Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Lessons for today: UK Tory admits got it wrong on apartheid

Aaah, so many parallels with those some of our government “leaders” call “terrorists” today, and with trumpeted states practising apartheid …

· Tory leader dumps key Thatcher legacy
· Ex-PM’s allies attack ‘terrorists’ U-turn

Ned Temko, chief political correspondent | Sunday August 27, 2006 | The Observer

David Cameron dramatically denounced one of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship foreign policies last night, saying that she was wrong to have branded Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress as ‘terrorists’ and to have opposed sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Tory leader, who met Mandela in Johannesburg last week, made his most forceful break yet with the Thatcher years in an article written for today’s Observer. His remarks were welcomed by veterans of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, who engaged in a fierce political battle with Thatcher during the 1980s as violence escalated in South Africa’s townships while she resisted growing international pressure for sanctions to be imposed.

But his intervention drew sharp criticism from some of the ex-Prime Minister’s closest allies. Her former spokesman, Sir Bernard Ingham, said: ‘I wonder whether David Cameron is a Conservative.’

Describing Mandela as ‘one of the greatest men alive’, Cameron writes: ‘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.’

He adds that his ‘overwhelming impression’ on visiting a history museum in Soweto last week was ‘not how violent the armed struggle or Soweto uprisings were, but how restrained’.

Lady – then Mrs – Thatcher, in close alliance with American President Ronald Reagan, championed a policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with Pretoria in order to urge reform on a government which they saw as a bulwark against Soviet-backed radicalism.

To the fury of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, she described the ANC as ‘terrorists’. In 1987, she said that anyone who believed the ANC would ever rule South Africa was ‘living in cloud-cuckoo-land’.

Since becoming Tory leader under the campaign slogan ‘Change to win’, Cameron has occasionally sought to distance himself from the Thatcher era. In a reference to her controversial remark that ‘there is no such thing as society’, he has declared: ‘There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.’

In openly repudiating her South Africa policy, he has challenged her legacy in a political area which has a huge significance for both her supporters and foes.

Commenting on his article last night, the Thatcher-era cabinet minister and former party chairman Lord Tebbit told The Observer: ‘Because of his age, Mr Cameron is looking at these events as part of history. Others of us who lived through them and had input into the discussions at the time see things very differently. The policy of the Thatcher government was a success.

‘The result was an overwhelmingly peaceful transition of power in which the final initiative for the handover came not from foreigners but from native South Africans – and Afrikaner South Africans, at that.’

Another former minister, who did not wish to be named, said of the Cameron comments: ‘They are ignorant.’

Labour’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, who was a prominent anti-apartheid activist, reacted to the comments with a mix of scepticism and bitterness.

‘I remember Conservative students of David Cameron’s generation wearing “Hang Nelson Mandela” badges on campus,’ he said. ‘For those of us in the struggle – a bitter struggle, a life-and-death struggle – the Tories were the enemy as much as Pretoria.

‘If the change is for real, I’m glad. But I wonder how many Tories are behind this change in mood music.’ Mike Terry, long-time executive secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, said he felt ‘vindicated’ by Cameron’s shift. ‘The very fact he feels being seen with Nelson Mandela is going to influence his credibility is such a profound change, and a recognition of what South Africa has accomplished in the past 12 years in terms of transformation.’

Terry’s only concern was that ‘David Cameron does not just use the meeting as a photo opportunity, but will have listened to what Mandela has had to say – about the Iraq war, about the Middle East or about the need for resources to address HIV/Aids’.

A further welcome for Cameron’s initiative came from Shawn Slovo – the film-maker daughter of former ANC military chief Joe Slovo and his wife, the anti-apartheid activist Ruth First, who was murdered by the South African intelligence services in a parcel-bomb attack. ‘I feel pleased,’ she said. ‘I think: “You’re on the right side.” Discounting my scepticism, I would say I don’t know whether it could make me want to vote Tory, but that probably meeting Mandela was a very genuine attempt to pay his respects and to be on the right side.’

Cameron’s article also appears to represent an audacious bid to seize the issue of African aid and development from Gordon Brown, his probable adversary in the next general election. Although Cameron says he heard praise while in South Africa for Tony Blair’s ‘commitment to Africa’, he pointedly omits any reference to Brown. And he highlights the Tories’ determination to address the issue: ‘We will not have a safer, more prosperous world without a successful and sustainable Africa.’

He adds that he came away from his South Africa visit convinced that politicians must learn ‘patience’ and ‘humility’ in dealing with increasingly complex world issues and recognise that resolving them will require not just top-down decisions but long-term engagement at all levels of society.

His visit to South Africa, which came at the invitation of Nelson Mandela, also appears to mark the start of an effort to raise Cameron’s international profile and to position him, in the words of one senior aide, as a ‘potential Prime Minister in waiting’.

George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, is travelling to Japan this week and is scheduled to meet at least two cabinet ministers. He will then join Cameron in India, where they are expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and other leading Indian government figures.

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