Margaret Thatcher and ‘Constructive Engagement’: Buying into Apartheid

22 Apr

(Un)constructive Engagement

Over the next few months I will publish a series of posts on anti-apartheid grassroots activism in South Africa and Europe from 1978-91. If you’ve been following the blog, you’ll probably guess that the anti-apartheid and antiracist organization, Boycott Outspan Action, will figure somehow. But for now I’d like to introduce the series with a discussion on what was in many ways the counter-position to these forms of activism; the policy of ‘constructive engagement’. And through implementing this policy, I show how a historiography of Margaret Thatcher’s war on trade unions and labour movements might be extended from the UK to South Africa. By steadfastly adhering to ‘constructive engagement’, Thatcher actively pursued an influential international agenda of undermining South African trade unionism and supporting racial oppression and subjugation.  Anti-apartheid activists across Europe and the USA were incensed by this vote of confidence from various governments and multinationals for apartheid, and they were quick to hone in on capitalist motives. In Holland, Boycott Outspan Action’s lawyer, Willem van Manen, took no prisoners in satirizing Thatcher’s rather compromised position in ‘constructive engagement’:

'Constructive Engagement'. Van Manen 1988. Courtesy of du Plessis

‘Constructive Engagement’. Van Manen 1988. Courtesy of Boycott Outspan Action

Pax Brittania

I’d like to briefly return you to the not-so-distant days in the UK before trade unions lost their power in domestic political economies. During the 1970s various unions across Europe offered solidarity to South African liberation movements through participation in international boycotts, strikes, and stevedore actions against the vectors of apartheid capital. In the past week these days have been revisited and revised by the passing and ‘state funeral’ of whom we are led to believe was their vanquisher in-chief: the divisive, the ruthless, and it appears, the evergreen Margaret Thatcher. As the debate rages about her legacy on the political and economic landscape of the UK, allow me to indulge in this revisionist political debate/distraction to affirm here that – despite her former diplomat to Rhodesia Zimbabwe, Lord Renwick’s, protestations to the contrary, Thatcher was a friend of apartheid. On the London Non-Stop Anti-Apartheid Picket blog (led by geographer, Dr Gavin Brown) Helen Yaffe, writes:

Under Thatcher’s eleven-year term as Prime Minister, Britain remained the main political and economic backer of apartheid South Africa…For the activists on the non-stop picket, who saw evidence of British government collusion with the representatives of the South African embassy, Thatcher was synonymous with support for apartheid and the police harassment they experienced on a daily basis…Pallo Jordan, the ANC’s chief propagandist in exile during the apartheid era,  was quoted in The Guardian as saying: ‘good riddance…She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime.

Lord Renwick’s upside-down article in The Telegraph headlined -please bear with me here-  Margaret Thatcher’s vital role in ending apartheid: my former boss Margaret Thatcher hated the South African apartheid system and became a good friend of Nelson Mandela, presumably followed a  fit of guilt brought on by the reprinting of his claim  to overhearing Thatcher denouncing the ANC and Mandela as terrorists (a Thatcherism that Conservative leader David Cameron verified by admitting was wrong, back in 2006).

Thatcher and Mandela, 1990

Thatcher and Mandela, 1990

The boycott scourge

Thatcher was a leading advocate of ‘constructive engagement’, an international position of dialogue and incentives for apartheid reform most comprehensively implemented by the UK and Reagan’s USA. In an interview given for CBS on July 26th, 1985 Thatcher clearly outlined why she considered boycotts and sanctions of South Africa counter-productive:

T. Smith (CBS Presenter)

Let me ask you then whether you think President Reagan’s policy of constructive engagement, as he calls it, is working, is improving the lot of people in South Africa, or whether it should be changed?

Mrs. Thatcher

I think a policy of sanctions would harm the very people in South Africa you are trying to help…. I agree with a policy of trying to influence South Africa by other means. The present Government is moving forward in the direction we wish them to go, faster than any other. I remember when Mr. Botha came round Europe, many people received him, so did I. I particularly asked him to stop the policy of forced removals, British people feel extremely strongly about it, and thought if we could get that done away with we should be doing something, and after a time, yes, they have in fact stopped the policy of enforced removal. That was something very positive. There are many other things that are going on. Sanctions will harm, not help.

T. Smith

But this most recent development, when the Government has adopted emergency powers and mass arrests in recent days, surely this changes the formula a bit?

Mrs. Thatcher

No, I don’t think it does, you’ve got a very serious law and order problem. What help are you going to do if you put on sanctions which make industry much worse, what help is that going to be for a situation already bad with law and order? It’s going to make it worse, not better.

From this extract we can see that the oft-repeated argument of harming black labour through sanctions provided the justification for engagement over isolationism. But international anxieties of contributing to the embodied and structural violence done to South African labour through the symbolic and economic effects of boycotts were rebuked by the ANC from Albert Luthuli’s speech in 1960. At the 8th SACTU international conference in 1963, the underground South African labour movement followed this with their own trenchant defense of international boycotts:

It is sometimes argued even by well meaning people abroad, that if the world boycotts South Africa, we the working people, will suffer most. Even if this were true- and we don’t believe it – let us assure our well-wishers abroad that we do not shrink from any hardship in the cause for our freedom. As it is, we are starving and our children are dying of hunger. The working people of our country do not eat imported food or wear foreign made clothes; nor do we benefit from the export of South African mealies, wool, wine and gold. To our friends and well-wishers abroad we say that trafficking in the fruits of Apartheid can never be in the interest of the workers who suffer under Apartheid (Forward to SACTU resolution 1963, in Luckhardt & Wall, 1980: 346).


South African Congress of Trade Unions affiliation badge

‘Constructive engagement’ vs. grassroots activism

‘Constructive engagement’ was a thinly veiled strategy deployed to negate the effects of international sanctions. But it also tempered the rise of black boycotts and pickets against white capital within South Africa.  In Tomorrow It Could Be You, anti-apartheid historian,Tracy Carson, shows that the period 1978-1982 was marked by the increasing implementation of these non-violent weapons against white supremacy.  In 1978, 230 female workers were fired following a strike at the Port Elizabeth factory of the British battery manufacturer, Eveready. The strike was backed by a selection of trade unions and by the ‘bitter battery consumer boycott’ launched across the Eastern Cape. This was followed in 1979 by a strike at Fatti and Moni’s pasta factory. During the Soweto uprising in 1976, SACTU organized a strike of 500,000 workers in the Eastern Cape. During official state meetings the ‘labour problem at home’ was sold to Western allies by apartheid politicians as a terrorist security threat. The shame is, it sold rather well.

‘Constructive engagement’ carried the explicit refusal to legitimize internal black labour resistance (violent and non-violent) to apartheid; as Thatcher stated in the CBS interview – you’ve got a very serious law and order problem. According to Martin Legassick & Duncan Innes, the doctrine emerged from thinking among certain South African liberals that economic growth would in the long run undermine the racial structure of apartheidThis argument, the authors continue, became popular again in the late 1960s and was closely interwoven with the ‘Nixon-Kissinger’ strategy on southern Africa, and countered the growing international support for the isolation of the South African regime (1977: 437).  It was a liberal policy carried through into the Thatcher/Reagan era of neoliberal assault and retrenchment (Peck & Tickell, 2002: 284). 

In short, ‘constructive engagement’ was ideologically dichotomous to grassroots activism. But in order to gain public traction as a positive type of liberal interventionism, anti-apartheid grassroots activism such as pickets, sanctions and boycotts had to be framed as types of unfreedom. This was achieved through repeatedly attributing Communist motives to individual examples of ‘anti-liberal’ consumer boycotts, strikes and pickets, and through more widely framing South African labour activism with Cold War narratives.  The apartheid regime knew precisely what was at stake when they denounced the PAC and Black Consciousness Movement as forms of Communist terrorism – it was in Reagan’s and Thatcher’s interest to buy into that interpretation. And buy into it they did:

US corporations continue to operate in South Africa because it is profitable. Apartheid makes it very profitable. These corporations pay millions of dollars in taxes which pay for the police, prisons, weapons, and armaments that maintain the apartheid system. They sell the government its armored personnel carriers, its computers and communications technologies. Westinghouse has sold South Africa several licenses for the manufacture of nuclear power facilities (MIT Professor, John Parsons, 1985).

Suggested Further Reading

Carson, T (2011) Tomorrow it Could be You: Strikes and Boycotts in South Africa. Oxford: Peter Lang

Legassick M, Innes D (1977) Capital Restructuring and Apartheid: A Critique of Constructive Engagement. African Affairs, 76: 305, 437-482

Luckhardt K, Wall B (1980) Organize or Starve. A History of the South African Congress of Trade Unions.London: Lawrence and Wishart

Peck J, Pickell, A (2002) Neoliberalizing Space. Antipode, 381

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