Friday, 10 January 2014

Freedom of Information papers show Thatcher deliberately ignored South African terrorism in the UK when she embraced Apartheid leader PW Botha.

Some papers revealing the truth about how Thatcher welcomed Apartheid leader - and Mandela's jailer - PW Botha to the UK in 1984 were released this January.

However, if you want more detail of Thatcher's welcome for Botha, I published details of previously secret papers about the visit back in 2008.

In 1984, the British Establishment welcomed his predecessor, who also doubled as his jailer, when Margaret Thatcher invited South African president PW Botha to London.
Papers which I obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that Tory home secretary Leon Brittan wanted Thatcher to tell Botha to stop the South African campaign of bombs and burglaries which the apartheid bosses ran from their London embassy. But Thatcher was so keen to be friends with Botha that she overruled Brittan and refused to condemn South African terrorism in Britain.
Botha's visit was the first official visit of an apartheid leader to London since 1961. The invitation was encouraged by then US Republican president Ronald Reagan
A letter from the US says that this is part of "a courageous strategic stance toward Southern Africa being taken by Washington, London and some other Western capitals." The visit, by Botha, his foreign minister Pik Botha and others was a big prize for the apartheid leadership.
Ministers were given "briefing papers" for the visits. These show that the government thought that the apartheid state was an important strategic and trading ally.
"Britain and SA have common interest in rolling back communist influence," they say. They refer to other South African links, including "military collaboration - delicate matter for us. Military relations necessarily constrained. Nonetheless value military intelligence and attache relationship. Want it to continue on reasonable working basis."
The papers also emphasise extensive trading interests with South Africa.
The briefs for ministers, titled South Africa Internal, show Britain's stand on apartheid. The government believed in reasonable, slow reform. The brief advises: "Do not seek to prescribe solutions. For South Africans to decide. Recognise complexity of situation and no simple solutions. Very much in favour of a peaceful and evolutionary process of change."
Underlying this attitude was a feeling that South Africa "presently faces no significant threat from the politically and physically divided blacks" and so could have "steady but controlled change."
The Tories wanted apartheid to be very slowly reformed away because "permanent stability requires black acquiescence in the system. See the problem of how to offer blacks an alternative they can accept without creating a serious white backlash."
In fact, the Foreign Office was profoundly wrong. By 1985, white rule had to be buttressed by successive states of emergency. Township uprisings, a bloody fightback from the state and its allies and mass strikes began the violent end of apartheid.
The minutes of the talks between the British and South African ministers show the way in which Thatcher and her ministers tried to balance support for the South Africans with criticism of apartheid.
Thatcher told Botha that there was a "natural reservoir of goodwill. But our political attitude was affected by one enormous problem - we felt strongly that people's rights should not be determined by the colour of their skin.
"Particular repugnance was felt at the forced removal of blacks to new areas. We appreciated the great strategic importance of South Africa. Nor did we wish communism to spread in Africa or elsewhere because, to us, communism represented denial of human dignity."
Thatcher did call for Mandela's release, but the issue was only raised once in four hours of talks. Thatcher had a 40-minute private one-to-one discussion with Botha. The papers say "no notetakers were present," but, according to a "secret" letter based on Thatcher's account, the prime minister "took the opportunity to raise the case of Nelson Mandela. Botha said that he noted the prime minister's remarks, but that he was not able to interfere with the South African judicial process."
However, despite extensive briefing, Thatcher was soft on South African terrorism.
In 1982, agents from South Africa's Bureau of State Security (BOSS) exploded a bomb at the ANC London headquarters, possibly in an attempt to kill Oliver Tambo, although the device actually only slightly injured a caretaker. BOSS agents also broke into the offices of the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement.
In the run-up to Botha's visit, home secretary Leon Brittan approached the Foreign Office for "the activities of the South African embassy and our attitude towards it to be looked at formally in the context of the follow-up to the Libyan People's Bureau Incident," a reference to the murder of Yvonne Fletcher, a policewoman shot by gunmen from inside Libya's "embassy" in that year.
In particular, Brittan referred to "the break-in at the Anti-Apartheid Movement office in London. He wonders why no decision had yet been taken on a recommendation about action with the South Africans. He also questions the judgement that a ceiling on staff at the South African mission would be either practical nor effective."
Brittan did want to punish the South Africans by reducing their staffing, but he was opposed by Foreign Office resistance.
The Foreign Office resisted Brittan, but it did take South African burglaries and bombs seriously. One of the briefs for ministers says: "South African Intelligence Activities: Directed primarily against the ANC and SWAPO and a constant source of political embarrassment."
The paper adds: "Evidence that has recently become available to us implicates a number of South African officials (names redacted) in a break-in in May 1983 at the Anti-Apartheid Movement's headquarters. We cannot feel confident that they had taken our earlier warnings to heart. FCO and Home Office ministers are, therefore, agreed that a general warning should be repeated during Mr PW Botha's visit."
A briefing for a meeting between Thatcher and a delegation from the Anti-Apartheid Movement before Botha's visit shows that the home secretary was pushing Thatcher to raise the issue with during the visit.
The brief contains a secret note reading: "(NOT FOR USE: the Secretary of State has recommended that the Prime Minister should raise the question of improper activities by members of the South African embassy with Mr Botha during his visit)."
However, according to a teleletter to the British embassy in South Africa, the "improper activities by the SA embassy were not raised" during the meeting between Thatcher and Botha.

( This piece of mine originally appeared , with one or two changes in the Morning Star, June  June 27, 2008 Friday, to coincide with the celebration of Nelson Mandela's birthday in Hyde Park  under the title " Our apartheid hypocrisy;  : Why the Establishment wants us to forget its old position on Nelson Mandela")

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

People, we have a Situation : What Guy Debord and his merry gang of Situationists can tell today's protestors

Guy DeBord and his situationists get three entries in the index of Paul Mason's recent book "Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere!". Rosa Luxemburg, for example, has none. 

So who is Debord? 

Mason's index isn't faulty. 

His survey of today's rebels reflects their mood pretty well. Debord led a small, eccentric political group and coined some smart slogans. Luxemburg was a revolutionary intellectual whose organisation deposed one of Europe's most powerful dictators before she was murdered by a fascist gang. But Debord's situationists are more influential among many of today's "troublemakers" than Luxemburg's Spartacus League. Debord's "situationist international" was drawn from politically minded members of a Dada-ish bunch of bohemian artistic intellectuals in the late 1950s.

Over the next 20 years Debord argued we were living in the "society of the spectacle" - consumer capitalism drenched the world with empty rituals. "All that was once directly lived has become a mere representation," he said. His group stayed small, if noisy. They supplied some slogans for the events in Paris in 1968 but not a lot of manpower. But posthumously Debord is doing well. His situationist ideas might be more influential now because what he termed "the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing" seems even stronger now than then.

The "will of the people" first became the will to buy stuff, then merely the will to look like you have stuff. So last year's riots seemed like a rebellion by the poor. But they also looked like a rebellion demanding more brand-label products from JD Sports. And watching the X Factor makes me feel all Debord-y. The "spectacle" means soaking in a talentless talent show, an image of society where the "little people" beg to show their small skills to the benign bosses who will mold them into something great.

In any rebellious movement angry students are the first to move, and Debord speaks to them. Debord and his small gang of argumentative provocateurs picked at capitalism's cultural crap rather than, say, the organisation of the state or the workplace. This has a particular appeal for student radicals - not least because they might find him on their booklists. Art-college kids and "cultural studies" students find Debord one of the more exciting nuggets in the big pile of cultural studies. "All power to the imagination" is a great slogan for students paying for the privilege of being told how to think. Apprentices in the ideas factory, students are interested in the argument that society is held together by a network of empty images and hollow slogans.

I'm quite sympathetic to the  Debordian. I know that if you want to drop his name properly you should pronounce Guy to rhyme with "see," not "eye." The first demonstration I went on was organised by Fluxus, who were light-hearted cousins of the situationists. Yoko Ono was a Fluxus artist. Her "bed-in for peace" protests with John Lennon were a Fluxus political stunt. They were versions of the situationists' subversive political pranks, the "detournements" (diversions) that sought to hijack mainstream spectacles for radical ends. I should point out that I was taken to Fluxus artist Robin Page's 1967 event Protest March in a pushchair by my mum and dad. This "action event" was a protest in Leeds where everyone had to make their own placard expressing their own particular discontent. Mine was either a blue tomato (who says they should be red?) or Desperate Dan.

Debord's heirs have picked up his insistence that "using spectacular images and language to disrupt the flow of the spectacle" was key. Situationist-influenced protesters are keen on the stunt - the ironic, bizarre and witty disruption of mainstream messages, like Adbusters magazine or the entertaining work of Britain's Space Hijackers. They recently put For Sale signs in front of leading hospitals and freaked out the police by turning up at 2009's G20 demonstration dressed as comedy coppers in their very own tank. UK Uncut's street-theatre guerilla actions in high-profile high street shops have a dash of situationism. Their "detournements" turned the consumer spectacle of Topshop into national debates about Tories and tax-avoiders. In many ways modern situation-ish protesters have done a better job than Debord.

But I think there are problems. I think Debord underestimated the more basic systems of control which underlie the "spectacle," paying less attention to how the basic disciplines of work and worklessness keep capitalism together. The corporate emperors' grip on society relies on the way they control bread as well as circuses. But the situationist approach seems to suggest that the main way to unseat our Caesars involves disrupting the circus with well-placed farting noises, comedy gladiators and lion-confusion tactics. All of which are great - but we need to look at the bakery as well. The situationist influence has helped an effective rejuvenation of protest, keying into pop-cultural themes, catching the imagination and cutting right into the heart of some of capitalism's hypocrisies.

But we need more than symbolic occupations and protests to change society. Frankly just to stop existing attacks on our conditions we will probably need factory occupations and picket lines. So we need to create a transmission belt between the new protesters and the labour movement. The spirit of the situationist-inspired protesters should have some direct interplay with the branch, committee and conference meetings of the union movement. And the new protesters need to negotiate how their "detournements" work with the broader union movement: are they startling events that enthuse wider layers, or self-indulgent stupidity? "Black bloc" activities are arguably a very dour inheritance from Debord, and one which is almost entirely counterproductive. Equally the trade union movement should grab the post-situationist protesters with a friendly hand. Len McCluskey's suggestion of Olympic protests was a moment when Debordian "detournement" flickered across the labour movement. But we should make this real - not rhetorical - on both sides.
 (This piece I wrote on the Situationists originally appeared in the Morning Star on 22-Mar-2013)