It's widely known that Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died on Monday at age 87, once called the African National Congress, South Africa's anti-apartheid party, a "typical terrorist organization" that was "living in cloud-cuckoo land if it thought it was going to run the country." That "different view" notwithstanding, one of former South African President Nelson Mandela's close friends, Ahmed Kathrada, told the BBC today that Thatcher played an important role in saving Mandela's life when he was accused of an attempt to overthrow the government.
Instead of receiving the death sentence that some expected, he spent 27 years in prison. Kathrada remembers that infamous "terrorist" comment, too, but he's still convinced that Thatcher played a behind-the-scenes role in the sentencing that led to Mandela's eventual release. Andrew Harding, the BBC's Africa correspondent, reports:
"I had the opportunity to accompany [Margaret Thatcher] a few years ago," said Mr Kathrada.
"She assured me that she had played a positive role during our trial.
"We were expecting a death sentence. We were well aware that there was all sorts of pressure from South Africa and abroad — pressure from people not necessarily agreeing with" the ANC's policies, he said …
"I'm not interested in whether she was prime minister or whatever," said Mr Kathrada, when I quizzed him on the likelihood that Baroness Thatcher was personally involved in any behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure on South Africa's apartheid government.
"I had no reason to doubt what she was saying and it was good to hear she played a role" …
Mr Mandela did not meet her on his first visit to London in 1990 after his release, but Mr Kathrada insisted that no grudge was held.
"We were quite aware [that she'd called us terrorists] but we had forgiven our oppressors, and Mrs Thatcher wasn't one of our oppressors," Mr Kathrada said.
"Once we'd forgiven our oppressors — the national government and individuals — we didn't find it difficult to forgive everybody who had different views from us."
Read more at the BBC.