Margaret Thatcher died yesterday. Or the day before maybe, I don’t know. At any rate, Thatcher died, and now the hagiographers and the demonizers can have their day. All by herself, apparently, Thatcher “reforged Britain”, “transfixed the United States”, and was “a great leader, a great prime minister and a great Briton.” And how did England’s ‘Iron Lady’ engage with the African continent?
While much attention will be paid, rightly, on Thatcher’s involvements with southern Africa, and in particular with the independence and liberation movements of Zimbabwe and Namibia and the anti-apartheid movements of South Africa, it should be remembered that the country of Africa is more than its southern suburbs.
On one hand, as noted by Onyango Oloo, National Coordinator for the Kenyan Social Forum 2006 and member of the Nairobi Organizing Council for the World Social Forum Nairobi 2007, Thatcher was known as a strong woman who “had, at most, two women ministers appointed and who passed some of the most sexist policies which impacted the movement.” Her commitments, both domestically and globally, were to free market and security, not to women or any other popular, much less disenfranchised or struggling, group. As R. W. Connell commented, “Public politics on almost any definition is men’s politics… Leaders are recruited to office through men’s networks. The few women who do break through, such as Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher, do so by their exceptional use of men’s networks, not women’s.” The same is true for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “Africa’s Iron Lady”: It’s interesting how many commentators remark of Johnson-Sirleaf — and it’s meant as a compliment — that the future president is ‘not really a woman’. Or, as her supporters shouted, “Ellen, she’s our man.”
Other than the considerable accomplishment of breaking through a glass ceiling, Thatcher’s ascendancy didn’t mean a whole lot for women on the continent. Except in South Africa and the frontline states. There the story is worse.
Lesiba Seshoka, of the National Union of Mineworkers, has a different view: “She will be remembered as one of the harshest leaders the trade unions in Britain had to face, and many more in the formal colonial countries faced the wrath of her reign of terror.”
Pallo Jordan, who remembers the days when Thatcher insisted that the ANC was a terrorist organization, “I say good riddance. She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime. She was part of the rightwing alliance with Ronald Reagan that led to a lot of avoidable deaths. In the end I sat with her in her office with Nelson Mandela in 1991. She knew she had no choice. Although she called us a terrorist organization, she had to shake hands with a terrorist and sit down with a terrorist. So who won?”
And Dali Tambo (son of late ANC leader, Oliver) remembers the “terrorism”-charge as well: “My gut reaction now is what it was at the time when she said my father was the leader of a terrorist organisation. I don’t think she ever got it that every day she opposed sanctions, more people were dying, and that the best thing for the assets she wanted to protect was democracy.”
Some have ‘credited’ Thatcher’s neoliberal policies, and policing, with contributing to the HIV-pandemic in Swaziland and elsewhere, in particular by forcing “cutting government spending on social services (such as public healthcare)”. Others note that Thatcher’s energetic opposition to sanctions and support for right wing forces in what became Zimbabwe and Namibia prolonged the state of violence across the breadth of southern Africa.
Who then was Margaret Thatcher? Ask Fela Kuti. Consider the above cover of his album, “Beasts of No Nation” (1989). It featured a horrific tableau of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, P.W. Botha, and Mobutu Sese Seko, all with bloody rat’s teeth, dwarfed by Fela’s huge head. In the corner was a quote from Botha, the inspiration for the title track: “This uprising will bring out the beast in us!”
Or consider the lyrics to “Beasts of No Nation”, first released in 1978:
Dem call the place, the “United Nations”
Hear-oh another animal talk
Wetin united inside “United Nations”?
Who & who unite, for “United Nations”?
No be there Thatcher & Argentina dey
No be there Reagan & Lib-i-ya dey
Is-i-rael versus Lebanon
Iran-i-oh versus Iraq-i
East West Block versus West Block East
No be there dem dey oh- United Nations
Dis “united” United Nations
One veto vote is equal to 92 […or more or more]
What kind sense be dat, na animal sense
What kind sense be dat? Dat be Thatcher sense, and it’s still very much alive. So, if you can, take a second and catch up with Fela Kuti … in honor of Margaret Thatcher.