JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Former British premier Margaret Thatcher’s staunch opposition to sanctions against the apartheid regime and her dismissal of Nelson Mandela’s ANC as a “terrorist” movement, ensure few South Africans are mourning her death.
A divisive figure even in her own country, Thatcher, who held power from 1979 until 1990, died on Monday aged 87 after suffering a stroke.
The news prompted little sympathy among South Africans, who continue to view her position on apartheid during those years as misguided, even though historical records have since painted a more nuanced picture of Thatcher’s stance.
“Not to speak ill of of the dead but Thatcher was a racist, ruthless capitalist and a general b(expletive). May she rest in peace,” tweeted Thato Moloto (@_TMlt), a Johannesburg resident.
In the 1980s, when the segregationist government imposed a state of emergency to suppress bloody anti-apartheid uprisings, Thatcher strongly opposed a drive within the Commonwealth to deepen sanctions against the white regime, arguing they would “only harden attitudes”.
And in one infamous remark, the “Iron Lady” in 1987 branded anti-apartheid hero Mandela’s African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation”.
Mandela, who was then serving a 27-year sentence in an apartheid jail, went on to become the country’s first black president and win the Nobel Peace Prize.
While in power, the uncompromising British prime minister cast herself as a “candid friend” of hardline apartheid president PW Botha.
She even invited him to the prime minister’s country retreat of Chequers in 1984 at a time when he was facing global isolation — but in private she pressed him to release Mandela and end apartheid, according to declassified letters.
Botha was later found by his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be complicit in “gross violations of human rights”.
The ruling ANC reacted diplomatically to her death on Monday, with ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu expressing “sadness” and noting that Thatcher “redefined British politics and public administration.”
The only hint of lingering resentment was an acknowledgement that “the ANC was on the receiving end of her policy.”
In a sign that ties softened over the years, Thatcher met with Mandela after his release from prison, and representatives of the ailing 94-year-old have been invited to her grand funeral ceremony on Wednesday.
But Thatcher’s legacy still provokes strong feeling among some ANC cadres.
“I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime,” ex-minister and ex-ANC activist Pallo Jordan told the Guardian newspaper.
Jordan accompanied Mandela on a visit to London in 1991, which included a meeting with Thatcher.
“Although she called us a terrorist organisation, she had to shake hands with a terrorist and sit down with a terrorist. So who won?” he said.
But the story behind Mandela and Thatcher’s meeting shows some of the complexities in her relationship with the South African regime and the ANC beyond the public rhetoric.
Leaked US diplomatic cables show Mandela had wanted to meet Thatcher early in 1990, but it was the ANC leadership — still angry with Thatcher — that vetoed the plan.
And ANC figures based in London were not only permitted to remain in Britain, but were afforded police protection.
Thatcher’s correspondence from the time shows her opposition to the ANC and tolerance for the white government was not quite the same as supporting apartheid.
In a series of letters to Botha in 1985, Thatcher repeatedly said her opposition to sanctions depended on Botha taking steps to “get rid of apartheid”.
“I have found myself to all intents and purposes alone in resisting (sanctions),” she wrote.
“I received a good deal of abuse in response, being accused of preferring British jobs to African lives, of being concerned with pennies rather than principles.”
“I have placed great weight on your assurance to me that you are taking steps to end all racial discrimination,” she wrote.
She also pressed Botha to free Mandela and when Botha did not move as quickly as Thatcher would like, she told him she was “disappointed, indeed dismayed” at his actions.
But whether Thatcher helped prop-up apartheid or slow-peddled against it by advocating engagement with the regime, it is a distinction without a difference to most South Africans.
With the notable exception of South Africa’s last apartheid-era president FW de Klerk, who will attend her funeral, and his white government colleagues, most in the country believe Thatcher found herself on the wrong side of history.