It is a great pleasure for me to be able to address the Margaret Thatcher Centre Gala Dinner. After we both retired from politics Baroness Thatcher and I, and our spouses, met on several occasions and became friends. I would like to share with you my thoughts about the contribution that she made to the constitutional transformation of South Africa.
It is important to remember that when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 the country that we call South Africa was only 69 years old.
Like most African countries it was an artificial construction of European powers.
Modern South Africa was forged in the wars of conquest that the British fought in southern Africa during the 19th century against the three dominant peoples of the sub-continent – the Xhosas; the Zulus; and my people, the Afrikaners.
The Anglo-Boer War was by far the biggest of the 50 or so wars that Britain fought between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. It required the deployment of 430 000 British troops – compared with the 30 000 that were sent to the Crimea – and 65 000 that fought in the American War of Independence.
At the beginning of the 20th century Britain found itself in possession of an assortment of vexatious territories in Southern Africa – that one historian quipped it had acquired in ‘a fit of absent-mindedness’. Its solution was to create a union or federations along the lines of the recently established federations in Canada and Australia. A National Convention was assembled in 1908 and reached agreement on a draft constitution which was adopted by the British Parliament in September 1909 as the South Africa Act.
On 31 May 1910 the Union of South Africa was born. Like so many other imperial creations in Africa its artificial borders encompassed widely different peoples with divergent interests. However, the South Africa Act, at the insistence of the white national groups, put whites firmly in control of the new country by making the white-elected Parliament sovereign.
For the next 40 years South Africa developed more or less along the lines of the other Commonwealth dominions.
There was, however, an enormous difference between South Africa and the other dominions. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand the indigenous populations were weak and soon became marginalised minorities. South Africa, by contrast, ruled over a large black majority with a relatively advanced culture, coherent political systems and strong sense of ethnic identity.
Until the mid-50s, in a continent that was still dominated by European powers, white minority rule in South Africa seemed unexceptional. In a world in which racial discrimination was still shockingly the rule rather than the exception, South Africa’s segregation policies elicited little criticism.
Then, after World War II everything began to change.
A new norm of racial non-discrimination and national self-determination emerged from the rubble of the war that signalled the imminent end of colonialism in Africa and Asia.
The rejection of racial discrimination and the idea that nations should have the right to rule themselves were among of the greatest advances of mankind during the 20th century.