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African National Congress (Talks)

Volume 100: debated on Wednesday 25 June 1986

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3.30 pm

(by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, if he will make a statement on the talks yesterday with the African National Congress.

At Her Majesty's Government's invitation, Mr. Oliver Tambo, acting president of the African National Congress, called on me on 24 June. I expressed grave concern at the continuing violence in South Africa and emphasised that violence could never lead to a solution to South Africa's problems. A suspension of violence on all sides was essential to create a climate for real dialogue and negotiations. I also stressed to Mr. Tambo the British Government's continuing commitment to the early and complete elimination of apartheid. It was a useful and candid exchange of views.

I congratulate the Minister on her courage in changing the Prime Minister's line by meeting Mr. Oliver Tambo. We, and the majority of British people, warmly welcome the Government's recognition, however belated, of the reality that the ANC speaks for the voiceless millions in South Africa.

Does the Minister realise that that historic meeting will be seen as little more than a gesture unless it becomes part of a process of dialogue with real opinion in South Africa —a country described by Mrs. Helen Suzman last night as being like a latin American dictatorship—and part of a process of pressure, through meaningful sanctions, on the economy of South Africa? Even today's edition of the Financial Times says that the policies of the Government in Pretoria have finally made sanctions unavoidable.

Will the Government now take steps to protect Britain's national interest and international responsibilities? At the EEC summit tomorrow, will the Government finally take a lead in abandoning their role as the last supporters of apartheid in the world, and instead put the maximum pressure on South Africa in order to prevent the bloodshed predicted by the Eminent Persons Group? If the Minister needs guidance at this difficult time in her dealings with the ANC, will she look to the bankers and business men, who also met Mr. Tambo yesterday, and will she reject with contempt the isolated, unrepresentative voices from the past which may come from the Benches behind her?

Our meeting yesterday was a further step in our efforts to promote dialogue and a suspension of violence, following the official-level contacts which took place in February, and subsequently. It is generally held that the African National Congress represents a large number of black voices but not exclusively. I shall quote what Mr. Nelson Mandela said to Mrs. Helen Suzman on 5 May:

"All groups across the political spectrum, including Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha, should be involved in negotiations for a new South Africa."
We cannot disagree with that sensible comment.

The hon. Gentleman asked for meaningful action. The European Council meets tomorrow and on Friday. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary will have in mind all the possible meaningful action that might need to be taken. We are concerned about British interests—of course we are—but we also want to bring an end to violence and make a real start to dialogue and negotiations. We shall have no hesitation in leading the way, in the most effective way possible, to bring about an end to apartheid.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, while the ANC undoubtedly represents an important section of black African opinion in South Africa, it by no means represents the whole of that opinion, and perhaps not even a majority? Does my hon. Friend appreciate that her meeting with Mr. Tambo could have given the impression to moderate Africans, who are not pro-apartheid but are anti-ANC, that the British Government are coming down firmly in favour of regarding the ANC as the principal negotiating partner with whom Mr. Botha should be doing business? Will she take this opportunity to make it clear that we do not regard the ANC as the principal negotiating partner, but only one of many?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the African National Congress is indeed one of many. It is impossible to say exactly whether it represents the majority of black opinion, but as I said a few moments ago, it is clear that ANC leaders believe that other voices should also be heard in a dialogue between all peoples.

I do not think that the meeting that I held yesterday on behalf of Her Majesty's Government will give the wrong impression to other groups because I have always made it clear, as has my right hon. and learned Friend, that the dialogue has to be between all groups. The fact that Mr. Oliver Tambo was in London yesterday was a coincidence, so far as we were concerned, but it was an opportunity to open a dialogue which may be very valuable in bringing an end to violence and in making a start to dialogue and negotiation.

Is the hon. Lady aware that we welcome the meeting and the apparently constructive spirit in which it took place? Is the hon. Lady also willing to meet Dr. Allan Boesak of the United Democratic Front who is coming to, or might even be in, London? When the hon. Lady talks about the suspension of violence, does she realise that most of the violence is by the South African Government, with whom Her Majesty's Government are seeking a dialogue?

Any suggestions that Ministers should meet various people will be considered on their merits, as they occur and according to the situation at the time. Of course we condemn violence, from wherever it comes, because we firmly believe that no resolution of the awful problems in South Africa can be attained by continuing violence, whether it involves bombings in Durban, the awful bombings yesterday on Johannesburg, which we have condemned, or the earlier bombings on 19 May on Lusaka, Harare and Gaborone. They are all to be deplored.

Does my hon. Friend accept that many of my right hon. and hon. Friends believe that she was right to see the ANC, as an important voice to be heard at this time? Will she repudiate totally the comment from the Opposition Front Bench that our party is the last supporter of apartheid? Will she remind the Opposition Front Bench that it was this Government who managed to negotiate a settlement in Zimbabwe? Will she assure us that the Government, with our friends in the Commonwealth, will lead in taking any necessary measures to put all possible pressure on the South African Government to ensure the maintenance of the Commonwealth and the fundamental change needed in South Africa?

I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. We shall certainly never be lagging in our condemnation of apartheid. It is true that the settlement at the Lancaster house talks on Zimbabwe, however difficult it was to come by, shows good signs for the long term in bringing about the sort of multiracial society for which so many people in the Conservative party have worked so hard in the past.

Of course we want the Commonwealth to take a lead, and we want to take a lead within the Commonwealth. The most important action is to take effective measures, because to take measures that simply bring greater trouble would do no good, either for the Commonwealth or for this country, and certainly not for the black people of South Africa.

Will the hon. Lady continue to act with the courage that she demonstrated yesterday, and urge the Cabinet to ensure that any possible commission that involves Europe will consider sanctions as well as representations?

Will the hon. Lady deplore the actions of a regime that is obviously so insecure that not only has it cancelled its farcical press conferences but has felt it necessary to do what Mr. Gorbachev did not do — steal the shadow Foreign Secretary's camera?

I was not aware of the last violation of law that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Members of the Cabinet and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will go with an open mind and considerable information to the European Council, to our colleagues the leaders of the economic Seven and to the Commonwealth review Meeting to discuss in what effective way we can bring about a change of attitude by the South African Government.

Of course we deplore the actions of a regime that institutes a state of emergency with 180-day detentions. We have done that throughout, and we shall continue to do so. Representations are today being made to the South African Government, both in Pretoria and in London, about the state of emergency, the arrests and the detention without trial.

When carrying through Government policy after the interview yesterday, will my hon. Friend try to ensure that the Government do not find themselves isolated either from the Commonwealth or from the EEC in being unwilling to take the lead in positive action to show that we absolutely condemn the racist and repressive measures of the South African Government? We should be in the lead, not following.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Foreign Secretary and of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

Does the hon. Lady appreciate that violence by black South Africans cannot and will not be suspended until Nelson Mandela is released, and that peaceful negotiations cannot and will not begin until that happens?

The hon. Gentleman knows only too well that we have repeatedly called for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and other detainees, because we believe that that would release a man who could lead not only moderate opinion but some of those whose actions have become out of hand and who are under the control of no one. We hope that there will be an early unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and others like him.

Should not the Foreign Office be congratulated on the timing of this cautious preliminary contact? Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the number of other European countries that have made similar contacts with the ANC? Is it not especially farcical to compare the position in South Africa with that in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is wrong to compare the position in South Africa with that in Northern Ireland, where there is a universal franchise. The same position simply does not exist.

Whatever contacts each country of the European Community — or, indeed, the Commonwealth — is seeking, they must be carried out in the manner that is most effective in bringing an end to apartheid.

Is it not a fact that, where there is no democracy and there is brutal and terrible repression of the majority of the people on a racialist basis, the majority are bound at some stage to fight back and to use violence? Is it not also a fact that the real violence, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, was the state visit of Mr. Botha here, who was welcomed here not long ago by the Prime Minister against the wishes of the people? The Opposition welcome the discussions that the Minister has had with Mr. Tambo, but it is not sufficient merely to sympathise. We want economic sanctions imposed against South Africa to help the people of that country towards freedom.

I should remind the hon. Gentleman that only yesterday the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said:

"I am grateful and flattered by the Prime Minister's interest … does she understand that the sanctions that will be most effective are not general economic sanctions but financial sanctions?"—[Official Report, 24 June 1986; Vol. 100, c. 177.]
That is the deputy leader of the Labour party. We understand the frustration of many people in South Africa, both black and white, but violence will not solve the problems of that country. An end to apartheid, however, will do a great deal to bring violence to an end. I remind the hon. Gentleman that dialogue means more than talking when suitable opportunities may occur to someone like Mr. Oliver Tambo; it means talking so as to influence the South African Government.

Will my hon. Friend explain why, if it is wrong to receive the PLO because it refuses to eschew terrorism and violence, it was right to receive the ANC, which openly espouses such action?

Our official-level contacts and my meetings yesterday constitute an attempt which Her Majesty's Government believe should be made to try to bring an end to violence and a start to dialogue. The contacts that have occurred in the past involving the middle east and the links that have been established are to that very same end, which is to bring an end to violence.

In the representations that have been made today by the Government to the South African Government in Pretoria and elsewhere, what reference was made to the 115 key trade union leaders, ranging from shop stewards to general secretaries, who are part of the 3,000 who have been arrested and detained in the past 10 days? Many of these trade union leaders represent workers in the subsidiaries of British firms. What representations were made to secure their release? Or are the profits that come from the £12,000 million investment of British companies in South Africa more important than the rights of workers in that country?

As far as I am aware, the representations are being made at this very moment in London and Pretoria. Representations are being made on behalf of all those who, under the state of emergency, have been arrested and detained, whether they be trade union leaders, church leaders, innocent churchgoers or anyone else.

Will my hon. Friend accept that she failed totally to answer the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson)? Do we now take it that the British Government will treat with terrorists?

As my hon. Friends have often said, we seek to promote dialogue to achieve negotiation. A man who certainly impressed yesterday with his total dislike of violence may indeed be able to help in that process towards dialogue and an end to violence. I have to say to my hon. Friend that I spent over half the time yesterday talking about the negative effects of violence and seeking not just to persuade but also to impress upon Mr. Tambo exactly how this, as well as any other violence, was exacerbating the situation. I believe that it was right to do so on behalf of Her Majesty's Government. We are in no way treating with terrorists. We are trying to solve a problem which the House believes has continued for far too long, and not trying to exacerbate it.