Prime minister David Cameron led the world’s tributes to Nelson Mandela last night, as news of his death confirmed what most of us have been expecting for months. He said: “A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time.” Worthy sentiments that most of us would agree with.
However, I can’t help but think that Mr Cameron’s praise is in part a device to rewrite the Conservative Party’s history with regard to one of the world’s towering figures. After all, no one should forget how his party branded Mandela as a terrorist during his 27 years as a political prisoner, nor Margaret Thatcher’s apparent role in propping up the apartheid regime.
But Mr Cameron’s revisionism might have a greater personal element than many might think. It is claimed, for instance, that he was involved in an anti-sanctions fact-finding mission while a member of a policy unit at Conservative Central Office in 1989. The unit had close links with a pro-apartheid lobby firm sponsored by South African prime minister PW Botha.
‘Hang Nelson Mandela’
It is also suggested he was involved in the production of a poster, which read: “Hang Nelson Mandela and all the ANC terrorists. They are butchers.” The hang Nelson Mandela slogan also adorned badges worn by members of the Federation of Conservative Students in 1985.
Mrs Thatcher was the first British prime minister in 23 years to host an apartheid head of state, during a period in which she stubbornly resisted pressure at home and abroad to impose tough economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. In 1987, when questioned about the ANC’s campaign of resistance, she said: “This shows what a typical terrorist organisation is.”
However, there are also many instances where Mrs Thatcher condemned apartheid, and was known to have privately and repeatedly lobbied for Mandela to be freed. Botha says that, acting as a friend to South Africa, she was pivotal to Mandela’s eventual release.
Indeed, the last apartheid president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, praised Mrs Thatcher for her personal support and involvement, adding: “I am honoured to have had Margaret Thatcher as a friend.”
‘Nelson Mandela should be shot’
Of course, there were many leading Conservatives who preferred a less nuanced line on the soon-to-be South African president. For some years, those among Tory ranks peddled the ‘Mandela-is-a-terrorist’ line, including one of her most loyal supporters, the ‘Chingford skinhead’, Norman Tebbit.
There were loads of others, too, a selection of which are helpfully quoted in today’s Independent:
“This hero worship is very much misplaced” – John Carlisle MP, on the BBC screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990.
“How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?” – Terry Dicks MP, mid-1980s.
“Nelson Mandela should be shot” – Teddy Taylor MP, mid-1980s.
So David Cameron’s comments are befitting of a prime minister reflecting this country’s regard for one of history’s most inspiring political figures. But even his warm tributes and past apologies for Conservative attacks on Mandela during those dark years cannot fully dissolve our cynicism about his true intentions today.