Margaret Thatcher secretly confided that she was “a bit disappointed” by Nelson Mandela and thought he “seemed to have rather a closed mind”, newly released cabinet papers reveal.
Britain’s ambassador to South Africa, meanwhile, described the man who would become one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century as “Not as intelligent as [Robert] Mugabe, but a great deal nicer.”
Mrs Thatcher’s comments came after she took a phone call from Mr Mandela on 17 June 1990, four months after his release from prison and while he was negotiating with South African president F W de Klerk to end apartheid.
In a private note of the phone call, Charles Powell, Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary for foreign affairs, wrote: “The prime minister commented to me afterwards that she was a bit disappointed with Mandela, who seemed to have rather a closed mind.”
“For his part,” Mr Powell observed, “he will now have experienced first-hand the prime minister’s strong views on the armed struggle and on sanctions.”
In his memo to the foreign office, Mr Powell, whose brother Jonathan would become Tony Blair’s chief of staff, added: “We are not proposing to tell the press about this discussion.”
Mr Powell’s four-page note of their conversation makes clear that Mr Mandela was worried the European Community, the forerunner to the EU, was about to ease sanctions on apartheid South Africa, at Mrs Thatcher’s request.
Attempting to buy time on the issue, Mr Mandela, then the deputy president of the African National Congress, “was sure she could play an important role in facilitating the process of negotiations in South Africa” but believed “the action which she took over sanctions would have a bearing on her ability to do so.”
The note added that while Mr Mandela would respect Mrs Thatcher’s position with regard to Britain, “he would ask her was not to press other governments to lift sanctions, before he had been able to discuss the situation more fully with her.”
Mr Powell’s wrote: “The prime minister said President de Klerk had gone a long way to meet the ANC, and it was vital he should receive some support from the international community.
“We do indeed believe that the right course for the [European] Community is to start the process of easing sanctions, as a clear signal of support for de Klerk’s efforts.”