Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher

The Apartheid system in South Africa was a vile and racist system and the overwhelming majority of people in Britain on right and left alike recognised this and differed only on how we should seek to end it.

Many people inside and outside South Africa thought that the rest of the world should impost economic sanctions on South Africa but there were those inside as well as outside South Africa who did not share that view. When Helen Suzman, who was at about this time the only opponent of Apartheid in the South African parliament visited the UK while I was a young man I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ask what she thought the West should do to help reverse Apartheid and she replied that we should put on as much moral pressure as possible but that we would not help black South Africans by trying "to wreck the economy."

Margaret Thatcher took exactly the same view as Helen Suzman. She opposed apartheid and made this very clear to the South African government in private as well as in public, and called on them to release Nelson Mandela. She was never one of the very tiny minority of people on the British political right who took the Apartheid regime's dubious conviction of Mandela at face value.

When Margaret Thatcher was asked by the leading Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, what was the difference between the ANC and the IRA, her answer was:

“The IRA have the vote, the ANC do not.”

So I was very disappointed by Michael Crick, from whom I would have expected better, who suggested this week to Theresa May that Mrs Thatcher thought

Even the New Statesman published an article calling this question "a piece of theatre based on an oft repeated myth, and agreed that Mrs Thatcher never called Nelson Mandela a terrorist.

Martin Plaut the author of the article, wrote in the same piece that

"Thatcher resisted the apartheid government’s requests that she crack down on the ANC in Britain, as well as deport the head of the ANC’s military wing, Joe Slovo, who was then living in London.

She also refused to supply new aircraft to the South African Airforce. Little surprise that Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, sent Thatcher a fulsome handwritten thank you letter, praising her stand."

Lord Renwick, who was British ambassador to South Africa between 1987 and 1991, has written a book called "The end of apartheid: diary of a revolution" in which he made very clear that Mrs Thatcher put strong pressure on the Apartheid regime to reform racist laws and to release Nelson Mandela and other prisoners, and that this had all the more impact because it was coming from the main opponent of sanctions. You can read an article he wrote in the Telegraph summarising many of the points in his book here.


After meeting Nelson Mandela when we was eventually released from prison Mrs Thatcher described how she “warmed” to him, writing that he was “supremely courteous, with a genuine nobility of bearing and – most remarkable after all that he had suffered – without any bitterness”.

For his part Mandela declared that Thatcher “is an enemy of apartheid”. Their only differences were over the methods of inducing the South African government to dismantle the system. When she left Downing Street, Mandela gave an interview to the BBC and said: “We have much to be thankful to her for.”

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