As the news of Nelson Mandela’s death broke, there were inevitable reminders from the left – and some on the right – that the Conservative Party’s stance towards the apartheid regime in South Africa during the 1980s was not, to say the least, something its current members would be happy with.
Most infamously, there were the “Hang Nelson Mandela” posters, pamphlets, badges, and songs. One image in particular – you can see it above – contains two particular allegations about David Cameron’s time as a young Tory in the 1980s. You can see it being passed around on Twitter right now.
The first claim is untrue. The “Hang Nelson Mandela” merchandise was produced by a faction of the notoriously extreme Federation of Conservative Students, an organisation that was fiercely libertarian and anti-communist. Former member Harry Phibbs – now a councillor for Hammersmith & Fulham – said its members were often frustrated that “the Thatcher government wasn’t Thatcherite enough”.
In 1985, when the image above was created, Cameron would have been 19, and by all accounts he was pretty uninterested in politics while at university. He wasn’t close to being a part of the FCS, let alone a “top member” of the Tory party’s most radical youth group. Phibbs has explained to the Independent that the images were created by a small splinter faction as a parody of the “Free Nelson Mandela” badges that many left-wing students were wearing at the time – there’s no evidence that Cameron was part of this faction.
Phibbs, by the way, also wrote an article for the FCS paper in 1986 alleging that Harold McMillan was a war criminal for cooperating with the Soviet Union in WWII, a charge so ridiculous that it gave the thoroughly fed-up Norman Tebbitt no choice but to shut the FCS down.
The second charge, that Cameron took an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa in 1989 while working on policy for the Conservatives, and that it was paid for by a lobbying company that opposed sanctions, is true. Many Tories opposed sanctions during the 1980s, something a lot of them – including Cameron – have regretted since then.
In 2006, he said:
The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now. The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC, it is because of them – and we Conservatives should say so clearly today.
It’s your choice how much you wish to believe the sincerity of his apology for what was a murky time in the Conservative Party’s recent past, but he has apologised.