Margaret Thatcher wooed the South African government with promises of a “Marshall Plan for southern Africa” and helped “save” the independence of Namibia, according to newly released papers. The events they cover provide an insight into a March 1989 visit to Britain by the South African foreign minister, Pik Botha.
The documents, from the prime minister’s official papers, are now released as part of the regular transfer of declassified material to the National Archive. They shed new light on the British government’s approach to South Africa in the final years of the apartheid regime. Thatcher’s administration was consistently criticised through the 1980s for supporting the white minority government in Pretoria, declining to impose sanctions on it, and reportedly decrying the ANC as a “typical terrorist organisation”.
They also reveal just how serious South Africa’s financial predicament was as it attempted to negotiate an end to apartheid, and how the Thatcher government used the opportunity it presented to entice Pretoria into reforming the country and releasing Nelson Mandela. It did so by proposing a massive aid package for the whole region – a Marshall Plan-style rescue plan to keep southern Africa stable even as South Africa underwent enormous change.
This was a critical period for southern Africa. Talks with the African National Congress (ANC) had been underway for five years; negotiations over the future of Namibia – which South Africa ruled – had concluded with plans for the country’s independence. But South Africa, still the major player in the region, was rudderless.
In January 1989, South Africa’s president, PW Botha (no relation to Pik) had a stroke, and the following month, FW de Klerk took over as leader of the governing National Party – but he didn’t become president until September 1989. The region was at a crossroads, between peace and continued conflict, and yet South Africa was stuck between leaders.
It was at this moment that Pik Botha arrived in London for an hour-and-a-half meeting with Thatcher, an encounter from which all but their closest advisers were excluded. So sensitive were the issues that the material, officially classified Secret, carried this additional warning from her private secretary, Charles Powell: “Some of the material in this letter is highly sensitive. It should be given a very limited distribution.”
Plans for the independence of Namibia had been negotiated with the aid of the United Nations and signed in Geneva, but the situation was far from stable. This was the background to the Pik Botha visit. Thatcher’s advisers briefed her on how to handle the discussion:
You will want to stress how important it is that the [Namibian peace] agreement should be implemented meticulously. The prospects of avoiding further sanctions at CHOGM [the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] in October will depend very much on progress with implementation of the Namibia Agreement