Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Press Conference at Nassau Commonwealth Summit

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: ?Nassau Beach Hotel, Nassau, Bahamas
Source: Thatcher Archive: COI transcript
Editorial comments:

Exact time and place uncertain.

Importance ranking: Major
Word count: 3569
Themes: Trade, Foreign policy (Africa), Commonwealth (general), Commonwealth (Rhodesia-Zimbabwe), Commonwealth (South Africa), Terrorism, Famous statements by MT, British policy towards South Africa

Prime Minister

I hope that you have a copy of the Agreement which we reached this evening. May I highlight its main points:

You will be aware from the debates we had earlier in the week that the most important thing now is to get a discussion going between the South African Government and representatives of the black South Africans, and I feel certain that the government of South Africa knows and appreciates that. The question was therefore how could the Commonwealth best assist in that process?

Some thought full economic trade sanctions should be applied. Most of us did not think full economic sanctions should be applied, or at any rate, there were a sufficient number to be able to persuade the others that that was not the route. Nevertheless, many Commonwealth countries thought that one or two what they called “important psychological signals” should be sent to the South African Government, and we should therefore do something in that direction.

I, as you know, feel very strongly indeed that we should do all we can to help end the violence, because negotiations are not likely to succeed in an atmosphere of violence.

We also wondered what we could do directly and constructively to help. So that left us with three problems: [end p1]

What we could do to diminish and terminate the violence if negotiations took place. You will see from the text in front of you—may I just direct your attention to page 2; it is in fact paragraph 2(e) on page 2:

“That the Pretorian Government should initiate in the context of a suspension of violence on all sides, a process of dialogue across lines of colour, politics and religion, with a view to establishing a non-racial and representative government”.

That is the heart of the Agreement, and it is very important and we negotiated quite a long time about that clause. That is the helping to end the violence.

Second: the extra signals we should send in addition to those that have already been done are, as you know, we are already doing … we are not lending the South African Government money from our Government. That is point 1.

Two: that we will do all we can to stop the import of Krugerrands. I say “all we can”. It is actually a European Economic Community function, but we can do something. There are very few coming in, but nevertheless, colleagues felt we must send them psychological signals.

And third: the third one is that we are not going to use taxpayers' money to subsidise trade missions or trade fairs in South Africa. So that is the second one.

First, the ending of the violence, helping to end the violence.

Secondly, the signals, the extra signals which colleagues wished to send; and [end p2]

Thirdly, what could we do directly to help?

And recognising that South Africa is a wholly independent country, with very very strong views on all sides, we thought it would be best to try to send a group of senior people from the Commonwealth. Precisely who it shall be, we have not decided, so I think we called them “eminent persons”. That, of course, would include quite a wide range of people, to talk to the South African Government, to see what we could do to help or to provide some kind of international framework against which those negotiations could take place.

So there are the three aspects of this Agreement: the suspension of violence; the extra measures that I have indicated; and the very constructive effort to try to do what we can do to bring about a stable government in South Africa, in which people of all races, colours, creeds are involved.

Who the South Africans should negotiate with among black South Africans is not for us to say. It is not going to be an easy job, in fact, to select them all. A lot will perhaps wish to be involved. We cannot say. They can only say there.

What precise constitutional structure should come out, again, we cannot say; they have to negotiate there. But we have tried to build a kind of support and encouragement mechanism to indicate our views that things are on the move in South Africa and the sooner they are completed to get a government in which people of all backgrounds, colours, races and creeds are involved, the sooner we shall have a stable government; the sooner, I think, confidence will return to investment in South Africa and [end p3] in the future of South Africa.

That is the broad general background. Now, would you like to ask questions? [end p4]

John Dickie (“The Daily Mail”)

What reason have you for thinking, Prime Minister, that the South African Government will be any more ready to cooperate with this new mission than they have been to cooperate with the contacts of the Five on Namibia?

Prime Minister

First, I think, as I indicated, things are on the move in South Africa. You have noticed a considerable number of changes on the part of the South African Government. Certainly people will have said they should come about; well, they have come about.

Secondly, you will have noticed the difficulty in South Africa with repaying a debt. That, I think, has been a traumatic shock to South Africa. That is the judgment of the market place or people the world over who are involved in these things—that the present regime is not stable and will change, and until it is changed you will not, I feel, get the return of confidence which is necessary for the growth of South African business and trade to the benefit of all her people.

So there are two different things now.

Question (very faint)

Could you tell us, first of all, whether you have put your own name …   .

Prime Minister

Well, I have not put my own name forward. The United Kingdom is one of the group of nations which will put forward [end p5] eminent people. It seemed too early to decide who they should be, or whether they should be prime ministers or other people. And we have really negotiated so much, that one could not come out with instant decisions on that. It needs mulling over a little bit more, to see who would be best, who would be most experienced, who would be most likely to be successful; and we also have to consider how much time is given to it.

No, I think the main discussions were about, I think, the lack of effectiveness—I put my view—of economic sanctions: total economic sanctions, which of course would be a ban on all exports to and all imports from South Africa. I can see absolutely no point whatsover in doing that. Those sanctions would not work. They did not work in Rhodesia. Rhodesia was, of course, a land-locked state. South Africa is a country with a very considerable coastline and, of course, the Commonwealth is but a small part of the trading nations of the world; and if we went in for these things, other people would just get the trade. So it does not seem to me to be wise to go into that, and I think colleagues were prepared to be persuaded of that. Nevertheless, they still wanted to give some sign that we felt strongly about it—rather more than words.


Prime Minister, you came here determined to resist sanctions, but are not the three measures that you have announced sanctions, if only by another name? Did you not have to compromise on this? [end p6]

Prime Minister

Well, aren't they tiny? Just look at what we were faced with! Full, mandatory, economic sanctions; a ban on all imports; a ban on all exports. I do beg of you just to have a look at what has been agreed, and the Commonwealth is right: they are psychological signals, but important ones to the Commonwealth. It is important to keep the Commonwealth together on this. Insofar as we were able to be persuasive about the wider sanctions, it was important, I think, to go some way to meet them on the importance of signals.


Prime Minister, page 6, …   .

Prime Minister

My gosh! Did we actually get as far as page 6!

Question (same man)

I am afraid you did!

Prime Minister

That is what it felt like. Article 7, yes?


Will you take part in the review yourself and are we in any way committed to reconsider the sanctions question or introduce any …   . [end p7]

Prime Minister

As far as the review is concerned, obviously, whoever takes part in it, Sir Geoffrey Howethe Foreign Secretary and myself, and usually Cabinet, would be involved in considering a matter of this moment.

Whether I take a more prominent part has yet to be decided.

Now, this is drafted very carefully, this paragraph. “Some of us would in that event consider the following steps among others.”

Knowing my views on the lack of effectiveness of economic sanctions, I think you would be right to conclude that I am not one of the “some”, but as I did say to colleagues—and let me be absolutely serious about this—when you start on these things, you never know quite what is going to happen, quite what is going to come up, and in a situation like this—the one we have got in South Africa—you never know quite where it is going to go. And therefore, I will be frank. I did not want our hands tied. As you know, the Thatcher Law of Politics is that the unexpected happens. It does, and you do not want to tie your hands as to what you would do, and therefore it is drafted: certain things that would be considered and not exclusive of others and some of us would consider those particular things and some of us would not. Some of us might consider one of them and perhaps others not.

For example, a ban on airlines with South Africa: that affects people like ourselves and one or two others, and I made it quite clear that as far as I am concerned, we would not consider a ban on air links with South Africa, so long as conditions were all right for air (lines) to run, as I expect they would be. [end p8]

Question (Michael Evans, “Daily Express”)

Prime Minister, there have been a lot of to-ings and fro-ings and knocking on doors as far as we can gather today and yesterday, a lot of people coming to see you. What do you think was the key point today that actually changed the situation from deadlock to an agreement? What it krugerrands or was it something you said that changed their minds?

Prime Minister

They made it very clear that there was a group of countries in the meeting this morning that although there was a very considerable gap between us, they wanted, if it was possible, to get an agreed statement. Otherwise, it would have been one statement and possibly another issued by some other countries. And the question was: what was an agreed statement, and this worked quite strongly, I think, on all sides, and once we had negotiated this and I, as you know, am dead keen on the reducing and suspension of violence, and was prepared to do some extra, what they called “psychological signals” in order to get that—we have not got it before, you know; we had difficulty with this even on negotiating the Zimbabwe settlement; this is quite fresh, and it was worth paying some price to get it and it was worth paying some price to keep the Commonwealth together. It was, as you say, hard going.

And then, I think, that they were so relieved when we were all able to come out by hard negotiation with this, and due to excellent cooperation with those on the group and very very good chairmanship—when we came back to the full meeting—by Mr. [end p9] Pindling … I'm so sorry, Sir Lynden Pindling …   . we were able to get it through, because everyone realised that if they started to unpack any words, we should be in difficulty and this feeling—this great wish—to have an agreed statement came through very strongly.

Question (“Daily Mirror”)

How are you going to monitor the progress …   .

Prime Minister

I do not think it will be that difficult to monitor. Do not forget that quite a number of us have diplomatic representation there, so we are getting information out, and have many many contacts there. I do not think it will be that difficult to monitor. I think the news will come through.

If you are asking just precisely what you are going to judge by, I think they are judgments that it will be easier to recognise than to set down specific criteria whether there has in fact been progress.

I would say there has been considerable progress in the last few months, considerable progress, and I think it is as well to recognise that because I think you are likely to get more progress when you give not only pressure, but a little bit of encouragement as well.

Question (inaudible)

[end p10]

Prime Minister

Those countries that are enumerated there will be the ones that are really responsible for an overview, and we shall have to work fairly closely together. But it is not quite as difficult as it might seem. Again, I remember when we were doing the Zimbabwe Agreement, the numbers of telegrammes that went off, you know, at each stage of consultations or each stage of getting further agreement or each stage when some particular event happened was legion, and we got people coming in to see us and sending telegrammes out, so it does not turn out to be that difficult, bearing in mind that we do have a pretty good Foreign Office that are very very used to this kind of consultations and information in and information out.

So it does help to have had that past experience, but I expect we shall probably be at the centre of it, for the simple reason that we have done something which has some similarities and many differences before. But you have to remember South Africa is a fully independent government and it is persuasion and desire to get the result coupled with the feeling that now is the time when the result is needed. You know, we came to that feeling in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. I think we have got to that stage now with South Africa and I think that the Government of South Africa and the people in South Africa are among the first to feel it.

Question (inaudible)

[end p11]

Prime Minister

I would hope and believe that Pretoria will receive the Group. It goes with a wish to be constructive, a wish to do what we can to help, and I hope and believe that Pretoria will receive the Group. It will have to be established fairly soon, because six months is quite a short time.


A month?

Prime Minister

I think it will have to be established within a month, but whether it will visit there within a month I really cannot say, because we have got to decide first on who the people should be, who should make the contact.


Prime Minister, what is the hardest thing you had to swallow in order to get this agreement? …   . Krugerrands …   .

Prime Minister

A tiny little bit. Do you know the value of Krugerrands that are imported? Half a million pounds.


We started the conference off and really continued up until about five minutes ago with yourself, Prime Minister, being [end p12] isolated from the rest of the Commonwealth leaders. …   .

Prime Minister

Well they have joined me now!

Question (same man)

I wonder, even though there has been a tiny shift, as you put it, and even though you now have an agreement, whether you have in fact, through your determination to stick by no sanctions as a whole, whether you have lost some friends in the Commonwealth?

Prime Minister

I do not think so. I think the fact of the Agreement indicates that. After all, we have a very good record which they cannot gainsay, very good. Been through this before!

Question (“Time” Magazine)

I would like to take it the other way, Prime Minister. It would seem to me from a reading of this, there is no mention of the word “sanctions”, that you must be very very pleased with this kind of agreement, but I wonder if you can tell us in any kind of detail, as to how you managed to avoid getting that word in. You clearly expressed your point of view in your presentation the other day; there is a lot of your position in this Paper; but I wonder how you kept it out? You must be pleased with that!

Prime Minister

Look! I think what we have got here is right. Economic [end p13] sanctions do not work. The day when I went to the Lusaka Conference in 1979, which was the start of the negotiations from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, full mandatory United Nations Security Council sanctions had been on for 12 years and they had not worked!

They are not likely to work with South Africa, so it is a question of steady persuasion. But nevertheless, they felt that we had to send signals of disapproval that it had taken so long to dismantle apartheid and, after all, we have been sending those signals—well more than signals. There is one sanction, of course, to which we have all adhered and that is the sanction not to supply armaments, in accordance with the Security Council Resolution. I have been operating that since 1977.

Then there were other things that we started to do. We did not feel that we should sell nuclear material to the kind of regime we had got in South Africa. We did not feel that we should supply computers to any of the security forces. Those were three things already in existence. We did certain other things in conjunction with Europe just a few days ago, and the Commonwealth wanted to send its signals. But I hope that we got our point over about the main economic sanctions, they do not work. I thought we would manage to win on that one, because we obviously were not prepared to put them on.

I cannot for the life of me see the point in trying to, creating unemployment at home or in other countries in order to create unemployment in South Africa. It seems to me that would only add to their problems; it would not help to solve them.

Can I just say one other thing: people talk about [end p14] economic sanctions. Every single thing that you put on, which precludes exports or imports, does mean someone's job. Just supposing you were stopping exports from South Africa; then it means a lot of jobs of a lot of people there. Us pronouncing on them. It is not something that I really like to do, just say with a few words on a document that we are killing a lot of jobs. It does not seem to me to be a wise way to go about things.


…   . have you had some direct contact with the South African Government?

Prime Minister

No, but the South African Government has indicated that the next stage is to have some kind of—“dialogue” is the modern word—discussion with black South Africans on how to incorporate black South Africans into the whole process and structures of government, so that really is not new. If you look at all their published statements, it is quite clear.

I have had no contact on whether they would receive this Group, of course not, because the thing has only just come out.

David Adamson

Prime Minister, I think at the moment there is a ban on the sale of North Sea oil to South Africa. Does the clause banning the sale and export of oil to South Africa …   . the sale of oil carried on British tankers to South Africa? [end p15]

Prime Minister

No. This has come through from the European Agreement that we had. We interpret it—and they know we interpret it—as a ban on the sale of crude from the North Sea, because there is legislation which enables us to carry out that. It is exactly the same as what is in the European Agreement.

Question (inaudible)

(re contacts with the ANC)

Prime Minister

Well, as you know, I personally do not talk to people unless they are prepared to and do renounce violence. I mean, that is absolutely in keeping with every other thing, whether it be people from the PLO or other forms of terrorism. It is not for me to say what the Group would do as a whole. I only know what I would do, and that is the importance and the significance of the suspension of violence. Other people already do talk, of course, to some of the ANC. We have not talked through this particular thing any further than that, but I can again only stress the importance and significance of getting in that clause and phrase in 2(e).


Prime Minister, there have been a lot of complaints in all sorts of quarters, that the arms embargo is a very leaky instrument indeed. Will any steps be taken to tighten up that arms embargo to see that it really works in practice and that all sorts of equipment does not get through the net? [end p16]

Prime Minister

If we know of any people who are illegally trying to procure arms for sale to South Africa, they are prosecuted. As you know, there have been prosecutions, because we believe in operating this. Sometimes, you can have spares made outside Britain by very skillful people, at a price. I do know that we do everything in our power to see that that sanction is upheld and, as you know, we have taken steps to prosecute people when we thought that they were trying to contravene it, and will continue to do so.

Question (inaudible)

Prime Minister

Everyone was pretty vocal. I think it was really after this morning's meeting that it was turned, when it was realised that it was far better to have an agreement on something which was important, than to try to go ahead and get full economic sanctions, and some people in the Commonwealth made that very very clear.

We all had our go! It was pretty even. Mr. Mulroney, Mr. Gandhi, Mr. Hawke, those were the three I saw most of.


How would you sum up the three days?

Prime Minister

Hard going, but it produced a result, so the hard going does not matter.