What Theresa May said in South Africa is an insult to everyone who protested apartheid

When she said she was proud of what 'the British government had done', did she mean when members of her party called for Nelson Mandela to be hanged? When Margaret Thatcher called him a terrorist? Or perhaps when David Cameron had a trip paid for by an anti-sanctions lobbying firm?

Ash Sarkar
Wednesday 29 August 2018 18:04
Theresa May refuses to say what she did to help Nelson Mandela's release

You've got to hand it to him: when Michael Crick is on form, there’s no one better at administering the kind of torturous questioning that leaves senior politicians clammy and mumbling, and viewers peeking between fingers at an interview that more resembles the grisly aftermath of a medieval saint’s martyrdom.

And so it was during Theresa May’s much-vaunted trip to South Africa (which, aside from a rebadged EU trade deal and footage of the prime minister shuffling anxiously like someone who’s misplaced all their mates at Creamfields, hasn’t produced much) when the veteran political correspondent stepped up to question her. Specifically, he asked what she did personally in the 70s and 80s to secure Nelson Mandela’s freedom, ahead of a visit to Robben Island prison, where the PM was granted rare access to the cell in which Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.

What followed was an increasingly tetchy May admitting that she hadn’t attended any protests or pickets against apartheid, and obdurately refusing to answer whether she had participated in either the goods or cultural boycott of South Africa – courses of action backed by such radical fringe organisations such as the United Nations General Assembly.

Instead the prime minister fell back on the repeated bleat that she supported “the work that the United Kingdom government did to ensure that it did give support where that support was needed."

It's unclear what precisely Theresa May meant by this. She might have been referring to Ted Heath’s pledge to end the arms embargo and resume sales of military equipment to the apartheid regime when the Conservatives won the 1970 election. Or it could have been Margaret Thatcher’s labelling of Nelson Mandela a “terrorist”, combined with her steadfast opposition to sanctions and the continuance of her husband Dennis Thatcher’s business interests in South Africa.

Maybe she was talking about former prime minister David Cameron’s 1989 visit to the country, paid for by an anti-sanctions lobbying firm. Perhaps it was the memory of the Federation of Conservative Students (former members including the speaker of the house John Bercow and Andrew “dogwhistle” Rosindell MP) printing posters and stickers calling for Nelson Mandela to be hanged that filled Theresa May with such pride.

Indeed, the Conservatives can hardly be said to have covered themselves in glory when it comes to having defended, aided and abetted the apartheid regime. But what is most telling about Theresa May’s comments to Michael Crick is her patently contemptuous attitude ("I think you know full well, Michael, that I didn't go on protests”) towards the actions that actually had a hand in bringing down apartheid.

Hundreds of thousands of people in Britain – including Claudia Jones, the godmother of the Notting Hill Carnival, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – heeded the call of the Anti-Apartheid Movement to picket South Africa House in London, campaigned for the release of South Africans detained without trial and even managed to save the lives of men condemned to hang like Solomon Mahlangu. By the mid-1980s, protesters and boycotters in Britain forced Barclays Bank to sell its subsidiaries in South Africa, as trade with Britain – which was once the market for 28 per cent of all of South Africa’s exports – plummeted.

You didn’t have to be extraordinarily far-sighted not to be caught out on the wrong side of history on apartheid; in the words of Julius Nyerere: “We are not asking you, the British people, for anything special. We are just asking you to withdraw your support from apartheid by not buying South African goods.”

The Robben Island press hoopla is just another example of how the history of the British establishment’s complicity in the apartheid regime has been deliberately whitewashed since 1993. This isn’t just about papering over the past, but restricting the political effectiveness of solidarity actions in the present. It’s striking that the tactics – boycotts, divestment, and sanctions – which, when normalised as a political tactic, caused considerable disruption to the South African economy, have since come under fierce attack when applied to Israel by Palestinian solidarity activists in the UK, including an attempt in 2016 by David Cameron’s government to ban the boycott of settlement produced goods by UK public institutions.

In her interview with Michael Crick, Theresa May praised Nelson Mandela’s “calm” and “statesmanlike” approach to fighting injustice – conveniently forgetting that it was Nelson Mandela’s founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of a Nation), and his insistence that armed struggle was a legitimate tactic to bring an unjust and violent state to the negotiating table, which landed him in prison in the first place. But maybe that was the savvy political move. Party leaders have been called terrorist sympathisers for less.

Theresa May’s visit to Robben Island is an insult to everyone who participated in the movement against apartheid. Perhaps she should have stuck to dancing – in hindsight, it’s marginally less embarrassing than this excruciating display of a total lack of historical awareness or insight.

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