By Owei Lakemfa
IN Africa, we welcome any visitor even if he is not a friend. We offer our visitors water and a seat. That is why the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, UK, Theresa May was welcome when she came out visiting South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. Also, for those who are our friends, we go looking for them even if their homes are at the other end of the world. An African proverb says it is someone you do not love, you make excuses that you are unable to visit his home because it is far away. That is why it did not surprise me that all but one African country, were this week in China for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC.
In South Africa, the Robben Island has become the symbol of the resistance against Apartheid. It was on Robben, the Apostles of Apartheid thought they could break the liberation fighters and bury the African dream of liberation. That was where brave Africans like Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and Jacob Zuma spent part of their youth pining away in prison with hard labour. So it was not unexpected that Ms. May would visit that sacred place. But she might not have bargained for probing questions on her role either in consolidating or destroying Apartheid.
When the anti-Apartheid Soweto Uprising by Primary and High School children occurred in1976 during which the Apartheid regime massacred 176-700 children, injured over 2,000, detained and tortured thousands, Theresa May was a 20-year-old third year undergraduate in Oxford. In the mid-1980s when Apartheid was tottering, and Britain remained its backer, Theresa May was the Councilor for Durnsford (1986-1994) under the Conservative Party led by Mrs. Margaret Thatcher. So, she was active in British politics.
Last week, August 28, as May prepared to visit Robben Island including the cell in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 2-year incarceration, British Broadcaster and Political Correspondent, Michael Lawrence Crick asked the British Prime Minister whether she played any role agitating for the release of Nelson Mandela. Whether she participated in any form in the campaign to boycott South African goods as directed by the United Nations. Whether she protested in any way against the Apartheid system or government. A visibly embarrassed May responded: “I think you know well that I didn’t go on protests. But what is important is the work that the United Kingdom Government did to ensure that it did give support where that support was needed.”
The part that she did nothing to protest the evil system even when she held political office, is true. But her subsequent claim about the UK giving support “where that support was needed” is false. If anything, the United Kingdom and its politicians including Thatcher and Theresa May, by their actions and inactions, helped to preserve Apartheid and elongate its lifespan.
Contrary to May’s claims, the truth is that Britain and the United States, especially under President Ronald Reagan, propped up Apartheid South Africa, and refused to allow the rest of the world impose crippling sanctions.
At the 1985 Commonwealth Heads of State Summit held in Nassau, Bahamas, the normally pliant countries rose against Britain, their former colonial master. They demanded all-round sanctions against Apartheid South Africa. But the UK stood against them. Thatcher insisted that the only resolution Britain would support is a nebulous ‘constructive engagement.’ To save the Commonwealth from breaking up, then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, moved a compromise solution; the establishment of an Eminent Persons Group, EPG, on South Africa charged with putting in place: “a process of dialogue across lines of colour, politics and religion with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government.”
When this was accepted, Hawke called up his predecessor, John Malcolm Fraser, (Prime Minister – 1975-83) to co-chair the EPG with former Nigerian Head of State, Olusegun Aremu Obasanjo.
The EPG which met all sides including then imprisoned Mandela, published its report in June 1986 in which it recommended full economic and financial sanctions against Apartheid South Africa. Again, the UK refused.
In October 1987, at a press conference following the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Vancouver, Mrs. Thatcher claimed: “The ANC (African National Congress to which Mandela belonged) is a typical terrorist organisation… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Voicing the views of the ruling Conservative Party which Theresa May belonged, the Daily Mail on the day of the concert to mark Mandela’s 70th birthday in July, 1988 published an opinion which declared that: “The ANC and its leader, Nelson Mandela have no more claim to be saints or heroes than do the Provisional IRA with their lynch mobs and car bombers.” Nineteen months later, Apartheid gave way with the February 2, 1990 unbanning of the ANC after a 30-year clampdown.
So how, where and when did UK give the needed support to topple apartheid when all along it was in bed with it? Not unexpectedly, May’s visit to South Africa achieved little or nothing beyond her repackaging the EU pact with South Africa, promising to encourage job creation in exchange for a clampdown on Africans’ migration to Europe, and a bland promise to back South Africa’s land reform. Before leaving South Africa for Kenya and Nigeria, she threw a punch: “87 million Nigerians live below $1 and 90 cents a day, making it home to more very poor people than any other nation in the world.”
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta noted that May was the first UK Prime Minister to visit in nearly four decades. Indeed, Kenya holds similar haunting memories for Britain as does South Africa. Britain wanted to make Kenya a settler colony like South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. But the Kenyans resisted in what became known as the Mau Mau Uprising. In the eight-year uprising which began in 1952 officially, the UK murdered 11,000 Kenyan civilians including 1,090 who were hanged. Thirty-two whites were killed in the uprising. However, the Kenyan Human Rights Council presented different statistics that showed that the British executed, tortured and maimed 90,000 Kenyan civilians and detained over 160,000 others without trial for between three to seven years.
The news from Beijing is that China is offering Africa another $60 Billion investment fund, and all we hear from Europe and America is that we have to be weary of China as some of these loans would not be repaid and will go for ‘vanity projects’ while China will use Africa as destination for its products. The West assumes we are not matured for such investment, and that they can still tell us who our friends should be.