Thatcher and Apartheid: A study in diplomacy

Despite the guff you may hear, Maggie Thatcher's famous letter to South African President P W Botha is one of the finest pieces of statecraft ever written, says former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford

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A warm handshake between Mandela and Thatcher
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Charles Crawford
On 9 December 2013 12:51

Now and again something causes you to look hard at reality and grasp that big things don’t fit into tidy, trashy categories. In this case, it is the letter British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sent to South African President P W Botha on 31 October 1985. Read the full letter here. Carefully.

It is one of the finest pieces of statecraft ever written. Let’s go through it step by step. First, the context.

The apartheid townships are ablaze as the United Democratic Front (an ANC/SA Communist Party front organisation) launches ‘the worse, the better’ attacks on political opponents, primarily other Africans, including by unleashing psychotic teenagers who burn people alive.

There is huge global pressure on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to accept heavy economic sanctions on South Africa. They are refusing to do so, not unreasonably fearing that such measures will make a grim situation even worse.

P W Botha (‘The Big Crocodile’) is a hard man. He is taking down apartheid legislation step by step, but insists on doing so on his terms. Botha will have been brought up steeped in Boer War stories of the deaths of thousands of Afrikaners in British ‘concentration camps’.

He also is sensitive to supposedly liberal English-speaking South Africans’ sneers about Afrikaners (“Why is an Afrikaner like a rope? Both are thick, twisted and hairy!”) and their noisy calls for the end of apartheid as they smugly watch their African servants do the chores and check their high Johannesburg security fences that keep dangerous Africa at bay.

Bossy letters from Margaret Thatcher safe in faraway London, a woman who handed over Rhodesia to African nationalist fanatics backed by Red China, won’t much impress him.

Remarkable as it now seems, Thatcher in 1984 had welcomed P W Botha to London to try to strike up a practical positive dialogue aimed at managing political change in South Africa. How does Mrs Thatcher engage with him remotely thereafter? How to be convincing?

She marks this letter Secret and Personal. That signals that it is not going to be made public for many years to come, and that she is using language and tone that she won’t use in public.

The letter starts by describing at some length the latest Commonwealth gathering where the UK has been isolated in opposing sanctions. Thatcher explains why she had opposed sanctions and that she had found her self isolated even though the stance of many governments at the meeting was trivially hypocritical (something Botha will readily accept).

She says that she has managed to get a reference to ‘a suspension of violence by all sides’. “a concept that of course comes from your earlier letter to me”. Botha won’t like the implication that he is part of the cause of the latest township mayhem, but he will be pleased that Thatcher is ready to take up some of his ideas and that the ANC/SACP are now officially identified as part of the problem.

Thatcher stresses that she needs Botha’s help (underlining the very words) to fend off sanctions pressure. Botha should meet the ‘tiresome’ Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group coming to South Africa to ascertain what is happening. Plus she points out frankly that whereas Botha has signalled privately to her a willingness to do a lot more to dismantle apartheid, his major speech has been disappointing: can’t he do more, presenting these changes as the best thing for his country?

Thatcher says that the international community will welcome lifting the current state of emergency, and that the release of Nelson Mandela “would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake”, the more so if some such moves take place before the Eminent Persons Group arrive.

She draws the arguments together in a bold way, saying that she will continue to resist sanctions “because I believe they are wrong and because it is in Britain’s interests to do so”.

This is brilliant technique: it won’t take much for Botha cynically to dismiss her letter as a cunning ploy intended not to help South Africa but to help Thatcher fend off her multitudinous critics. By acknowledging frankly that she is acting in UK interests, she heads off this attack and so makes the letter more credible.

Thatcher ends by saying that if her position is to carry international conviction she has to show that it is getting results – a point any politician will accept, however reluctantly. Her final words are a deft appeal to mutual, enlightened self-interest: “It is up to you to decide what weight you attach to these efforts. I very much hope that you will conclude they are worthwhile and that we can help each other in this way.”

I suspect that the letter was dictated by Margaret Thatcher herself and then polished up by her and her team. The language is too personal and direct and in places informal to have been drafted by any civil servant (all the underlinings for emphasis are very un-Sir Humphrey -- the legendary, stereotypical but fictitious, British civil servant immortalised on UK television).

The central point of diplomatic technique here is that in the 1980s the UK had influence in South Africa because we refused to follow the madding crowd and impose sanctions. That meant that we were able to keep these highest level channels of private dialogue open with the Afrikaner leadership, and indeed with the ANC/SACP leadership exiled in Lusaka, keen to hear what we were saying to Botha and our impressions of what Pretoria was thinking.

Plus this way of spelling out British concerns privately, subtly and frankly helped our key messages hit the target: P W Botha would ignore letters from international leaders who had publicly thrown their support behind the Soviet-backed ANC/SACP.

That said, private top-level diplomatic messages have to be drafted especially well – they are serious business. This Thatcher one stands as a supreme example of the art, achieving a warm personal tone while explaining in a sophisticated, businesslike and even rather blunt way that standing still is going to do no-one any good.

Language that openly acknowledges the other side’s true concerns and suspicions (“this is the most difficult since it involves an outsider presuming to trespass on your affairs”) is always disarmingly effective.

Fine. But did it work to the point of getting Mandela out of prison? No. Of course not.

P W Botha was ready to end laws crudely discriminating between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, but he had no plan for negotiating seriously with the African majority to move to a new constitutional dispensation.

Margaret Thatcher knew that this was the core dilemma. She also knew that the Afrikaners would do best if they negotiated a new constitutional order from a position of strength. Her letter and other such messages were all about trying to get P W Botha to grasp that – and then act on it. An effort well worth making.

P W Botha left office after a heart attack in 1989. The Berlin Wall fell. The time came for radical new thinking around the planet. PW’s successor F W De Klerk soon moved to unban unconditionally the ANC/SACP and other ‘liberation’ movements. Had P W Botha stayed in office and presided over the inevitable transition to democracy, he would have driven a very different bargain.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw -- and also a diplomat in South Africa during the transition from Apartheid --  he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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