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It is hard to celebrate Thatcher, Mandela in the same sentence

By - | April 13th 2013

By Barrack Muluka

In the first of her two autobiographies, The Path to Power, Margaret Thatcher says that history’s lessons usually teach us what we want to learn. She was reflecting on the career of Premier Harold Macmillan, a person she referred to as “a man of masks.” Her conclusion: “Macmillan was a more complex and sensitive figure than he appeared.” Baroness Thatcher thought that Macmillan was a most misunderstood individual so that, “It was impossible to tell, for instance, that behind the cynical Edwardian façade was one of the most deeply religious souls in politics.”

Well, perhaps. Thatcher, who passed on this week, herself arouses different perceptions and passions. The news of her passing certainly threw up motley reactions, even in the United Kingdom, where she served as Prime Minister for 11 years (1979-1990). Some went into instant mourning. Others went into a frenzy of celebration. They erupted in street beer parties in diverse places as Glasgow, Bristol and London. That speaks to the bag of contradictions that was Baroness Thatcher. I got to know of  Thatcher in 1975, when she became the Leader of the Opposition in the British Parliament. We were brass youth in high school, in the first flush of excitement about global affairs. The Labour Government of James Callaghan was not doing so well in public opinion. Apartheid in South Africa was very much on the public agenda as was the question of liberation of African countries still under European colonialism.

While Britain had given up most of her colonies in the wake of Harold Macmillan’s famous “wind of change” address in South Africa in 1960, it was the perception that the UK buttressed Portuguese colonialism in places like Mozambique and Angola in the interest of propping up the racist regime in South Africa. In any event, wasn’t Britain, alongside the United States, one of the foremost beneficiaries of the situation in South Africa?

When Alec Douglas Hume visited Kenya in 1974, University of Nairobi students demonstrated against him, shouting at him to “go home.” The UK was in good books with many an African ruler – most of them of a dictatorial character in Kinshasa, Kampala and Bangui; everywhere. But it was different with the scholarly fraternity. London was seen as a neo-colonial power, overthrowing progressive regimes in Africa and propping up military dictators. Mercifully, in April 1975, a military coup in Lisbon brought down the perennial authoritarian regime of Estado Novo. With it came independence for Portuguese Africa. Change was in the air in 1975.

Watergate was bringing down Richard Nixon and the Republicans. The monarchy was ending in Ethiopia – after 3,000 years. The last vestiges of colonialism were going. Margaret Thatcher was happening in the UK.

It was just a matter of time before the just, free and fair universe that youthful minds were steadily embracing would be realised. But it would have to wait until May 1979 for Thatcher to beat Callaghan. Then reality began sinking in, slowly. The following year, Jimmy Carter lost the US election to Ronald Reagan, who would together with Thatcher straddle the globe like the albatross. They disappointed.

Thatcher and Reagan preached water, but they drank wine. At the high noon of the Cold War, they spoke of democracy. The global community must be protected from the spread of communism. They led 65 countries to boycott the Olympics in Moscow in 1980 because of USSR incursion into Afghanistan. Never mind that similar Nato-led proxy wars had been fought in Korea and Vietnam. Angola and Mozambique were actively engaged. In short order, Thatcher and Reagan sponsored the Iran-Iraq war, piqued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini revolution that overthrew the puppet Pahlavi Dynasty.  The last Shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, literally jetted himself from Tehran into exile. Thatcher and Reagan now created the monster that was Saddam Hussein. They armed him. They looked the other side when he unleashed biological chemical weapons. Some 40,000 soldiers died.

Back in Africa, they continued to support the Apartheid regime, in defiance of UN resolutions. They coined the curious expression of “constructive engagement” to justify their continued economic activities in South Africa. Thatcher met President PW Botha, but refused to meet the late Oliver Tambo, President of the African National Congress (ANC). She said the ANC was “a terrorist organisation.” Nelson Mandela, then in political incarceration, was one of the “terrorists.”

It is difficult for those of us who were witness to this living history to celebrate Thatcher and Mandela in the same sentence. If we must praise one, we must withhold our praise for the other. Indeed, it was not until after the fall of Thatcher that the activities that would lead to Mandela’s release began happening.

From Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, through Nicaragua, the Honduras to Guatemala and the Falklands, Margaret Thatcher’s memory will live on. It will be the legacy of the Iron Lady who stated that she had no time for feminists and for the women’s lib movement of the 1970s and 1980s.

Her greatest achievement remains the bringing down of the Soviet Union – again jointly with Reagan. To serve the USSR a fatal blow, they subjected Moscow to an unprecedented arms race, with Star Wars and all that. Put together with his own internal rot, the Kremlin could not survive. The Iron Curtain of Eastern European regimes buttressing Moscow against Western Europe came down like houses of straw. On November 30, 1989, in Lisbon Portugal, Thatcher and Reagan declared the Cold War over.

Strange how what goes around comes around. We were back to Lisbon, again. And it was time for Thatcher to begin packing up. The Iron Lady, who had clobbered trade unionists in the streets of London in the fashion of an African strongman fell out with her own people. Michael Heseltine pushed the final button. It was time to go. She was quite a phenomenon, Margaret Thatcher, possibly a woman of masks. May God rest her soul in a peaceful good place.



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