When Mrs Thatcher met Mandela and Mo Ibrahim on Today – By Richard Dowden

Mrs Thatcher and Nelson Mandela meeting in 1990

I haven’t yet seen the film The Iron Lady, but it prompts me to recollect my two encounters with Mrs T. The first was in December 1978, five months before she became Prime Minister. I recorded a long interview with her but it has always pained me to listen to it. Not because of anything she said, it was what she told everyone – individualism must triumph, the state must be shrunk, the southern African liberation movements were terrorists… etc.

What makes my toes curl when I listen to it now is how she reduced my questions to irritating interruptions of her flowing diatribe. It was, I later learned from fellow journalists, a technique she had honed to perfection. She spoke with that slow oh-so-patient voice as if addressing a child or a moron then pause as if waiting for the next question. I would start my question only to be cut off with “Just let me finish…” or “And let me tell you…” or “What I am trying to get you to understand…”. So I felt I was continually apologising, feeling I was rudely interrupting her. It was a monologue.

The second meeting was 20 years later when I spotted her at F W de Klerk’s book launch at Hatchards in 1998. After the speeches I ambushed her and asked her about South Africa. She spoke at length about what a wonderful man Laurens Van der Post was; “so spiritual, a dream of a man”, “one of ten people who changed the way I feel about life”. She described how Van der Post, who was later revealed to be a fraud, had introduced her to Mangosuthu (then Gatsha) Buthelezi, the Zulu leader – “a very fine man”.

Eventually I managed to get a word in edgeways to ask what she thought of Nelson Mandela. She had, after all, called the ANC a “typical terrorist organisation”. She gave me a sidelong look and replied: “A very interesting man of course but I only met him after he left power”. And she turned away.

She had actually met him in Downing Street in July 1990, before he came to power. The talks were scheduled for an hour but went on for three. The British government’s view of the way forward for South Africa after his release from jail a few months earlier was crucial. They did not agree – Mandela asked that sanctions on South Africa be maintained, Thatcher insisted they be dropped. After the meeting she said she found him “supremely courteous with a genuine nobility of bearing” but “stuck in a socialist time warp”.  How could Mrs Thatcher have forgotten this? No one forgets meeting Mandela. I realise now that it may have been that the Alzheimer’s disease had begun to show itself even then.

Africa Today – thanks to Mo

Quickly – because they won’t be there much longer – listen to the Today programme edited by Mo Ibrahim which was devoted entirely to Africa. It’s at:


Suddenly you will realise there is a great deal more to Africa than wars and famines.

The problem is that news, as defined by news editors throughout the media, is when something important or interesting happens. There is no conspiracy about African coverage (though there is a great deal of laziness among editors who are happy to limit their story selection to images of dramatic disasters.) And news organisations must cover stories of starvation and war as they would cover disasters in the rest of the world. The question is where are the African stories that show the fuller picture?

Years of covering Africa taught me not to go on holiday at Christmas or in August when nothing much happened in the world. That was when desperate news editors with space to fill might finally run that article on Namibia’s politics or Mali’s nomads. But there was always the eternal nagging news editor’s question: “˜So what?’

With most other parts of the world we have an idea of normality. Most people who have never been to Africa have no idea of a normal, ordinary, peaceful continent. The only images they have in their heads are of starvation, disaster or wars. We have positive images in our heads about America, China or India, but few positive African images. So what positive but real African stories are important enough to get on the Ten O’clock News?

Editor’s note – Richard has just appeared on Al Jazeera’s news analysis programme Inside Story to discuss Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. Watch the discussion in full here:


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3 thoughts on “When Mrs Thatcher met Mandela and Mo Ibrahim on Today – By Richard Dowden

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  2. I actually find this article quite touching and very emotional. It is crazy that after 30 years on this planet, I still don’t understand exactly why western media and powers don’t seem to have a favorable disposition to Africa. Also, I don’t understand how and why Africa is caught in this web of self pity and continuos spate of degradation and corruption. If toddlers can learn not to touch fire a second time, how long will it take us to learn what is right and wrong. How long will it take us to learn that certain powers do not want to see us succeed and start learning from such powers how to succeed. The way to success is one of the most publicised strategies and thanks to modernity, nothing is hidden anymore. I wonder when some African leaders will start learning that huge stash of money better serves the our humanity than as a bed and pillow to lie on. I wonder when we will start copying the positive things in the western world and start eschewing out negative tendencies.

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