NELSON Mandela told Tony Blair he was the “head of the British Empire” and he had to “respond positively” when the new prime minister “cracked the whip” and invited him to Cardiff. 

The telephone conversation, from 1998, has been revealed in newly released state papers. The discussion was ahead of a meeting between both men at the European Summit in Cardiff that June. 

The papers also show how the Foreign and Commonwealth Office wanted the prime minister to “put in a word” with the South African president over an arms and defence contract potentially worth up to £2 billion when the famed statesman made his only visit to Wales. 

A deadpan summary of the conversation, by Tony Blair’s then private secretary Philip Barton, noted the South African president’s response after Blair suggested lunch at the summit and doing “various other things” in the capital. 

The letter, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, states: “Mandela said he would do this. The Prime Minister was head of the British Empire now. They all had to respond positively when he cracked the whip(!). The Prime Minister said that we did not see it quite like this. Nevertheless, he looked forward to seeing Mandela in Cardiff.” 

The UK Government was keen to use its presidency of the European Union to seal an EU trade deal with South Africa and for more than a year had been pressing on the South Africans its support for the republic against opposition from “protectionist” members including Spain. 

Britain also told South Africa it should be more flexible on a potential deal. But the letter was clear on the importance Britain placed on being able to announce a deal at the summit in Cardiff even if it wasn’t the full agreement that had been under discussion for three years. 

A comment in the letter stated: “The Prime Minister also believes that we should aim to conclude a less ambitious EU/South Africa text at Cardiff, if it does not prove possible to agree the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.” 

At the end of the summit Blair was able to announce both sides had agreed to conclude the trade agreement by the autumn. A failure to reach an agreement meant Britain was having to promise it would apply pressure on Austria over the deal when it took over the presidency. 

The papers also reveal how Britain was keen to take advantage of economic opportunities in South Africa which was then just four years into democratic rule after Mandela’s ANC had won power in its first free elections in 1994. 

At the time of the May 1998 phone call there had already been informal talks about Mandela visiting Cardiff and Blair’s advisors were keen that he should invite Mandela who they knew wanted to meet for a final time with EU leaders before stepping down the following year. One note said Mandela had "enginered" an invitation to Cardiff.

The National Wales: Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela at a 1997 meeting in Downing StreetTony Blair and Nelson Mandela at a 1997 meeting in Downing Street

A letter from Dominck Chilcott, private secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to his counterpart at Downing Street, dated June 12, just four days before the Cardiff meeting, outlined the issues it thought could be raised. 

On a Strategic Defence Partnership, with contracts due to be awarded by the South African cabinet the following month, the briefing paper suggested: “This is a useful opportunity for the Prime Minister to put in a word for our Strategic Defence Partnership proposal... 

“British companies have been shortlisted for corvettes, fighters, helicopters, and tanks. At stake are potential orders worth up to £2 bn to the UK.” 

Thabo Mbeki was expected to succeed Mandela and a 1997 briefing paper for Blair, who was due to meet with the then South African deputy president, highlighted defence and privatisation as areas Britain wanted to raise. 

The National Wales: Tony Blair is greeted by a crowd at the Park Hotel, Cardiff Picture: Huw Evans AgencyTony Blair is greeted by a crowd at the Park Hotel, Cardiff Picture: Huw Evans Agency

The 1998 letter referenced that Blair had raised the defence deal with Mbeki at their meeting the previous year. 

Ahead of that '97 meeting the briefing paper said: “The meeting is a chance for you to give a plug for our proposals for a Strategic Defence Partnership with South Africa (essentially a package of defence exports), highlight the expertise we have to offer in the privatisation field and underline our commitment to concluding the EU/South Africa Free Trade Agreement during our Presidency, if at all possible.” 

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Such was the importance British officials placed on relations during his first weekend in office, in 1997, Blair was urged to make arrangments to accept a phone call from Mbeki who was described as “very Anglophile and generally good news”. 

A restricted briefing paper, giving a political and economic overview of South Africa, ahead of Mbeki’s summer 1997 visit to Scotland and London, referred to the defence partnership and stated: “There are other significant economic prizes in the wings, not least the South African privatisation process. We have already encouraged Mbeki to spend some time in the city.” 


The defence partnership and privitisation are mentioned numerous times in the papers which also revealed how Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam had invited Mandela to Northern Ireland.

It was hoped he would visit ahead of coming to Cardiff, which would have been during the election period for the newly established Northern Ireland Assembly. However no such visit was arranged. 

Some of the planning and preparation for Mandela’s visit to Cardiff is contained in the papers. 

It was suggested the Welsh Office could arrange further events for the guest, who would turn 80 the following month, away from the formal 40 minute meeting with Blair and lunch with EU leaders. 

Cardiff council then arranged to present Mandela the freedom of the city and in a ceremony at the castle the anti-apartheid leader praised the support received from Wales during the years of oppressive white minority rule telling the crowd: “We knew that the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement spoke for a people who cared for our freedom as their own.” 

However just a fortnight before the historic June 16 visit the Welsh Office and seemingly the then Cardiff council leader Russell Goodway were slapped down by Whitehall officials. 

A letter from the Welsh Office stated Welsh secretary Ron Davies “does not want there to be any direct contacts between the Foreign Office and Cardiff Council on the arrangements for the Mandela visit.” 

A scribbled out handwritten note, in blue pen, on the letter seems to dismiss Davies and another individual, who is presumably the council leader. 

The National Wales: Ron Davies, left, and Russell Goodway Pictures: Huw Evans AgencyRon Davies, left, and Russell Goodway Pictures: Huw Evans Agency

The note reads: “This is quite ridiculous (undecipherable) by Ron. Russel G is being equally childish” 

A further note, also handwritten in blue pen, states: “I’ve told the Welsh Office this is not (underlined) reasonable. The FCO must be allowed to speak direct to the council when necessary – for example over arrangements for Mandela to receive Freedom of the City. Obviously they should keep the Welsh Office informed.”  

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A letter from Blair’s private secretary shows during the 40 minute meeting with Mandela the pair discussed instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, Northern Ireland and the possibility of lifting restrictions on British beef as a result of the BSE meat safety crisis. 

Mandela was also understood to want to discuss lifting sanctions on Libia with Britain keen the Lockerbie bombing suspects to stand trial in Scotland. 

Mandela had flown to Cardiff, from London, and stayed at the Park Hotel, in the city centre, and held meeting with Blair in Cardiff City Hall and with leaders from the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Austria. 

A Foreign Office letter in May also revealed officials were relieved that Mandela would be meeting heads of government at the National Museum rather than at a Cardiff Castle dinner a day earlier. The letter stated: “The castle is also particularly badly adapted to coping with Mandela’s infirmity.” 

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