It wasn’t inevitable that apartheid would end without bloodshed. As we’ve been reminded throughout the last week, it took the extraordinary figure of Nelson Mandela to ensure that the extreme elements within the ANC and the brutalised majority population of South Africa did not turn to vengeance. But it also needed the apartheid era’s white government to choose to give up power and to do so in an orderly manner. That was never inevitable. As Jenni Russell wrote in yesterday’s Times (£), Syria’s Assad hasn’t done so, and neither has Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. “History,” she wrote, “shows us that humankind, once in power, has an infinite capacity to choose self-interest over the national good.”

F W de Klerk did choose the national good and, in 1993, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – alongside Nelson Mandela – for his part in ensuring that all of South Africa’s citizens finally became equal before the law. In his only article for the international press since Mandela’s death, de Klerk has written for today’s Times (£)  about the qualities of the man the world is mourning.

He also revisits the debate about sanctions and the Conservative Party’s role in that debate.  Noting that Margaret Thatcher was always a consistent opponent of apartheid, he also says she was right to resist the demands from the Anti-Apartheid Movement for the economic impoverishment and isolation of South Africa. “Further sanctions,” he writes, “would have substantially weakened those in favour of negotiations and would have strengthened conservatives who were grimly prepared to resist foreign pressure to the bitter end.” And it could have become very bitter indeed. Jenni Russell invited us to “think of the continued misery of Israel and the Palestinians, forever failing to reach compromises.” “South Africa’s whites could have limped on for decades,” she wrote, “in a country hobbled by sanctions and rage.”

De Klerk reminds us that the ANC was once a very threatening organisation – and, given the injustices of racial segregation, that was completely explicable. If it had taken power before Nelson Mandela had renounced the armed struggle in 1982, he writes of his fears that an ANC victory “could have been achieved only after a devastating racial war and would not have resulted in a genuine constitutional democracy, but in the imposition of a communist regime.”

“The approach adopted by Margaret Thatcher and her friend President Reagan,” he continues, “helped to buy essential time for South Africa. During the Eighties the prospects for a balanced negotiated settlement ripened… [and convinced] us that the best option would be a common constitutional dispensation in which whites would inevitably lose exclusive power — but in which the fundamental rights of all South Africans would be protected by a strong constitution.”

You don’t have to agree with de Klerk’s analysis, but I do hope some on the Left at least read it. Opponents of Margaret Thatcher often suggest her opposition to sanctions meant that she was somehow a supporter of apartheid. I’ve never believed that, and last week there were papers published that proved she was pressing de Klerk’s predecessor to release Mr Mandela from prison. She was committed to helping to end segregation, and was trying to find a path to a non-segregated South Africa that wasn’t covered with blood.

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