Sir Anthony Reeve: Ambassador to South Africa who became close to Nelson Mandela despite Margaret Thatcher's opposition to UN sanctions


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The Independent Online

Anthony Reeve arrived in South Africa in July 1991, at an unprecedented and particularly uncertain moment in that country's history.

Nelson Mandela had been released from prison a year earlier, but clearly there would be many tense moments ahead before a lasting settlement might be reached. The African National Congress had not been enamoured of Margaret Thatcher's opposition to UN sanctions, so that one of Reeve's most important priorities was to establish whether he would receive a frosty reception from Mandela.

To his huge relief Mandela instantly showed himself willing to make a fresh start, and indeed maintained a close relationship with Reeve during his six years first as Ambassador and later as High Commissioner, when South Africa were readmitted to the Commonwealth.

"I met Nelson Mandela during my first week as ambassador," Reeve was to recall. "The meeting was quite brief but there was an invaluable outcome: he gave me two telephone numbers. One of them never seemed to work but the other, as I soon discovered, was usually answered by him. The first time I dialled was about eight in the morning and a male voice said Mandela had gone out. When would be a good time to catch him? Five am, came the reply. It took me a while to realise that Mandela was still working prison hours."

In the years that followed Reeve busied himself doing what he could to ensure a peaceful transition as South Africa went through the extremely delicate business of consigning apartheid to the past and shifting power from the National Party to the ANC. He was not a dominant figure in that extremely sensitive time, and Britain did not play a central role in the negotiations. But as a skilled and patient diplomat he established trust with most of the important elements, hosting many encounters at his residence during what he called "knife-edge years."

Described as self-effacing, in a sense he did exactly what it said on the tin. He outlined his approach within months of his arrival, declaring: "We are not required to act as go-betweens – I am delighted to say South Africans of all political persuasions are now talking to each other. But what we can do is to play the role of the interested and I hope informed outsider, and by sympathetic questioning to encourage all the parties to explain their policies to the country at large and to the world outside."

Putting this into effect, he established contacts with major players such as FW de Klerk and Chief Buthelezi. Working with de Klerk posed a particular challenge, since he had a personal detestation of apartheid.

Born in Yorkshire in 1938, Reeve moved to Gloucestershire and later read English at Merton College, Oxford. After joining the Foreign Office following a career in industry, he trained as an Arabist, serving in the Middle East. After a period at the British Embassy in Washington from 1973-78, he became Head of the FCO's Arms Control and Disarmament Department. He served again in the Middle East in the early 1980s. From 1984 to 1986 he was head of the Southern Africa Department of the Foreign Office, before becoming ambassador to Jordan, a posting that took in the first Gulf War.

His appointment to the Southern Africa desk was a particularly testing post since Thatcher, adamantly against sanctions, found herself in conflict with the weight of western opinion. With his prime minister as so often unfazed by isolation, Reeves dutifully did what he could to soothe over international differences.

He also had a bit of a brush, on financial rather than ideological issues, with her successor, John Major. Surveying the splendid Cape Town residence for the first time, he admired its swimming and tennis facilities and quipped: "I have learnt a lot in a few hours. For example that the British high commissioner lives in unimaginable luxury – and we pay for it."

The remark led on to a minor campaign, spearheaded by Treasury Minister Jonathan Aitken – himself used to a life of luxury – to cut back on the Foreign Office's more lavish premises around the world. Then there was an incident in which the official Cape Town car was involved in an accident: questions were asked about why Reeve had a Rolls Royce – albeit a 10-year-old one – at a time when the Prime Minister had to get by with a Jaguar.

Reeve had a life outside politics and diplomacy. He could sing and he could write, performing with the Gloucestershire Choral Society and writing two novels about diplomats which were described, perhaps surprisingly, as slightly salacious. In retirement he took two Open University degrees, in humanities and classical studies. Appointed KCMG in 1992 and KCVO three years later, he served on the boards of a number of companies associated with South Africa.

His first marriage, to Pamela Angus, lasted from 1964 to 1988, while his second, in 1997, was to a South African sports marketing businesswoman, Susan Doull.


Anthony Reeve, diplomat: born Yorkshire 20 October 1938; CMG 1986, KCMG 1992, KCVO 1995; married 1964 Pamela Angus (divorced 1988, died 2007; two daughters, one son), 1997 Susan Doull (two stepchildren); died 6 November 2014.