Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech on accepting an honorary doctorate of laws at Rand Afrikaans University

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Rand Afrikaans University, Johannesburg
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments: Embargoed until 1700.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 1380
Themes: British Constitution (general discussions), Civil liberties, Commonwealth (South Africa), Higher & further education, Foreign policy (Africa), Law & order


Mr Dr. Gerrit ViljoenChancellor, Mr Rector, honoured guests.

Dis vir my'n groot voorreg om vandag hier te wees!

[Phonetically: “Dis Fur may a hroot foor-regh om fandag hee-er te vee-ess” ]

[It is a great pleasure for me to be here today]

Rand Afrikaans University is a new University, founded less than a quarter of a century ago. I am no stranger to new colleges myself. I went to Somerville College, founded as recently as 1879: a spring chicken by Oxford standards!

The first Rector of this University and the person who played the most crucial role in launching it was your Chancellor, Dr Gerrit Viljoen. I am honoured by his presence and by the fact that it is from him that I shall be receiving this honorary doctorate today. [end p1]

Dr Viljoen is a man of immense culture and learning, having been educated at no fewer than three universities—Pretoria, Leyden and, of course, at King's College, Cambridge. Despite gaining first class honours at Cambridge, he has remained remarkably level-headed! I am extremely glad—and I think we all are glad—that the negotiations for a new constitution in which all South Africans have full democratic rights are in his capable hands.

After Dr Viljoen you were fortunate to have another outstanding Rector in Professor Pieter de Lange. Professor de Lange has played no less distinguished a role than Dr Viljoen in the great new movement of Afrikanerdom that is taking place today—and no less courageous a role as well.


Afrikaners are rightly attached to their religion, their culture and, of course, their language. Afrikaans is strong because it lives in the hearts and minds of millions of South Africans. It is a language that emerged from South Africa's unique history—and it is an important comment on that history that Afrikaans is the first language of so many White, Coloured and Black South Africans alike. It brings them together; and it must continue to do so. [end p2]

So let Afrikaans-language universities flourish. Let them go from strength to strength. Let them be open to all. Let admission be determined by merit, not by colour nor by race. That is the way to keep Afrikaans-speakers in the mainstream of public life.

The University as a Community of Learning

This university has a special cultural purpose. It is deliberately modern and practical in much of its work. It has profited from many of the changes which have taken place over the centuries in what we expect of our universities. Let me say a word about what seem to me the purposes of higher education.

The early universities were truly communities of learning. They grew up around inspiring teachers. That itself gives us a precious insight into what makes a great university at any time and in any place.

Today a balance has to be struck between competing objectives. Universities must provide the knowledge and skills required for economic progress. But they have to do so as a community of learning which pursues intellectual excellence. [end p3]

This is a guarantee of mutual respect and regard for others' integrity. It ensures that, however much we rightly specialise or pursue vocational objectives, we remain aware of that wider civilisation which has grown down the centuries, which has shaped western man and which it is our duty to conserve and to develop.

Law at a University

At Oxford, I read Chemistry. But, as many of you may know, I later qualified and practised at the Bar. I learned law for a practical purpose. Yet the more I understood it the more fascinated I became by its history, purpose and underlying principles.

The study of law is also uniquely valuable in training the mind to grasp, organise and apply principles to the practical affairs of public life. And that is indeed what is now expected of many of those teaching and practising law in South Africa today.

There is a new constitution to be drawn up. There is a judicial system which must face great challenges: it has not only to deal with the criminal violence which has caused such grave concern this year but also to retain the confidence of South Africans through this time of political change. There is, also, a wider and deeper issue to which we must address our minds—and that is the importance of the rule of law itself for democracy. [end p4]

The Rule of Law

What is the rule of law?

It is more than the statute law passed by the Government of the day. The great principles of law were based on custom, on redressing grievances and on fairness. We speak of that as the Common Law. As President Theodore Roosevelt put it in 1903:

“Law is largely crystallised custom, largely a mass of remedies which have been slowly evolved to meet the wrongs with which humanity has become thoroughly familiar.”

It is that approach which continued to inform our Parliamentarians in making the law so that it was not merely a matter of majorities in Parliament but that Parliamentarians respected fundamental principles.

And, as Hayek said, laws are not just commands. “Laws must apply equally to everybody. And that includes the Government too, whose actions must be—and be seen to be—subject to those laws.” [end p5]

But freedom without law is freedom only for the strong at the expense of the weak. Freedom without law is therefore no freedom, but rather anarchy or tyranny. Law is the bond of all civil society.

We are not asking a favour of a man when we ask him to obey the law. Obedience of the rule of law is necessary for the continuance of liberty itself.

Doubtless you will point out that laws have not always been just—indeed they have been very unjust. In South Africa that certainly has been the case. Thankfully, that is now being remedied. And alongside that, democracy has yet to be achieved.

In Britain, full parliamentary democracy came slowly. Parliament had its origins in the thirteenth century. Not until the seventeenth century was its central position in the realm established. At the time of the First World War only one third of the adult population had the vote. It was not until 1928, when all adults had the vote, that Britain, by modern definitions, could properly be termed a full democracy. [end p6]

So the rule of law can precede full democracy. But even limited democracy cannot work without the rule of law administered by an independent judiciary.

Respect for the rule of law is the abiding condition for freedom and a civilised society.

That is a measure of the importance of the subject so many of you are studying at the University.

Hope for the Future

As President de Klerk has said, South Africans have embarked upon nothing less than building a new nation. South Africa is finding for itself an identity, a unity and sense of purpose to carry it forward in the years ahead.

Of course, within that nation different loyalties and traditions will remain. The variety they bring can be a strength not a weakness. Here at the Rand Afrikaans University this is something of which you are very much aware.

For many years, I have fought to give South Africans a chance to solve their problems without being brought low by outside threats and pressures. You cannot give people hope of a better life by destroying their industry and commerce. I opposed sanctions not because I have the slightest [end p7] sympathy for apartheid. It is a system which is morally wrong. Rather, I did so because I believe that, given the right framework and the right opportunities, people from any background, race or colour can make a success of their lives and of their country. That belief grows stronger every day. And so does my confidence as I learn more of the heroic efforts South Africans are making to overcome past difficulties and differences.

I place my hope in the qualities of South Africa's leaders and in the perseverance of her people. I place my hope in the changes which have taken place in the world community which is beginning to welcome South Africa back into the fold. And I place my hope in the proven capacity for free and democratic institutions under a rule of law to bind up old wounds and give new life.

Mr Chancellor, Mr Rector, Ladies and Gentlemen thank you for the great honour you do me. This day, this university and this great country will remain in my thoughts and close to my heart in the years which lie ahead.