapters of the Commonwealth and we will continue her work on the many causes and issues that she so passionately advocated.

The Ramphal Institute and the Commonwealth has lost a dedicated leader, advocate and friend.

May Patsy rest in peace and her legacy be fulfilled.

 

Tribute to Patsy by Sonny Ramphal

18.8.20

The Commonwealth sky clouded over as Patsy Robertson left us an hour ago. She had given her life to the Commonwealth – from the Secretariat’s beginning to her own end. I shared many years of the Commonwealth story with Patsy and attest to her unbounded devotion to the truest causes for which the Commonwealth stood; and I pay tribute to the service she gave over all the years – through the Secretariat and the Association and beyond – to the Commonwealth.

I acknowledge my personal debt to her for all our work together world-wide, and pay homage to the memory of her service.

May Patsy rest in peace, and the Commonwealth fulfil the highest purposes to which she dedicated her life.

Remembering Patsy Robertson by Emeka Anyaoku

19.8.20

Patsy was not at the conception of the modern Commonwealth in 1949 but she was at its birth in July 1965 when its independent collective machinery, the Commonwealth Secretariat, was established by its then member governments. I met Patsy some nine months later when I joined the team in 1966 and we remained colleagues for almost 25 years thereafter until her retirement from Marlborough House.

I remember Patsy as a true symbol of the modern Commonwealth who served the organization with passion and unflinching dedication during her many years in office at the Secretariat, and afterwards as a driving force at the Commonwealth Association of former Secretariat staff.

By the passing of Patsy Robertson, the Commonwealth has lost a devotee who worked throughout with singular fervor to support its structures, and who never minced words in criticizing actions or pronouncements by governments that she perceived as undermining the principles and values that animate the modern Commonwealth.

May her soul rest in peace.

Emeka Anyaoku

Tribute to Patsy by Dr Carl Wright

19.8.20

Dear Friends of Patsy

When I first became involved with the Commonwealth as a young man in 1979/80, Patsy already had many years of experience working there and her profound knowledge and deep commitment to all things Commonwealth was always evident. Patsy recognised the vital role of all Commonwealth organisations. In recent years I was privileged to work with her on the Ramphal Institute and she was present whenever any Commonwealth event took place. It will be very difficult to imagine future gatherings without her.

For me Patsy was truly an inspiration, above all for her support for social justice, for championing the rightful claims of developing countries, and for not mincing her words if it came to criticism of the actions of the British or any other Government- as evidenced in her most recent email correspondence with us all.

While we are sad at her passing, we should find appropriate ways of celebrating her outstanding life and contribution to the Commonwealth, whether through the Ramphal Institute or otherwise.
I will always remember her with much fondness.

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