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A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer salutes as South African President Jacob Zuma (R) arrives at Pearson International Airport to attend the G8 and G20 Summits in Toronto June 24, 2010. Zuma is scheduled to participate in the group of eight outreach session during the G8 Summit in Huntsville.MIKE CASSESE/Reuters

When guests from around the world were invited to the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's political party this year, Canada was conspicuous by its absence.

Despite often boasting of its historic support for the anti-apartheid struggle, Canada's diplomats didn't show up at the centenary celebrations for the ruling African National Congress – the biggest event on South Africa's political calendar so far this year.

The diplomats say their invitation simply arrived too late. But their perceived snub of the ANC anniversary has sparked criticism here, exposing the neglect and misperceptions that now hamper Canada's relationship with Africa's wealthiest country.

With the left-wing ANC increasingly looking east to China, and with the right-wing Harper government seeing Africa as a pet project of the previous Liberal government, the former partners are slowly drifting apart, dogged not just by ideological differences but also festering disputes over everything from the Libya war to climate policy.

"I was perplexed by not seeing the Canadians at the anniversary," said Oscar van Heerden, a former ANC official who is now a political analyst. "The invitation was simply not honoured. The ANC were a bit dumbfounded. When I looked across the VIP rooms, it was quite striking that Canada's representatives were not there."

Canadian officials say their official invitation to the January event arrived at the last minute, due to ANC organizational disarray, and they could not spare any diplomats because of a visiting trade delegation. But many other Western countries had the same delay in their invitations and still managed to attend.

If you ask Canadian diplomats to recall the last visit to South Africa by a Canadian foreign minister, you're met with blank stares. Canada has not sent a foreign minister to South Africa for a remarkable 13 years, even though South Africa is a G20 member and a key gateway to the rest of Africa.

Everyone agrees there is vast potential for close relations between the two countries. Canada led the fight for Commonwealth sanctions against the apartheid regime in the mid-1980s, earning praise from South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Its diplomats pushed for human rights in the late 1980s, visiting more than 100 black townships and churches to support the struggle for freedom.

After the fall of apartheid in 1994, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a model for the drafting of South Africa's constitution, and Nelson Mandela became only the second person in history to be awarded honorary Canadian citizenship.

Yet since then, the relationship has deteriorated into apathy and neglect. Canada's image in South Africa today is defined not by its anti-apartheid work but by the notorious saga of Brandon Huntley, the white South African who was given refugee status in Canada in 2009 when he claimed to be persecuted by black criminals.

In an equally odd gesture, Canada has maintained a visa ban on ANC leaders, requiring them to apply for special exemptions if they want to visit. Meanwhile, the two countries have found themselves on opposite sides of the diplomatic fence on a host of global issues, including Libya, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Israel. And they clashed again last year when South Africa blasted the government of Stephen Harper for its hostility to the Kyoto climate treaty.

"We're concerned about the apparent possible direction of the Canadian government," said a senior South African government official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The political disputes are accompanied by weak trade links. Canada receives only 0.7 per cent of South Africa's exports, compared to 2.6 per cent in the 1970s. And it supplies only 0.8 per cent of South Africa's imports, compared to 1.4 per cent when apartheid ended. South Africa is increasingly drifting away from Western countries like Canada and shifting its interests to China and other Asian countries.

Despite its strong anti-apartheid efforts in the 1980s, "Canada hasn't been able to link this goodwill to any substantive relationship with South Africa," said Edward Akuffo, a political scientist and Africa specialist at the University of the Fraser Valley in B.C.

"Canada has generally put Africa on the margins of its foreign policy, and that has an impact on its relationship with South Africa," he said.

David Hornsby, a Canadian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, describes the relations between the two countries as "disconnected, uneasy and fraught." In his conversations with South Africa's International Relations Department, he has heard South African officials wondering if the two countries are still partners, given the lack of attention paid by Canada.

"Canada and South Africa are like ships passing in the night," said Mr. Hornsby, who organized an academic conference last month on relations between the two countries.

"They really just aren't connecting on important international questions any more," he added. "We don't have a prime minister who's at all interested in Africa, and that's tying the hands of our diplomats."

Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr. Harper has made only a single visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and he has shifted Canada's foreign aid away from most African countries, preferring to give priority to Latin America.

Another problem is that Canada may have exaggerated its importance to the anti-apartheid movement. In fact, Canada's decision to join the anti-apartheid battle under former prime minister Brian Mulroney was "late, limited and overblown," according to Linda Freeman, a Carleton University political scientist who has written a book on the subject.

When personalities such as Mr. Mandela and Mr. Mulroney disappeared from the political stage, the Canadian "love affair" with South Africa soon faded, she said. "With Harper, it's completely gone out of the window," Prof. Freeman said. "The good historical record has been torpedoed."

Mr. van Heerden, the former ANC official, said he simply can't understand it. "We don't see very much coming from the Canadians, compared to previous years," he said.

"It's not that South Africa wants to be there with a begging bowl, but we've worked together before, we've got a success story – why are you not coming to the party any longer?"