Sunday, April 26, 2009

Revealed: Cameron's freebie to apartheid South Africa.

David Cameron's ability to reinvent the Tory party and to wash away their image as "the nasty party" will take a bit of a beating today when it is revealed that he took an all expenses paid trip to South Africa at the height of Apartheid, funded by a firm that lobbied against the imposition of sanctions on the Apartheid regime.

The trip is revealed for the first time in a newly updated edition of Cameron: The Rise of the New Conservative, by James Hanning, the deputy editor of The Independent on Sunday, and Francis Elliott, the deputy political editor of The Times.

Mr Cameron's office insisted the visit by the 23-year-old future leader was a "fact-finding mission" that took place 20 years ago, and the Thatcher government was opposed to sanctions against South Africa at the time.

He met union leaders and black opposition politicians, including the head of the left-wing Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) during the trip, a spokesman said. The trip was organised and funded by Strategy Network International (SNI), created in 1985 specifically to lobby against the imposition of sanctions on South Africa.

Yet when asked by the authors if Mr Cameron wrote a memo or had to report back to the office about his trip, Alistair Cooke – in 1989 his boss at Central Office – said it was "simply a jolly", adding: "It was all terribly relaxed, just a little treat, a perk of the job. The Botha regime was attempting to make itself look less horrible, but I don't regard it as having been of the faintest political consequence."

Only the Tories could be crass enough to think that visiting a nation which treated it's black population the way South Africa did, and doing so funded by a firm lobbying against any sanctions ever being placed on the vile regime, could be seen as having not, "the faintest political consequence".

Cameron has famously, since he became leader, admitted that his party's stance at that time was wrong and visited Mandela to state:
"The mistakes my party made in the past with respect to relations with the African National Congress and sanctions on South Africa make it all the more important to listen now.

"The fact that there is so much to celebrate in the new South Africa is not in spite of Mandela and the ANC; it is because of them – and we Conservatives should say so clearly today."

But his apology also carried with it the inference that he was apologising for the Tory party of another time and that he represented a clean break from that way of thinking. But the news of this trip, and especially who it was financed by, must surely call all of those assumptions into doubt.

It is unthinkable that he could have been dumb enough to accept such a "jolly" at that particular time in South Africa's history.

Peter Hain, the former Cabinet minister and prominent anti-apartheid campaigner, said last night: "David Cameron asks us to judge a leader's character – well, Gordon Brown at this time was active in the anti-apartheid movement, while Cameron was enjoying a sanctions-busting jolly. That is a measure of character.

"This just exposes his hypocrisy because he has tried to present himself as a progressive Conservative, but just on the eve of the apartheid downfall, and Nelson Mandela's release from prison, when negotiations were taking place about a transfer of power, here he was being wined and dined on a sanctions-busting visit.

"This is the real Conservative Party, shown by the fact that his colleagues who used to wear 'Hang Nelson Mandela' badges at university are now sitting on the benches around him. Their leader at the time Margaret Thatcher described Mandela as a terrorist."

I'll admit that I am as biased as you can get when it comes to the Tory party and I have never regarded their rebirth under Cameron as anything other than the most cynical of makeovers.

I well remember the "Hang Nelson Mandela" badges that Tory students at the time used to wear. I remember Thatcher insisting that Nelson Mandela was "a terrorist".

So, it's very easy for Cameron, twenty years later, to tell us that the Tories were simply wrong in the stance that they took. But this visit makes me seriously question if that was what Cameron believed at the time.

Of course, people can genuinely have "Saint Paul on the road to Damascus" conversions, but the fact that he was so on the wrong side of history speaks volumes about his judgment.

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