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Southern Africa Report Archive

In this her tenth annual instalment, Linda Freeman presents a magisterial overview of official Canada's record on South Africa over the past decade, an historical survey that effectively debunks many of the myths that have begun to cluster around that record. But she also concludes on a soberingly contemporary note, underscoring the extent to which the orthodoxies of neo-conservative economics, so prevalent in other policy spheres, also give officialdom license for the most selfish possible reading of Canada's on-going interest in South Africa. Competitiveness, trade and investment, IMF rules: so Ottawa's litany goes, with any direct concern for the fate of the dispossessed in South Africa (or elsewhere, for that matter) increasingly downplayed.

vol 11 no 1

Canada and South Africa: Less of the same
Linda Freeman

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 11, No 1, November 1995
Page 3



Linda Freeman is SAR's Ottawa correspondent; she has just completed a book on Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years.

As South Africa's government of national unity grapples with reconstruction, attention in Canada and the world has necessarily moved on from the long struggle to end apartheid. Relations have moved to a more "normal" footing since the days of diplomatic deep freeze and sanctions. Although plans for a visit by Mandela to Canada in October were cancelled for domestic reasons, he is expected in the winter of 1996, his first visit here as head of state of the new South Africa.

The prospect gives us a moment to reflect on the Canadian government's part in bringing apartheid to an end and to assess its involvement in the transition. Legend has it that Canadian Prime Ministers from Diefenbaker to Mulroney played a leading role in combatting apartheid. This common wisdom is shared by Canadians and South Africans alike, giving birth to "excellent relations" and fairly easy access for Canadian officials to South African Cabinet Ministers in the post-apartheid denouement.

Yet, as the nine previous articles in Southern Africa Report have demonstrated, this memory is highly selective. The record was always more mixed and the contribution more nuanced than the official view would have us believe.

Although Diefenbaker did not side with the other white dominions in supporting apartheid South Africa's membership in the Commonwealth, he was a reluctant convert to the opposition, regretting to the end that some compromise, even a few token seats for non-whites in parliament, could not save the day. Ten years later, he strongly supported the resumption of British arms sales to South Africa on Cold War grounds.

In retrospect, the Trudeau government also offered surprisingly little for black South Africans. As we have seen, this was the era where Western governments monotonously expressed their abhorrence of apartheid, while refusing to put significant economic or diplomatic pressure on the South African regime. This "having your cake and eating it too" policy became known as a policy of `balance', giving something in theory to questions of social justice and human rights and a lot in practice to the Canadian corporate sector. A 1970 Canadian government White Paper on foreign policy formalized the contradiction, and it hardened into a formula for successive Liberal governments. We were, after all, living in a material world; South Africa was a Cold War ally; and other Western governments played ball with Pretoria.

Generally, Trudeau ignored the issue of apartheid, responding with impatience to those who urged a stronger policy. On the one occasion where South Africa fully occupied his attention, at the Commonwealth conference in Singapore in 1971, he slipped into the role of "helpful fixer". While agreement on a declaration of human rights helped prevent a mass exodus over British arms sales to South Africa, it was a weak compromise in a bleak era.

Trudeau's approach to South Africa was redolent with paradox: on the one hand, his interest in apartheid began early and lasted into his retirement. His liberal internationalist image encouraged African leaders to expect a great deal from him. Yet, with the exception of a few token reforms to halt the promotion of trade (but not trade itself) in 1977, the establishment of a toothless Code of Conduct for Canadian corporations based in South Africa and support for sporting sanctions and for the arms embargo, his government's record was undistinguished, considerably weaker than that of the Nordic countries. The operations of Canadian banks, investors and traders increased throughout this period with the full knowledge and approval of the Canadian state.

Moreover, it was on Trudeau's watch that a Canadian company, Space Research Corporation, sold South Africa the G5 gun, the most advanced artillery system in the world and the basis of South Africa's arms export industry. This rupture of arms sanctions strengthened apartheid at home and in South Africa's genocidal wars of destabilization in the region.

By contrast, Mulroney and his government did significantly better, adopting concrete economic sanctions in 1986 and maintaining them largely intact until Mandela requested their removal in September 1993. The sanctions were neither comprehensive nor mandatory and new initiatives were rare after 1986. However, they marked a clear abandonment of the previous approach and also of the Tories' general commitment towards free trade.

What made this policy even more remarkable was that it was adopted in the teeth of strong and growing opposition from Mulroney's own party, caucus, Cabinet and civil service, aided by the South African embassy in Ottawa. The private sector in Canada, especially the export community, disliked the restrictions from the start.

Sanctions also brought Mulroney into open confrontation with his staunchest allies: he challenged Thatcher personally and directly on a number of occasions within the Commonwealth and took Reagan to task bilaterally and within the G7. Thus, there is no question that Mulroney displayed a gut commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle which was both refreshing and new.

Partly the times were different. When Mulroney came to power in 1984, the conditions for change required a new response. The Vaal uprising signalled to the West that the apartheid regime was vulnerable, and Western banks and investment capital began their exodus. Generally, the international climate of opinion had begun to harden against white minority rule and Western governments began to adopt sanctions.

Yet, although Mulroney will be remembered for the strength of his government's policy on South Africa, its tenure was very brief - a matter of about two years - before it ground to a halt. Once the South African state and military had quelled the campaign to make South Africa ungovernable, banks, Western governments and the Canadian state went into neutral, refusing to sustain the momentum of the mid-1980s and adding little to their sanctions programme. Breaches of voluntary financial sanctions and the continuance of substantial two-way trade - not only exports (primarily of sulphur) but also imports (of dissolving wood pulp and ingredients for specialty steel) - began to call Canada's role into question and to diminish the importance of its expanded aid programmes.

With Mulroney's attention diverted in the late 1980s to domestic issues (the question of free trade and the attempt to forge a new constitutional dispensation), he returned to Southern African matters primarily during Commonwealth meetings. To the end, he could bask in the praise of African leaders who generally chose not to notice how limited the policy had become. As the years went on, his claims for Canadian policy became more extravagant; the reality increasingly tawdry. The contradictions represented in the fading policy opened the possibility of major embarrassment.

The situation was saved at this conjuncture by the dramatic changes in South Africa which ushered in an end to apartheid. Following Mandela's release and the reforms introduced by de Klerk in 1990, the weight of opinion within the Canadian state and private sector changed to dispensing with sanctions, the sooner the better.

Yet, despite this consensus, the government stayed the course, and Canada was one of the last countries to lift sanctions. The difficulty lay in the prominent role which the Canadian Secretary of State for External Affairs had assumed as Chair of the Commonwealth Committee of Foreign Ministers on Southern Africa. Although Canadian diplomats had proposed this Committee as a means to defuse the drive for additional sanctions, they could not break ranks later without a tremendous loss of face. Therefore, despite considerable impatience, the Tory government did the honourable thing; the state did not end sanctions until requested to do so in 1993.

Pro sanctions forces within the state, aided by an uncritical and somewhat amnesiac press, have largely ignored the shortcomings in Mulroney's policy and have built a legend around its successes. In doing so, they have fallen prey to a self- congratulatory tradition in Canadian foreign policy - the vanity factor. They reiterate, against all the evidence, that "Canada led the way", that "Canada made a difference" and that Canadian policy on South Africa was "just right".

Yet a closer reading will show that, while the policy of the Mulroney period had its moments of distinction, it also had its weaknesses, compromises and ambiguities. The striking and somewhat sobering fact remains that the latter will drift into oblivion while the former will be remembered, complete with an invented past for the period stretching back through the dry gulch of the Trudeau years to the Diefenbaker era. Striking and sobering because similar patterns are recurring in a new and even harsher era.

This time around, the Liberals are, if anything, even more hard-nosed (and certainly more up front) about the interest of trade and commercialization uber alles, and particularly over questions of democracy and human rights, than when they defended Canadian business interests in apartheid South Africa. It is a good thing that apartheid ended before the Tories lost patience and the Liberals came back to power.

Consider, for example, the way Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet now recycles the same tired cliches about countries such as China, Myanmar and Indonesia, that were formerly used by Liberals on South Africa. Irrespective of whether a country is a dictatorship or what its record is on human rights, Ouellet told a Vancouver audience in May 1995, the best way to promote democratic development is through trade promotion. "Isolation . . . is not conducive to helping the populations of repressive regimes . . . (but) foreign trade, which creates progress in the economy, is the best way of spreading . . . (democracy) to the population." Thus, as the Liberal government's statement on foreign policy (Canada in the World) made clear, the brutality of an assortment of regimes will be no impediment to the promotion of economic relations with Canada. Constructive engagement has been given a second spring, with all its hypocrisies and selfishness.

But at least in South Africa, the end of apartheid and the transition to a government of national unity have put the linkage between economic relations, democracy and human rights to the side for the time being. The central themes of the new relationship have become trade and investment, assistance and quiet diplomatic support. South Africa's readmittance to the Commonwealth in May 1994 has provided a central focus for co-operation, particularly on efforts to ease the crisis in Nigeria. On larger international issues like nuclear non-proliferation, Canadian diplomats have become trusted colleagues, encouraging South Africans from the new government to speak out. The Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa has visited South Africa several times, the most recently following a tour of the region in September.

At the same time, Canadian assistance has increased (by 44% in the 1990s), though it has settled at a fairly modest level with annual disbursements of about $20 million. Since May 1994, South Africa has become eligible for bilateral assistance but the $5 million special fund to support NGO programmes in South Africa was axed in the February 1995 budget cuts along with development education work.

For the next three years, CIDA's programme in South Africa will be focused on technical assistance for constitutional development, for civil servants at all levels of government, for administrators in the education sector, for the black private sector and for NGOs and civics. Of particular interest is the programme which twins provinces in Canada and South Africa, providing orientation and advice to South African provincial leaders visiting Canadian provincial governments - Jacob Zuma of Natal in Ontario, Manne Dipico, Premier of the Northern Cape, in New Brunswick and Terror (Patrick) Lekota, Premier of the Orange Free State in Saskatchewan.

Without question, however, the central interest continues to be support for the Canadian private sector with Minister for International Trade Roy MacLaren declaring his "personal conviction" in its vital importance in developing relations with South Africa. A Canadian trade office reopened in Johannesburg a month after sanctions were lifted; MacLaren led a trade delegation early in 1994 and announced the resumption of a full range of trade support measures including the extension of the General Preferential Tariff to South Africa and sizeable EDC credits. Three Canada/South Africa Chambers of Business now exist in Canada to promote trade, and Canadian agencies are finalizing a Southern and Eastern Africa Regional Action Plan (SERAP) to facilitate South Africa's emerging role as an African trade hub.

The initial response in the trade sector has been extremely positive. Two-way trade (at over $545 million) in 1994 was almost double the annual average of the sanctions years, and the prediction of the chairman of the South African/Canadian Chamber of Commerce is that it will double again in the 1990s. Exports increased by 44%, and although almost half consist of primary commodities - forest products, metals and minerals and agriculture - there is some diversification into non-traditional markets for telecommunications equipment, information technologies and instrumentation. However, the big surge came in imports - up by almost 120% in 1994 as Canadian companies stocked up on strategic minerals. This trend has continued in 1995 with two-way trade for the first six months surpassing annual totals during the sanctions era.

However, investment is an entirely different matter. Canadian interest has been modest, mostly from small- and medium-sized companies with annual sales of about $50 million: Newbridge Microsystems is developing computer networks and Cott Corporation makes colas and soft drinks from concentrates imported from Canada. Diversey Corporation, a subsidiary of Molson, bought a South African chemical company, primarily as a base for operations in the region.

Earlier in the 1990s, Dundee Bancorp purchased a 25% interest in a small gold mining company in South Africa and Lardel Holdings co-operated with Thebe Investment Corp. to develop a regional airline. Quebec Iron and Titanium, one of the die-hard Canadian corporations that stayed on through the apartheid era, has stirred up a national protest of greens in its intention to strip mine ecologically fragile sand dunes on the northern Coast of Natal.

Canadian consultants have won a number of important contracts, notably SNC-Lavalin in the Alusaf project to build the largest aluminum smelter in the world and SR Telecom to provide microwave communications systems for South Africa's national telephone company. Other Canadian companies provide technical support to the mining sector.

However, the general reaction of foreign capital, including Canadian capital, is cautious, holding a watching brief; money is not flooding into the new South Africa. Reservations continue about the heavy monopoly factor, the relative backwardness of technology, and the problems of adapting a highly protected economy and uncompetitive industry to the global marketplace. The South African economy is only just emerging from a profound recession and negative or low growth rates. Canadian investors do not like the power of South African trade unions. On the political side, uncertainty has accompanied Mangosuthu Buthelezi's erratic campaign to stay afloat politically and the continuing high level of violence.

Generally, the South African government is caught between its belief in the paramount importance of strong economic growth and its commitment to redress the inequalities of the apartheid era. Lacking immediate infusions of private capital from domestic or foreign sources, it has turned to international financial institutions and bilateral donors.

Yet, such sources of support quickly identified their preference for neo-classical solutions to South Africa's economic and social problems, discouraging even mildly social democratic reforms. Almost immediately the South African administration faced a Faustian bargain: accepting policies at odds with its goal of redistribution or being starved of desperately needed capital. The drift to the right in discourse and policy in South Africa suggests that, in the short term at any rate, the administration has been forced to choose World Bank/IMF policy advice.

Thus the relationship between South Africa and the West, including Canada, has entered a new and complex phase. In the last decade, both Conservative and Liberal governments have insisted on conditionality, requiring recipients of Canadian assistance to limit public sector involvement in their economies and to focus instead on increasing their competitive ability in the global market place.

Despite the distortions of the apartheid legacy, the attitude towards South Africa is no different. In 1991, the head of the Southern Africa Task Force stated publicly that the government supported early IMF planning missions in South Africa, so that the new government would "get things right" from the start. The Canadian state has entered fully in the drive to open South Africa to global forces and to promote the interests of the private sector. One former Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa spoke glowingly about the prospects "across the board" for Canadian exports opened up by trade liberalization. The consensus accepting the "rightness" of neo-classical policies has become the mantra of the 1990s.

Once again, as in the early years of the battle over apartheid, the concerns of the dispossessed in South Africa will be promoted in Canada primarily by old allies in civil society, remote from the corridors of power - churches, trade unions, non- governmental organizations and academics. For many in these circles, market driven solutions are unlikely to produce sustainable growth in the medium and long term and will certainly not address the needs of the poor.

The standard insistence on trade liberalization, for example, may mean that highly protected inefficient industries of the South African past may disappear, but along with them will go significant industrial capacity and an important segment of the labour force. Should South Africa's rate of unemployment increase significantly from current estimates of about 50%, the prospects for political upheaval are intensified. In this view, mass expectations will remain unfulfilled and loyalties put to a severe test. If experience elsewhere is any

As Carleton University Professor Manfred Bienefeld suggested to a parliamentary sub-committee in Canada: "Competition is like medicine. It is very good for you in the right doses at the right time; it will kill you if you take too much of it."

Given the constellation of forces in the Chrétien government, the drift to the right and recent experience of restructuring in Canada itself, however, such views will have little purchase. Many NGOs in Canada, like their partners in South Africa, have been marginalized and cut back in the era of fiscal restraint. In the current conjuncture of neo-conservative fundamentalism, it will be even more difficult to advance the interests of South Africa's dispossessed than it was to encourage serious action against apartheid in the past.

The recolonization through structural adjustment programmes elsewhere in Africa is a fait accompli. Although it is early days, the inability of South Africa's current government to work out alternative visions or to begin to deliver the goods to its constituency bodes ill for the near future. At the least, it suggests that the contradictions in its approach will come into focus sooner rather than later.

So rather than slip into self-serving rhetoric about the current role of Canadians in South Africa - through aid, diplomacy or "mutually beneficial" trade and investment - let us remember the lesson of the apartheid era. When the going gets even tougher in South Africa, as it is likely to do, let us at least have the integrity to recognize that, in our government's largely uncritical insistence on neo-classical solutions, we play a role in its difficulties.

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