Thatcher thought Man­dela had ‘rather a closed mind’, de­clas­si­fied papers say

Weekend Witness - - News -

MAR­GARET Thatcher dis­missed Nel­son Man­dela as hav­ing “rather a closed mind” and ex­pressed her dis­ap­point­ment af­ter their first tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion, ac­cord­ing to se­cret files re­leased at the Na­tional Ar­chives, the Guardian news­pa­per re­ported yes­ter­day.

The long build-up to the two lead­ers’ even­tu­ally-suc­cess­ful meet­ing in July 1990 — five months af­ter his re­lease from a South African prison — is re­vealed in of­fi­cial prime min­is­te­rial records.

Man­dela, then aged 71, was so ea­ger to ar­range face-to-face talks with the Con­ser­va­tive premier about sanc­tions that he tele­phoned Down­ing Street of­fi­cials late at night re­quest­ing to see her the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

The dif­fer­ence in ex­pec­ta­tions be­tween the two politi­cians emerges in diplo­matic ca­bles and memos. Man­dela, it has been sug­gested, was fu­ri­ous when one of his ad­vis­ers sup­pos­edly per­suaded the ANC to veto his ini­tial plans to meet the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter in April 1990 when he vis­ited Lon­don, the Guardian re­port said.

The first note in the “se­cret” file en­ti­tled “Nel­son Man­dela’s vis­its to the UK” records the prime min­is­ter’s de­ci­sion to “err … on the side of gen­eros­ity” and in­vite him to talks and a work­ing lunch on July 4.

But on the evening of June 16, Charles Pow­ell, the prime min­is­ter’s for­eign af­fairs ad­viser, was sur­prised to be called “out of the blue” at 11.45 pm by Man­dela, who was rest­ing overnight “some­where near Tun­bridge Wells” on his way to Canada.

He was “very anx­ious” to see Thatcher about the eas­ing of sanc­tions be­fore he left the next morn­ing for Heathrow. Would she be avail­able at 8 am? Pow­ell thought not but of­fered to drive down to meet him or ar­range a call. “He was rather in­sis­tent that he should speak di­rectly to you,” he in­formed the prime min­is­ter.

Man­dela and Thatcher did talk on the phone the next morn­ing at 7.30 am. He warned that re­lax­ing sanc­tions too early could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive in the drive to end apartheid. She urged the ANC to aban­don “armed strug­gle” and said the UK had “suf­fered at the hands of the IRA”, the Guardian re­ported.

A four-page note doc­u­mented their first di­rect ex­changes. “The prime min­is­ter com­mented to me af­ter­wards that she was a bit dis­ap­pointed with Man­dela, who seemed to have rather a closed mind,” Pow­ell’s memo recorded.

“For his part, he will now have ex­pe­ri­enced first hand the prime min­is­ter’s strong views on the armed strug­gle and on sanc­tions, and this will no doubt in­flu­ence his ap­proach to the meet­ing on July 4th.”

The ex­change does not ap­pear to have been re­ported at the time and Pow­ell noted: “We are not propos­ing to tell the press about this dis­cus­sion.”

Sir Robin Ren­wick, the UK am­bas­sador to South Africa, ca­bled lengthy, en- thu­si­as­tic ex­pla­na­tions of his dis­cus­sions with Man­dela to Down­ing Street, which were clearly an­no­tated by Thatcher ahead of their meet­ing and may have helped soften her stance.

“Man­dela at­taches a lot of im­por­tance to his meet­ing with the prime min­is­ter,” Ren­wick ex­plained. “He is anx­ious to es­tab­lish some kind of per­sonal rap­port (which should not be dif­fi­cult given the char­ac­ter of the man).

“And to achieve a de­gree of sup­port and un­der­stand­ing not­with­stand­ing the po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. He refers con­stantly to the prime min­is­ter’s meet­ings with Gor­bachev [to­wards the end of the cold war] and clearly hopes to find him­self be­ing cast, on more di­rect ac­quain­tance, as also the kind of per­son we can do busi­ness with.

“He has suf­fered greatly for his cause,” Ren­wick added, “and, not sur­pris­ingly, has a burn­ing sense of the in­jus­tices the black pop­u­la­tion have suf­fered. All those who vis­ited Man­dela in prison were struck by his courage and dig­nity … My own ex­pe­ri­ence is the same. Man­dela has a nat­u­ral dig­nity and au­thor­ity. He is not as in­tel­li­gent as Mu­gabe but a great deal nicer.”

In a note to Thatcher shortly be­fore she met the ANC leader in July, Pow­ell said the aim should be “cour­te­ous straight-talk­ing — of which Man­dela will have heard re­gret­tably lit­tle else­where, agree­ment to dis­agree on sanc­tions [the UK wanted to re­lax them early] but recog­ni­tion by Man­dela of your very con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence on events in South Africa and his wish to see you play a ma­jor part there”.

Ren­wick also briefed her. “Man­dela shows his age,” he said. “His at­ten­tion wan­ders dur­ing long state­ments, the Guardian re­ported.

“Man­dela has a nat­u­ral dig­nity and au­thor­ity. He is not as in­tel­li­gent as Mu­gabe but a great deal nicer.”

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