When she denounced Nelson Mandela’s liberation movement as a “typical terrorist organization” and rejected calls for sanctions against South Africa’s white minority government, Margaret Thatcher found herself on the wrong side of history.
Characteristically, she never admitted error. In 1987, just seven years before the fall of apartheid, a Thatcher spokesman scoffed that it was “cloud cuckoo-land” to suggest that Mr. Mandela would ever win power. In the same year, Mrs. Thatcher clashed repeatedly with the Brian Mulroney government as she bitterly fought Canada’s efforts to introduce Commonwealth sanctions against South Africa.
It was not until 2006 that her successor as Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, finally declared that Mrs. Thatcher was wrong in her policies on sanctions and in her verbal attacks on Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress. He praised Mr. Mandela as “one of the greatest men alive.”
With those battles long over and the ANC in power for the past 19 years, the official South African reaction to her death was terse and polite. President Jacob Zuma issued a brief two-sentence statement, offering his condolences to her family and the British people. In a separate statement, the ANC said it learned of her death “with sadness” and expressed the hope that her soul would “rest in peace.”
The statement made only a brief mention of her attacks on the party. “The ANC was on the receiving end of her policy in terms of refusing to recognize the ANC as the representatives of South Africans and her failure to isolate apartheid after it had been described as a crime against humanity,” it said.
But while the government and ruling party were muted, many other South Africans gleefully pointed out that Mr. Mandela had outlasted the woman who had called him a terrorist. “Mandela outlived Thatcher,” one South African journalist tweeted. “1-0 to FREEDOM! History is the ULTIMATE judge!”