What Pik Botha and Margaret Thatcher discussed

A contemporaneous account of meeting between the UK PM and the SA FM, 15 March 1989

The following is the text of a letter from Charles Powell, Private Secretary to British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to Stephen Wall, Esq., Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, 15th March 1989. It is an account of the meeting held that afternoon between Thatcher and then South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha. The meeting was held between the time that President PW Botha had stepped down as National Party leader on 2 February, following a mild stroke, and his resignation as State President later that year. - PW



From the Private Secretary 15 March 1989

Dear Stephen


The Prime Minister had a talk lasting one and a half hours with the South African Foreign Minister this afternoon. Pik Botha was accompanied by the South African Ambassador.

South African politics

Pik Botha conveyed regards from President Botha and from Mr. de Klerk. The political situation in South Africa was complex and delicate. President Botha had returned to work and had today presided over a Cabinet meeting. His mind was clear and his speech firm. He was deeply hurt by the impression that he was being run out of office. He wanted to continue until the next election and leave with dignity. He felt that his contribution to reform in South African was not being given due weight. A delegation of senior Cabinet Ministers would talk to him gently and see if he could be persuaded to give up office. But unless a compromise could be found, he could stay as President for up to a year still.

Internal change and reform in South Africa

The Prime Minister said that she had consistently opposed sanctions against South Africa because they would only harm the interests of black people, without achieving the political progress we wanted to see. She had always been ready to give full credit for the reforms which had been undertaken by the South African Government. She very much welcomed the Namibia agreement and Pik Botha's part in achieving it. But more recently the pace of reform had slackened.

The crucial step, which must be faced, was the release of Mandela. She understood the South African Government's concern that his release could lead to renewed violence. Certainly it would have to be carefully managed. But the down-side risk of not releasing him was enormous. Mandela had become a kind of touchstone for the West.

His release would not on its own be sufficient to change attitudes towards South Africa. There would have also to be wider negotiations between representatives of all racial groups about the political future. But no black South African leader would be willing to talk while Mandela remained in prison. Meanwhile, pressure for more sanctions would grow, particularly in the United States, and would become harder to resist. Her own opposition to sanctions would become more difficult to maintain unless she could show that it was a better way of achieving progress in South Africa.

The Prime Minister continued that we had consistently worked behind the scenes for progress in South Africa rather than trying to exert public pressure. That had been the purpose of sending Dr Leutwiler on his recent mission. The essential point he had been asked to convey, on behalf of Chancellor Kohl and herself, was that without the release of Mandela it would become progressively harder to resist further sanctions. Rather than show understanding of that dilemma, President Botha's response had been to ask what South Africa would get in return for releasing Mandela. Such an approach was unrealistic. South Africa was approaching a difficult time, with the need to repay bearer bonds and reschedule its debts.

Governments and financial institutions would be reluctant to cooperate in the absence of internal progress, and in that event the financial pressures would become much more severe. It would be a tragedy if South Africa's development was held back. She had discussed this dilemma with Chancellor Kohl and they had decided to spell out their assessment of the response which South Africa could expect to Mandela's release in a note, which she handed over (copy enclosed).

Pik Botha read the note and commented that he found it very reasonable. He would take it back to President Botha.

He was himself partly to blame for President Botha's approaching the problem in terms of what South Africa would expect from Mandela's release. He had encouraged the President to put it in these terms to Dr. Leutwiler as being preferable to a blank refusal to contemplate his release.

Personally he totally agreed with the Prime Minister's views on Mandela. There were hesitations in the South African Cabinet. People felt that they had got the security situation under control and were reluctant to put it in jeopardy again. But he believed that release would and must come. Most South African political leaders now realised that they had to look de novo at the Group Areas Act, the Separate Amenities Act and the Population Registration Act in order to remove all racial discrimination, while preventing the inundation of the urban areas by a tidal wave of immigration.

At the same time there was desperate need for outside financial help. He had drawn up some ideas of his own for a development programme for Southern Africa. He would leave the Prime Minister a paper on this (copy enclosed). As the last vestiges of apartheid were eliminated, there was a need for economic help not just for South Africa but for Southern Africa as a whole.

The Prime Minister said that she welcomed Pik Botha's comments. But one had to return time and again to one central point: improving the economic conditions of black South Africans was not on its own enough. Of course it was necessary and we were contributing to it in a major way. But as their economic situation improved so the resentment of black South Africans at the absence of any role for them in Government and political life would increase. There had to be negotiations between the Government and representives of black South Africans. She wondered to what extent the South African Government had thought this through, both in terms of procedures for negotiation and the end point which they wished to reach.

Pik Botha said that the South African Government's objective could be summed up in a few simple words: a social, economic and political order broadly acceptable to all South Africans. The Prime Minister replied that this was easy to say. But what did it mean in practice?

It needed to be spelled out in detail. Pik Botha said that no solution in South Africa had any chance of being viable unless it was based on the reality of South Africa. The future lay in allowing natural groups to run their own affairs - the Zulus in Natal, the Xhosa in other areas, mixed communities in some parts of the country - coming together to govern South African jointly. This was the thinking behind talk of a great Indaba.

Pik Botha continued, speaking with some emotion, that there was enormous admiration among all races in South Africa for what the Prime Minister had done for the people of the country. She had saved them from the cruelty of sanctions and even from bloodshed. She had done far more for black people in South Africa than any black leader or any other world figure. People felt a tremendous gratitude for her understanding of the true difficulties of the South African situation and her refusal to allow herself to be intimidated by international opinion into doing what she knew to be wrong.


The Prime Minister referred to the great importance of the Namibia settlement. It must be strictly observed by all the parties to it. She wondered what assessment the South African Government had made of the likely outcome of the elections there. Pik Botha said that he was cautious about making predictions after South Africa had got the Rhodesia elections in 1980 so badly wrong.

He thought that SWAPO would get over 50 per cent but doubted it would reach two-thirds of the vote. SWAPO was trying to extend its contacts with South Africa. Nujoma had recently met the South African Ambassador in Bonn and had also been present at a meeting with President Kaunda and a senior South African official last week. Pik Botha added that he had no fear of an independent Namibia.

The railway line went only one way and Walvis Bay remained in South African hands. There could be no question of tampering with that.

Pik Botha continued that there was one urgent matter he wished to raise with the Prime Minister. The United Nations Secretary General had recently issued a circular asking for further funds for the Namibia Institute and the Council of Namibia. These funds were exclusively for the benefit of SWAPO. It was flatly contrary to the terms of the Agreement for the United Nations to continue to show partiality for one party. Unless the collection of such funds was stopped promptly, South Africa might have to call a temporary halt to the process of implementing the Namibia Agreement. The Prime Minister said that Mr Botha should discuss this with the Foreign Secretary.


Pik Botha said that he saw Mozambique as the next priority for South Africa. His aim was to organise a conference involving Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa to resolve the Frelimo/Renamo problem and bring peace. There were indications that President Mugabe might be prepared to talk to the South Africans about Mozambique if asked to do so by Chissano. Meanwhile South Africa was providing economic help to Mozambique as well as assistance in protecting the railway and main road routes.

The Prime Minister said that there were persistent reports that South Africa continued to supply Renamo. Pik Botha said that he could give a categorical assurance that South Africa was not providing such assistance. The Prime Minister asked whether he was really confident of this. Might there not be some groups among the military or even private individuals who were helping? Pik Botha said that he could not absolutely rule this out. But all the allegations which he had investigated so far had proved false. He would report the Prime Minister's concern to the South African Cabinet. He could assure her that South Africa wanted to see the war stopped. With assistance from the United Kingdom and the

Unit d States he believed that something dramatic could be achieved in the next few months.

The Prime Minister asked about President Chissano's health. Pik Botha said that he had asked Chissano straight out recently whether it was true he had cancer. Chissano had replied that he had been assured there was no malignancy.

Further visits

The Prime Minister mentioned that we had heard that Finance Minister du Plessis might be visiting London in April. She would be very happy to see him when he came. Pik Botha said that he thought this would be very welcome. He would tell Mr du Plessis.

Some of the material 1n this letter is highly sensitive.

It should be given a very limited distribution.

I am copying this letter to Alex Allan (HM Treasury) and to Brian Hawkin (Ministry of Defence).

Yours sincerely,


C D Powell