The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

In the late 1970s, right wing Tories and neo-fascists in Britain reacted with dismay when the white minority government in Rhodesia fell allowing the majority of the population to finally exercise political power. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and now the only country on the African continent still under white minority rule was South Africa. The apartheid regime continued throughout the 1980s and the attitude of Margaret Thatcher could reasonably be described as ambivalent.

In 2006, the then Conservative leader David Cameron felt obliged to apologise in person to Nelson Mandela, during a visit to Johannesburg, for Thatcher referring to the African National Congress (ANC) as “terrorists”. Not only did Thatcher display animosity towards Mandela, who was in an Apartheid prison throughout the 1980s, but she resolutely opposed tough sanctions against South Africa. This led to regular clashes with the Commonwealth group of nations, including now independent African countries that had previously been part of the British Empire.

Thatcher, Apartheid, and the Commonwealth

It sometimes looked as if Thatcher spent half her time bashing her European neighbours and the other half laying into Commonwealth members. Throughout the decade a familiar drama played out where Commonwealth nations would draft a joint communique called for sanctions on South Africa that Thatcher would then refuse to sign. Her ministers were then left scrabbling around with their counterparts from the Commonwealth to find a wording that would please her. Invariably this was one not mentioning sanctions.

In 1989, she “let off steam” behind closed doors with critics like President Kaunda of Zambia who were at their wits end with the British Prime Minister’s intransigence. Worth noting that Thatcher also doggedly opposed any moves by the Commonwealth to address global warming. Even when the President of the Maldives pointed out that many of the 1,100 islands that made up his country where in danger of ending up under the sea.

Thatcher’s response to those criticising her soft stance on Apartheid was to claim that the UK was doing more than any other nation to effect change in South Africa. That was despite robust sales of military equipment and computers as well as continuing sporting links. In fact, Britain since Thatcher came to power in 1979 had done its level best at the United Nations to curb any embargo against the Apartheid regime. And unlike the rest of Europe, didn’t enforce the Gleneagles Agreement cutting sports ties with South Africa.

What was the Thatcher argument against Apartheid sanctions?

When pressed on her weak record over sanctions against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, Thatcher resorted to a familiar enough argument that such measures would hurt those they were intended to benefit. Few people believed this was her overriding concern. In 1988, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock accused Thatcher of being “apartheid’s leading apologist”. That she had allowed the government there to hold 28 million Africans as hostages.

The leader of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), Norman Willis, visited southern Africa in 1986 and warned Thatcher that Britain was being seen in the region as a friend of Apartheid. He believed that when change came, Britain would be punished by a black majority rule South Africa and that would negatively impact jobs in Britain.

Did Thatcher fall out with the Queen over Apartheid?

In the mid-1980s, rumours began to circulate that the Queen viewed Thatcher’s line on sanctions against South Africa as a threat to the future of the Commonwealth. And clearly for the Queen, being head of this family of nations was an important part of making the monarchy globally relevant. There’s little doubt that Thatcher had zero empathy for this concern.

The old racist firebrand Enoch Powell, now an Ulster Unionist MP, foamed at the mouth that this story of a rift between the Queen and Thatcher over Apartheid had been mischievously planted by Tory rebel MPs with their media contacts. When The Sunday Times newspaper openly stated that Buckingham Palace and Downing Street were now at loggerheads over South Africa, the palace denied this. The Queen’s Press Secretary Michael Shea claimed the reports were without foundation. But The Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil retorted that the newspaper’s sources were “unimpeachable”.

DISCOVER: The collapse of businesses in Thatcher’s early 1980s recession

Revolution brews in South Africa

In the middle of the decade, South Africa descended into warfare on the streets. In June 1984, the South African Prime Minister P. W. Botha flew to Britain for confidential talks at Chequers with Thatcher that lasted about five and a half hours. He very literally jetted in and back out again avoiding central London where massive demonstrations against Apartheid were taking place. At the demonstrations, Ken Livingstone – then leader of the Greater London Council (soon to be abolished by Thatcher) – claimed that British troops might be sent to South Africa to “support the Afrikaners”.

Interestingly, at one point in her talks with Botha, Thatcher produced a letter written by a tribal group in the Transvaal to the Queen appealing for help. He countered that Thatcher needed to close down the ANC offices in London, which Botha thundered was a terrorist base of operations. As they were talking, three women from the long running Greenham Common anti-nuclear peace camp broke into the grounds of Chequers. Botha made an undignified dash for his helicopter with The Observer newspaper reporting that the women ran towards the chopper “screaming”.

While Thatcher’s people insisted the talks had been tough and candid, most commentators took the view that meeting Botha only conferred legitimacy on his Apartheid regime.

DISCOVER: The so-called “short sharp shock” for youth criminal offenders under Thatcher

So, what did Thatcher think of Apartheid?

In 1982, a row erupted over English cricketers touring South Africa. The government made no effort to stop the tour while at the same time went through the motions of condemning it. This was as much motivated by concerns over future cricket test matches in Commonwealth countries and any disruption that might be caused to the Commonwealth Games. Rest assured it had little to do with the plight of black South Africans.

During the cricket saga, The Sunday Telegraph leader column stated that while Thatcher might deplore Apartheid, “she does not regard it in the same category of threatening evil as Soviet Communism”. And therein lay the rub. Failure to take tough measures against the Apartheid regime wasn’t just a question of racism but also the fear of some on the conservative right that a post-Apartheid South Africa would move into the Soviet orbit and nationalise western assets.

I was very involved in left-wing politics in Liverpool in the early 1980s and I know that the prospect of South Africa entering a revolutionary phase excited many Marxists. Indeed I witnessed the veteran South African trade unionist Nimrod Sejake speaking in Liverpool on two or three occasions calling for a trade union led workers revolution.

On the moderate left, Labour grandee Denis Healey – the shadow Foreign Secretary in 1985 – accused Thatcher of being the bodyguard of Apartheid. He promised full-blown sanctions when Labour returned to power and urged British consumers not to buy South African goods.

One thought on “Thatcher on Apartheid in South Africa

  1. John Reid says:

    Enoch wasn’t a Ulster unionist he was a democratic unionist , what Cameron said was the Tory policy on not more restrictions was wrong, Nelson Mandela said thatcher was no friend of Aparthied if that’s true in Ken Livingstone shows what a fool he was

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