Tuesday 10 December 2013

Mandela And Thatcher

In the coverage of the passing of Mandela, inevitably there has been some comment, informed and otherwise on the nature of his and Thatcher's role in the transition of South Africa from an Apartheid State with rigorous segregation and rule to a form of democratic state.

As ever, there are deficiencies in the historical and personal perspective to this.  Using an idea from the last blog, they were both born into the last cohort of The Old World, Mandela in 1918 and Thatcher in 1925. 

Who did they know as young people and what did they talk about?  Mandela in his community could hardly avoid it and Thatcher as a grocer's daughter in the shop would have met all sorts of people. 

They would have both grown up in communities where there were older people around with recollections and personal experience of The Boer War of 1899 to 1902 and the consequences. 

I recall being with people born in the 1860's and after, so it is possible that both of them might have had some sort of personal contact with the few survivors of those born just before then and in a different and violent world.

Mandela was of tribal origin, the Xhosa, a person of high standing born of descent to Kings, Chiefs and heroes within his community.  Thatcher's father was prominent only in the provincial community of Grantham.  The generations before had numbered shoemakers, whose leadership was within the working classes of the Midlands. 

But both were well outside the ruling elites of their youth in South Africa and Britain, yet each became geographically and educationally near to them, Mandela in his schooling and university in South Africa and Thatcher in her ascent to Oxford University.  More to the point, Thatcher's home had Belton House along the road, favoured by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and his friends as a centre of royal fashion and fun.  It is likely that some hot gossip crossed shop counters.

Mandela was wholly unable to trust the then ruling Afrikaner class and their attitudes in South Africa despite his rise to prominence and as a leader.  Thatcher, in turn, had a great deal of trouble with the Tory Grandees in her own party, some with a vengeful and spiteful disposition.

In how they saw violence it might not have been the same but their knowledge was enough to know the destructive and long term damage that could result in armed conflicts.  Wikipedia has an article on The Xhosa Wars that says that between the last part of the 18th Century and the end of The Boer War there was virtually a Hundred Years War of persistent conflict among the many groups in South Africa.  Mandela must have been fully aware of this history.

Thatcher on the other hand would have been dealing with many families who had lost men in World War One, with widows and spinsters who had lost their men as well as the many crippled, blinded and injured men who had served.  Quite what her own families losses were I do not know.

In the Second World War, the area around Grantham was a huge armed camp with troops of all nations waiting and training for the 1944 Normandy Landings.  I knew men of the US 82nd Airborne and the Polish Airborne divisions.  Also, there were the many airfields with daily and nightly large scale movements of bombers and fighters. 

Before then she would have heard the German Luftwaffe heading for Coventry and the Midlands as well as other targets, at times almost on a nightly basis, as in late 1940. After then she would have seen the news reels depicting the full horrors of the time and been aware of the collapse of economies and communities across Europe.

Neither Mandela nor Thatcher therefore would have needed much briefing or advice on the subject of war, violence and the potential results.  They were both intelligent people attempting to deal with high risk politics in a Cold War world with all its uncertainties.

It is my view that critically, both had some idea of complex situations from their education and backgrounds.  Also, and of crucial importance that they both realised that the pre-conditions existed in South Africa for a dangerous and damaging collapse of society with serious violence.

It was their mutual recognition that it was not a simple matter of White v Non White as too many saw it.  Among all the groups were many sub-groups with differing ideas and ambitions any of whom might provide the trigger for far greater problems.

Mandela recognised that because of the pariah status of Apartheid South Africa it was dangerous and difficult to find a broker to deal with the Afrikaners and associated Whites.  Thatcher, the shopkeeper's daughter, had left the door open to South Africa, Britain then could not afford the losses of trading income or assets..

By the chances of events and international politics she was only person able to do the job of establishing mutual ground with the White elite and to bring them round to a new understanding of their situation.  It is called Realpolitik and it takes an able and perceptive person to understand this and make use of it as Mandela did.

Thatcher for her part, whatever she might have or have not thought, recognised that as far as the Non-Whites were concerned, Mandela and the ANC were the only entity able to manage a relatively peaceful transition that might provide the basis for a state with a rule of law and functioning representative government. Above all she did not want a communist regime.

The world has moved on and those from The Old World are now all gone from power replaced by people with very different attitudes and ambitions.  Also, there are other problems arising.  Rapid population growth, pressure on agriculture and the land, the question of who owns the primary mineral resources, energy supply, water supply and another generation wanting to remove that which followed Mandela and Thatcher.

It is going to take more than a Mandela or a Thatcher to deal with these and the chances are that their realisation of what violence involved and the collapse of societies and intergroup warfare is not shared by some of those claiming to be among their followers.
It is not that Mandela or Thatcher were either saints or giants.  It is that their successors seem to be intellectual dwarfs whose knowledge and thinking is dominated by media releases, photo opportunities, personal gain and spinning the story away from truth or reality.

1 comment:

  1. "It is not that Mandela or Thatcher were either saints or giants. It is that their successors seem to be intellectual dwarfs whose knowledge and thinking is dominated by media releases, photo opportunities, personal gain and spinning the story away from truth or reality."

    Spot on. We aren't asking for saints or giants either - merely some decency and common sense gained from a few decades of worthwhile experience beyond the committee room.