February 2014: Did Margaret Thatcher Save South Africa?

Shortly after Nelson Mandela’s death on 5th December 2013*, a chap called F.W. de Klerk wrote an article in The Times saying that Margaret Thatcher had been right to resist sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s. He claimed that it would have been much worse if the South African government had been forced to release Mandela earlier than they did (in 1980, say, rather than 1990). My immediate response was to bristle – after all, Nelson Mandela was a hero, apartheid was bad and therefore Mr de Klerk is an ignoramus. Q.E.D! It struck me, however, that labelling people as “heroes” and “ignoramuses” and political systems as “bad” was rather simplistic and that what I should really do is find out a little more about the history and politics of South Africa before coming to a conclusion. This I have endeavoured to do.

The first thing is to unpick what Mr de Klerk was talking about. In 1962 the United Nations General Assembly called for economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. From 1980 a “Free Mandela” campaign focused international attention on Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment and there was a renewed call for sanctions. These were resisted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan who argued for “constructive engagement” until 1986. On 11th February 1990 Nelson Mandela was freed from prison and on 27th April 1994 a general election was held in which all adults could vote, regardless of skin colour and following which Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa.

The danger in a transfer of power is that there will be violence against the previous regime, disorder as the structures of government are dismantled, and a loss of skills and financial capital as fear and uncertainty drive people from the country. Mr de Klerk claimed that this transfer went more smoothly in the 1990s than it would have done in the 1980s. It is, of course, impossible to answer “what if” questions with any degree of certainty but in order to have a well-informed view I have looked into three relevant questions

  • What was the situation in South Africa in 1980?
  • What changed between 1980 and 1990?
  • What happened during the transfer of power in other, similar countries?

In order to understand the situation in South Africa in 1980 (or, indeed, to understand South Africa at all) it is necessary to look at a bit of history. The roots of apartheid are in slavery and colonialism but perhaps the most convenient starting point is the creation of the Union of South Africa on 31st May 1910. The Union of South Africa was a dominion of the British Empire formed from four separate provinces, each with their own history and background (see Figure 1):

  1. Cape Colony had been a British colony since 1806. It was by far the largest of the four provinces and was ruled according to the Cape Qualified franchise where all adult males who were sufficiently wealthy got the vote, irrespective of race. On paper this provided a platform for racial equality but in practice very few non-whites met the financial criteria. In addition to “Black” and “White”, Cape Colony had a large mixed race population which they called “Coloured”.
  2. Orange Free State had been an independent Boer (a white ethnic group descended from Dutch Farmers and generally Afrikaans-speaking) republic until the second Boer War when it was conquered by the British Empire. It had a very restricted voting system: “Indians” (actually any Asian or mixed race person) were not allowed to live in the republic and uitlanders (whites who were non-Boer) had restricted rights.
  3. Transvaal had also been an independent Boer state (the South African Republic) until the Second Boer War. The rights of non-Boers were also restricted: a law was passed in 1890 to deny uitlanders the vote. This was one of the reasons for the Second Boer War (another reason, and the reason there were so many uitlanders wanting to move to Transvaal, was that a large amount of gold had been discovered there – the Witwatersrand is one of the largest gold deposits in the world).
  4. Natal was a British colony. It was created when the Boer Natalia republic was forced to submit to annexation by the British Empire as a result of attacks from the Zulu kingdom. The Zulus were later defeated by the British and Zululand became part of Natal. Natal demographics were unusual in two respects: the majority of “Whites” were English speaking (in the other provinces Afrikaans was, and is, more common) and there is a significant “Indian” community of about 11% (including Mahatma Gandhi who campaigned against discrimination in South Africa before returning to India in 1915). 

 Map

 Figure 1: from www.sahistory.org.za

The union of South Africa was therefore very fragmented. Any brief description is doomed to be an over-simplification but for the purposes of understanding the later apartheid laws the main groups were Afrikaners (Boers) who ruled the Transvaal and Orange Free State, English-speaking “Whites” who ruled the Cape Colony and Natal, “Coloureds” (mixed race) and “Indians” (from all over Asia) who made up substantial minorities in Cape Colony and Natal respectively, and “Blacks” who were made up of many different linguistic and ethnic groups (South Africa now has nine official African languages) but who were lumped together with very few rights until the 1990s.

The first question for the new country was “who should be allowed to vote?” and, although there was a campaign to extend the Cape Qualified Franchise to the whole of South Africa, it was decided to leave this decision in the hands of the different provinces. This meant that it was only in the Cape Province that non-whites could be entitled to vote. During the 20th century the idea of democracy was broadened in many countries to include women and less wealthy men (before this only a small number of people had the vote. In the UK, for example, before 1918 only 60% of adult men and no women were entitled to vote). In South Africa this movement posed a threat to White minority rule (a principle that even the politicians of Cape Province were devoted to). Under Cape Qualified Franchise the white minority made up the majority of voters because they held most of the wealth of the country, but if votes were distributed regardless of financial consideration then power would move swiftly to the black majority. Discriminatory laws were passed (in 1931 the restrictions on voter eligibility were removed for “Whites” but not for other groups) and legal oppression started (in 1923 a law was passed requiring Black men to carry a permit whenever they went into a town or city – without one they could be arrested and returned to a rural area).

The major driving force behind the move from thoughtless or paternalistic racism to carefully constructed apartheid (which is an Afrikaans word meaning separateness) was the National Party. The National Party ruled South Africa from 1948, when it won a narrow victory on an apartheid platform, until 1994. The policy of apartheid was popular amongst some Whites who benefited from cheap agricultural labour or who were afraid of losing their jobs if Blacks were allowed to work freely in the cities. Between 1948 and 1980 a series of laws was passed to reduce the rights of non-White South Africans. The ultimate goal was for Blacks to be excluded from citizenship of South Africa and instead restricted to a collection of small “independent” homelands (or Bantustans: see Figure 2), whilst Indians and Coloureds were to be allowed a reduced citizenship of the White-ruled South Africa.

There was significant opposition to this policy both in South Africa and abroad. In 1961 South Africa became a republic (cutting ties with the British monarchy) and withdrew from the Commonwealth as a result of opposition to apartheid. In 1973 the UN adopted a convention defining apartheid as a crime against humanity and over this period a number of resolutions were passed condemning the policy. Meanwhile, the African National Congress (ANC) called for large scale actions against the government. These was initially peaceful but following the Sharpville massacre of 1960 (69 people were killed by the police) an armed group called MK started a campaign of sabotage. The ANC was banned in 1960 and, in 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested, tried and imprisoned. Other opposition came from the Progressive Federal Party, which proposed power sharing between Blacks and Whites, and from the church: Pope John Paul II and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were both outspoken opponents of apartheid.

This brings us to South Africa in 1980: an internationally isolated country whose ruling minority lived in fear of an armed uprising. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island and had recently resumed studying for a law degree after having lost his study privileges as a result of trying to write an autobiography. Desmond Tutu, Bishop of Lesotho, was briefly jailed for attending a protest. P.W. Botha was the Prime Minister: he believed that apartheid was necessary to stop the spread of communism across Africa. F.W. de Klerk (the author of the article I read) was Minister of Mines, Energy and Environmental Planning and so I should credit his views with being well informed (although they could be biased). At this point I shall make a brief pause and continue later in the month.

*5/12/13 the date of Mandela’s death is a Pythagorean triple because 52+122=132. If you are that way inclined (as I am) you can now remember the date and impress people with your obscure trivia knowledge for the rest of your life.



Was Thatcher right to oppose sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s?  In the hope of answering that question I have traced the history of Apartheid South Africa from the beginning of the 20th Century to 1980.  Even simplifying wildly (as I have), this has been rather a complex tale because the question "How on earth did they let it get like this?" has its answers rooted in deep insecurities, fears and factional grudges.

I shall now skip a decade to see how the country emerged from the mess it had got itself into. In 1989 President P.W. Botha suffered a stroke, resigned and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk. Despite a conservative reputation, F.W. de Klerk’s first speech as President called for a non-racist South Africa and soon afterwards he legalised the ANC and released Nelson Mandela from prison. Negotiations took up the next three years and were complicated by factionalism: what might appear to an outside observer to be a straight conversation between “White” and “Black” interests was much less simple. The Conservative Party (an opposition party in favour of retaining white rule and apartheid) won seats in parliament from the National party and there were violent demonstrations (the massacres at Bisho and Boipatong had a combined death-toll of 74). Eventually (following a final whites-only referendum) fully democratic elections were called on 27th April 1994.

AfricaIn the 1994 elections about twenty million people voted (out of a population of about forty million, a third of whom were children). The original four provinces have been divided into nine new ones (see Figure 3 from www.theodora.com) and elections are held for National and Provincial parliaments. In 1994, the ANC won over 60% of the vote with a majority in every province except for the Western Cape where the National Party dominated, and in Kwa-Zulu-Natal where the Inkatha Freedom Party gained the majority of votes. The National Party remained the largest of the “White” parties and came second in most provinces but the Inkatha Freedom Party was mostly restricted to Kwa-Zulu-Natal. These three parties combined to form a government of National Unity and Nelson Mandela was elected president.

Since 1994 South Africa has maintained its democracy with elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009. The ANC has won a majority of votes (and seats in parliament) in each of these elections. The elections later in 2014 will be the first where some of the Born Free generation (South Africans born after the end of apartheid in 1994) will have a vote. Nelson Mandela stepped down as president in 1999 and was replaced by Thabo Mbeki and then Jacob Zuma. During this time South Africa has hosted the Rugby and Football World Cups (the only time either event has been held on the African continent). Meanwhile the economy has grown (the GDP, per capita income and foreign reserves have all increased dramatically over the last 20 years).

It’s been a very impressive transition but it’s far from perfect: unemployment is high and there is a gulf between the rich and poor; crime is a prominent issue with an average of about fifty murders a day; and the country has suffered from an AIDS/HIV epidemic with more infections than any other country in the world. There are still tensions between the different racial groups with groups of both Zulus and Afrikaners calling for distinct independent homelands and Mandela’s successors as president have both been accused of poor judgement (Mbeki denied the link between HIV infection and AIDS, which hampered treatment of the disease and Zuma has been accused of both rape and corruption).

Would things, however, have been worse if the transition to democracy had taken place a decade earlier? There is certainly scope for it to have done: Zimbabwe’s white minority government was replaced in elections in 1980 but since then the country has been troubled by violence and economic decline. Robert Mugabe’s government has won each election since then although external observers have commented that the elections have been neither free nor fair. Botswana (which borders both Zimbabwe and South Africa) has, in contrast, enjoyed relative success since its independence in 1966. It has a fast-growing economy, democratic elections and improving education and literacy. I suggest that South Africa has been more like Botswana than Zimbabwe because of three factors:

  • In Nelson Mandela South Africa had a unifying leader. Mugabe alienated the Matabele minority in Zimbabwe whereas Mandela negotiated with groups such as the Afrikaners and the Zulus.
  • The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Desmond Tutu provided a forum for restorative justice.
  • The white minority, under the leadership of de Klerk, was in favour of the move (as demonstrated in the referendum of 1992).

 There were several changes between 1980 and 1990 that made a smooth transition more likely.

  • Nelson Mandela himself was arguably better placed in 1980 to perform his role (as he was 62 rather than 72 years old) but during the 1980s he was the focus of the anti-apartheid movement and his ability to act as a unifying figurehead for the Rainbow Nation (the phrase used by Tutu, and others, to describe post-apartheid South Africa) might have been greater as a result.
  • Desmond Tutu’s role and significance increased during this time. In 1984 he won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1986 he became the first black Archbishop of Cape Town (the leader of the Anglican church in Southern Africa). He was therefore able to act with authority during the transition period.
  • P.W. Botha was replaced as leader of the National Party by F.W. de Klerk. Botha was an outspoken opponent of black majority rule and in 1983 introduced new laws to provide separate houses of parliament for “Indians” and “Coloureds” whilst preventing the Black population from having any democratic role. De Klerk, however, took office with the clear intention of negotiating an end to apartheid (as a result, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nelson Mandela in 1993).

On the face of it, these points give weight to de Klerk’s claims but the biggest change (Botha’s resignation) was brought about as a result of the sanctions (eventually implemented in the US and UK in 1986). We now stray into the world of speculation. If Thatcher had implemented sanctions earlier would we have seen a smooth transition with a younger Nelson Mandela able to lead his country for longer or would he have been unable to act as a figurehead, leaving the situation fragmented? Would Tutu (or some other figure) have been able to bring restoration and reconciliation or would it have been impossible to bring about peace between the different factions? If apartheid had ended before the Cold War, would South Africa have become a powerful communist outpost in Africa? When Thatcher and Reagan decided to put off imposing sanctions did they have all this in mind? Sadly, but predictably, I don’t have an answer (except to that last question: it’s fairly clear to me that even if Thatcher did democratic South Africa a favour by holding back sanctions she can have had no idea that her actions would have such consequences): it turns out that Politics is hard. F.W. de Klerk thinks he has some answers and as a Nobel laureate and former President of South Africa I guess he’s as likely to be right about this as anyone.