British government papers just made public (3rd January 2014) reveal that in 1984 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, while giving South Africa’s white supremacist leader P.W. Botha the privilege of the first high-level talks in the UK for more than twenty years, scolded his government for its racial policies. Briefing papers by British officials also underline the complicity of South African diplomats in break-ins and attacks on the London offices of organisations campaigning against apartheid. Martin Plaut has been to the National Archive at Kew to read the newly-released documents:

In June 1984 Margaret Thatcher welcomed South Africa’s P. W. Botha to Chequers. It was the first time a British Prime Minister had received a South African leader since Hendrik Verwoerd’s visit in 1961, when he led the country out of the Commonwealth. Mrs Thatcher 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 thirty year rule reveal, Mrs Thatcher did not waver in her opposition to Botha’s racial policies.

“Many people in Britain had relatives in South Africa. So that was a natural reservoir of goodwill,” the Prime Minister told her visitor at the opening of their meeting. “But our political attitude was affected by one enormous problem”:

“we felt strongly that peoples’ rights should not be determined by the colour of their skin. Particular repugnance was felt at the forced removal of blacks to new areas. We appreciate the great strategic importance of South Africa. Nor did we wish Communism to spread in Africa or elsewhere because to us Communism represented denial of human dignity.

Margaret Thatcher, photo Jay Galvin, Wikimedia Commons
Margaret Thatcher, photo Jay Galvin, Wikimedia Commons

Mrs Thatcher was warned she would have a tough guest when she entertained the South African leader on 2nd of June. The Foreign Office briefing described Pieter Willem Botha as “a hard, dour and belligerent professional Afrikaner politician.” Prime Minister since 1978, he “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.”

So why had the British government decided to meet him? London had not, at first, been on the Botha itinerary. His European tour took in West Germany, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Austria, Italy and the Vatican. The United States, under Ronald Reagan, was the one major Western power unwilling to host Botha, although they sent a detailed briefing to London on what to expect.

This was the height of the apartheid government’s rampage across southern Africa. Its troops had attacked targets all across the region and Pretoria had just forced Mozambique to sign the Nkomati accord expelling ANC fighters from its soil. The South Africans and the West agreed on one thing: the Cuban troops supporting the MPLA government in Angola in its fight against Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA movement were evidence of a spreading Soviet influence that had to be resisted. In Washington’s briefing on 29th and the withdrawal of the Cubans were linked – a position described as “of vital importance,” by the American Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker.

It is unlikely that Mrs Thatcher needed much persuading. Advice given to the Prime Minister more than a year earlier by special adviser on foreign policy, Sir Anthony Parsons, in a memo marked ‘Top Secret’, pointed in the same direction.

Discussing what he called “South African destabilisation of neighbouring African countries,” he had this to say: “This is stark evidence of the divergence between South African and Western interests. As the South Africans see it, if your neighbours are implacably opposed to your system of government and cannot be won round, it is better to render them economically weak and politically helpless. As I see it, this policy simply leads to opening the door to extremism and eventual Russian/Cuban penetration.”

When the British and South Africans met at Chequers there were three rounds of talks: formal discussions with all parties present, a meeting between foreign ministers and – the moment that Botha must have savoured – a forty minute tête-à-tête with Mrs Thatcher, without officials.

Questions of southern Africa were central to the Thatcher-Botha discussions, but little progress seems to have been made on the subject. Perhaps the most interesting interchange came after a remark by the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha. He is recorded as saying that whatever Namibian political parties might decide on a settlement in their country, South Africa would insist on the withdrawal of Cuban troops from the region. “This alien presence in its immediate vicinity was not to be tolerated. If necessary, South Africa, which was a regional power, would go to war.” Mrs Thatcher immediately replied, saying:

“it would be much better if that was avoided. Namibia might cost South Africa a lot now – but such a war would cost a lot more. Mr P. W. Botha agreed and said he was doing all in his power to avoid such a step, but in the last instance South Africa was prepared for it.”

Interesting as these exchanges are, they do not represent the most engaging subject illuminated in these papers. Both leaders focussed on the ongoing struggle for influence being waged in London by the ANC and the South African embassy. In the briefing notes Mrs Thatcher received from the Foreign Office, the section on ANC operations in London was 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 his tête-à-tête with Mrs Thatcher. “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.”

Mrs 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 1960’s the ANC tested out some of its bucket bombs, designed to spread leaflets in South Africa, on Hampstead Heath (1).

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 Mrs Thatcher.

Mrs Thatcher had another issue up her sleeve. If Mr Botha pressed her about the ANC, she had extensive evidence of attacks organised by the South African embassy against ANC and SWAPO 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 and indeed went much further, describing the bombing of the Anti-Apartheid Movement offices in London on 14th March 1982 (2).  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, the chairman of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, sent Mrs Thatcher a fulsome handwritten thank you letter, praising her stand. “It is impossible for me to thank you adequately for both the generosity of you reception to me and Mr Abdul Minty last Thursday and for your patience in listening,” he wrote. “At the same time I need hardly say how much your public statement on Television after the fateful meeting with Mr. Botha has done to give me encouragement and hope.” [emphasis in the original]

When the visit was over the Foreign Office was able to report from South Africa that Mr Botha had been “delighted with the courtesy and respect with which he was everywhere received, even though European leaders were careful to maintain a certain reserve in their public welcoming.” In reality the visit marked something of a high-watermark for the apartheid government – a breach in the wall of international isolation that increasingly surrounded the regime. A success that was not repeated. Yet the warmth of the welcome and the assurance that Pretoria had Western friends perhaps played some part in encouraging a measure of flexibility in the regime. Mrs Thatcher’s reception at Chequers may have helped build confidence, allowing Botha’s successor, F. W. de Klerk, to make the fateful decision to release Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and finally signal the end of apartheid.

Martin Plaut was born and educated in South Africa and actively involved in the resurrection of the non-racial trade union movement before moving to Britain in 1977. He was Africa Secretary with the Labour Party until joining the BBC in 1984, reporting on Africa and retiring as Africa Editor, BBC World Service in 2013. He is currently with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

Note: the papers are to be found at the National Archive in the file PREM 19/

(1)  London Recruits: The Secret War Against Apartheid, compiled and edited by Ken Keable, with an introduction by Ronnie Kasrils and a foreword by Z. Pallo Jordan, Merlin Press, London, 2012

(2)  http://sabctrc.saha.org.za/reports/volume2/chapter2/subsection43.htm

Here are links to the coverage of the Thatcher-Botha papers in the New Statesman, The Times, the Mirror, Huffington Post UK, the Times Live website in South Africa

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