Adam: I saw Brian Mulroney confront Margaret Thatcher over apartheid

I had a front seat at the 1987 Vancouver Commonwealth Summit, where the two leaders went head-to-head on the issue. Mulroney quickly became my favorite politician.

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In the heady days of fight against apartheid In the 1980s, “the West,” embodied by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and American President Ronald Reagan, was the “enemy” standing in the way of freedom for South Africa.

The antipathy towards the West on the part of most young activists on university campuses and elsewhere stemmed from Western support for the oppressive regime of President PW Botha, whom Thatcher provocatively invited to the UK in 1984. And among us young people activists of that time, we could not understand how the “freedom-loving” West did not support the liberation struggle of the African National Congress (ANC) against everything that black South Africans were being subjected to.

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And then, out of nowhere, in 1984, Brian Mulroney burst onto the scene and started changing the narrative. And by the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Vancouver in 1987, he had become my favorite politician.

During the dark years of apartheid, Canada did not have much in the way of a strong anti-apartheid policy and for that reason, most people, including African activists and journalists immersed in the issue, were curious about Mulroney, their new western ally. They didn’t actually know him, but his sparkling anti-apartheid speech at the United Nations in 1985 touched their hearts. Here was a new voice against apartheid, not just any voice but one from a G7 country, and powerful enough to take on Thatcher, who until then had the stage to herself.

It’s not that there weren’t anti-apartheid voices then. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda were among many who spoke, but their voices did not carry enough weight. Mulroney did, and now, wherever Thatcher spoke, Mulroney would be there to respond.

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The big issue of apartheid in the 1980s was sanctions against South Africa, which Thatcher opposed and Mulroney supported, setting the stage for their constant clashes, which came to a head at the Vancouver summit. At the time, I was in the UK working for African Concord, one of the many African magazines that flourished in London. Despite Thatcher, London was a hotbed of anti-apartheid activity, and many ANC leaders, including ANC president Oliver Tambo, lived there. I got to know some of them.

And so it was that I was chosen to cover the 1987 summit and went to Vancouver for my first and only visit to the city. Apartheid was the big problem and the sanctions against the South African regime exposed the deep divisions in the Commonwealth; the leaders constantly exchanged verbal missiles with Thatcher. It was actually Thatcher against the rest, led by host Mulroney. Thatcher was combative and condescending, but watching Mulroney go toe-to-toe with her on an issue that was so dear to Africans and many others was endearing.

Mulroney was firmly convinced that apartheid was immoral and repugnant, and he made this very clear in his public statements while vigorously defending sanctions. Of course, Thatcher was the most powerful force in the Commonwealth, boasting in a moment that “it wouldn’t be the Commonwealth without Britain”, and he got his way. The summit’s final declaration was weak and did not include new sanctions against South Africa.

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Still, Vancouver showed the extent of Thatcher’s isolation and, although she didn’t care, it was clear she was swimming against the current. Time would soon prove Mulroney right and, in 1990, Nelson Mandela was out of prison. Shortly afterward he assumed the presidency. Ironically, Thatcher would be ousted from office that same year.

I didn’t know until I was in Canada that Mulroney was a conservative politician, who actually admired Thatcher and Reagan. He didn’t fit in. But clearly, Mulroney was a different conservative, and I came away from the summit holding his principled position on apartheid in high regard. Some of us will remember him fondly for his contribution to freedom in South Africa.

Ottawa Mohamed Adam He is a journalist and commentator. Contact him at [email protected]

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