Mark Thatcher likes his privacy. at the whitewashed mansion he shares with his wife and two children in Constantia, outside Cape Town, security guards patrol along the neatly trimmed hedges, and a closed-circuit television camera keeps watch from the top of a wrought-iron security gate. Such security measures are common in South Africa's wealthier suburbs, but neighbors describe Thatcher, 51, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as a security-obsessed recluse. "He's a mysterious character," says one.
For such a private man, last Wednesday's morning raid by South Africa's Scorpion police unit must have been particularly galling. The Scorpions, whose motto is "Justice in Action," arrived at 7 a.m., catching Thatcher in his pajamas. For the next seven hours they searched his house, including, reportedly, a bedroom-sized safe with reinforced steel walls, examining documents and hard drives for evidence that Thatcher was connected to a failed coup attempt in the oil-rich central African state of Equatorial Guinea. Thatcher was taken to a magistrate's court and charged under South Africa's Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act. The day's final insult came while Thatcher was waiting for his hearing at which he promised to post bail of $300,000: other prisoners reportedly stole his shoes and cell phone.
A onetime race-car driver who famously lost his way in a 1982 rally across the Sahara, causing his Iron Lady mother to weep, Thatcher has had what Margaret Thatcher's authorized biographer describes as a "chiaroscuro business career." He was accused of having links to the international arms trade, allegedly profiting from a multi-billion dollar deal with Saudi Arabia. In 1987, he married Diane Burgdorf, the daughter of a wealthy Texan; the couple moved from Texas to South Africa in 1995.
Ron Wheeldon, a partner at the South African law firm representing Thatcher, denies that the Briton has a connection to the coup plot. Wheeldon says he has oil and mining interests around the world. "He likes to fly helicopters, he keeps fit, he runs up [Cape Town's Table] Mountain," he says. "He entertains and he is entertaining."
South African police allege that Thatcher also finances mercenaries. They believe he helped bankroll the failed coup attempt last March against the President of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema. Thatcher's close friend and neighbor Simon Mann, a former British S.A.S. officer, was arrested along with 64 other men in Harare, Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean and South African authorities say the men, who were found aboard a Boeing 727-100, were on their way to topple Nguema's government, and had touched down to collect weapons and ammo. Nineteen other men, including South Africans and Armenians, were arrested in Equatorial Guinea on suspicion of being part of the plot. The self-confessed leader of the Guinean cell, Nick du Toit, on trial in the capital, Malabo, testified last week that he met Thatcher last year, and that Mann and Thatcher had discussed the sale of helicopters for mining operations in Sudan.
Mann may be the most direct link between Thatcher and the coup plot. In the early 1990s, the Eton and Sandhurst-educated Briton set up a security consultancy known as Executive Outcomes, which was hired for private military operations by governments in Africa. A letter from Mann to his wife smuggled out of his Harare prison cell and shown to British newspapers suggests that he was expecting $200,000 from "Scratcher" believed to be Mann's nickname for Thatcher for an unspecified "project." Last Friday, Mann was found guilty of attempting to buy arms for the coup plot. He had pleaded guilty only to trying to procure weapons, which he says were to be used to secure mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thatcher will get his day in court in November. Equatorial Guinea says it will ask South Africa to extradite the Briton to face trial, though South Africa is unlikely to accede, since he could face the death penalty. When police arrived at Thatcher's house they found suitcases packed; they say he had sold his four luxury cars and put his house on the market, and had already enrolled his children in schools in the U.S. Thatcher's lawyer denied he was preparing to flee. "If his surname wasn't Thatcher, he wouldn't have been charged," Wheeldon says. "It's not like you're standing there with a bloody knife over this person. What we're talking about is conjecture based on further conjecture."