Did Thatcher save Mandela?

2013-04-14 10:00

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Ahmed Kathrada says the Iron Lady played a positive role during the Rivonia Trial

Did Margaret Thatcher play a role in helping to save Nelson Mandela’s life?

That is the remarkable claim made by one of the former South African president’s closest friends, Ahmed Kathrada.

“Her word did count – I’m sure of it,” Kathrada told me, on hearing of the death of Baroness Thatcher.

Between 1963 and 1964, Mandela was a defendant at the Rivonia Trial, accused of trying to overthrow the apartheid government.

Kathrada was one of nine other men in the dock with him.

The death penalty was sought by prosecutors, but the judge sentenced them to life imprisonment.

Mandela eventually spent 27 years in prison. Kathrada was released a few months before Mandela, in October 1989.

After the end of apartheid and the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994, Kathrada sometimes took visiting delegations and VIPs on guided tours of the notorious Robben Island jail where he and Mandela had been incarcerated.

“I had the opportunity to accompany (Thatcher) a few years ago,” said Kathrada.

“She assured me she’d played a positive role during our trial.

“We were expecting a death sentence. We were well aware that there was all sorts of pressure from South Africa and abroad – pressure from people not necessarily agreeing with the ANC’s policies,” he said.

At the time, Thatcher was a frontbench member of Parliament in Harold Macmillan’s government.

“I’m not interested in whether she was prime minister or whatever,” said Kathrada, when I quizzed him on the likelihood Thatcher was personally involved in any behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure on South Africa’s apartheid government.

“I had no reason to doubt what she was saying and it was good to hear she played a role.”

Thatcher was better known for her strong opposition to sanctions against the apartheid government, and for describing the ANC in 1987 as a “terrorist organisation”.

Mandela did not meet her on his first visit to London in 1990 after his release, but Kathrada insisted no grudge was held.

“We were quite aware (that she’d called us terrorists) but we had forgiven our oppressors, and Thatcher wasn’t one of our oppressors,” Kathrada said.

“Once we’d forgiven our oppressors – the national government and individuals – we didn’t find it difficult to forgive everybody who had different views from us.”

–BBC News. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

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