Wed | Oct 21, 2020

Editorial | Patsy Robertson – a doyen of diplomacy and press freedom

Published:Saturday | September 5, 2020 | 12:12 AM
In this 2011 Gleaner file photo, PJ Patterson, former prime minister of Jamaica, greets Patsy Robertson as Sir Shridath Ramphal looks on.

Patsy Robertson has been remembered as a tireless campaigner for press freedom in the United Kingdom (UK) media. But the Jamaican, who died in London on August 18, ten days shy of her 87th birthday, is also being celebrated for her impact on other areas of influence, mainly diplomacy.

Readers may remember that Jamaica, under Prime Minister Michael Manley, gave vigorous support to the liberation movement that exposed apartheid as a morally bankrupt and indefensible system.

From politicians to diplomats and entertainers and poets, there was a loud clamour during the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s for stringent measures to be taken to weaken, and eventually throttle, the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The anti-apartheid movement fomented in the UK with the avid support of organisations like the Commonwealth Secretariat, encouraging various governments to establish embargoes, cut trading ties, and isolate white South Africa so that it had no choice but to dismantle the system.

One of the powerful behind-the-scenes actors in the movement that brought down the repugnant regime was this daughter of Malvern, St Elizabeth, who was born Patsy Pyne, the name by which she was known to schoolteachers. She went to Wolmer’s High School for Girls in Kingston.


Mrs Robertson attended New York University, where she studied journalism and English, graduating with a liberal arts degree. She had a brief stint in journalism and worked at The Gleaner when the newspaper’s offices were based at Harbour Street, downtown Kingston. Her next stop was the BBC, working in the newsroom of the World Service at Bush House.

Her next post was as information attaché at the newly established Jamaican High Commission. Soon thereafter, the Commonwealth Secretariat was established as the administrative body of the Commonwealth that brought under one umbrella countries newly independent from Britain. This is where Mrs Robertson spent nearly 30 years of her life as director of information and official spokesperson under three secretaries general between 1983 and 1994.

She was the face and voice of the secretariat, handling media affairs; hosting press conferences; and serving as the secretariat’s spokesperson at international conventions, including the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings. She has been described as a brilliant communicator whose clarity and charm earned her the trust of the media, politicians, and Buckingham Palace.


Her service at the United Nations was also noteworthy. She served that body as senior media adviser to the secretary general of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995, and again for the Fifth Conference, held in New York. Up to the time of her death, Mrs Robertson was chair of the Ramphal Institute.

In any fair account of the history of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Mrs Robertson will be remembered as one of the prominent figures in the historic turning of the tide against UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was a staunch supporter of apartheid South Africa.

Along with Sir Shridath Ramphal, she worked closely with world leaders like Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Michael Manley to ensure the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and the eventual dismantling of apartheid.

In his tribute, posted on the Ramphal Institute website, Sir Shridath said: “I acknowledge my personal debt to her for all our work together worldwide and pay homage to the memory of her service.”

Mrs Robertson has died during the pandemic, when mourners are not allowed to gather to pay their respects to her. However, in our memories, we must acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed to her for the part she played in helping to change the world by mobilising Commonwealth opinion against the evil system of apartheid.