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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, right, speaks with former prime ministers Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell and Jean Chrétien on board a government plane travelling to South Africa on Dec. 8, 2013. They are part of the Canadian delegation for the memorials for South African leader Nelson Mandela, as is former prime minister Joe Clark, who arrived separately in South Africa.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

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In the unprecedented Canadian delegation to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela, there are prime ministers representing three decades of relations with South Africa, from confrontation to hopefulness to disinterest.

The long list of VIPs, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and including former PMs and governors-general, current premiers, MPs and other notables, is probably the most extensive high-level Canadian delegation ever to travel to a foreign memorial. They'll mark the life of the man, the last great hero of the 20th century, revered as a symbol – as Mr. Mandela himself said in his 1990 speech to Canada's House of Commons – of the struggle against apartheid.

But Mr. Mandela did symbolize Canada's increased interest in South Africa in two decades under Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien – though ties declined markedly since he left the presidency, and under Mr. Harper's term as Prime Minister.

Mr. Mulroney, who came to office as the 1980s campaign to release Mr. Mandela from prison heightened the international anti-apartheid movement, shucked off traditional Canadian policy on South Africa.

Before Mr. Mulroney, Canada's policy, like most of its allies, was to condemn apartheid but continue normal diplomatic and economic relations with South Africa. But Mr. Mulroney overruled diplomats' arguments that engagement was better than confrontation, said Carleton University professor Linda Freeman, an expert on Canada-South Africa relations. In 1985, he told the United Nation that Canada would eventually cut off all diplomatic and economic ties if apartheid remained.

Mr. Mulroney never took that step. But he did play a leading role in pushing the Commonwealth, over the objections of British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, in adopting more limited sanctions. And he argued with other allies, like U.S. president Ronald Reagan, to follow suit – although between 1987 and 1990, those efforts seemed slowed, Ms. Freeman said. There were critics at home who still viewed Mr. Mandela as a terrorist. South Africa's foreign minister, Pik Botha, accused Mr. Mulroney of supporting violence and terrorism when he sent Mr. Mandela a birthday greeting in prison.

But the starker Canadian confrontation did have a role, along with others, in increasing international momentum for a campaign to end apartheid – something Mr. Mandela acknowledged after his release from prison in his 1990 speech in Ottawa. And Mr. Mulroney maintained sanctions, as Mr. Mandela asked, until 1993, after a political agreement to end apartheid.

When Mr. Chrétien arrived in power in 1993, the transition was coming. Hope marked relations between Canada and South Africa, and the Canadian government funded the dispatch of workers and experts intended to help the transition. Agencies like the International Development Research Centre sent experts to provide training on governance and areas like fiscal and economic planning, essentially trying to prepare Mr. Mandela's African National Congress for governing.

As Mr. Mandela took power, there were increased bilateral ties and diplomatic cooperation on international questions, like the land-mines treaty sponsored by Canada. Mr. Chrétien invited Mr. Mandela, then 80, to Canada in 1998 to be inducted into the Order of Canada. "Certainly, the mid-90s was a high point," Ms. Freeman said.

When Mr. Mandela left office, there was still reason for Canada and South Africa to keep develop ties. Mr. Chrétien had taken on a plan to expand western assistance to Africa, sponsored by the G8 – the so-called New Partnership for African Development – and South Africa was a key player on the continent. Mr. Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, who wanted to be seen as a leader of the African continent, was invited to the 2002 G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta.

But Mr. Mbeki did not have Mr. Mandela's status as a hero. His denial of the ravages of AIDs, and episodes like arms-sale corruption, tainted his tenure and his shine as an international partner.

"I think there was something to the notion of Madiba magic, and the high hopes" under Mr. Mandela, Ms. Freeman said. There was disappointment under Mr. Mbeki and now current South African leader Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Harper, however, has shown little interest in South Africa. Neither he nor any of his foreign affairs ministers have ever visited the country, until now.

That's likely due to Mr. Harper's lack of emphasis on Africa in general. While Mr. Chrétien and Paul Martin declared Africa a priority, Mr. Harper turned to Latin America. Mr. Harper's government slowed the growth of aid to Africa, then essentially froze it.

Even the economics of Africa, where many countries had rapid economic growth over the past decade – South Africa's economy is the biggest – didn't attract high-level interest, and Mr. Harper's visits were rare. That seemed to shift a little last year, when Mr. Harper visited Senegal and the Congo, signalling an interest in developing trade, and his foreign affairs and trade ministers stepped up visits. But South Africa remained off his travel list – until the memorial for Mr. Mandela brought him there.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.