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You are here:Home>>Strategic Research & Analysis>>Mrs Thatcher and Africa
Wednesday, 17 April 2013 19:43

Mrs Thatcher and Africa

Written by Richard Dowden
African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is greeted by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in this July 4, 1990. photo: (RUSSELL BOYCE/Reuters) African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela is greeted by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in this July 4, 1990. photo: (RUSSELL BOYCE/Reuters)



A few years later a call came through to Downing Street on a Sunday afternoon from a public phone. It was Mr Mugabe. He had come to London privately with his wife, Sally, who needed regular dialysis for diabetes. He asked if he could come to visit Mrs Thatcher. She agreed and on a Sunday evening at Downing Street the two sat and talked informally about the world and life like old friends - she sipping whisky and he water. It was not the only time that happened.


Although some aid was announced on her Africa trips and, more important to Mrs T's agenda, trade deals struck, the journeys were essentially about South Africa. She boasted about fighting off demands for sanctions against South Africa with more vigour than she denounced apartheid so her advisers persuaded her that she had to do something positive to show she was not supporting the South African government. The strategy was to give them the assurance that there would never be sanctions and use that goodwill to force reform.


I was briefed off-the-record by her foreign affairs adviser on several occasions, but when he told me that she had called on President P.W. Botha to release Nelson Mandela, I found it difficult to believe. I did not report it as I could not source it. But it was true. In a letter to Botha in October 1985 she wrote: "I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake."


When Botha stepped down after a stroke in 1989, he was replaced by F.W. de Klerk who met Mrs Thatcher at Downing Street in June. I was among a group of journalists waiting outside No 10 with the promise that he would give a press conference straight after. We watched him leave then ran up Whitehall to the South African Embassy where he had promised to speak. He did not turn up. We were told later that he had been too shocked by Mrs Thatcher's vehemence.


Mandela was released on February 11th 1990 (I was at the gates of the jail but to my eternal chagrin I failed to spot him). That evening he made a speech from the balcony of the town hall in Cape Town which was televised live world wide. The speech was a poor one, written by the hard-liners and Communists in the ANC and was full of Marxist jargon. He said: "Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960... was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue." Mrs Thatcher was appalled. She picked up the telephone to Robin Renwick, the British Ambassador in South Africa, and demanded to know why she had ever bothered to battle for Mandela's release if this was the result.


But Mandela felt that at this stage he had to submit himself to party discipline. That was the reason that among the first people he visited after his release was Colonel Gadaffi. And when he came to London the ANC Central Committee insisted - against his wishes - that he did not meet Mrs Thatcher. After he did finally meet her later that year he thanked her for helping to end Apartheid and announced this at a press conference soon after. Senior ANC officials I was sitting next to spluttered with rage.


My last meeting with Mrs Thatcher was at F.W. de Klerk's book launch at Foyles in 1999. I asked her about South Africa and her role. She launched into praise for Mr de Klerk and then for Laurens van der Post and Chief Buthelezi - "a marvellous man" she kept repeating. I asked what she thought about Mandela. "I never met him", she said looking confused. How could anyone meet Mandela and not remember? Now I realise why.


Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles.





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