During yesterday’s tributes to Nelson Mandela in the Commons, Labour MPs groaned and shook their heads when Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Foreign Secretary, acknowledged the role that F.W.De Klerk played in helping to end apartheid.  It was as if Conservative MPs had booed when a Labour MP praised Gorbachev’s part in the collapse of communism.  Given that De Klerk’s good work is a matter of record, why did they protest?  Could it be because this inconvenient truth compromised the narrative of history that some of them wish to believe – and want everyone else to accept, too?

In this version of events, capitalism, all members of South Africa’s then government, the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher were friends of apartheid – while socialism, the ANC, the Labour Party and Mandela himself were its only enemies.  The truth is less simplistic and far more interesting, and it begins with the nature of apartheid.  Like communism, apartheid wasn’t simply evil: it was also unworkable.  No system that spits in the face of human dignity, and values people according to their race or class (or religion), can ultimately endure – for reasons that are not just moral, but practical.

Plenty of businesses made money out of apartheid, just as many profited from trade with the Soviet Union.  But no system that deliberately stifles human potential, as the South African system did on a tyrannical scale, can comfortably co-exist with capitalism: after all, profit itself is colour-blind.  Before the collapse of communism, South Africa’s mineral wealth helped to fund a nuclear weapons programme and war in Namibia.  None the less, resistance to apartheid at home and sanctions from abroad were sapping the economy.  By the late 1980s, the country was racked by civil strife.

The story of Michael Young, and his quiet role in the ending of apartheid, demonstrates how big business helped to collapse the system – and how it and the conservative right are often uncomfortable bedfellows (look no further than the clash here between the CBI and the Euro-sceptic movement over Britain’s EU membership).  Young is an anti-Thatcher Conservative who was raised in the Party under Edward Heath.  More to the point, he was an employee of Consolidated Goldfields, the “major international gold-mining company”.

The tale of how Young was asked to become the company’s “licensed liberal”, and helped to set in motion the five-year long backstairs talks that played a part in eventual peace, has been dramatised in Pete Travis’s Endgame.  By the time the talks had gathered steam, communism had collapsed.  This simplified matters as far as the Conservative Party was concerned.  It had never supported apartheid – though a minority of Tories certainly backed the system, with varying degrees of openness, and a majority opposed it, a few actively.

Like other western democracies, Britain had feared, particularly during the 1970s, that South Africa would fall into the hands of the Soviet Union.  This was reasonable, both from the point of view of our own interests and South Africa’s.  The Soviet system’s theology of class struggle was in some ways a mirror image of the apartheid creed of racial superiority, and wreaked its own horrors on an even vaster canvas. At different points, both Labour and Conservative Governments sold the then South African Government arms. (Bucaneer Jets, in Labour’s case, during the mid-1960s.)

None the less, a clear difference between the two parties emerged over time, particularly as far as their members were concerned, over how to deal with South Africa.  Labour favoured isolation, sporting boycotts and extensive sanctions.  The Conservatives supported cautious engagement, particularly during the Cold War.  In Edward Heath’s memoirs, he writes that “we were prepared to supply to South Africa arms which could be used for its external defence, but not those which could be used internally against the civil population”.  (He was preoccupied with an anti-Soviet defence agreement.)

Post-cold war, enter Mrs Thatcher.  She described the ANC, two years before the collapse of communism, as “a typical terrorist organisation”.  But it is a lie to claim that she was pro-apartheid – and this is confimed by a non-Conservative in a position to know.  Robin Renwick, her former private secretary, wrote in his memoir, A Journey with Margaret Thatcher, as follows: “When it came to South Africa, she supported the arms and oil embargoes, but opposed further isolating the country. She reacted with genuine indignation to any imputation of racism.”

“She regarded apartheid as an alien doctrine contrary to basic laws of justice,” he continues, “and incompatible with her meritocratic vision of society, irrespective of race or creed”.  One of the pillars of her approach was her consistent pressure for the release of Mandela.  He will have disagreed with her policy towards the then South African Government strongly, and may well not have liked her very much – after all, his politics were left-of-centre, though he later became a supporter of privatisation (“the fundamental policy”).  But, as Lord Renwick records, he said that “we have much to thank her for”.

His judgement is that she “did more to promote peaceful change in southern Africa than all her predecessors combined”.  Mine is that Labour was more swift and sure than the Conservatives to grasp the moral horror of apartheid.  But the Tory preoccupation with Soviet power made sense, especially during the 1970s, when Soviet-backed Cuban troops were on the march in Namibia and Angola.  So did Mrs Thatcher’s splendid contempt for the Commonwealth leaders who were demanding sanctions against South Africa in public, but trading with her in private.

Nor, as Lord Risby recently pointed out on this site, is the ANC now governing South Africa well. So did her diplomacy play a part in ensuring a smooth landing for South Africa? Or was it incidental? Would the sheer unsustainability of the system itself have led to Mandela’s release in any event – with the peaceful resolution that still holds, for all the country’s troubles? Historians will make their judgements.  But the facts demolish the myth-making impulse that led some Labour MPs yesterday to protest at the very mention of the name of De Klerk.

More to the point, what spanned the gap between some of the men who ran apartheid and the ANC; between socialist ideas and market realities, and (surely) between South Africa’s new ANC Government and John Major’s in Britain was Mandela, the great bridge-builder himself.  As for De Klerk, he will surely deserve a Parliamentary tribute of his own when the sad time comes.  That may provide some Labour MPs with a further opportunity to have another go at Conservative engagement with apartheid.  It would be most unMandela-like for Tories to retaliate by raising Labour’s own record over the Soviet Union.

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