Margaret Thatcher’s position on Apartheid, and sanctions in particular, is a major point of debate and contention. Was she really on the wrong side of history? A closer examination of her commitment to negotiation and “constructive engagement”, however, reveals a number of lessons; lessons that have, thankfully, not been forgotten.
Senator Charles Sumner, in his eulogy over the slain Abraham Lincoln contended that Lincoln was mistaken in saying that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here”, asserting instead that: “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
As is the case with leaders of this stature, the death of Margaret Thatcher has brought into sharp focus what she said, what she did, and what we remember. In South Africa, her posture on Apartheid – its existence and ultimate demise – stands as a major point of debate and contention. Indeed, many have concluded, including Thatcher’s successor John Major, she stood on the wrong side of history in this regard.
Since almost all commentators agree that Margaret Thatcher was a “transformative leader”, her failures and successes on various issues is not worthy just of criticism or praise, but should be an opportunity to extract lessons. In particular, Thatcher’s approach to Apartheid presents important lessons on how leaders and countries may influence positive change or support barbaric dispensations. A closer look at her views, including the quote which referred to the ANC as a terrorist organisation, opens a door to a past that is often unknown, if not misunderstood or misrepresented.
At the centre of why many believe Thatcher was pro-Apartheid is her refusal to support sanctions against South Africa, and the statement that the African National Congress (ANC) was a typical terrorist organisation.
Statements attributed to Thatcher paint a different picture to the one in which she is seen as a supporter of the South African Apartheid regime or the principle of Apartheid. Speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in November 1985, Thatcher is quoted as saying: “I detest Apartheid. 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. Apartheid is wrong and it must go.” This statement suggests that Thatcher was opposed to Apartheid not just on principle, but as a matter of personal philosophy. Apartheid, to her, was not merely an affront to the principle of democracy, but to the very individual. She also said: “I do not like Apartheid. It is wrong. I like valuing people for what they are, not for their colour or their background. Apartheid is wrong and it has to go, and it is going…” As the Economist put it in an article under the headline “Freedom Fighter” (13 April 2013): “She thought nations could become great only if individuals were set free.”
Within these statements and her express opposition to Apartheid, she also opposed defeating Apartheid through economic sanctions, preferring instead a process of “constructive engagement”. Here, the approach was that South Africans – the white minority government and blacks – should be allowed to negotiate an outcome that would leave all South Africans better off. In her view, stringent sanctions would lead to the long-term destruction of the South African economy, an outcome that would not serve anyone.
In this respect, speaking at a press conference after the 1986 Commonwealth Summit held in London, she asserted that: “We continue to believe that the goal of dismantling Apartheid and establishing democracy in South Africa will be reached in the end by negotiation. It is that goal, in the context of a suspension of violence, which we seek. Racial justice with peace, not amid an economic wasteland, but the growing prosperity which a non-racial South Africa could enjoy.”
She also noted: “The idea that the collapse of Apartheid can be achieved by a concerted push from outside to destroy the South African economy is, I believe, an illusion. Punitive sanctions would make the problems worse and do untold damage to black South Africans and their children as well as to South Africa’s neighbouring states and their peoples.”
Her model, which had at its centre negotiation, is indeed how South Africa in the end dismantled Apartheid, and is very similar to that used by South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in an attempt to resolve the problems of Zimbabwe. South Africa and the SADC have opposed sanctions against Zimbabwe and pushed for dialogue and negotiations among Zimbabweans, leading to the Global Political Agreement mediated by Thabo Mbeki. Indeed, it is important to note that sanctions against Zimbabwe have contributed to the immense damage visited upon the economy of Zimbabwe and to ordinary people – leading them to flee as economic refugees. This same policy has done demonstrably less to move President Robert Mugabe out of power as intended. These two countries provide us with some perspective on whether Thatcher was correct in her approach.
The approach of negotiation and settlement is one that was employed by Kofi Anan as lead negotiator in the Kenya 2007 post-election crisis. That process culminated in a “national accord”, which saw the warring parties sharing power for peace.
In the end, on 9 April 2012, Uhuru Kenyatta was inaugurated as the fourth president of Kenya, marking an important moment for democracy in Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world. The ascent of Kenyatta to the presidency saw an end to five years of negotiated “national accord” which had Muai Kibaki and Raila Odinga share power after the 2007 election was followed by bitter conflict – leaving an estimated 1,500 Kenyans dead and many more displaced.
Many believed that the power sharing agreement was a betrayal of democratic principles, and that the proper approach was for the incumbent, Muai Kibaki, to surrender power or be removed by force since he had clearly lost the election – as we later saw in Ivory Coast years later.
However, viewed in hindsight, the power-sharing between Kibaki and Odinga ushered in a period that allowed Kenyans to work through a process of establishing a national constitution, setting up key democratic institutions, as well as negotiating a way in which they could transform a polarised society. Calls for external intervention to force regime change would not have achieved these results as international experience shows in places like Libya and Syria. In time, we will see what the Ivory Coast experience teaches in this respect.
This occasion reinforces, in a practical way, that world politics is increasingly defined first by domestic needs, and secondly but importantly, international support and not intervention.
What this tells us with regards to Thatcher’s approach is that, as she stated herself: “…we have to have talks with people, even if we disapprove of their policies, and I think that we might perhaps sometimes influence some of them more either to understanding our views and try to influence them towards our views, if we talk to them. We cannot if we do not. I disapprove of Apartheid. You cannot determine a person’s rights by the colour of his skin, but that does not prevent me from talking to Prime Minister Botha and making my views clear.”
Thinking about Mandela’s approach with the leaders of the National Party and the Apartheid establishment, it was negotiation – convincing them of his views instead of forcing them – that won the day.
As the Kenyan people’s jubilation could be heard from Nairobi to Moyale, and from Garissa to Mombassa, and as they peer over at the misery their brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe, Libya and Syria, we may hear them hum, “Long live the spirit of Margaret Thatcher.”
Kenya will now set itself on the path of development – continuing social construction and cohesion, growing infrastructure such as power, roads and ports, maximising both regional advantage as well as international opportunities. Investors have already lent their positive support, with the stock exchange rising and currency firming.
The jubilation of hope has been brought not by international interference, but by support and assistance as Kenyans worked and talked to each other for the common good. There are still many rifts among Kenyans, notably along tribal lines. But the result of this election, which was expected to be hotly contested along tribal lines, suggests that much unity has already been achieved.
As former South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, who is assisting with the development of Kenya’s judicial system, exclaimed: “…we did it ourselves; it wasn’t forced on us – we looked into each other’s eyes, people who’d been trying to kill each other.”
Perhaps this is where the sentiment about terrorism finds context. When Thatcher refused to impose sanctions on South Africa, it was reported that some members of the ANC were calling for attacks on British companies in South Africa. This infuriated Thatcher, whose opposition of violence and terrorism is well documented. But with regards to her relations with the ANC, and reports that she hailed the ANC as a typical terrorist organisation, she is also said to have supported its activities in London. It is claimed that she provided its leaders with protection against the overreaching hand of the South African government, which sought to murder ANC leaders in exile.
Whatever the case may be, as Margaret Thatcher’s mortal remains are laid to rest this week, what she said is remembered. The words of Summer ring true too: “The world noted at once what [she] said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”
How will Kenyans judge Kofi Anna’s mediation? What will the people of Zimbabwe and Sudan think of Mbeki? Perhaps the views will always be divided.
What is clear is that Thatcher’s contribution to questions of freedom, democracy and government is evident, whatever you may feel that contribution is.
Perhaps in the end, in Thatcher’s case, we may say that South Africa achieved the destruction of Apartheid, with or without her support. DM
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
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