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South Africa

Mandela wrote letter to Haughey soon after his release asking him to postpone a decision on easing sanctions

Mandela was deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) and was negotiating an end to the apartheid regime.

nelson-mandela-rally Nelson Mandela two days after his release in February 1990. Graeme Williams Graeme Williams

NELSON MANDELA URGED Taoiseach Charles Haughey to postpone any decision on sanctions against apartheid South Africa 11 months after his release from prison. 

In a letter released under the State’s 30-year archive rule, Mandela wrote to Haughey on 6 December 1990 ahead of a European Community Summit which was set to discuss sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

At the time, Mandela was deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) and was negotiating an end to the apartheid regime with South African president F.W. de Klerk. Haughey, in his third and final term as Taoiseach, had become a leading figure in Europe.

“First of all, we would like to express our sincere appreciation for your commitment to the common cause of ending the apartheid system as quickly as possible and transforming our country into a non-racial democracy,” Mandela wrote. 

“As we have indicated to you in the past, we believe firmly that it is best that we act in concert on these matters so as to avoid any eventuality that your own actions, however well-meant, may result in complicating the peace process within South Africa.

“As we understand it, the European Community Summit scheduled for this month is likely to discuss the issue of sanctions against apartheid South Africa. It is for this reason that we write you this letter,” said Mandela, who was sentenced to prison in 1964.

He would spend 18 years in the notorious Robben Island, six in Pollsmoor Prison and just over a year in Victor Verster Prison before finally being released in February 1990. 

download (7) National Archives National Archives

Briefing notes prepared for Haughey at the time note an increase in violence in South Africa in the months following Mandela’s release and the ANC entering negotiations with the government. 

De Klerk and Mandela had met several times by this stage in an attempt to defuse tensions. Formal negotiations had not yet commenced, however. The ANC needed more time to eorganise and plan its strategy, a government document notes. 

The common position of the 12 EU member states at the time was based on the Dublin European Council Declaration which stated the EU’s willingness to consider a gradual relaxation of sanctions when there was “further clear evidence” of progress towards “profound and irreversible change” in South Africa, according to a briefing document. 

“My humble request to you Mr Prime Minister, and to the summit meeting, is that you postpone any decision on this matter until early in the new year. The summit meeting could perhaps find it within its power to direct a later meeting of Foreign Ministers in February or March to consider this issue and take decisions,” Mandela told Haughey. 

The important agreement we reached with the [South African] government on the 6th of August to begin exploratory talks on constitutional matters has not yet been implemented, owing to the refusal of the government to begin these talks.

President de Klerk has undertaken that security legislation which impedes free political activity as well as other apartheid laws such as the group areas and the land acts will be repealed when the South African parliament convenes at the beginning of February.

We are ourselves discussing the question of sanctions with the aim of ensuring that the International Community continues to exert pressure for faster movement forward towards the end of the apartheid system, while this community takes all necessary action to reinforce the peace process which is leading to the democratic transformation of our country.

We are discussing specific measures in this regard and have begun consultations with other democratic formations inside our country, including the trade unions and the religious bodies, to evolve a position common to the majority of the anti-apartheid forces in the country.

We would be honoured to share with you our detailed views on these matters at the latter stage, but soon, so that, if possible, we avoid a opting contrary positions which could undermine the consensus that obtains concerning what needs to be done to effect the necessary changes in South Africa and inject an element of conflict among ourselves, to the detriment of the constitutional negotiations which must begin in the near future.

We trust that you and the rest of your colleagues within the European Community will find it possible to accede to our request and postpone consideration of the issue of sanctions against apartheid South Africa, until we initiate discussions with you on this issue.

We believe that it will then be possible to take the necessary decisions which will, among other things, help to encourage and reinforce the peace process within our country rather than complicate it. Please accept, Mr Prime Minister, the assurances of our highest consideration. 

Nelson Mandela

Deputy President

Negotiations to end apartheid in South Africa culminated in the 1994 South African general election in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became president.

He would serve as leader of South Africa until June 1999. 

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