Britain's debt to an extraordinary man

After the misguided and crass attacks of the Thatcher years, we owe a great deal to Nelson Mandela
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The Independent Online
In a hemisphere tired and cynical about its politicians, Nelson Mandela has a capacity to thrill denied every other democratic leader. The crowds which have lined up five-deep to catch a glimpse of the great man are a powerful testimony to that. So too were the staff of Downing Street who lined up to applaud his arrival yesterday - something never known there before.

This has been an emotional visit on both sides, and by the stately standards of how such events are normally planned, one arranged in a quite a hurry.

I'm told that the Queen, who has a famously warm attachment to Mandela, let it be known quite firmly that the South African President should be urged to come to Britain as soon as possible, after her own visit, rich in historic resonances, to South Africa last year. The result was the arrival within a year of a guest utterly determined to forgive and forget that it was Britain which alone among the Commonwealth countries stood out throughout the 1980s against the sanctions which finally toppled apartheid.

As it happens, John Major was never an enthusiastic disciple of Margaret Thatcher's remarkable capacity to underestimate and belittle the African National Congress. It's unlikely that he would ever have made the crass mistake - as she did in the Vancouver Commonwealth Conference battle over sanctions - of comparing Mandela's party with the IRA. This breathtaking comparison of a disenfranchised majority of a majority with a minority of a minority could only lend a spurious dignity to the IRA leadership.

The most significant act of Major's short stint as Foreign Secretary was trying to extricate Britain from the confrontation which Thatcher had persistently tried to engineer with the rest of the Commonwealth over South Africa.

In lengthy late-night negotiations at the 1989 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Conference, Major defused the explosive South Africa issue and a communique was produced which registered points of British disagreement but neverthless sounded a significantly more united note than at any time sine 1979.

Talking off the record the following morning a relaxed Major went out of his way to emphasise the new accord, and the governments' common determination to hasten the end of apartheid. Twenty-four hours later his warm words were brutally and humiliatingly obliterated by a typically strident Thatcher attack on the majority support for sanctions. Major has since told his authorised biographer, Penny Junor, that he was in total agreement with the Thatcher statement. That was scarecly credible then, and isn't now.

Thatcher's attitudes to Southern Africa weren't always simple. She was, finally and reluctantly, edged at the end of her premiership away from her stubborn faith in Chief Buthelezi by her able and imaginative Pretoria ambassador, Robin Renwick. It was Renwick who had the courage to convince her of the importance of Mandela and the ANC.

Nor is it surprising that Mandela should be so gracious about all this now. Even Thatcher was deeply struck by his "nobility of bearing" and utter lack of bitterness when she met him in London in 1990. But this didn't stop her from claiming that on economics Mandela was stuck in a 1940s "socialist time-warp."

But there is no sign that Major, who was at yesterday's CBI conference with Mandela, shares that view. Nor, more to the point, do the industrialists and bankers who turned up in such numbers that the conference had to be switched to a bigger venue.

And this is the rub. The visit is not just symbolic; it is of central economic importance to the new South Africa. Mandela desperately needs new investment for the economic growth the country needs to begin to satisfy the aspirations of those who so resoundingly swept him to power. Britain is the base for half the largest employers in South Africa and is already its largest investor by far.

The hard-headed businessmen who met him yesterday are worried about the pace of privatisation of the big state corporations; about the stability of a succession which he has already sought to bequeath to Thabo Mbeki; about crime, and about the exchange controls which Mr Mandela has so far been forced to maintain to stave off a flight of capital.

There are Tory consultants here who worked on the National Party campaign against Mandela in the elections and tried to expose the hidden costs of the ANC agenda. Now they compliment him on his fiscal responsibility. Diplomats also report that merchant banks are significantly more optimistic than some manufacturers about the long-term prospects for the economy.

In all this the Government no doubt has only a limited role. It dished out another pounds 60m in aid yesterday and is trying to persuade the EU to give South Africa more favoured status. It has lent Treasury and Ministry of Defence civil servants to assist with privatisation and the integration of South African armed forces. But it could probably do more: Mandela has been laying great emphasis in his talks here on education, not least for the generation that missed out in the 1980s because of the ANC schools boycott.

There are direct and crucial interests for Britain in the peaceful reconstruction of South Africa, and not just because around one million of its people would have the right to live here if the country started to disintegrate. No British government should ever forget the huge debt it owes this extraordinary man for the peaceful transition to democracy.