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Mandela's master plan to forge ties with the Iron Lady

Robin Renwick | 2015-01-18 00:05:03.0
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and recently released Nelson Mandela before talks at 10 Downing Street on July 4 1990
Image by: RUSSELL BOYCE/REUTERS

What exactly was the relationship between Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela? In a new book based on his diaries and UK Foreign Office and Downing Street records of the time, Robin Renwick, British ambassador to South Africa from 1987 to 1991, describes what passed between the two leaders and what really constituted Mandela’s political genius.

Nelson  Mandela has long since passed into legend as some sort of latter-day saint. The Mandela I knew was a great deal craftier and wilier than that. So what exactly was the political genius of Nelson Mandela?

Mandela's instinctive reaction to any actual or potential adversaries was the opposite of that of many of his colleagues in the African National Congress. While they believed in confrontation, he believed in disarming his opponents by other means.

He had a clear appreciation of the realities of power. He knew that the apartheid state was far too strong to be defeated any time soon and that the efforts of the military wing of the ANC, which he had founded thirty years before, had amounted mainly to "armed propaganda".

In prison he learned Afrikaans, the better to understand the mentality of his captors. His last prison warder ended up serving as his cook and butler

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Next to be won over was the Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee, who kept asking me to help get him released.

When he was released, I found that I was one of the next in line. I was, he kept insisting to me and others, his adviser. He kept urging me to join the ANC! It was, he claimed, a broad church and "you think like us" (a debatable proposition).

His next target for co-option, I soon found out, was far more ambitious. It was in fact the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, bête noire of the ANC for her opposition to blanket sanctions against South Africa, though we had in fact imposed military, nuclear, oil and sports sanctions.

But Mandela knew from Helen Suzman and others that Thatcher had campaigned more actively than any other overseas leader for his release, bombarding PW Botha with messages about this, then engaging directly with De Klerk and his colleagues.

The first sign of Mandela's strategy came in a letter I received on prison notepaper from him, which ended by asking me to pass his very best wishes to the Prime Minister.

I replied that the Prime Minister wanted him to be freed and free to express his views. She looked forward to the day when she would be able to meet him.

Before making his great speech in Parliament on 2 February 1990, which changed the history of South Africa, De Klerk telephoned me at midnight to say: "You can tell your Prime Minister that she will not be disappointed." He wrote to assure her that: "Mr Nelson Mandela will shortly be a free man."

When I met Mandela shortly after his release, he observed to me that Mrs Thatcher had played a crucial role in bringing the US and Soviet Union together. These, he said, were "breathtaking developments".

Mandela got upset with his colleagues for opposing a meeting with her during his visit to London for the Wembley concert in his honour, telling me that he wanted to "get her on my side". Thatcher was disappointed by Mandela's early pronouncements, including an objection to her meeting De Klerk, who she had helped to persuade to release him.

But she was told by Chief [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi that she would find that Mandela was a "bigger man than the others". During his visit to London, Mandela said publicly that she was "a very powerful lady - one I would much rather have as an ally than an enemy".

In June, Mandela, who was due to visit the United States, then London to meet Mrs Thatcher, asked me to meet him at a clinic in Johannesburg, to which he had been admitted suffering from exhaustion. What Mandela wanted to know was: how was he going to turn the Prime Minister into an ally?

Amidst much laughter, we held a rehearsal for the meeting. Mandela described the efforts he, [Oliver] Tambo and the ANC had made to engage with the government before he was convicted of treason and that all they were demanding now was a fully democratic constitution. I told him to "stop all this nonsense about nationalising the banks and the mines!"

En route to the US, he telephoned Margaret Thatcher. She gave him, he said, "a stern but well-meaning lecture". His schedule was too heavy ... "If you keep this up, you will not come out of America alive!"

On 4 July 1990, I saw Margaret Thatcher in 10 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 Mugabe, I assured her that I had never met two human beings, let alone political leaders, less like each other than Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.

Mandela arrived in the rain, with a mild case of pneumonia, and the Prime Minister attempting to revive him with a glass of port. "She chided me like a schoolmarm for not taking her advice and cutting down on my schedule." She listened for more than an hour as Mandela explained to her the history of the ANC and the difficulties he was facing in negotiations.

She found him, as she wrote in her memoirs, "supremely courteous, with a genuine nobility of bearing and - most remarkable after all that he had suffered - without any bitterness. I warmed to him."

She told Mandela that of course we supported a fully democratic constitution.

She urged him to suspend the armed struggle and meet Chief Buthelezi. Also, she declared, he must stop talking about nationalising the banks and the mines, producing a grin from Mandela to me.

Over lunch she launched into some home truths about basic economics, with Thabo Mbeki clearly agreeing with her. 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 had gone on for three hours, causing the press outside to start chanting "Free Nelson Mandela!" Mandela felt that it had gone very well, though he did not make the slightest headway in arguing very half-heartedly for more sanctions.

He went on to see the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who asked how he had got on with the Iron Lady. "She was warm and motherly," Mandela replied. "You must have met some other lady," Kinnock protested.

At his press conference that afternoon, choosing his words with heavy emphasis, Mandela declared: "She is an enemy of apartheid." Their differences lay in regard to the methods of inducing the government to dismantle the system. The meeting had been productive and he had come away from it "full of strength and hope".

His reaction afterwards, he said to me, was that the Prime Minister was "a woman he could do business with".

A few months later, when Margaret Thatcher was in the process of being ousted as Prime Minister by her party colleagues, Mandela gave an interview about her to the BBC. In it he said that while they had disagreed about strategy, by which he meant sanctions, "we have much to be thankful to her for".

Margaret Thatcher had well and truly warmed to Nelson Mandela, though not at the expense of her admiration for De Klerk. As for Mandela, he was to employ exactly the same tactic with General Constand Viljoen, weaning him away from the idea of staging a coup by inviting him to tea and subsequently, with millions of Springbok rugby supporters by donning the shirt of Francois Pienaar.

'The End of Apartheid: Diary of a Revolution' by Robin Renwick is published by Jonathan Ball

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