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Nelson Mandela and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney make their way through a crowd of onlookers after the South African leader's arrival in Ottawa on June 17, 1990. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/Reuters)
Nelson Mandela and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney make their way through a crowd of onlookers after the South African leader's arrival in Ottawa on June 17, 1990. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/Reuters)

Gerald Caplan

Canada and Mandela: the story behind the myth Add to ...

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison, which has naturally triggered reminiscences around the world, some more accurate than others. Mine went back to the last years of apartheid, from the late 1980s until Mr. Mandela's election as president in the historic 1994 election.

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On Jan. 7, 1987, a South African diplomat in Ottawa wrote to a Canadian newspaper fiercely complaining of "the scurrilous allegations" against his government that had appeared in its pages. "My government ," he declared, "has been the victim of a great deal of misinformation spread by certain elements of the Canadian press, but none as reprehensible" as the piece in question.

I have always considered that attack on me by one of the most egregious regimes the world has known to be a badge of honour. But the letter was not an isolated shot by the apartheid government. A totalitarian system premised on the innate inferiority of Africans, built on extreme repression and enforced by brutal violence, was, in the late 1980s, in its death throes. Not even the bitter-end support by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan could save apartheid. Its back against the wall, the white government lashed out on all fronts.

Its grand strategy was twofold. First, launch attacks with all its vast might against three targets: its opponents within the country; the neighbouring African states, most of which it invaded in those years; and ANC activists in exile, from Maputo to Paris, whom they searched out and murdered. Second, launch a massive disinformation and propaganda campaign around the world with three messages: to insist that life for black South Africans was improving, to tie Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to so-called left-wing terrorist groups around the world, and to discredit critics of apartheid everywhere. The letter attacking me was one tiny part of that sophisticated, hugely expensive propaganda campaign.

Last week in this paper, the head of the Public Policy Forum looked back nostalgically on the good old days when Canada was "helping achieve the end of apartheid in South Africa." It's an appealing notion, a perfect Canadian conceit, but it's not nearly as accurate as some Canadians like to romanticize. In fact, to a significant extent, the Canadian government and Canadian business became dupes of South Africa's PR campaign.

It was one thing for Canadian journalists like Peter Worthington to make themselves propagandists for the South African apartheid government at its most vile moment. But it was quite another when prime minister Brian Mulroney, sometimes the western world's boldest leader against apartheid, actually bought into the South African propaganda campaign. When African National Congress president and trusted Mandela confidante Oliver Tambo visited Canada in 1987, Mr. Mulroney directly confronted him with, of all things, a South African government advertisement in The Globe and Mail labelling the ANC a terrorist Communist organization. Mr. Mulroney's contradictory positions reflected the decades-long ambivalence towards South Africa by a succession of Canadian governments - even after Mr. Mandela was freed.

Winnie Mandela and Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark lead an anti-apartheid parade up University Avenue in Toronto on June 19, 1990.

We owe much of our real understanding of Canada's lacklustre engagement with apartheid to two of Canada's most dedicated scholars of Africa, Linda Freeman of Carleton and John Saul of York University. Rejecting the prevalent mythology about Canada's impressive role, Professors Freeman and Saul documented the meagre response that had long characterized Canadian government's actual policies towards South Africa for almost half a century. Diefenbaker, Pearson, Trudeau - all talked a much better game than they played. Through all these decades, while the ANC and anti-apartheid activists around the world called for sanctions against South Africa, trade between our two countries steadily grew.

Mr. Mulroney's record was by far the best of a disappointing lot. He and his UN ambassador, Stephen Lewis, took on all comers in their attacks on the evils of apartheid. Mr. Mulroney stood up to Reagan and Thatcher in a way that few others with power did. But the prime minister's enthusiasm for the cause soon ran out of steam, and his much-lauded public commitment to tighten sanctions fell by the wayside.

Joe Clark, Mr. Mulroney's Foreign Affairs minister, was soon running the apartheid file. Mr. Clark, far more than the prime minister, was obsessed with the ANC's strategic commitment to armed struggle, which he found far more intolerable than the evils of apartheid. Mr. Clark knew perfectly well the reality of the South African system, telling parliament, "We do understand that violence is at the heart of the apartheid system." But that apparently couldn't justify an armed response, even though the ANC explicitly banned attacks on civilians and targeted only the military and police who enforced the system.

In 1990, soon after Mr. Mandela was released from jail, he and Mr. Clark met in Lusaka, Zambia. Mr. Mandela knew that while Mr. Mulroney had stood up to Thatcher and Reagan, he had also humiliated Mr. Tambo. But in true Mandela style, he now chose to accentuate the positive. He physically embraced Mr. Clark and lavished praise on Canada for its contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. Then he made three public requests of the Canadian government: Intensify sanctions. Aid the ANC directly. And understand that Mr. Mandela needed to use the possibility of armed struggle as a negotiating tool with the South African government.

Only hours later, Mr. Clark publicly rejected all three requests. Not only did his government not tighten sanctions, trade between South Africa and Canada continued to increase during the Mulroney years. Yet as Prof. Freeman noted at the time, "As Canada's South African policy falls into disarray, the government's claims for its success grows ever louder."

It's true that Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Mandela remained on good terms and the prime minister contributed to special funds that Mr. Mandela needed. Mr. Mulroney will always be able to claim that he played a greater role than most other Western leaders in the ending of apartheid. But it was far from the contribution he might have made. Besides the insult to Mr. Tambo and Joe Clark's double standard about the use of violence, Nelson Mandela's people never forgot that when their arch-enemy Mangothusu Buthelezi came to Ottawa in 1992, Mr. Mulroney was only too happy to agree to a smiling photo-op with him. This at a time when Mr. Buthelezi was colluding with the apartheid government in a ferocious and deadly battle against Mr. Mandela and the ANC.

Equally troubling is the number of Canadian business-people who suddenly discovered, after Mr. Mandela's release, their anti-apartheid bona fides and craved nothing more than a photo with the great man. In fact, the vast proportion of our business community had been either complicit or indifferent to apartheid. Some blithely invested in South Africa, many condemned the ANC as violent Marxists, many were simply oblivious to the issue, while some actually embraced black South African stooges who were conspiring with the dying white government against the ANC.

It was Canadian civil society that played a heroic role in the struggle against apartheid. The Canadian anti-apartheid coalition -solidarity groups, NGOs, trade unions, churches, South African exiles - was one of the great international movements in our country's history. Tens of thousands Canadians were involved, and it is they who can take most satisfaction at the joyous memory, exactly twenty years ago, of watching Nelson Mandela walk free from his prison.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national campaign director and is author of The Betrayal of Africa

 

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