BOOK OF THE WEEK For the record
Robin Renwick, British ambassador to SA from 1987 to 1991, explains how his new book, based on his diaries and Downing Street records, shatters the myth that UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher was a friend of apartheid
ne of the unpleasant myths peddled about Margaret Thatcher by her domestic political opponents was that she was a friend of apartheid and was supposed to have called Nelson Mandela a terrorist — which, as a matter of fact, she never did. She found the apartheid system incomprehensible and fundamentally in conflict with her meritocratic vision of society.
Thatcher was no dissembler. She had a tendency, less common among latter-day political leaders, to say what she really thought and mean what she said. At the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November 1985, she said: “I couldn’t stand being excluded or discriminated against because of the colour of my own skin. And if you can’t stand a colour bar against yourself, you can’t stand it against anyone else.” Those who contend that she was pro-apartheid are going to have to spend the next several years eating their words as the archives are opened, showing she was not.
In publishing a book about the meetings I had at the time with FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, I was allowed to consult all the messages Thatcher sent, many times a year, to PW Botha and then De Klerk urging the release of Mandela and the repeal of all the apartheid laws. She did so relentlessly, every few weeks, engaging directly with the SA leaders, while most of her counterparts contented themselves with making declarations in their own parliaments. She could not stand Botha, who she knew to have been a German sympathiser during the war. When she saw him at Chequers in 1984 she pressed for the release of Mandela, demanding the repeal of the apartheid laws and an end to forced removals. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston wrote to her that what she had said was “truly all I could have wished for”.
In 1985 she pressured Botha to let the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visit SA and meet Mandela. She was furious when Botha torpedoed that initiative by bombing supposed ANC targets in the neighbouring capitals. In sending me as ambassador to SA, she agreed that I should tell Botha and his defence minister, Magnus Malan, that further attacks of that kind would result in a much harsher attitude from her. By this time, she had no expectations from Botha. I was told that it was my job to look for a successor with whom we might be able to do business (she had just returned from a triumphal visit to Moscow to meet Gorbachev).
Thatcher also is supposed to have said that anyone who believed that the ANC could come to power in SA was living in cloud cuckoo land. This too is simply incorrect. What actually was said, not by her, but by her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, was that anyone who thought that the ANC could seize power was living in cloud cuckoo land — an opinion shared, among others, by Mandela.
Though an extremely determined opponent of apartheid, Thatcher had never been an admirer of the ANC, given that the “armed struggle” had been extended to civilian targets and included the necklacing of “collaborators” and that the organisation was committed to nationalisation of the economy. She also was aware that, despite the SA Communist Party’s lack of any mass support, two-thirds of the ANC’s politburo were members of that party. Nevertheless, she was persuaded that the ANC had nationwide support and there could be no solution without it.
In February 1988 Botha sent an argumentative reply to her latest message about Mandela, unwisely insisting that the SA ambassador should deliver it to her personally. Thatcher exploded all over the ambassador, telling him that Botha’s message “failed to address the heart of the matter, which was that apartheid must go. When people had legitimate aspirations, these must be addressed by negotiations.”