Thatcher and the ANC as ‘terrorists’

In the many reflections on the life of Nelson Mandela, several commentators have pointed out that both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan opposed sanctions being placed upon South Africa and that these neo-liberal warriors both regarded Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) as ‘terrorists’. Some of Thatcher’s defenders have questioned this and using this secret letter written to P.W. Botha in 1985, have argued that Thatcher was in favour of releasing Mandela from prison and all she was guilty of was resisting sanctions.

Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela meeting at 10 Downing Street in 1990. Which one was the 'terrorist'?
Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela meeting at 10 Downing Street in 1990. Which one was the ‘terrorist’?

I was interested in discovering whether Thatcher did refer to Mandela or the ANC as ‘terrorists’ and have tried to piece together Thatcher’s (and the Tories’) position towards the ANC in the 1980s. The interview where Thatcher argued that the ANC was a ‘typical terrorist organisation’ took place in Vancouver in October 1987 during a press conference at a Commonwealth Summit. In response to a question about Britain giving financial assistance to the ANC, Thatcher said:

…the ANC says that they will target British companies. This shows what a typical terrorist organisation it is. I fought terrorism all my life and if more people fought it, and we were all more successful, we should not have it and I hope that everyone in this hall will think it is right to go on fighting terrorism. They will if they believe in democracy…

I will have nothing to do with any organisation that practices violence. I have never seen anyone from ANC or the PLO or the IRA and would not do so. Nor will we have any truck with any of the organisations; we never negotiate with hostage taking or anything like that. But please, I hope you will fight terrorism and violence and not in fact embrace it.

When asked about this statement the following year, Thatcher repeated the charge of the ANC indulging in ‘terrorism’ and that the ANC was a similar organisation to the PLO:

I said that the ANC had threatened our companies in South Africa; they had threatened to attack them because of the attitude which I was taking in Vancouver and that that was of a kind of terrorism which we had seen elsewhere and I do not accept violence as a means of bringing about political change…

Britain does not recognise the ANC as the sole representative of people in South Africa. We do not have contacts at Cabinet level with the ANC, other than when we happen to be in the Chair at Europe. That it is in keeping with our view with regard to the PLO and other organisation. There are other contacts at official level and sometimes at junior ministerial level.

The ANC in other words, is treated on all fours with something like the PLO.

In Hansard, there are other examples of Tory politicians calling the ANC a terrorist organisation. In 1986, Ian Lloyd stated that the radio broadcasts made by the ANC from Addis Ababa (where an exile base was located) were ‘the most vicious incitement to terrorism that anyone could wish to read’. His fellow Tory MP Lynda Chalker commended Lloyd on his comment and proclaimed:

I am well aware, as my hon. Friend must be, that wherever terrorism occurs it must be condemned, whether it comes from the ANC or terrorists in any other part of the world. Terrorism is terrorism from whomsoever it comes.

The following year, John Gardiner stated that the ANC had ‘institute[d] a reign of terror in the townships, egged on by leaders such as Winnie Mandela’. Lastly, in 1988, John Carlisle accused a Labour MP of flirting with ‘terrorist organisations such as the African National Congress’ and criticised the non-stop protest against apartheid that was being conducted in Trafalgar Square at the time. (Gavin Brown has written more about Carlisle’s speech here)

In several instances, the Thatcher Government argued that it wouldn’t deal with ‘terrorist’ organisations, but were prepared to open talks with the ANC if it renounced violence, such as this statement from 1985. However, when pushed by figures on the fringes of the right, such as Orange Order MP Andrew Hunter, Thatcher made a distinction between the ANC and the IRA (which was a proscribed organisation at the time), saying:

…the other organisations that he has mentioned [ANC and SWAPO] are not proscribed in this country. Therefore, the tradition is that anyone is free to express his political views, provided that he does so within the law. Of course, we condemn violence from whatever quarter it comes in South Africa. The only way in which progress can be made is by peaceful negotiation.

So it seems that publicly Thatcher and the rest of the Conservative Government wanted to be seen as vehemently against the ANC and likened their actions to ‘terrorism’, but were secretly pursuing talks between the ANC and Botha Government. The archival documents for 1984-1985 should be released over the next 12 months (and then 1986-1987 in 2015-16), which will hopefully give us insight into the Tory position on the ANC and their relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s.

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