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

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.

 

P W Botha and Margaret Thatcher in 1984.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Why the left shouldn’t abandon freedom of movement

Jeremy Corbyn is right to avoid making promises on immigration. 

Jeremy Corbyn was on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday morning, answering questions about policy ahead of his party conference speech.

The main line of questioning was on immigration, something Corbyn and his team have had to think hard about in recent months.

For over a decade, all parties have been trying to marry policy with popular opinion on Britain’s migrants. Brexit has exacerbated this dilemma, what with the UK’s participation in freedom of movement teetering on the rim of the dustbin of history.

The problem is a familiar one. Immigration is generally a good thing, but in the eyes of the majority of voters – and in reality in certain pockets of the country – it doesn’t look that way. But for a party seen as “soft” on immigration, pandering to the harder line of rhetoric from its opponents merely reinforces the perception that there is a big problem – and validates its opponents’ policies.

The Labour leader has angered some in his party by insisting he won’t be drawn into making “false promises” on immigration numbers. This is the right decision. The Tories’ targets are arbitrary, set them up to fail, and do little to quell public dissatisfaction with the number of migrants.

An inaccurate government headcount, whether it’s successfully brought down or not, doesn’t translate onto your street, or local schools, or queue at the doctor’s surgery – just as a politician’s reassurance about the positive net contribution from migrants doesn’t. The macro doesn’t satisfy the micro.

And Corbyn calling for a cap would not only be unconvincing to voters, but a betrayal of his supporters, who have projected their liberal politics onto him and love it when he champions migrants. Corbyn himself has never really been into free movement; he’s unconvinced by the benefits of the single market. Of course he is. He’s a eurosceptic, and a eurosceptic who is suspicious of capitalism, to boot.

But having a leader of a mainstream party sticking up for migrants is an important thing; someone’s got to make the positive case, and it’s not like Corbyn’s one to compromise for votes anyway. Particularly as he builds his whole reputation on being a “man of principle” and a “real alternative”.

Rather than “false promises”, Corbyn’s given us a number of false problems instead. He speaks about the effect of migration in terms of depressed wages and pressure on public services. If he were in government, he would reintroduce a “migrant impact fund” (amount unspecified) to make up for these.

The first problem with this is that Corbyn knows as well as Boris Johnson and Theresa May and George Osborne and Ed Miliband and Tony Blair and Caroline Lucas and everyone else who’s attempted to make policy on this does that, actually, migrants overwhelmingly come here to work. Indeed, he underlined his stance against scapegoating migrants in a passionate passage of his speech yesterday. They don’t “take” people’s jobs, and it is not the number of them that brings down wages or drives up rents.

Where wages are kept lower than the national average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find numerous agencies that pay them less than the minimum wage, fail to give them proper contracts, and often advertise jobs solely overseas. Where you find these agencies, you find businesses happy to turn a blind eye to their recruitment and employment practices.

Where rents are driven up higher than the local average by the presence of migrant workers, you will find landlords who are happy to make money from people willing to live ten to a house, share bedrooms and have a poor quality of life.

Boston – the town in Britain with the highest proportion of EU migrants after London – is a textbook study of this. A high level of workers is needed for agricultural and factory labour. They aren’t stealing people’s jobs, and unemployment is relatively low. But those who benefit financially from their presence, and take advantage, are the ones who cause the consequent negative social and economic conditions in the town. Conditions that led it to voting higher than anywhere else for Brexit.

So Corbyn’s “migrant impact fund” is a nebulous fix to a false problem that not even he believes in. Even the name of it sends the wrong message, making migration sound like a spate of bad flooding, or noise pollution.

It’s our light-touch enforcement of employment law, and murky regulation of exploitative agencies that slip through its net, which need government money and attention. Perhaps “shark impact fund” would be a better name for Corbyn’s fix-all pot of gold.

Giving councils extra funds for public services is priced into Labour policy already (if the party truly is anti-austerity) – and should not now be linked to a negative idea of migration in a tacked-on attempt to to make something palatable for voters. It’s a bit like Ed Miliband’s “Controls on Immigration” mug. Simply giving something a new name, or stamping on a motto, doesn’t wash with voters.

Those who argue that the country has voted against free movement, and we should accept it, that may be so. But it’ll do the Labour party little good campaigning to get rid of it. Once it’s gone, and we’ve replaced it with some kind of points-based system, places with high levels of migration will still have high levels of migration – because those are the places where jobs need filling. It’ll either be EU migrants who manage to stick around, or other immigrants drafted in out of necessity having been assessed under a points-based system. If investment in these areas isn’t ramped up, residents will still feel left behind, and will still see migrants around them as the cause.

So what about the many pro-Brexit areas where there is a very low number of immigrants? This really is irrelevant. The problem in these areas is the problem the country over: lack of funds. Unless you invest, people will remain unsatisfied. And if people remain unsatisfied, they will continue to look for something to blame. Unfortunately, Corbyn is joining the legions of politicians who are handing them that easy target. And he is least likely to see the electoral benefit of it.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.