Margaret Thatcher and the end of apartheid

The Thatcher-Nelson Mandela relationship is a reflection of how very different people can evolve a respectful, albeit wary, understanding

Pat MurphyMargaret Thatcher isn’t a name most people associate with the end of South African apartheid.

But Thatcher biographer Charles Moore begs to differ. And he devotes a lengthy chapter in his third volume about the former British prime minister to making his case.

As Moore tells it, Thatcher’s goal was to convince the white South African government to release Nelson Mandela from prison and end apartheid. However, her approach differed from the prevailing wisdom.

For one thing, she wasn’t keen on economic sanctions.

Part of this was pure self-interest. She believed sanctions were bad for British business.

But she also thought they were likely to hurt the very people they were supposed to help – South African blacks. If an economy is squeezed, the most vulnerable will suffer most.

Thatcher’s approach put her at odds with leaders like Canada’s Brian Mulroney and Australia’s Bob Hawke. The British didn’t much care for this. The Canadians, they thought, “can be so sanctimonious.”

Or as Thatcher directly expressed it to Mulroney: “Others might posture and pirouette in front of the press. But the fact was that the United Kingdom was the Commonwealth country doing the most to help blacks in South Africa and Mozambique and the other Front Line States.”

Since 1984, Thatcher had been privately lobbying P.W. Botha, prime minister of South Africa and subsequently state president. It wasn’t a happy relationship.

Botha either couldn’t or wouldn’t come to terms with what Thatcher perceived as reality – Mandela had to be released and apartheid had to be dismantled. In her customary fashion, Thatcher didn’t always bite her tongue.

Fortunately, Botha gave way to F.W. de Klerk, a significantly more promising figure. Still, de Klerk was cautious when he and Thatcher met in June 1989.

Thatcher’s advisers differed with respect to how she should handle the meeting. One view held that she should let him do most of the talking while another emphasized the need to ensure that he fully understood the requirement to move forward.

Unsurprisingly, Thatcher opted for the latter course. Arguing – some would say lecturing – came naturally to her. And discomfited though he may have been, de Klerk surely understood the message. Less than eight months later, Mandela walked free.

The Thatcher-Mandela relationship is a reflection of how very different people can evolve a respectful, albeit wary, understanding. They were poles apart ideologically. And Thatcher would never accord Mandela the sainthood status that others bestowed on him.

She privately groused about what she saw as his abundance of caution, saying that “he ought to lead from the front” rather than being constrained by the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela, for his part, reminded the British ambassador that “No political leader was of any value unless he could take his constituency with him.”

When the two finally met in July 1990, Thatcher was struck by his sincerity and “genuine nobility of bearing.” In Moore’s assessment, the latter was no small compliment. Bearing was important to her.

Mandela was also generous, both privately and publicly. Acknowledging Thatcher’s role in his release, he vouched for her opposition to apartheid. Whatever differences existed between them pertained to means, not ends. At least that’s the position he took.

As for the ANC, it wasn’t a natural fit for Thatcher. The associated whiff of Marxist revolution went against all of her instincts.

So when an ANC spokesman suggested that her opposition to sanctions might trigger violence against British businesses in South Africa, she responded by calling it “a typical terrorist organization.”

This gave some people conniptions.

Nonetheless, after she got wind of a South African plan to assassinate ANC officials in London, she warned the South Africans off. The assassinations didn’t happen.

And in September 1990, the ANC approached the British to request training for Mandela’s bodyguards, fearing that what they’d received from the Romanians and Cubans was “wholly inadequate.”

Thatcher and the ANC didn’t have to like each other. A level of working trust would suffice.

Thatcher was a hugely controversial politician, disliked by much of the commentariat. They didn’t care for her policies, her personality and what was perceived as her relentless bourgeois sensibility.

And the fact that she disdained conventional feminist pieties rankled. She was, some said, not really a woman.

Moore’s copious brief is unlikely to move such minds. But others might find it a useful insight.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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