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Nelson Mandela has sent his 'very best wishes" to Margaret Thatcher - but has not praised her for her work on the South African issue. The jailed ANC leader's letter this week to the British ambassador to Pretoria, Sir Robin Renwick, is a masterpiece of diplomacy: Mandela denies having praised Thatcher, but leaves the door open to her and her government. It is a polite put-down, ending speculation that Mandela praised' Thatcher but doing it with enough tact to allow for further contact with the British government.
In his letter, Mandela said that if he had wanted to express his views on Thatcher, he would "have preferred to do so in the course of a face-to face discussion" with the ambassador. The British are interpreting this as a hint that Mandela wants to meet Renwick -- and are expected to respond positively -- but there is little evidence of this in the letter.
In fact, Mandela has managed to mention the possibility of a face-to-face meeting with Renwick without actually proposing or even committing himself to it. Mystery still surrounds the earlier claim that Mandela sent a message of praise to Thatcher. It was reported at the beginning of the week that he had written to her via the ambassador. Later the report was changed to suggest he had sent a message to her through his lawyers. It is believed that the British did receive some sort of message from Mandela through an unknown intermediary.
However, Mandela's attorney, Ismael Ayob, said "Mandela has never handed (such) a letter nor dictated a letter to me. "I have had no contact with the British," he said. And Dullah Omar, the Cape Town lawyer who has been consulting with Mandela, echoed this: "I have no knowledge of the letter. I cannot help to clarify this issue." A third lawyer who has visited Mandela, Essa Moosa, was not available for comment yesterday.
Mandela's note, on a hand-written letterhead, does not deny sending any message or expressing any view on Thatcher.
The full text is as follows:
'Dear Sir Renwick.
'Press reports on 10 April 1989 indicate that I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to thank her for the positive work she was doing on the South African issue.
"I must point out in this regard that I neither wrote such a letter nor dictated it to any attorney as alleged in the reports. If I had wanted to express my views on Mrs Thatcher's work, or on the policy of the British government on any specific matter, I would have preferred to do so in the course of a face-to-face discussion with you in person. 'Meanwhile I am happy to request you pass my very best wishes to the Prime Minister.
'Yours sincerely, NR Mandela”
The SA Prisons Service said Mandela had asked Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee to release the letter to the media. This is the first time that Mandela has made such a public intervention from his prison house in Paarl on an issue as sensitive as Thatcher's role in South Africa. It comes at a crucial time, when Thatcher is playing an increasingly important -- and controversial -- role in Southern Africa.
Praise from Mandela would have come as some surprise because of the difficult relations between the African National Congress and the United Democratic Front on the one hand, and Thatcher on the other. Although contact and relations between them have increased in recent years, the ANC and UDF remain highly critical of Thatcher's South Africa policy.
The key question raised by the letter is whether Mandela is beginning to play a political role as a statesman from his prison quarters.
This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.