Margaret Thatcher despised Mandela; thought he was not as intelligent as Mugabe

LONDON – The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher secretly confided that she was “a bit disappointed” by Nelson Mandela and thought he “seemed to have rather a closed mind”, newly released cabinet papers reveal.

Britain’s ambassador to South Africa, meanwhile, described the man who would become one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century as “Not as intelligent as [Robert] Mugabe, but a great deal nicer.”

Mrs Thatcher’s comments came after she took a phone call from Mr Mandela on 17 June 1990, four months after his release from prison and while he was negotiating with South African president F W de Klerk to end apartheid.

In a private note of the phone call, Charles Powell, Mrs Thatcher’s private secretary for foreign affairs, wrote: “The prime minister commented to me afterwards that she was a bit disappointed with Mandela, who seemed to have rather a closed mind.”

“For his part,” Mr Powell observed, “he will now have experienced first-hand the prime minister’s strong views on the armed struggle and on sanctions.”

In his memo to the foreign office, Mr Powell, whose brother Jonathan would become Tony Blair’s chief of staff, added: “We are not proposing to tell the press about this discussion.”

Margaret Thatcher sang the praises of Robert Mugabe after attending a 1982 lunch held in his honour.

The Zimbabwean leader has since been widely condemned for his dictatorial policies and human rights abuses.

But Lady Thatcher praised him when Prime Minister for his “friendly and open manner”.

“A successful Zimbabwe will undoubtedly contribute to the peace and stability of Central and Southern Africa as a whole, and we wish you and your colleagues well in your endeavours,” a note in her private paper reads.

Mugabe who was deposed in coup last year is on record saying Nelson Mandela cherished his personal freedom over the economic freedom of his people, which is why today in South Africa “everything is in the whites’ hands”, reports say.

The 93-year-old president was speaking in Shona at a ruling party rally in the central town of Gweru.

“What was the most important thing for (Mandela) was his release from prison and nothing else. He cherished that freedom more than anything else and forgot why he was put in jail,” Mugabe said.

Mugabe claimed this view of Mandela is even shared by ministers in President Jacob Zuma’s cabinet.

“I was in South Africa recently talking to a minister in President Jacob Zuma’s office and I did ask him how they have handled the land issue after attaining independence. I did ask him why they left the whites with everything. He answered my question in English and said: ‘Ask your friend Mandela.'”

It was the second remark in as many days that Mugabe has hit out at Mandela’s legacy. He made similar remarks at a state funeral the previous week.

Mugabe said that Mandela had made “the biggest mistake” by failing to attend to land reform in South Africa.

Said Mugabe: “They (whites) are in control of land, industries and companies and are now the employers of the blacks. These blacks have failed to liberate themselves from white supremacy all because of what Mandela did.”

Mugabe styled himself as the “Grand Old Man” of African politics, with defenders saying his government achieved notable improvements in both health and education for the black majority.

But he is reviled in the West as an authoritarian who mishandled the economy and resorted to violence to maintain power.

The country’s economy collapsed under his rule, and massive imports of foreign aid were needed simply to feed the people as hyperinflation hit from the late 1990s.

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By 2009, Zimbabwe stopped printing its currency and in 2015 it announced plans to completely switch to using the US dollar.

Grace Mugabe’s lavish lifestyle, earning her the nickname “Gucci Grace”, failed to ingratiate her to the Zimbabwe people – as they struggled to buy basic necessities she would go on spending sprees, once reportedly splashing £75,000, and withdrawing more than £5m from the Central Bank of Zimbabwe in the years up to 2004.

She was also embroiled in corruption over real estate in Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, and has a reputation for violence, punching a Sunday Times photographer in the face outside a luxury hotel in Hong Kong – but was granted immunity by China because she was Mr Mugabe’s wife.

Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, 2017
:Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during a graduation ceremony at the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, 2017

Military intervention in the civil war in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo also proved a heavy financial burden for Mr Mugabe.

But it was the forced distribution of land that proved decisive, turning what had been an exporter of food into a country with five million people dependent on food aid.

When Mr Mugabe became prime minister, some 70% of arable land was owned by about 4,000 descendants of white settlers.

The Zimbabwean currency was hit by hyperinflation as the economy deteriorated
The Zimbabwean currency was hit by hyperinflation as the economy deteriorated

Favouring a “willing buyer, willing seller” plan for the gradual redistribution of land, little was achieved until Mr Mugabe began using force in 1999 and 2000.

Self-styled “war veterans” invaded white-owned farms, and the British public quickly became familiar with stories of beatings, rape and killings.

The farm invasions severely affected agricultural production, leaving much of the country’s population lacking enough food to meet basic needs.

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In 2002, the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe’s membership. When this was extended 18 months later, Mr Mugabe pulled his country out.

The US, meanwhile, had imposed sanctions of its own, saying the situation in Zimbabwe endangered the entire southern African region.

In 2004, the African Union openly criticised Zimbabwe’s open violation of human rights, citing the arrest and torture of lawyers, journalists and MPs.

War veterans arrive to seize control of Parklands Farm, west of Harare, in 2000
War veterans arrive to seize control of Parklands Farm, west of Harare, in 2000

Mr Mugabe has also been accused of using starvation as a conscious political weapon, by denying food aid to those areas supporting the opposition.

He was initially defeated in the presidential vote in 2008, with Morgan Tsvangirai winning by 47.9% to 43.2%.

But ahead of a run-off between the two as neither had secured 50% of the vote, a violent campaign against supporters of Mr Tsvangirai saw scores killed and thousands displaced.

Mr Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off, and Mr Mugabe was re-inaugurated despite strong international condemnation of the election.

In the same year he had early prostate cancer and despite treatment being available in Zimbabwe, he travelled to Singapore – chartering Air Zimbabwe’s only long-haul aircraft – to be treated in a hospital which he has regularly frequented for health check-ups paid for by Harare.

Mr Mugabe won another presidential election in 2013, but the ballots were widely not considered free or fair, with claims of vote rigging and fears over violence.

Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during the Zimbabwe ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front youth interface Rally in Bulawayo, 2017
Robert Mugabe delivers a speech during the Zimbabwe ruling party Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front youth interface Rally in Bulawayo, 2017

Last year, he sacked his first vice president – Emmerson Mnangagwa – with speculation he was about to appoint his wife Grace as his successor.

On 15 November 2017, the national army placed him under house arrest and days later he was sacked as leader of the ZANU-PF.

The party than issued an ultimatum calling for him to resign, and began impeachment proceedings when he refused. He later resigned, and negotiated a deal which exempted him from prosecution and protected his business interests.

Weeks after the 94-year-old was forced to resign, in what he called a coup, he went for a medical check-up in Singapore, paid for with his pension which guarantees him foreign health care.

At least 20 aides accompanied him on each Singapore trip, claiming a day rate in foreign currency and accommodation in top hotels.

He then returned to the Singapore hospital in September, where Mr Mnangagwa said he was unable to walk, but would remain supported by the Zimbabwe government.