As soon as the sad passing of South African civil rights icon Nelson Mandela was announced, and prime Minister David Cameron described him as “a hero of our time”, images have surfaced on social media of the “hang Mandela” posters created by the Federation of Conservative Students (FCS) in the 1980s.
The Tory Thatcher government of the 1980s did describe Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) he represented as terrorists. Moreover, along with the Reagan administration in the US, they supported a policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid government in Pretoria rather than sanctions in order to push for reforms as they saw South Africa as an ally against the threat of communism in Africa.
A 23-year-old David Cameron also enjoyed a trip to apartheid South Africa in 1989, whilst Mandela was still in prison, as a “fact-finding mission” funded by Strategy Network International (SNI). SNI was formed in 1985 specifically as a lobby group against the imposition of sanctions on apartheid South Africa and was reported to have good relations with then South African president PW Botha.
However, with regard to the “Hang Mandela” posters created by the FCS, Cameron appears to have had little or no role. Some of his Conservative peers at Oxford were widely reported to have had the image printed on badges and t-shirts, but from all accounts Cameron appears to have had little interest in politics whilst he was a student unlike Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. He was reportedly more interested in having a good time and the Bullingdon Club.
Since entering politics Cameron has made it clear that he disagrees with the stance of the Thatcher government on apartheid and even described Mandela as a personal hero for what he achieved in reconciling South Africans. Whilst this stance may have the benefit of hindsight, when he visited Mandela in 2006, he does appear to have wanted to meet a genuine leader and icon of our time.
We should condemn the Tory party of the 1980s for not pushing against apartheid and those young Conservative students that tried to provoke outrage with the posters, t-shirts and badges, but on this occasion it does not appear that the Prime Minister was in the same camp.