Fight back of the Thatcher 'cloud cuckoo land' misquote

International journalists now twisting Bernard Ingham's words to suggest he made the claim

In a post yesterday it was observed that Margaret Thatcher's infamous claim in 1987 that "Anyone who thinks the ANC is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land" was apocryphal. Although this was established several years ago, on Tuesday a number of South African publications nonetheless continued to use this quote to underpin their analyses of the late British Prime Minister's record on apartheid and South Africa in the 1980s.

Thus, in Business Day Paul Moorcraft claimed "In 1987, she [Thatcher] said anyone who believed the ANC would rule South Africa was living in ‘cloud-cuckoo land'." In The Star Peter Fabricius and Babalo Ndenze asserted that "After the 1987 Commonwealth summit, when she had again resisted the push for sanctions, Thatcher had said "the ANC is a typical terrorist organisation... Anyone who thinks it's going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land." And in the Daily Maverick J Brooks Spector claimed that "back in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher had infamously characterised the ANC as a terrorist organisation that should never have a role in governing South Africa."

Meanwhile Michael White wrote in a diary piece for The Guardian that Thatcher had called "the ANC ‘a typical terrorist organisation', adding: ‘Anyone who thinks it's going to run South Africa is living in cloud cuckoo land'." For a Guardian writer to repeat this claim is somewhat odd given that the following correction, from 2006, can be found on the website:

The following correction was printed in the Observer's For the record column, Sunday September 10 2006

In the article below we say Margaret Thatcher once offered the opinion that anyone who believed the African National Congress would ever rule South Africa was living in 'cloud-cuckoo-land'. However, this remark would appear to be apocryphal. Its origin seems to be a response by her press spokesman, Bernard Ingham, on 16 October 1987 at the Vancouver Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. A Canadian journalist speculated that the ANC might overthrow the white South African regime, to which Ingham replied: 'It is cloud-cuckoo-land for anyone to believe that could be done.'

The fact that Thatcher never actually uttered these words has not however led to a burying of this untruth. Instead, the claim has begun to mutate like some kind of virus to try and accommodate itself to this now established fact. According to a number of international publications it is now apparently Ingham who claimed that it was "cloud cuckoo land" to think Mandela and the ANC would ever come to power.

On the Global Post website Erin Conway-Smith stated: "When at a meeting of Commonwealth countries in 1987 a reporter suggested the ANC could come to power, Thatcher's spokesperson said: ‘It is cloud cuckoo land for anyone to believe that could be done'."

Michele Faul of Associated Press meanwhile claimed: "Thatcher's spokesman said in 1987 that anyone who thought the ANC, then the leading anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, would govern South Africa was ‘living in cloud cuckoo-land'."

In a report in The Globe and Mail Geoffrey York managed to construct a single sentence with at least three false or misleading claims: "In 1987, just seven years before the fall of apartheid, a Thatcher spokesman scoffed that it was "cloud cuckoo-land" to suggest that Mr. Mandela would ever win power."

Now it is one thing for a journalist to repeat an appealing and superficially plausible quote from usually reliable sources. It is quite another thing to consciously twist the meaning of a quote - as these writers do - and excise the key word ("overthrow") and replace it with others ("win power", "govern SA", "come to power".)

Ingham was responding to a suggestion that the ANC might overthrow the South African state by force (as was its objective at the time). He stated that it was delusional to think they could. In other words, he did not say the ANC would never come to power - for example, through some kind of negotiated settlement - only that this would not be achieved through the violent overthrow of the regime.

By the late 1980s, following the collapse of Communism, the ANC/SACP leadership itself came around to this view. In her 1997 book on the transition Patti Waldmeir noted that "Without Soviet support, the ANC could not intensify the war against Pretoria. ANC secretary general Alfred Nzo acknowledged this candidly in January 1990 - in a speech meant for a closed meeting of the ANC executive, but delivered by the hapless Nzo in error to a public gathering. ‘We must admit that we do not have the capacity within our country to intensify the armed struggle in any meaningful way'."

In his recent book on the ANC in exile Stephen Ellis makes a similar point: "As pressure to negotiate increased in the late 1980s, even the most militant leaders of the ANC were forced to consider exactly what Umkhonto we Sizwe had achieved up to then. In January 1990, just days before the ANC's unbanning, Chris Hani, acknowledging the ANC's military weakness, described Umkhonto we Sizwe as a ‘military wing which can't be compared to the SADF'."

In 1990, following its unbanning, the release of Nelson Mandela and the announcement of FW de Klerk that the last remaining apartheid laws would be abolished (as they soon were), the ANC suspended the armed struggle and publicly accepted that the path to power lay through a negotiated settlement.

In his 1992 paper "Negotiations: What Room for Compromise?" the SACP's Joe Slovo wrote that "We [the ANC/SACP] are negotiating because towards the end of the 80s we concluded that, as a result of its escalating crisis, the apartheid power bloc was no longer able to continue ruling in the old way and was genuinely seeking some break with the past. At the same time, we were clearly not dealing with a defeated enemy and an early revolutionary seizure of power by the liberation movement could not be realistically posed."

In other words, the ANC was negotiating because it had come around to the realisation that it was cloud-cuckoo-land to believe the white state was going to be overthrown by force anytime soon. 

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