Thatcher tried to stop British university honoring Mandela

FILE PHOTO: African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela (R) is greeted by British Prime Minister Margarat Thatcher at 10 Downing Street on July 4, 1990 prior to their talk © Russell Boyce
Margaret Thatcher’s government attempted to thwart the University of Lancaster’s plan to award an honorary degree to Nelson Mandela, who at the time was 22 years into his jail term under the South African apartheid regime, documents show.

Worried the move may embarrass the British royal family, Foreign Office minister Richard Luce wrote to the university in 1982, urging it to “quietly drop” plans to have Princess Alexandra, who was then chancellor of the university, award Mandela the honorary doctorate. 

In the mid-1980s, Thatcher famously likened the African National Congress (ANC) to a “typical terrorist organization” and was steadfast in her opposition to comprehensive sanctions against South Africa, where her husband had business interests. However, Thatcher did speak out against apartheid on principle, decrying the system of exclusion as unjust and in conflict with her beliefs in a meritocracy.

In 1986, the Tory leadership banned the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) after its members began wearing stickers reading: “Hang Nelson Mandela.”

A confidential note between diplomats says Luce, who went on to serve as lord chamberlain to the Queen, “agrees with the recommendation that we should advise Princess Alexandra that on balance she should try to avoid conferring the honorary degree. Moreover he thinks that ideally the proposal that such a degree should be conferred on Mr Mandela should be quietly dropped since in any event it could cause embarrassment to Princess Alexandra.”

The documents had been kept secret for over 30 years but were disclosed under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Times - just as Prime Minister David Cameron prepares to honor three ANC veterans who were tried with Mandela in the explosive 1963 Rivonia trial for attempting to overthrow the pro-apartheid government through sabotage.

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Cameron has invited Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni, along with their two surviving lawyers, for a gala to celebrate their contribution to South Africa’s transition to democracy.