It’s December 28, 2018. The National Archives in the United Kingdom have spent months preparing the release of secret files from Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Now of course, that ended in late 1990, but the world was a very different place then. For instance, the Cold War between the U.S.A. and the then U.S.S.R. was ongoing. Trust was at an all-time low. And, interestingly, a man called Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had just been released from a South African jail.
So it wasn’t hard to guess that these files could provide a unique insight into a usually incredibly guarded female leader. What’s more, this particular prime minister had been known to be pushing for Mandela’s release. And once it happened in February 1990, it was only a matter of time before the two would speak. Now, Mandela had served nearly three decades for conspiring to overthrow the South African government. Once out, he entered negotiations with president F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid in the country.
Therefore, these were trying times, where leaders and their advisers had to keep the most high-end discussions confidential. And intriguingly, it was the contents of a phone call between Mandela and Thatcher in June 1990 that stood out. Now, Charles Powell, the prime minister’s adviser for foreign affairs, documented the call in a private memo. But firstly, he was struck by a call from Mandela “out of the blue” at 11:45 p.m.
Yes, according to the files, Mandela was in the south east of the U.K., preparing to travel to Canada. And after Thatcher had taken a follow-up call the next day, Powell noted down, “We are not proposing to tell the press about this discussion.” For you see, had he done the opposite, the positive relationship between the two leaders perhaps would’ve been anything but.
Born in British South Africa in 1918, Mandela was descended from royalty, his father being a Thembu nobleman from the Madiba clan. After studying law at two universities, he pursued a career as a lawyer in Johannesburg. At that time, the city was a hotbed of anti-colonial politics and African nationalism. There, Mandela became politicized and ultimately devoted the rest of his life to fighting apartheid.
Established by the South African National Party in 1948, apartheid was a system of racial segregation. And it had emerged from a political culture of white supremacy, also known as “baasskap.” Here, the white ruling class were in fact a minority group, wielding apartheid as an instrument of oppression. For apartheid not only segregated public amenities and events along racial lines, it denied work and housing opportunities.
At the frontline of the struggle against apartheid was the African National Congress (ANC). Originally established in 1912, the ANC was committed to uniting all Africans, securing their rights and, from 1948, ending apartheid. What’s more, Mandela served as the President of the organization’s Transvaal branch and quickly earned distinction as an effective activist.
Identifying with Marxism, Mandela became a secret member of the illegal South African Communist Party (SACP). Working with the SACP, he established “Umkhonto we Sizwe” (MK), a militant organization that engaged in sabotage and other controversial acts of resistance. But he was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in jail for plotting to topple the South African state.
Incarcerated in Victor Verster Prison, Robben Island and Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela’s sentence ultimately lasted 27 years. But he was released in 1990 by South African President F. W. de Klerk, who was under pressure to end apartheid. Meanwhile, at a domestic level, the president faced the daunting prospect of a racially charged civil war.
Despite his suffering, Mandela was not bitter about his prison sentence. In his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom”, he wrote, “It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed.”
He continued, “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”
Born in October, 1925, Margaret Hilda Thatcher served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. Indeed, she was the first woman to head the British government. And nicknamed “The Iron Lady”,Thatcher was a hard nosed Conservative with an unbending devotion to free market ideology.
With a background in law and chemistry, Thatcher went into politics in 1959. That’s right, she got elected as the Member of Parliament (MP) for Finchley, north London. And from 1970 to 1974, she served as the Secretary of State for Education and Science under Edward Heath. Then, in 1975, she became leader of the Conservative Party and Her Majesty’s Opposition. Eventually, in 1979, she became prime minister.
Drawing inspiration from the Victorian-era, Thatcher’s policies represented a revolutionary shift for the economy. For instance, industries and markets were deregulated, state assets were privatized and Labor unions were stripped of their power. And one of the game changers for this had been the so called “Winter of Discontent”, in 1978. Astonishingly, this saw thousands of workers strike for pay rises, halting production and holding big industry to ransom.
Meanwhile, Thatcher’s foreign policy concerns took place in the highly polarized context of the Cold War. From the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, most crises concealed an East-West struggle. As for South Africa, the PM was largely concerned with the U.K.’s economic interests in the region.
Now, the secret Mandela files released in 2018 begin with a note marked “Nelson Mandela’s visits to the UK.” According to this, Thatcher had elected to “err… on the side of generosity” by granting Mandela a lunchtime meeting on July 4. However, on June 16 – some 18 days before their scheduled engagement – Powell received a telephone call “out of the blue”. And Mandela was in the UK, resting “somewhere near Tunbridge Wells” en-route to Canada.
According to Powell, Mandela was “very anxious” to see the British leader at 8:00 a.m. the next day. But Powell did not think it was possible, and suggested personally driving out to meet him instead. However, he later told the prime minister, “He was rather insistent that he should speak directly to you.” In the end, Mandela and Thatcher arranged to speak on the phone at 7.30 a.m. the next day.
Now, Mandela had concerns that the European Community (EC) – today the EU – was about to cave in to Thatcher’s demands. Specifically, the British prime minister had been lobbying the EC to lift sanctions on the regime in South Africa. However, Mandela believed that such a move would be unhelpful to ending apartheid. And the outcome of the conversation was recorded on four-pages by Powell.
In fact, years earlier at a Commonwealth summit, Thatcher herself had come under pressure to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. Commonwealth leaders asked her to support the move, but she sternly resisted. Indeed, the U.K. was South Africa’s main trade partner. And when other European countries started cooling relations with the country, it remained its biggest foreign investor.
According to Powell’s note of the conversation, Mandela “was sure [the prime minister] could play an important role in facilitating the process of negotiation in South Africa.” But considered “the action which she took over sanctions would have a bearing on her ability to do so.” Furthermore, Mandela “would ask her not to press other governments to lift sanctions, before he had been able to discuss the situation more fully with her.”
But Thatcher rebuffed Mandela, apparently, saying that “President De Klerk had gone a long way to meet the ANC, and it was vital he should receive some support from the international community… We do indeed believe that the right course of action for the [European] Community is to start the process of easing sanctions, as a clear signal of support for De Klerk’s efforts.”
What’s more, as asserted by the Independent, Thatcher may have even lectured Mandela over the ANC calling off its militant wing. She told him, “We had experience of armed struggle in that we ourselves suffered at the hands of the [Irish Republican Army]. We had very much hoped the ANC would agree to suspend it by now.” But Mandela was unable to do so, he said, as vigilantes and others were still threatening the party with violence.
In fact, the ongoing threat of police violence meant the ANC could not disarm, either. Powell wrote, “The problem was that the South African government seemed unable to restrain the police. He would be able to give the prime minister details of police activities against the ANC, the action being taken by vigilante groups, and the threats of the right wing to destroy the ANC and hang Nelson Mandela.”
But Thatcher, apparently, didn’t bend. And at the conclusion of the call, she confided to Powell that she had been unimpressed with the ANC leader. He wrote, “The prime minister commented to me afterwards that she was a bit disappointed with Mandela, who seemed to have rather a closed mind. For his part, he will now have experienced first-hand the prime minister’s strong views on the armed struggle and on sanctions.”
Meanwhile, the files released in 2018 also contained numerous diplomatic cables from the UK ambassador to South Africa, Sir Robin Renwick. For Renwick guided the prime minister in the runup to her face-to-face meeting with the ANC leader in July 1990. And it seems the ambassador was quick to highlight the ideological differences between the two.
He wrote, “In so far as Mandela understands anything about economics, his ideas were formed in the 1950s. He is an old-fashioned socialist, but has never been a communist… [Nonetheless] the ANC’s document on The Economy Beyond Apartheid is full of the kind of ideas about the role of the state that have been discredited and proved disastrous elsewhere.”
Meanwhile, citing the recent warming of relations between the Soviet Union and the West, Mandela hoped to bridge differences with the U.K. Renwick wrote, “He refers constantly to the prime minister’s meetings with Gorbachev and clearly hopes to find himself cast, on more direct acquaintance, as also the kind of person we can do business with.”
On negotiations with De Klerk, Mandela struck an optimistic cord, according to Renwick. For he suggested that he and the South African president could work together to end apartheid. However, Renwick also complained about Mandela’s commitment to “armed struggle.” In any case, the ambassador advised Thatcher to ask Mandela to “suspend the armed struggle while negotiations take place” rather than “disarm” completely.
For you see, Renwick believed that Mandela was someone the UK government could, and should do business with. He wrote, “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… a real charisma, felt even by his opponents, by virtually all black South Africans, and by many of the whites who are most strongly opposed to him.”
Prior to the two leaders’ historic meeting in July, Powell advised Thatcher on how best to deal with the ANC leader. He told her to engage in “courteous straight-talking – of which Mandela will have heard regrettably little elsewhere, agreement to disagree on sanctions, but recognition by Mandela of your very considerable influence of events in South Africa and his wish to see you play a major part there.”
So when Thatcher and Mandela met, they were accompanied by Renwick and the freedom fighter’s number two,Thabo Mbeki. According to Powell’s notes, the meeting went well. He wrote, “It was a successful meeting with an excellent atmosphere… Meeting [Mandela] in person, I think [the prime minister] was impressed by his courtliness and obvious sincerity.”
For his part, Mandela indicated that the ANC should soon be able to end the armed struggle. For her part, Thatcher said that South Africa was lucky to have both Mandela and President De Klerk. Also, she stated her firm opposition to apartheid, calling it “wrong, immoral and contrary to the dignity of man.”
Ultimately, negotiations between Mandela and De Klerk led to the dismantling of apartheid. And in 1994, South Africa held its first post-apartheid general election. Naturally, Mandela was elected president, and, under his leadership, South Africa established a new constitution. Subsequently, the ANC leader chose not to pursue a second presidential term, but he did serve as an elder statesman.
Meanwhile, the public reaction to the files – especially Thatcher’s impression of Mandela – arguably erred on the side of outrage. Of course, there is evidence to suggest that Thatcher was not as morally opposed to apartheid as she claimed. At least, that is the impression given by Sir Patrick Wright, the former head of the Diplomatic Service.
Indeed, in an excerpt from his diary, Wright described the PM endorsing a racialist solution to the violence in South Africa. He wrote, “She opened the conversation by thrusting a newspaper cutting about [ANC president] Oliver Tambo in front of us… She continued to express her views about a return to pre-1910 South Africa, with a white mini-state partitioned from their neighboring black states.”
Well, on the issue of apartheid, history shows that the British Conservative Party under Thatcher was not necessarily that progressive. For example, Tory MP Teddy Taylor once proclaimed that Mandela “should be shot.” And Thatcher’s friend Sir Larry Lamb declared that the release of Mandela was a “crass error.”
Of course, by 1990, Thatcher must have understood that political winds in South Africa were changing. For Apartheid had been roundly condemned by the international community and, its downfall was imminent. But Thatcher’s apparent anti-apartheid stance is still an ongoing debate, even today.
However, whatever her motives, Thatcher did not seem to be as opposed to Mandela as some of her hardline colleagues. For in 1984, she met South African president P.W. Botha for talks at Chequers. Furthermore, the record shows that Thatcher told Botha that apartheid was “unacceptable.” And, remarkably, she even lobbied for the release of Mandela.
On April 8, 2013, at the age of 87, Thatcher suffered a stroke and died. However, with public opinion polarized, her legacy in British society remains controversial. For supporters of the “Iron Lady” claim that she ushered in a new era of dynamism and modernity. While her opponents say that she promoted values of greed and exploitation.
Meanwhile, on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, Mandela died after battling a long-running illness. With some 250 honors to his name, he is widely remembered as a hero. Indeed, Mandela was so dedicated to his ideals that he never gave up fighting. In fact, he was so profoundly humane that he even forgave the regime that stole almost three decades of his life. Closed-minded? Unlikely.