Striking contrasts in reactions to deaths of Mandela, Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela died this year — Thatcher on April 8 and Mandela on Dec. 5.

By Pat Murphy

Troy Media columnist

Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela died this year — Thatcher on April 8 and Mandela on Dec. 5. Both were long retired from public life, and had been ill for some time prior to passing. And while both were historically giant figures, the deaths evoked very different reactions.

With Thatcher, the response was mixed. Indeed, in some quarters, her passing was deemed to be a cause for celebration — “ding dong the witch is dead” and all that.

For Mandela, though, it was if a secular saint had passed away. As Matthew Parris put it in The Times, following his 1990 release from prison Mandela had been “canonised instantly in the Western imagination.” So when he succumbed at 95, “a virtual orgy of adulation” followed.

It’s easy to understand the difference between the two reactions. Thatcher was said to be a divider, whereas Mandela was a reconciler. Thatcher’s political causes provoked great controversy, while Mandela was firmly on the side of the angels.

And where Thatcher was all sharp edges and confrontation, Mandela seemed to radiate benign goodwill.

But is the reality more complicated? Take, for instance, the divider/reconciler dichotomy.

To be sure, Thatcher rarely passed up an opportunity for a fight. Indeed, combat and conflict seemed to come naturally to her. In significant part, that was simply an expression of personality, a manifestation of who she was.

But circumstances also played a role. The Britain in which Thatcher came to power was a deeply troubled polity, a society plagued by economic stagnation, strikes, rampant inflation and rising crime. To many, the time for kicking the can down the road was over. Hence, the Thatcher appeal.

However, there’s a downside to being the one who grasps the nettle; you can get stung, generating undying enmity while you’re at it.

And the fact that subsequent Labour governments left big chunks of Thatcher’s legacy intact speaks to the proposition that a goodly portion of what she did needed doing. In a way, Margaret Thatcher took the lumps, and Tony Blair subsequently reaped the benefits.

As for Mandela, he too was once a divider. After all, you don’t get sentenced to life imprisonment because everyone loves you. Acknowledging that in no way detracts from the justness of his cause, or at least not from the anti-apartheid part of it. Instead, it simply underscores an historical fact.

So we come to a critical difference between Thatcher and Mandela, one that goes beyond personality or motivation.

Simply put, their situations were radically different.

Thatcher fought all her battles on centre stage, smiting her foes, glorying in her triumphs, and enraging her enemies. She was in the arena and in your face.

And all the while, she was swimming upstream against the liberal assumptions that underpinned much of the public policy discussion in the post-war era.

Mandela, on the other hand, was locked away in prison, where he evolved into the primary rallying point against the moral evil of apartheid.

Removed from direct participation in day-to-day affairs, he became a symbol onto which people could project their aspirations and ideals. But he wasn’t actually on the field getting his hands dirty.

And when Mandela was finally released from prison, the world was a very different place from the one in which he had been first incarcerated. Not only was apartheid on its last legs, but communism had collapsed.

In South African journalist Rian Malan’s astute observation, it was no longer feasible to “dream of driving into Pretoria on the turrets of Soviet tanks.”

Mandela’s practical choices were thus simplified. Notwithstanding his continuing admiration for the likes of Fidel Castro, Marxist revolution was no longer a credible option.

And with the world seeking to bestow sainthood on him and anxious white, Asian and mixed-race South Africans looking for a protector, letting bygones be bygones in the Rainbow Nation was a very shrewd choice.

Nelson Mandela had to endure long years in prison, something Margaret Thatcher never suffered.

But when he emerged onto the public stage after his 1990 release, the terrain facing him was in some ways more hospitable than the one Margaret Thatcher faced in 1979.

Saying that doesn’t diminish his stature, or deny him immense credit for making the choice he did. But it’s a reminder that context and timing can be everything.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for more than 30 years.