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Thatcher in Africa

By Malcolm Colless - posted Tuesday, 17 January 2012

When we are not watching an aged Baroness Thatcher struggling to throw off the vestige of her dear departed husband Dennis in the movie The Iron Lady we are treated to glimpses of the inflexible tenacity which earned her this label.

But it wasn't always so for Britain's first woman Prime Minister.

For example when I arrived in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, to cover the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting for The Australian in August 1979 I quickly discovered that the travelling British press were treating their new PM with undisguised derision.


Many clearly saw her as a wuss. And events which unfolded during the weeklong conference of Commonwealth heads, particularly on political efforts to resolve the drawn out Zimbabwe-Rhodesian war, confirmed this for many of the British scribes. One Fleet Street headline blared: "If Thatcher boobs British trade unions have threatened to disrupt the flow of cargo to Zimbabwe-Rhodesia."

"It's a shame that we don't have a tough Prime Minister like your Malcolm Fraser," one Fleet St journo complained in the media centre bar during the conference to nods of approval from his colleagues.

Fraser had monopolised media attention in Lusaka by hijacking the debate on the Rhodesian issue and humiliating Thatcher over this thorny issue along the way. The Australian Prime Minister had gone to Lusaka determined that his policy for a resolution to the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian crisis would be adopted by the Commonwealth. By the time he arrived, after stirring the pot in Nigeria with President Obusegun Obasanjo , who couldn't make CHOGM because he was too busy nationalising BP's interests in his country, Fraser had already thrust himself into the limelight. Blazing headlines and a large photo of the Australian Prime Minister in the Zambian Times described Fraser as "the man to watch".

Months before the Lusaka summit Fraser began a calculated campaign to muster the numbers among the other Commonwealth government leaders to support his plan for broad based black majority rule in Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. Fraser and his Foreign Affairs Minister, Andrew Peacock, focussed particular attention on the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Carrington, in a lobbying blitz which began well before the May 1979 general election that put the Conservatives under Thatcher into power.

Soon after the election victory Thatcher swung by Australia on her way home from a G7 summit meeting in Tokyo. Fraser and Peacock used this opportunity to urge her not to act hastily on lifting sanctions against Zimbabwe-Rhodesia but instead to support a new constitution which would guarantee black majority power ending a 10-year guarantee of white minority control of key sections of the public service including the police.

Regardless of the impact that this had on Thatcher, who later suggested that the Australian Prime Minister should be involved in a crucial mediating role on this, Fraser was determined to take the initiative on the issue at the Lusaka conference. Senior Foreign Affairs officials began the groundwork for his conference speech about two months before CHOGM. It was then studiously worked over by his personal speechwriters and advisers for three weeks before he left for Africa.


By comparison Thatcher's speech which focussed on this issue was cobbled together by her staff in an all-night session before she delivered it to the 40 CHOGM members and the world's media.

Fraser had a working breakfast with Tanzania's President Nyerere, the chairman of the front-line African states, before delivering an impassioned address on the Zimbabwe-Rhodesian crisis to the opening session of CHOGM. He called for an end to the "slaughter and bloodshed" in the country but said that no solution was possible until the Zimbabwe constitution was amended to achieve broad-based black majority rule.

Fraser's tactic worked: He was invited to join a key six member committee, which included the UK, to develop a strategy to resolve the crisis. The committee came up with a draft nine-point peace plan to end the war which it planned to release on the final day of the conference,

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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