Nelson Mandela is greeted by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prior to their talks at 10 Downing Street in this July 4 1990 file photo.  REUTERS
Nelson Mandela is greeted by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher prior to their talks at 10 Downing Street in this July 4 1990 file photo. REUTERS

THE government and the ruling party struck a diplomatic cord on the death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, as her passing drew both praise and vilification in South Africa on Monday.

Lady Thatcher opposed calls for the British government to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa at a time when most Commonwealth countries thought it appropriate to do so. She upset African National Congress (ANC) leaders when she referred to the party, banned in South Africa at the time, as a "terrorist" organisation.

Icons including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were among those infuriated by Lady Thatcher’s resistance to the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime.

Former president FW de Klerk and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi on Monday both praised Lady Thatcher and described her as a "friend" who was supportive to them.

Mr de Klerk said Lady Thatcher was a leading light.

"Although she was always a steadfast critic of apartheid, she had a much better grasp of the complexities and geo-strategic realities of South Africa than many of her contemporaries. She consistently, and correctly, believed that much more could be achieved through constructive engagement with the South African government than through draconian sanctions and isolation.

"She also understood the need to consider the concerns and aspirations of all South Africans in their search for constitutional consensus."

Lady Thatcher had played a positive role in supporting South Africa’s own process of nonracial constitutional transformation, Mr de Klerk said. "From my first meeting with her in London after my election as leader of the National Party in 1989 and throughout the rest of her tenure as prime minister, she gave strong and valued support to me and to all other leaders who were working for a peaceful, prosperous and constitutional future for South Africa ."

Mr de Klerk had met Lady Thatcher in South Africa and abroad on numerous occasions. "We met in the Cape and in London many times after her retirement from office and before her stroke in 2002 ."

Prince Buthelezi said Lady Thatcher was an important global leader. " (She) will forever command my respect and admiration, not only for her leadership in the UK, but for her leadership on global matters."

She was a "voice of reason" during apartheid and "listened attentively to my plea against sanctions and economic disinvestment, which we both recognised would hurt the poorest of our people the most", Prince Buthelezi said.

"I was privileged to visit Lady Thatcher at 10 Downing Street in 1986, and was honoured when she specifically travelled to Ulundi to visit me as the chief minister of the erstwhile KwaZulu government.

"Never before had an international dignitary shown such respect for a black leadership."

President Jacob Zuma, in a terse statement, expressed his condolences. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Lady Thatcher and the people of the UK during this difficult time," he said.

ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said the party had been at the receiving end of Lady Thatcher’s policies when she opposed the idea of sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

She "was one of the strong leaders in Britain … to an extent some of her policies dominate discourse in the public service structures of the world. Long after her passing on, her impact will still be felt .… "