Then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher receives a standing ovation at a Conservative Party conference in this October 13 1989 file photo.  Picture: REUTERS
Then British prime minister Margaret Thatcher receives a standing ovation at a Conservative Party conference in this October 13 1989 file photo. Picture: REUTERS

THERE has seldom been a politician who could be so right and wrong at the same time as former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday. And perhaps nothing demonstrates this more graphically than her policy towards Africa.

To say that her views are unfashionable now would be a huge understatement. Even stripping out the gloss of revisionist history, many of her views on Africa not only grate now but did so at the time, and not only on her many political opponents, but within her own party.

In the South African context, she is perhaps most well known for saying to her friend, Geoffrey Howe, that the African National Congress (ANC) was "a typical terrorist organisation". She famously opposed sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and even drew the quiet ire of Queen Elizabeth for splitting the Commonwealth on the issue. She cast herself as former president PW Botha’s "candid friend" and invited him to visit the UK in 1984.

But these were not her only errors of judgment in respect of Africa. She visited both Nigeria and Kenya in 1985, and praised the leaders of both countries, despite the fact that Nigeria was then led by a military junta and Kenya was a one-party state. When current Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron met former president Nelson Mandela in 2006, he felt constrained to apologise for these "mistakes". Afterwards, Mr Cameron wrote that "the mistakes my party made … with respect to relations with the ANC and sanctions on South Africa, make it all the more important to listen now".

Yet, as always, it is important to understand the precise political context. These flagrant deviations from political correctness arose from a Cold War mind-set of distinct friends and foes, a binary approach that was particularly acute in her case. In addition, Ms Thatcher had a particular reason to be suspicious of self-styled freedom fighters given the frequent bomb threats and attacks by the Irish Republican Army, some targeted at herself.

Her "support" for the apartheid government has also tended to be overstated by her opponents. The opposition to sanctions was a matter of tactics, not principle, and her opposition to racial discrimination and apartheid was real. The nuances of her position tended to get lost in the bitter divisions of the time, but it is worth noting that, ultimately, in this issue as in others, she was at least partially vindicated by history. Without a sense of international support, it is less likely that the National Party would have embarked on the risky course of a negotiated settlement. Despite what her detractors may argue, she does deserve backhanded credit for creating the conditions that allowed a negotiated settlement to occur.

Her policy towards Africa mirrored sometimes in reverse her notions about the larger issue of her time, the Soviet Union. Just as she uncompromisingly distinguished friends from enemies in Africa, she set her sights on the ailing Soviet Union. Yet within these boundaries — perhaps because of them — there was room for détente. By holding firm, she will forever have to her credit a real role in bringing an end to perhaps the most pernicious economic system the world has ever known. It is no accident that it was Soviet leaders who dubbed her "the Iron Lady".

Ms Thatcher once said she was not a consensus politician but a conviction politician. "Thatcherism" is unfashionable now and regarded as a moral absolutism combined with nationalism, as well as generally being unpleasant and uncompromising. For example, the Conservative Party now downplays Ms Thatcher’s notion that there is no such thing as society, only individuals.

Yet, cometh the hour, cometh the man, or in this case the woman. Facing down the Soviet Union took grand conviction and great will. Like her or not, all of our lives now are better for her politics.