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Southern Africa Report Archive

John Saul's extended review-essay on the monumental study of Canadian policy towards South Africa written by SAR's long-time collaborator, Linda Freeman, underscores the message of her concluding chapter. For Freeman finds Canada - whatever the strengths and weaknesses of its earlier stance vis-a-vis apartheid - now pushing a narrowly market-driven approach to its links to the "New South Africa" that can only make more difficult that damaged country's attempts to find its way forward. (jbv)

vol 14 no 2

Review: A class act - Canada's anti-apartheid record
review by John S Saul

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 14 No 2, March 1999
Page 21



John Saul is has been a long-time anti-apartheid activist.

Linda Freeman, The Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. 466 pp. ISBN 0-8020-0908-5

Diplomacy is the art of going abroad to lie politely for one's country. So the wags would have it. And whatever else one might say about Nelson Mandela's otherwise very moving visit to Canada late last year there was quite a lot of lying going on. How else to categorize the constant references to Canada's grand and glorious record in the anti-apartheid struggle?

Not that Mandela was the main perpetrator of such fabrications. As often as not he spoke about the record of Canadians in general rather than that of the Canadian government in particular when handing out kudos (although even he trotted out the heroic litany of "Diefenbaker, Trudeau and Mulroney" during his remarkable Skydome appearance and elsewhere). Veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle in this country could take some solace from the possibility that, most often, he was really speaking about us rather than about the Canadian politicians and businessmen with whom he was in fact spending most of his time.

And yet it was just such politicians and businessmen - now basking in the glory of Mandela's presence - who seemed most smugly engaged in facilitating the pretence that Canada had been in Mandela's corner all along. Difficult, it is true, to put on too many airs in the presence of someone who spent twenty-seven years in prison for his belief in racial equality and human dignity and then emerged to embrace his captors in a spirit of reconciliation. Nonetheless, there was a distinct atmosphere of self-congratulation all round about the visit, and, needless to say, not a hint of apology from "official Canada" about the role Canada had actually played in the anti-apartheid struggle.

No apology

Still, apology would have been the most appropriate response. It is the great strength of Linda Freeman's new book, The Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years, that it permits of no other conclusion about Canada's record. Moreover, it makes its case with such a wealth of documentation and careful argument that it should stand as the essential touchstone for all future discussion of the topic.

Freeman has come by her expertise honestly. The bibliography reveals that she earned her Ph.D. on the topic of "The Nature of Canadian Interests in Black Southern Africa" as far back as 1978. And readers of SAR will recall her relentless tracking of Canada's southern Africa policy through over a decade of annual surveys in these pages (indeed, her very short list of acknowledgments includes gracious thanks to "the Southern Africa Report collective"). This is a book long in the making, then, but worth the wait since the scholarship it represents is thorough and formidable (the footnotes and bibliography run to 130 pages for example, almost a third the book's length!) and the argument important.

What she does is demonstrate convincingly how compromised Canada's official policy towards white minority rule in southern Africa was over the decades. For example, she usefully debunks the overblown legend of Diefenbaker as scourge of South Africa within the Commonwealth in the early 1960s. And she neatly documents Lester Pearson's role, later in the decade, both in rationalizing for a wider audience Britain's half-hearted response (through the weakest of sanctions packages) to Rhodesia's UDI and in himself resisting any economic measures whatsoever against South Africa.

However, Freeman saves her main fire for Trudeau and Joe Clark. Trudeau remains a great enigma for the progressively-minded in Canada, along the lines of: he's so smart, why didn't he do a lot better? In fact, on southern Africa he did worse, as Freeman clearly documents. His was a callous failure of humane principle made all the more galling by his infamous statement of the time that "we should either stop trading or we should stop condemning." But, of course, he continued to do both. A smug prisoner of Canada's presumed capitalist imperatives, Trudeau idly allowed Canada's economic links to apartheid to deepen on his watch and, as Freeman scrupulously documents, permitted the likes of Hedley Bull and his Space Research Institute to bolster South Africa's military arsenal - this despite the UN's mandatory arms embargo of 1977. Nor, as one might anticipate, were things carried out in any more principled a manner during Joe Clark's brief interregnum as Prime Minister.

Theoretical interlude

Of course SAR readers, accustomed to Freeman's trenchant articles in our pages over the years, will need little persuading as to the merits of her book, in terms both of the comprehensiveness of the data she provides and of the general accuracy of the analysis she presents. No doubt many of you will already have read the book for yourselves. Rather than gild the lily, then, let me seek instead to engage critically with several of the book's more controversial dimensions - in terms both of its approach and some of its substantive interpretations - that are likely to be of particular interest to those for whom the experience of the anti-apartheid struggle remains an active legacy.

To a considerable degree Freeman allows her careful documentation to drive her argument on these matters. But she is too good a social scientist to pretend that it is really possible for "the facts" merely to speak for themselves. Some theoretical perspective is necessary and here, in the first instance, she chooses to emphasize the importance to the definition of Canada's policy of structural determinations, these defined principally by the logic of Canada's capitalist economy and the vested interests, corporate and bureaucratic, linked to that logic. This proves to be a powerful entry-point, as a Globe and Mail staffer felt forced to acknowledge of her book when first reviewing it last year (Sean Fine, "How Canada failed South Africa," G&M, April 11, 1998). Fine concedes Freeman's case that the "politics of balance" (social justice vs. economics) claimed by decision-makers as driving Canada's South African policy was largely "illusory": "The guiding philosophy was that the state should not interfere with the private sector."

Still, Freeman is unwilling to advocate any straightforward brand of economic determinism, emphasizing - as a means both of defending herself against such a charge and of enriching her analysis - the simultaneous importance of certain "autonomous variables." In this regard she makes much of the impact of "discourse," the extent to which the common-sense premises of establishment discussion of South African issues become a factor in their own right in determining outcomes, especially within the foreign-policy making bureaucracy. And yet what Freeman presents as evidence in this regard is the operation of pretty unmediated capitalist ideology: the reduction of national interests to the unquestioned pursuit of profit.

More convincingly, she notes the impact of the discourse of "non-violence," much trumpeted by "official Canada" to justify its not taking sides more unequivocally - although here too she shows any such preoccupation to have been pretty opportunistically and selectively defined, not least in Cold War terms. Still, if Freeman had pressed her search for intervening variables a little harder she might also have made much more than she does in this book of our pattern of institutionalized racism that made it all too easy for Canadians to deny to Africans the necessary means of their liberation that (for example) we had been more than willing to grant to the maquis of Europe during the Second World War.

Even more important for Freeman as an "autonomous variable," however, is something she calls "politics," this latter said to qualify the impact on policy of established economic interests that seem otherwise to define so much about the supine role of Canada towards apartheid South Africa that she describes. Here the shift in Canadian policy undertaken by Brian Mulroney, the other key player focused on in Freeman's book, becomes a critical test case for her. If structural/economic determination serves to explain so much about most phases of Canadian policy towards South Africa why, Freeman asks, was Mulroney able to go further than any other Prime Minister in acting, rather than merely speaking, tough towards South Africa? For Mulroney did, as Freeman scrupulously documents, carry Canada's sanctions' policy and some related anti-apartheid initiatives to a high-water mark.

The Mulroney moment

The issue may be less complicated than Freeman supposes. One other possible intervening variable (somewhere between economic structure and "politics") she rather surprisingly downplays is class, a factor never systematically embraced in a book that otherwise seeks to stake out radical ground in the study of Canadian foreign policy. And yet what binds businessmen, politicians and higher-level civil servants is the privileged position they share in the upper reaches of the class hierarchy in this society and the (hegemonic) outlook - "discourse"! - they are encouraged to share. Against this kind of analysis, however, Freeman chooses to frame her radical critique by highlighting what she calls the "structured representation of interests," an approach that risks functioning as a kind of left variant of pluralist theory. Thus, under normal circumstances, some voices - notably those linked to capital - are argued to sound more loudly in the pluralist chorus that drives our politics than others. But when they don't, at least in any very straightforward manner, the reason must be "politics," this term implying, apparently, the impact on policy of a much wider range of political interests. What we were witnessing in the Mulroney case, she argues, is "a response at the political level to the dramatically new conjuncture at home in Canada and abroad in South Africa. In this way, the new policy demonstrated the relative autonomy of the Canadian state from key forces wedded to the policy of the past" (134).

No doubt developments in South Africa itself did change the terrain of decision-making considerably and demanded fresh thinking about appropriate Canadian policies. But how far do the invocation of "the political level" and "relative autonomy" take us in explaining Mulroney's own response? Not far enough, I fear, if Freeman is suggesting that forces from beyond the sphere of ruling class interests had suddenly become central to Canada's policy-making vis--vis South Africa. For the fact remains that "key forces" from the past - the hegemonic Canadian capitalist class - dictated outcomes even during this period.

Of course, the terms of such ruling class hegemony cannot be read crudely off the presumption that some entirely straightforward "logic of capital" is at work; class analysis of a far more shrewd and supple kind is required. Political assertions from below do have some impact, for example: but this is primarily because an effectively hegemonic class will be at its most successful when it is able to co-opt and contain such oppositional demands rather than merely seek to repress them. This point is particularly important to our discussion, below, of Freeman's analysis of the Canadian anti-apartheid movement. More central here is the fact that struggles within that hegemonic class (struggles between factions and fractions shaped by differing interests and differing levels of craft and understanding) to define its strategies are often as intense as any struggle between classes. Indeed, in seeking to understand the apparent anomalies of the "Mulroney moment," it is precisely by focusing upon such intra-class struggles that we learn far more than through any insights provided by "radical pluralist theory."

Saving the baby

Thus capital in South Africa itself had long profited from the cheap labour made available by a parallel system of racial oppression. However, what seems evident is that, by the mid1980s, a profound debate had emerged within the capitalist class, world-wide and local, over how best to deal with the problem that a near-revolutionary South Africa now posed. Cooler heads within that class had begun to have some pretty daring thoughts, in effect echoing the earlier insight of Anglo-American executive Zac de Beer that "we all understand how years of apartheid have caused many blacks to reject the economic as well as the political system ... We dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid."

Particularly important in advancing this point of view was Malcolm Fraser, the Conservative former Prime Minister of Australia, who was an extremely vocal member of the Eminent Persons' Group (EPG) assigned by the Commonwealth in the mid1980s to investigate the South African situation. Echoing the EPG's call for sanctions to force apartheid South Africa to its senses before the confrontation there escalated out of control, Fraser (as cited by Freeman) argued that any such escalation meant "moderation would be swept aside .... The government that emerged from all this would be extremely radical, probably Marxist, and would nationalize all western business interests." As I wrote at the time (in my article "Mysteries of the Dark Cabinet: What is behind the Mulroney government's surprising stand on South Africa?" This Magazine, August-September, 1988), "it seems clear that Mulroney responded to this reading of the South African situation. To the goal of ingratiating himself with the black Commonwealth was now added the role of spearheading the forces of enlightened capitalism!}" From such a perspective much of the mystery attached to the explanation of Mulroney's anti-apartheid initiative falls away.

To be fair, Freeman does allude to much of this evidence and it is also true that some of the other variables she introduces did have pertinent effects: for example, it probably did make some difference to Mulroney's ability to embrace the side of the intra-capitalist strategic debate he did that he was not a racist like Reagan and Thatcher. Still, Freeman at times seems so intent upon looking elsewhere for additional "political" explanations of Mulroney's choice that she tends to blur the central insight offered by a more firmly grounded class analysis of that choice. Moreover, this latter way of understanding Canadian policy-making is further verified by what happened next: when the South African government seemed to have succeeded at least momentarily in crushing domestic resistance through its Emergencies of the later 1980s its apparent success suggested the possibility of a return to "business-as usual" on the old racist terms - and reinforced the less adventurous perspectives both of other capitalist actors in Canada and of other, larger, capitalist powers, notably Britain and the United States.

At this point Mulroney's own enthusiasm waned (165), further solidifying a context within which the forces in Canada supportive of a more conventional capitalist approach to South Africa (their line-up usefully itemized by Freeman here) waxed strong once again, and the malignant Clark could emerge as Cabinet point-man for reining in what was now thought to have been too forward a policy. This is not too surprising. After all, even in acknowledging the uniqueness of the Mulroney moment Freeman demonstrates just how short-lived and shallow the high-water mark of Mulroney's anti-apartheid initiative actually was. Now, as that moment faded, she can link her evaluation of Mulroney that much more firmly to her earlier discussion of the likes of Diefenbaker and Trudeau and emphasize the flimsy nature of Mulroney's own claim to the legendary status that has begun to accrue to him on this front (256). And yet, at the same time, it is interesting to note the number of members of the capitalist class who would come to see Mulroney as having been right the first time. Indeed, it was precisely during the late1980s' period of Mulroney's retreat from his advanced thinking regarding apartheid that certain similarly inclined capitalists in South Africa itself were beginning to press forward successfully the logic of a very similar containment strategy for preempting and taming black aspirations.

The anti-apartheid movement

What, while all this was going on, of the Canadian anti-apartheid movement? It bears emphasizing that in her concern to allow "politics" to matter Freeman is led to study carefully the role - one that another writer might have ignored - played by various forces in Canadian society that swam against the current of establishment interest and orthodoxy as regards South Africa. In her book this encourages an important acknowledgment of the often impressive efforts of a wide range of churches, unions, NGOs and liberation support organizations linked to the Canadian anti-apartheid movement, broadly-defined. And yet, as hinted earlier, in her search for the "political" explanation for the rise of Mulroney's own anti-apartheid policy - one that, given her approach, must emphasize the broadening and diversifying of the range of relevant political forces in order to explain outcomes - she may give the movement far more credit for producing that enlightened policy than it deserves. Even more clearly, she places far too much blame upon the movement for permitting the subsequent weakening of Mulroney's commitments (she speaks, in this respect, of the negative impact of "the splintering of the movement" in the late 1980s, of the "rut into which [it] seemed to have fallen," and of the extent to which its self-destructive tendencies "removed a key irritant from within civil society" [2323]).

For starters, in documenting the range of organizations and individuals involved in anti-apartheid work in Canada Freeman misreads the nature of the movement in important ways. Thus her main point of reference in measuring movement success seems to be the degree of its institutionalization as a national movement. Yet this is not a particularly illuminating angle of vision. True, as she demonstrates, the movement was pulled forward, briefly, towards a more integrated national focus during the hey-day of Mulroney's policies. But most anti-apartheid activists had never been naive about what could be accomplished at that level, choosing instead to prioritize efforts in their own diverse constituencies, social and geographical.

After all, the alternative model was the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, its measure of unity facilitated by the compact geography of the UK, but also by a degree of enforced policy conformity (uncritical support of the ANC, for example) that many anti-apartheid activists in Canada would not (quite rightly, in my opinion) countenance. As for the fact that some left-liberal campaigners fell for Clark's venal attempt in the late 1980s to substitute various feel-good gimmicks (his focus on the media question, for example) for any substantial deepening of sanctions, or were coopted by monies momentarily made available by the government for certain kinds of anti-apartheid activities, this was perfectly predictable. Nonetheless, in my experience and in sharp contradiction to the elegiac tone adopted by Freeman about such matters, there was no slackening off of anti-apartheid work in Toronto itself and in many Toronto-based institutions (but this was also true elsewhere in the country) as the 1980s wore on, whatever the decay of the soft unity that had momentarily surfaced nationally amongst very diverse constituencies, regionally, politically and ideologically.

But what about the impact of this movement, however interpreted, on policy? No doubt, in its very diversity, it did make some difference: ironically, Freeman herself - only several pages (248) after her pronouncement of the movement's self-destruction - is to be found hailing the extent to which forces in civil society (churches, unions and the like) stayed the Mulroney government from merely dumping such sanctions as were in place at the point when the negotiations process began in South Africa in 1990! But in the 1980s phase Freeman focuses upon most centrally, the movement's fate was to flow most strongly with the opportunity offered (largely for reasons beyond the movement's own control) by the Mulroney moment and to appear to ebb somewhat when that moment passed. To interpret events otherwise - to "blame the movement" for Mulroney's backsliding, for example - is to miss the main point to be gleaned from an alternative reading of the history of the anti-apartheid movement in Canada.

For the one thing that a structural-cum-class analysis of Canadian policy-making should underscore is just how limited in its impact a reformist approach (including the attempt to reform one particular aspect of Canada's foreign policy) must inevitably be without a far more fundamental transformation of Canadian society and polity. This is the hard lesson that radical anti-apartheid activists kept learning during the years of their activity as they were confronted constantly with the economic-cum-class logic of our country's link to racial capitalism in South Africa. This is not to say that they - we - were wasting our time, nor is it to say that we couldn't have worked both harder and more effectively. It is to suggest, however, that Freeman's pluralistic/"political" qualifications of her main argument risk blurring the very strength of the case (about the overbearing impact on policy of the untransformed socio-economic structures in this country) she makes most effectively ... and usefully.

The struggle continues?

In the end, interestingly, these latter structures reclaim centrality in her argument about Canadian policy-making. Not the least of the virtues of this important book is Freeman's insistence on carrying her story through, however briefly, to the post-apartheid present - a sign of her welcome insistence throughout on wedding careful scholarship to social and political concern. Moreover, her "Conclusion and Epilogue" demonstrates, once again, the strengths of the structural emphasis within her overall argument. For she reveals unerringly the narrow and selfishly market-driven character of Canada's continuing outreach (trade, aid and the rest) to post-apartheid South Africa, making this chapter of far more than historical interest and indeed required reading. Her conclusion is powerful : "In the current conjuncture of neo-liberal fundamentalism, dominant forces in Canada and the West seem even more indifferent to the interests of the vast majority [in South Africa] than they were in the long battle to end apartheid" (304).

Good stuff. Yet even in this last chapter there must be nagging doubts as to the efficacy of the overall framework (marked by its down-playing of class analysis) that Freeman adopts. The South African state under ANC leadership has proven to be a willing recipient of such market-defined, post-apartheid Canadian outreach. Why? Special attention must be paid, in this regard, to the embourgeoisement of a stratum of Africans, within and without the ANC, and the very considerable evidence that this development has contributed mightily to the movement's leadership accepting, in Freeman's words, "policies at odds with the principles of the ANC Freedom Charter" and adopting a brand of "neo-liberal fundamentalism." Was not this precisely the outcome that the deep thinkers within the capitalist class had begun to consider possible in the late1980s (if not, perhaps, Mulroney himself: whatever the cunning of his broader strategic views, his government crudely down-graded the claims to centrality of the ANC until quite late in the day)? Yet, as Freeman analyzes the ANC (301), first and foremost this "drift to the right in discourse and the approach towards economic policy of senior ministers in the Mandela government, although not entirely uncontested, indicates how narrow the options are"!

This is, at best, only half right. The structural constraints imposed on the ANC by the power of capitalist interests, world-wide and local, are real enough. But the ANC itself has also become part of the problem in many ways, the constraints generated by class formation and class polarization (and by the proto-hegemonic quality of its chosen "discourse") beginning to cut across it just as surely and as sharply as they do across Canadian society and the Canadian political system.

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Printable Version

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