South Africans who were eager for change weren’t the only ones disappointed by then state president PW Botha’s Rubicon speech in 1985.
One of South Africa’s only friends in the world at the time, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was also underwhelmed by the speech – and, newly declassified letters reveal, started pushing Botha harder to release Nelson Mandela from prison.
Botha, nicknamed “Die Groot Krokodil”, was widely expected to announce reforms in his speech after a year that saw South Africa fall into an almost perpetual state of emergency.
Battles involving South African troops were also fought in countries in the region, including Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and Angola.
In secret letters between Thatcher and Botha, released this week by the British government under its rule of releasing classified documents after 30 years, the relationship between the two leaders is laid bare.
Thatcher has often been criticised for opposing economic sanctions against South Africa, but a “secret and personal” letter from the Iron Lady to Botha shows she was engaged in a spot of silent diplomacy.
The letter was written after a Commonwealth summit in the Bahamas in October 1985, where an Eminent Persons Group was established to visit South Africa and the region to identify a way forward.
The Nassau Accord called on South Africa to dismantle its apartheid policy, begin negotiations and end its occupation of Namibia.
Thatcher told Botha she resisted the call for “extensive trade and economic sanctions” by 45 countries against South Africa at the summit, but needed him to cooperate with the Eminent Persons Group.
She told him his Rubicon speech “did not match expectations” and that he had to take further action towards reform.
“The release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake,” she wrote.
But in a letter to her before the meeting, dated October 4 1985, Botha appeared irritated by any suggestion that Mandela should be released.
“While violence in South Africa continues, I earnestly request you not to call for the release of prisoners who refuse to renounce violence or, in the case of prisoners like Mr Mandela, have also specifically renounced negotiation as a process to pursue in the search for a solution to the problems of this country,” he wrote.
He went on to say that violence in South Africa was too much of an emotional subject to let “individuals who believe in and propagate violence lose [sic] on our society”.
The notoriously stubborn Botha added: “I do not want to incarcerate them but while there is a civilised alternative to violence and they choose to reject that alternative, I have no alternative.”
Botha argued further that increased economic sanctions would place ever more pressure on South Africa and ultimately make negotiations difficult.
He said the world should leave South Africa “in peace” to negotiate.
Botha said he had already adopted reforms “nothing short of dramatic”.
These included the repealing of the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act and the desegregation of public amenities including parks, hotels, restaurants, trains and buses.
The two leaders first met in 1984 at the beginning of Botha’s second term, amid opposition from African leaders like Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda.
It was a British prime minister’s first meeting with a South African leader since 1961.
Thatcher also met with Desmond Tutu, then a bishop and prominent anti-apartheid figure, in October before the Commonwealth summit.
According to confidential minutes taken of the meeting, Tutu told Thatcher Botha’s Rubicon speech in August “had left everyone disillusioned”.
Tutu still “saw an outside chance of resolving the crisis peacefully” but, in contrast to Botha, said this needed “considerable political, diplomatic and economic pressure by the international community”.
Thatcher told Tutu that before negotiations could happen, perhaps in the form of a “constitutional convention”, the state of emergency needed to be lifted and Mandela needed to be released.
The two seemed unable to agree on which representatives from the black community should be involved in the negotiations. They differed about the need for sanctions, with Thatcher opposing these.
Another confidential document, dated September 24 1985, describes a meeting between Thatcher and Harry Oppenheimer, who was “probably the most important nongovernment white in South Africa”, according to British investment banker Lord Rothschild, who offered to set up the meeting in his flat.
Oppenheimer was sceptical about negotiating with the ANC. “On the central issues, they had shown themselves entirely unrealistic,” the document says he told Thatcher.
He said he did not believe the ANC had “majority support among blacks in South Africa” and the government should start talks with “such black representatives as would agree to take part, leaving aside the ANC”.