Mrs Thatcher and Apartheid in 1980s

The knight and the peer in need of a history lesson
Written By: Denis MacShane
Published: April 4, 2015 Last modified: March 31, 2015
The idea that Margaret Thatcher was a heroine of the struggle to replace apartheid is a rewriting of history that would have shamed Stalin. Yet in a remarkable, unchallenged article in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins this extraordinary assertion is made.
Sir Simon was reviewing a book – The End of Apartheid – by Robin Renwick who was named Britain’s ambassador to South Africa in 1987. Lord Renwick is long retired from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and seems to need to justify himself by producing a book that hails Margaret Thatcher as responsible for ending apartheid.
According to Sir Simon: “Thatcher opposed apartheid and she lobbied Pretoria incessantly for Mandela’s release”. He argues that all during the 1980s, the white Afrikaner government was solidly in power while the “most effective opposition came from the solitary anti-apartheid MP Helen Suzman.”
Simon Jenkins, now a pillar of the English establishment, says he covered the country for the Economist in the 1980s. In his recall of the era, everything was going swimmingly well for the apartheid regime, “Then suddenly”, writes Sir Simon, “in 1989-1991 came a revolution.” The ghastly PW Botha had a stroke and overnight a shining new white leader, FW De Klerk, came to realise apartheid had to end.
In that period the British ambassador backed by the anti-apartheid Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, drove forward with vigour to secure Nelson Mandela’s release and the end of white supremacy.
It is difficult to know where to start dismantling this silly and patronising re-writing of history.
The main driving force in toppling apartheid was the black working class who formed independent trade unions during the 1970s and then went on strike to claim both economic and political rights from 1980s onwards. They were inspired by other blocks of workers in the 1980s in Poland and Brazil who also resisted authoritarian rule – communists in Poland, generals in Brazil.
The white rulers were confronted with a dilemma. White-controlled capitalism needed a mass consumer base to survive let along thrive but that was incompatible with racist white supremacist rule. In the end, apartheid politics surrendered to the needs of economic growth and capitalist accumulation.
In that process, the black trade unions, together with white intellectuals and lawyers, liberal activists and smarter young mining executives, received considerable and crucial help from overseas trade unions especially in Britain, Nordic countries, Germany and the United States, notably the progressive United Autoworkers Union whose international director, Don Stillman, cajoled UAW union leaders to visit townships and car factories to meet black workers long before Robin Renwick or Simon Jenkins took an interest. Activists such as Peter Hain in Britain or journalists such Bryan Rostron in Tribune played an important part.
I spent a considerable time in South Africa with black trade unions as an international trade union official in the 1980s and co-authored a book on black independent trade unions published in 1984. I organised liberal-left QCs and lawyers to go to South Africa to defend trade unionists charged with various crimes under apartheid.
I do not recall any help of any sort from the British Government or the British embassy. In contrast, the United States sent a African-American diplomat, Edward Pickering, as Ambassador to South Africa in 1986, and his embassy became open house for the black resistance movement, as did the Nordic and Dutch embassies who reached out to black union leaders providing some shelter and support in the 1980s.
The US Congress banned the sale of Krugerrands and took other sanction measure. But it was the adoption of mass and non-violent means of organisation that made the difference. The idea that Thatcher was involved is laughable.
The FCO at the time took its cue from Thatcher’s visceral and obsessive hate of working people and their trade unions which marked her entire premiership. Embassies stopped helping British unions in overseas work, including solidarity support in South Africa. Young Conservatives sported badges saying “Hang Mandela” and the support by Tory racists in the House of Commons for the apartheid regime was notorious and well-noted in South Africa.
When Thatcher rolled out the red carpet at Chequers for PW Botha and the apartheid leadership in 1984, it was seen as further proof in South Africa of how Britain was not interested in supporting black workers and other movements of resistance.
The Australian right-wing Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, (1975-1983), who has just died, fought publicly against apartheid, as did his successor, Bob Hawke after 1983. They were blocked at every turn by the Conservative government.
The FCO diplomatist, Sir Derek Day, who recently died, was at the 1987 Commonwealth Conference in Vancouver in which Thatcher rowed with the Canadian government over taking action against South Africa. He recalls with sadness the British leader’s opposition to tackling apartheid. “Mrs Thatcher was adamant… so it was a meeting of some acrimony.”
America, Australia and Canada all wanted to take action against apartheid. The British Tories did not. That is history which no amount of re-writing can alter.
No doubt, Lord Renwick, an extremely able diplomat, was able to sniff the winds of change by the end of the 1980s, and reported back to London that apartheid was edging towards the dustbin of history so the United Kingdom should be on the right side of what was going to happen. But the idea that the Thatcher regime in any way helped that movement especially when it needed help, not when apartheid was collapsing from within, is a re-write of history too far.
For the record, some of these points were made in a short letter to The Guardian which the paper refused to publish. With luck, the new editor will have a greater care about publishing glorifications of apartheid’s best friend in democratic world in the 1980s – the then British Prime Minister and the rabid Nelson Mandela hating Conservative students who now run today’s Tory Party.

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