How Margaret Thatcher Fought Apartheid

Published: 11th February 2015 10:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 11th February 2015 10:47 AM   |  A+A-


On this day 40 years ago, Margaret Thatcher defeated four male candidates to become the first woman leader of the Conservative Party. Exactly 15 years later, on February 11 1990, Nelson Mandela left Victor Verster prison a free man...

...Yet the two events are related by more than the coincidence of their date. For in the intervening years, one world leader did more to help secure Mandela's release than any other: Margaret Thatcher. As British ambassador to South Africa between 1987 and 1991, I remember how fundamentally Mrs Thatcher found the apartheid system to be in conflict with her meritocratic vision of society. Her policy towards South Africa rested on three key demands: the regime must free Mandela; scrap the apartheid laws; and start negotiating a fully democratic constitution.

My job was to drive home this message. When I arrived, P W Botha was the state president. Thatcher could not stand Botha, whom she knew to have been a German sympathiser during the Second World War. When she met him at Chequers in June 1984, the notes taken by Botha's foreign minister show that she told him "very firmly" that "apartheid had to be dismantled, Mandela and other prisoners released" and the "forcible removal of urban blacks had to stop".

This message received the unlikely praise of Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, then president of the anti-apartheid movement, who wrote to Thatcher to say that her demands to Botha were "truly all I could have wished for".

During this meeting, the prime minister had also rejected Botha's request to close down the ANC office in London. Later, in March 1989, following the assassination of the ANC representative in Paris by South African intelligence, I was instructed to give the regime the bluntest warning as to what would happen if it attacked the ANC in London.

By this time, Thatcher had no expectations from Botha. In February 1988, his ambassador in London conveyed his master's negative reply to a bombardment of messages from Downing Street, including the demand that Mandela must be released. This produced an explosion from the prime minister. The unfortunate ambassador was told 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".

My job was to look for a successor with whom she might be able to do business.

F W de Klerk soon emerged as the man most likely to take over and, in June 1989 - three months before he became president - de Klerk was invited to meet Thatcher at Chequers. She outlined her familiar demands and this time, the message was received. At midnight on the eve of February 2 1990, de Klerk telephoned me to say: "You can tell your prime minister that she will not be disappointed." The following day, he delivered a truly great speech in which he legalised the ANC and announced the release of Mandela. Nine days later, Mandela finally walked out of jail.

Even so, despite her formidable efforts, a myth has arisen that Mrs Thatcher was a friend of apartheid. How did this happen? Sanctions may be part of the answer. She was opposed to comprehensive sanctions against South Africa (although Britain did, in fact, impose arms and oil embargoes, as well as sports sanctions). The fact that she was against the complete isolation of the regime may have exposed her to criticism, but it also made her someone with the ear of South Africa's leaders. In de Klerk's words, Thatcher "exerted more influence on what happened in South Africa than any other political leader".

And her feelings were clear. At the Lord Mayor's banquet in 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." Asked by the leading Afrikaans newspaper Beeld, what was the difference between the ANC and the IRA, Thatcher's answer was: "The IRA have the vote, the ANC do not."

Even behind bars, Mandela knew about the efforts Thatcher was making to help secure his release. His instinctive reaction to any actual or potential adversary was the opposite of that of many of his ANC colleagues. While they believed in confrontation, he believed in disarming his opponents by other means. In prison, he learnt Afrikaans, the better to understand the mentality of his captors. His last warder ended up serving as his cook and butler. When he was released, I found that I was one of the next in line to be co-opted. I was, he kept insisting to me, his adviser. Repeatedly, he urged me to join the ANC.

But his next target for co-option, I soon found out, was Margaret Thatcher herself. Mandela told me that he wanted to "get her on my side" and, before he paid his first visit to London after his release (in July 1990) he asked me to see him at a clinic in Johannesburg, where he was suffering from exhaustion. Amid much laughter, we held a rehearsal for his expected meeting with the prime minister. I played Thatcher; Mandela played Mandela. In this role, I told him to "stop all this nonsense about nationalising the banks and the mines!" Mandela replied with a smile that this policy had been adopted before he had gone to jail in 1962 - "and it was fashionable then".

I saw Thatcher in Downing Street before Mandela arrived. I asked her to remember that he had waited 27 years to tell her his story. This earned me a glare from the clear blue eyes. "You mean I mustn't interrupt?" she said. Asked if Mandela was anything like Robert Mugabe, I assured her that I had never met two human beings, let alone political leaders, who were more different.

Mandela arrived with a mild case of pneumonia - and the prime minister attempted to revive him with a glass of port. She listened for more than an hour as Mandela explained the difficulties he was facing in negotiating with de Klerk. She later 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".

She told Mandela that, of course, Britain supported a democratic constitution, but - as I had foretold - he must stop talking about nationalising the banks and the mines. This produced a grin from Mandela to me. She concluded that "South Africa was lucky to have a man of Mr Mandela's stature at such a time. Indeed, I hoped that he would assert himself more at the expense of some of his ANC colleagues".

The meeting lasted for three hours, causing the press outside to start chanting "Free Nelson Mandela!" Mandela felt that it had gone very well. Asked by Neil Kinnock, then Labour leader, about his encounter with the Iron Lady, Mandela said: "She was warm and motherly." "You must have met some other lady," Kinnock protested. Afterwards, Mandela told me that the prime minister was a "woman he could do business with".

At his press conference that afternoon, choosing his words with heavy emphasis, Mandela declared that Thatcher "is an enemy of apartheid". Their only differences were over the methods of inducing the government to dismantle the system. Yet just as a new era was beginning in South Africa, Mrs Thatcher's time in government was coming to an end in Britain. A few months later, Mrs Thatcher was ousted as prime minister. As she left Downing Street, Mandela gave an interview to the BBC to make his feelings plain: "We have much to be thankful to her for."

Lord Renwick's The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution, is published by Biteback


Disclaimer : We respect your thoughts and views! But we need to be judicious while moderating your comments. All the comments will be moderated by the editorial. Abstain from posting comments that are obscene, defamatory or inflammatory, and do not indulge in personal attacks. Try to avoid outside hyperlinks inside the comment. Help us delete comments that do not follow these guidelines.

The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writers alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of or its staff, nor do they represent the views or opinions of The New Indian Express Group, or any entity of, or affiliated with, The New Indian Express Group. reserves the right to take any or all comments down at any time.

flipboard facebook twitter whatsapp