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What really happened when Margaret Thatcher met South Africa's P W Botha?

Thatcher and Botha met at the height of the apartheid government in 1984 - a crucial breach in South Africa's international isolation. But papers released under the 30 year rule reveal that Thatcher did not waver from her opposition to Botha’s racial poli

P W Botha and Margaret Thatcher in 1984.
P W Botha and Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

In June 1984 Margaret Thatcher received South Africa’s P W Botha at Chequers – the first British Prime Minister to receive a South African leader since 1961. She did so in the face of fierce opposition from the anti-apartheid movement and some of Britain’s key friends in Africa, including Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda. But – as papers released under the 30 year rule reveal – Mrs Thatcher did not waver from her opposition to Botha’s racial policies and gave him little to take back to South Africa. Despite this, the visit, which was part of a nine-nation European tour, marked something of a high-watermark for the apartheid government; a breach in the international isolation in which they found themselves.

Thatcher was warned she would have a tough guest when she entertained the South African leader at Chequers on 2 June. The Foreign Office briefing described Pieter Willem Botha as “a hard, dour and belligerent professional Afrikaner politician”. Prime Minister since 1978, he had “only just avoided being detained as a Nazi sympathiser” during the Second World War and was a man with “a reputation for a quick temper, and intolerance of criticism”.

The visit had been won through brute force: South Africa was fighting across southern Africa. A year earlier Thatcher's special adviser on foreign policy, Sir Anthony Parsons, had told her in a top secret memo that South Africa was engaged in what he called “destabilisation of neighbouring African countries”.

From Zambia to Lesotho Pretoria’s troops had attacked ANC bases, training camps and supporters. Its soldiers were fighting Angolan government forces backed by the Cubans and Soviets.

The Zambian President, Kenneth Kaunda, sent Thatcher a personal message just prior to the Botha visit, asking her not to receive the South African Prime Minister. Kaunda argued that while he and Mozambique’s Samora Machel had been forced to meet the South Africans, the British were not facing the same onslaught. “President Machel and I had no choice but to meet Mr. Botha in order to lessen the pressure on us,” he wrote.

These regional conflicts were central to the Thatcher-Botha discussions, but they are the not the most revealing element in the papers. Both leaders focused on the ongoing struggle for influence being waged in London by the ANC and the South African embassy. In the briefing notes Thatcher received from the Foreign Office, the section on ANC operations in London were heavily underlined in red and black ink.  “Neutralisation of ANC key target of South African foreign policy,” she was told. “ANC office in London said by South African Government to be nerve centre of terrorist activities.”

This was a key issue raised by Botha in the 40-minute tête-à-tête held at Chequers without officials being present. “Mr Botha asked that the ANC office in London should be closed,” reveals the note written after the meeting. “The Prime Minister said that we could not do this under our law, and there was no evidence that the office personnel had been guilty of illegal activities.” 

Thatcher’s stand was based on her Foreign Office briefing. “A thorough examination of all available information has revealed no evidence to support allegations of unlawful activity by ANC members here, including the linking of the London ANC office with active terrorism. Its main function remains what it has always been; publicity and propaganda.” As it happens the briefing was not absolutely accurate. We now know that from as early as the late 1960s the ANC tested out some of its bucket bombs, designed to spread leaflets in South Africa, on Hampstead Heath.

The papers reveal one small, but important change in British thinking. This was over Joe Slovo, the ANC and South African Communist Party leader, who had a home in Camden. The Foreign Office described him as being “top of the South African hit list.” Slovo was “. . .reputed to have been the mastermind behind ANC sabotage and to be a KGB officer.” Slovo had indefinite leave to remain in Britain although he seldom actually lived here. He held Home Office travel documents. “FCO has asked the Home Office to review these facilities critically.” This remark was underlined twice and highlighted in the margin by Thatcher.

But Thatcher had another issue up her sleeve. If Botha pressed her about the ANC, she had extensive evidence of attacks organised by the South African Embassy against ANC and SWAPO’s offices in London. The British had uncovered just what Stefanus Botha, the Embassy’s First Secretary, had been up to. “We have evidence of involvement by him and other intelligence officers in the break-in at AAM (Anti-Apartheid Movement) offices in May 1983,”  said the Foreign Office. Another letter – also from the Foreign Office – concludes that there was “incontrovertible evidence” that another member of the Embassy staff, Warrant Officer Klue, broke into SWAPO and ANC offices. He was withdrawn from London following British pressure.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission later confirmed the accuracy of these accounts, although they went much further, describing the bombing of the Anti-Apartheid offices in London on 14 March 1982.

The plastic explosive for the bomb was smuggled into London in a diplomatic bag and those involved in the operation were decorated with the Police Star for Excellent Service. The operation was given the go ahead by the Minister of Law and Order, Louis le Grange, in reprisal for the involvement of British subjects in the ANC rocket attack on the Voortrekkerhoogte military base near Pretoria in 1981.

The Botha visit of 1984 satisfied all sides. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, sent Mrs Thatcher a fulsome handwritten thank you letter, praising her stand. The Foreign Office was able to report after the visit that Botha had been “delighted with the courtesy and respect with which he was everywhere received, even though European leaders where careful to maintain a certain reserve in their public welcoming.” Botha and his colleagues had won a small reprieve and a sense that they could still get a sympathetic hearing from western allies. At the same time they were left with no illusion about the need to end racial discrimination. In reality the trip did not halt the rising growing tide of international opposition to apartheid; rather it underlined for South Africa’s white rulers the need to bring about the changes that would finally see Nelson Mandela walk free less than six years later.