I was briefed off-the-record by her foreign affairs adviser on several occasions, but when he told me that she had called on the then president, PW Botha, to release Nelson Mandela, I found it difficult to believe. I did not report it as I could not source it. But it was true. In a letter to Botha in October 1985 she wrote: "I continue to believe, as I have said to you before, that the release of Nelson Mandela would have more impact than almost any single action you could undertake."
When Botha stepped down after a stroke in 1989, he was replaced by FW de Klerk, who met Thatcher at Downing Street in June. I was among a group of journalists waiting outside No 10 with the promise that he would give a press conference straight after. We watched him leave then ran up Whitehall to the South African embassy where he had promised to speak. He did not turn up. We were told later that he had been too shocked by Thatcher's vehemence.
Mandela was released on 11 February 1990 (I was at the gates of the jail but to my eternal chagrin I failed to spot him). That evening he made a speech from the balcony of the town hall in Cape Town which was televised, live, world wide. The speech was written by the hard-liners and communists in the ANC and was full of Marxist jargon. "Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960… was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue." Thatcher was appalled. She picked up the telephone to Robin Renwick, the British ambassador in South Africa, and demanded to know why she had ever bothered to battle for Mandela's release if this was the result.