The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand

Nelson Mandela, Brian Mulroney & Canada’s Anti-Apartheid Record

Originally published in The Media Co-op on December 16, 2013

The eulogies and myth-making began almost immediately –– in Canada as notably as elsewhere.[1]  On December 5th, the day Nelson Mandela passed away, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney published a lengthy personal reflection and tribute to Mandela in the Toronto Sun, and its message and tone was largely reflected in subsequent Canadian media coverage.  Referring to Mandela’s release from a 27-year prison sentence in February 1990, Mulroney wrote: “For those of us who had played small roles in winning that day, the world was never the same.”  And he went on to reminisce about the “long, bitter and sometimes seemingly impossible” battle to win Mandela’s freedom, stating that Canada “helped to lead the struggle against apartheid.”  Mulroney is too adept a statesman to take all the credit.  He referred to John Diefenbaker’s initiative to expel South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, and implied that Canada had always taken a leadership position in the anti-apartheid movement.  Mulroney then went on to highlight his own role in the 1980s, at the meetings of Commonwealth leaders and elsewhere, “in building an international coalition whose ultimate objective was the liberation of Nelson Mandela and the destruction of the apartheid regime.”  And, of course, he reserved the highest praise for Mandela himself, suggesting that without his rare blend of “magnanimity to opponents and generosity to all,” the history of South Africa might have been far more bloody and less democratic.[2]

            Canadian politicians and corporate media almost invariably followed suit.  Writing in the Toronto Star the same day, Bruce Campion-Smith opened with Mulroney’s recollection of a phone call: “We regard you as one of our great friends because of the solid support we have received from you and Canada over the years,” Mandela ostensibly said to Mulroney soon after his release from prison.  Campion-Smith went on to discuss Mulroney’s heroic “defiance” of “opponents in his caucus, cabinet and the government bureaucracy to challenge white minority rule in South Africa,” and even quoted from Mulroney’s autobiography, where the former Prime Minister wrote: “I viewed apartheid with the same degree of disgust that I attached to the Nazis.”  To be fair, Campion-Smith’s lengthy article went on to a more critical assessment, by way of reviewing Linda Freeman’s excellent study Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in Trudeau and Mulroney Years (1997), and interviewing Freeman to get a counter-perspective.  But the first few paragraphs, the ones most likely to be read, were given over to Mulroney.[3]

            Few journalists and commentators bothered to do Campion-Smith’s level of research and critical analysis.  Mark Kennedy’s article in The Province the next day took journalism to a new low of hagiography and myth-making.  Entitled “Mandela, Mulroney: Two men, One goal,” Kennedy opened with Mandela’s June 1990 visit to the Canadian House of Commons which was characterized by “thunderous cheers and applause.”  Kennedy simply stated that Mulroney’s “leadership on the international stage against South African apartheid had been impressive.”  He quoted Mandela’s speech before Parliament, noting that the South African leader “thanked Mulroney and Canadians from all walks of life for supporting South Africa’s blacks.”  According to Kennedy, “it’s clear Canada played a significant role in the international sanctions campaign” prior to Mandela’s release from prison.  He then went on to compare the disparate “life experiences” of these two men, who allegedly became fast friends.  Apparently, Mulroney’s modest beginnings growing up in  “a paper mill town on Quebec’s north shore” informed his “personal sense of morality,” and led him to become “deeply offended by the systemic racism in South Africa.”  Mulroney, the unwavering anti-apartheid champion, is quoted as eulogizing Mandela as follows: “A precious light has gone out in the world. Let us remember though, that nothing can extinguish the flame of freedom he lit in South Africa. Nothing will dim the power of his message of tolerance, of integrity and statesmanship.”[4]

            Politicians, business leaders, and celebrities of all stripes in Canada lined up with their own personal reflections.  Most opportunist of all, perhaps, was Conrad Black, who praised Mandela as “a greater leader of an idealistic movement … a tremendous moral leader and we don’t have so many of them in secular life.”  This, from the man whose own company Massey-Ferguson violated the spirit if not the letter of the mandatory UN arms embargo of 1977 (UNSC Resolution 418) while under Black’s control,[5] was a committed supporter of Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (which murdered ANC supporters with Pretoria’s backing),[6] and who wrote in the Globe and Mail’s “Report on Business Magazine” in 1986 that one person-one vote was a “euphemism for massacre, expulsion or subjugation of the whites.”[7]  The latter-day praise for Mandela and his “idealistic movement” demonstrates a stunning degree of cynicism and hypocrisy, given that one would be hard-pressed to find a more committed Canadian defender of the apartheid regime than Conrad Black during the 1980s.

Irwin Cotler, Liberal MP for Mount Royal (Montreal), paid tribute to Mandela in the House of Commons, for presiding over the dismantlement of apartheid – that “ultimate racist assault on human rights and human dignity” – in “the first post-World War II country to have institutionalized racism as a matter of law,” and for “[making] possible … the establishment of a democratic, multiracial, free South Africa.”[8]  Cotler also quickly asserted his credentials as human rights activist, and longtime opponent of apartheid in the pages of the National Post, noting that he had “traveled to South Africa as a guest of the anti-apartheid movement” in 1981, and later became Mandela’s legal “counsel in Canada,” in order “to advocate for him as I had been doing for [Anatoly a.k.a. Natan] Sharansky” in the Soviet Union.  He recounted memorable exchanges with South Africa’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pik Botha, who “could not understand how I could represent Sharansky yet also speak on Mandela’s behalf,” the former “a hero in the fight against [Communism],” the latter “seen as a communist – and terrorist,” not just in South Africa, but also in Canada.  Botha “encouraged me to tour the country and see the true nature of apartheid for myself,” and at the end of Cotler’s visit, asked him for his impressions.  According to Cotler, he replied to Botha by saying: “I agreed that the country was indeed a democracy – if you were white.  But if you were black, I said, it was even worse than I had thought.”[9]

            Unlike Mulroney, Cotler did indeed have a connection to human rights activism, in his capacity as a civil rights lawyer.  In the mid-1980s, he even participated in anti-apartheid campaigns supported by a diverse range of organizations, such as Amnesty International, the World Council of Churches, and the Canadian Labor Congress, including one awareness-raising event to highlight the unjust nature of South Africa’s “pass laws,” which restricted the movements of blacks.  Cotler held up a mock passbook, and called it “a badge of infamy – this degrading, dehumanizing, criminalizing instrument of apartheid.”  He went on to acknowledge that South Africa wasn’t the only country infused with racism and discrimination, but “it is the only country which has institutionalized, consecrated discrimination as a matter of law.”  Agreeing with the assessment of the United Nations, Cotler declared apartheid to be “[not] just a racist philosophy,” but also “a legal regime” and “a crime against humanity.”[10]  Of course, Cotler’s astute insights and apparent indignation about South Africa’s apartheid system would be far more persuasive if he himself did not continuously play the role of Pik Botha in relation to Israel’s institutionalized two-tiered “democracy,” ethno-cultural discrimination, and routine human rights violations vis-à-vis the Palestinians.[11]  But notwithstanding that glaring double-standard – which Cotler’s hero Mandela clearly understood – there’s no prima facie reason to doubt Cotler’s motives for speaking out against white supremacy in South Africa over the last three decades.            

            One could go on at length with media examples of historical revisionism and myth-making about Canada’s professed commitment to sanctions and the struggle against apartheid.  The self-congratulatory narrative has been a tri-partisan affair, with all the major political parties seemingly in agreement that official government policy had been “on the right side of history.”  Most striking and preposterous, of course, has been the Canadian right-wing’s rush to associate itself with both Mandela’s name and the historic anti-apartheid struggle.  Prime Minister Stephen Harper also paid tribute to Mandela in the House of Commons, noting that “the world has lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen,” whose “magnanimity spared all South Africans incalculable suffering.”  His condolences were not complete without awkwardly reminding listeners that Canada had conferred upon Mandela an honorary citizenship in 2001.[12]

But Harper’s desire to associate his government with the legacy of Mandela did not end with speeches.  His official delegation to Mandela’s state funeral in South Africa was the symbolic culmination of this effort.  It consisted of no less than five Prime Ministers (Stephen Harper, Jean Chretien, Kim Campbell, Brian Mulroney, and Joe Clark), plus Michaelle Jean (former Governor-General), Tom Mulcair (NDP leader), three Canadian premiers, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, and Irwin Cotler representing the Liberal Party.  The delegation afforded ample opportunity for further myth-making.  At the outset of the journey, Harper asserted once again that Canada had a “long and leading history … from the days of Mr. Diefenbaker on,” in “the struggle against apartheid” and the construction of “a modern, non-racial state.”[13]  After yet another glowing portrait of Mulroney’s historical record, the Montreal Gazette assured Canadians that they “can be proud of all the prime ministers who campaigned against apartheid and for Mandela’s freedom.”[14]    


            Leaving aside the sheer audacity of Stephen Harper’s comments and his attendance at Mandela’s funeral ­– given that Harper was himself a founding member of an active pro-apartheid organization, not just with circumstantial ties to, but actually infused with white supremacist groups in the 1980s – what was Canada’s actual record on the question of South African apartheid?[15]  Most of the mainstream media has focused on the alleged achievements and “leading role” of the Mulroney administration between 1984 and 1993 – so what follows will confine itself to that era.  (Those interested in Canada’s earlier record on apartheid, under the Diefenbaker, Pearson, and Trudeau governments, are encouraged to read the works of Linda Freeman and John S. Saul, as well as more recent explorations by activist and writer Yves Engler.[16])  The oft-repeated narrative in the media, as well as in Mulroney’s own memoirs, articles, and recent public statements, asserts several claims: 1) that Mulroney was an almost defiant and lone voice who used international forums, such as the Commonwealth and United Nations, to advocate on behalf of a non-racial South Africa; 2) that the Mulroney administration led the world in supporting and imposing sanctions upon an intransigent South Africa; 3) that Canada was a friend to Mandela and the African National Congress; and 4) that “proof” of this friendship is the fact that Mandela and the ANC never failed to acknowledge and praise the contributions of Mulroney and Canada in general.  Let us analyze each of these claims.

            Ian Macdonald’s recent article in the Montreal Gazette asserts that Mulroney immediately “took up the cause of Mandela and South Africa’s oppressed black majority” upon his election in 1984.  According to Macdonald, one of the first indications of this was the Commonwealth summit in Nassau (the Bahamas) in October 1985, at which “Mulroney strongly supported a unanimous resolution calling on the Afrikaaner minority to dismantle apartheid.”[17]  But media coverage at the time of the summit provides a more nuanced picture.  According to an article in the Winnipeg Free Press, Mulroney “stood out as a voice of moderation yesterday on how to deal with South Africa’s regime, while Third World Commonwealth leaders called for tough economic sanctions to end apartheid.”  Contrary to the present day coverage lauding Mulroney’s “vanguard” and “defiant” approach within the Commonwealth, the real leaders in advancing an anti-apartheid agenda at the Commonwealth summit in Nassau were Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed, who “called for mandatory and comprehensive sanctions against South Africa.”  Mulroney agreed with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “that apartheid has to end,” but they opposed the forceful calls for sanctions by Gandhi and Mohamed.  In other words, Mulroney’s “opposition” to apartheid at the close of 1985 was purely rhetorical.  The British position at the time was adamantly opposed to “general economic and trade boycotts,” ostensibly due to these increasing Afrikaaner resistance, hurting blacks, and damaging both African economies and British interests (interests which included an estimated $5 billion in annual British trade with South Africa).  Leaving aside Britain’s disingenuous concern for the welfare of blacks who might be harmed by sanctions, Mulroney was thus a “voice of moderation” who opposed the callout for “tough economic sanctions,” and yet brought forward no “concrete proposals” of his own.[18]

            In fact, contrary to Macdonald’s claim in the Gazette, not only had the Mulroney administration not advanced the cause of Mandela and the “oppressed black majority” since 1984 – beyond making high-minded diplomatic pronouncements – but they had worked to counter “tougher” efforts by grassroots organizations in Canada, as well as Commonwealth states (particularly black African states and India), who were genuine leaders in the anti-apartheid and boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement.  In the spring of 1985, for example, the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility, released a 54-page report calling on the Canadian government “to end programs that help Canadian firms develop markets in South Africa for their exports,” and demanded that existing sanctions be widened, and more importantly, given teeth by making them mandatory.  This taskforce, which represented most of Canada’s Christian denominations, accused the Mulroney government of “[retreating] from anti-apartheid positions embraced in the late 1970s,” and failing to investigate allegations against Canadian corporations, such as Levy Auto Parts Co. of Toronto and Control Data Canada Ltd., that had shipped “rebuilt used tanks” and computer systems usable in fighter jets, in violation of a UN Security Council embargo on arms sales to South Africa.  After careful study, the task force had concluded that: “Canada has developed a set of elaborate justifications which are meant to demonstrate that its transactions [with South Africa] are somehow still compatible with its stated policies.”  In addition to violating the UN arms embargo, and working against efforts to strengthen sanctions at home and abroad, the task force also argued that Canadian policy was “helping to legitimate the illegal [South African] occupation” of neighboring Namibia.  Mulroney’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Joe Clark, met with a representative of the Conference of Canadian Bishops to discuss such matters, and “appeared to recognize the urgency of the situation,” but failed to make any concrete commitments.[19]

            Churches, labour, human rights, and other civil society organizations committed to the anti-apartheid struggle were not the only ones to recognize that the Mulroney administration professed one thing and acted otherwise.  Then-Premier of Quebec, René Lévesque, himself accused Mulroney of “public support for sanctions, but private opposition.”  Lévesque stated at a meeting of Provincial Premiers in St. John’s, Newfoundland in August 1985 that “the federal government, apparently in the corridors, is putting pressure against movements in reaction to the South African situation, while saying in public that it (apartheid) is not acceptable.”  Lévesque’s remarks were in reference to the fact that six out of ten provincial governments had independently banned the sale of South African wines and spirits by that time.  He accused Mulroney of privately exerting pressure to stop provincial governments from taking such actions.  Mulroney denied the allegations, but simultaneously asserted federal jurisdiction over trade (and by implication boycott) matters.[20]      

            Much of Mulroney’s South Africa policy was handled by way of the Foreign Affairs portfolio in the hands of former-Prime Minister Joe Clark.  But press coverage of Clark’s position on South Africa in the mid-1980s makes clear the gap between words and deeds.  One article from July 1985 noted that “Clark’s toughly worded call for dialogue [between oppressor and oppressed] … included no new measures to put more pressure on Pretoria.”  Instead, Clark supported a voluntary “code of conduct” for the private sector – originally set up in 1978 under Trudeau – to discourage investment in South Africa, and apply gentle, moral pressure on the apartheid regime.  Even this “code of conduct” was to be carefully “considered in close consultation with other members of the Commonwealth,” who were acknowledged to be in disagreement on the question.  Clark himself was repeatedly quoted as expressing skepticism as to the “efficacy of sanctions.”  His favoured approach, shared by Mulroney, was to suggest that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar.  In other words, Clark and Mulroney both asserted that the best leverage was for Canadian corporations with major investments in South Africa to apply voluntary pressure “in their own self interest.”  “That kind of pressure,” Clark stated, “may be as influential as the actions of governments.”[21]

            Less than a month later, Clark had publicly “ruled out – at least for now – more Canadian economic sanctions against South Africa on the grounds such moves would hinder the struggle against apartheid.”  In other words, the Mulroney administration knew better than the Church task force, and a host of anti-apartheid and human rights groups within Canada, not to mention Mandela and the ANC itself, as to what would hinder and what would further the struggle against apartheid.  Instead of listening to the ANC and global anti-apartheid movement, the Mulroney administration proposed a series of awareness-raising discussions with Canadian firms, in an effort “to convince those companies to use their business and political relations to ‘militate’ against apartheid.”  According to one article, Joe Clark stated that Canadian companies, with $135 million in direct investment in South Africa in 1984, might in fact be the ones best situated to “dismantle the country’s system of institutionalized discrimination against the black majority” – not by divesting from South Africa, but by remaining invested.  Needless to say, Charles Garneau, director of international relations with the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association (CMA), agreed with Clark that “disinvestment is not the way to go.”[22]

            Returning once again to Ian Macdonald’s glowing assessment of Mulroney’s record in the pages of the Gazette, we are told that it was at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Vancouver in October 1987, that “the issue of Mandela and apartheid really came to a head.”  In Macdonald’s account, Margaret Thatcher and the British delegation had questioned the efficacy of Canadian sanctions, and even implied that Canadians were hypocrites.  Mulroney was livid, and told Thatcher in no uncertain terms that “You’re on the wrong side of history.”  At different times, Mulroney ostensibly challenged both Thatcher and Reagan, who “persisted in the view that Mandela was communist.”  The implication, once again, is that Mulroney was ahead of the curve on the question of both sanctions and support for Mandela and the ANC.[23]

            But even a cursory look at the documentary record shows that Mulroney and Clark were closer in perspective to their ostensible hardline adversaries (Thatcher and Reagan) than they were to the sentiments of ANC spokespersons, anti-apartheid activists, and even many opposition politicians in the Liberal and New Democratic parties.  The real leader at the Commonwealth summit in Vancouver was once again Rajiv Gandhi, who continued pressing for comprehensive and mandatory sanctions.  Joe Clark, for his part, publicly stated that the world was experiencing a mood of “sanctions fatigue,” and argued that sanctions were merely one instrument of many that nations ought to rely upon to effect positive change.[24]  At the end of the Commonwealth summit, there appeared to be a rhetorical consensus (minus Britain) that sanctions against South Africa “must continue and intensify.”  But as usual, the summit “[did not] specify any new sanctions and Canada, for one, said it would not make any immediate announcements.”[25]         

            Once again, the Commonwealth summit that is supposed to be evidence of the Mulroney administration’s commitment to the anti-apartheid struggle was in fact nothing of the sort.  The Tory government was, as always, lagging far behind other countries, such as India and Sweden, not to mention Canadian public opinion on such matters.  To name only one example, Church, labour, and student groups had organized a national anti-apartheid conference in 1987 at which participants demanded that Ottawa “immediately ban all economic ties with South Africa and downgrade diplomatic links with Pretoria,” as well as formally recognize the African National Congress.  John Saul, professor of political science at York, was quoted as saying that “Canada needs to do much more” to fight apartheid, including impose “comprehensive, mandatory economic sanctions now.”  It was no coincidence that grassroots anti-apartheid activists were emphasizing mandatory sanctions, when the official Canadian policy to date had been one of voluntary divestment without any third-party oversight or verification.  An article in the Globe and Mail framed the issue as follows: “The demands are diametrically opposed to the Progressive Conservative Government’s longstanding policy of imposing sanctions gradually, usually through voluntary cooperation, while maintaining normal diplomatic relations with the white-minority regime in Pretoria.”[26]

One month before the Commonwealth summit in Vancouver, the Globe and Mail’s national political editor, Hugh Winsor, wrote a piece that noted “a softening of the Canadian Government policy against apartheid and a victory of sorts for the South African regime’s propaganda campaign.”  Winsor used the visit of ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo as a point of departure, suggesting that “there were subtle changes in the message compared with Mr. Mulroney’s determined toughness when he sparred with [Thatcher].”  According to Winsor, South Africa’s re-branding of the ANC as “a terrorist organization filled with Marxists” was having an impact in Canada, “especially on those Tory backbenchers who have been susceptible to South African blandishments in the past.”  During Tambo’s 1987 visit to Canada, Mulroney told the ANC leader that it would be easier to support them “if the ANC would forswear violence, get rid of any Marxists and break off any contact with Moscow.”  Winsor’s piece shows that the Tories latched on to any excuse to soften sanctions against South Africa, not tighten them.  He also allowed Tambo to rebut the accusation that the ANC’s use of armed struggle was the core problem, when the apartheid system itself was far more violent, and ultimately, the source of the conflict.  Winsor concluded with the following observation: “There has been a lot of hand-wringing and brave talk in the west for 20 or 30 years about ending apartheid, while Pretoria has steadily moved in the opposite direction.”  In the absence of serious solidarity, what ought the ANC to do?  Winsor went on to argue that armed struggle against Rhodesian and Portuguese colonialism in Africa had been justified, implying that the ANC might likewise be justified in its resort to violence.  Winsor basically concluded that Canadian government public pronouncements were a dime a dozen, but tougher sanctions would be needed if any actual impact were desired.  “Otherwise,” Winsor remarked, “Mr. Tambo can be forgiven for being more impressed with a Soviet bullet than with new resolutions of Western good intentions.”[27]

            In short, despite the much-heralded role of Canada at the Commonwealth summits, and Mulroney’s 1985 address to the United Nations (in which he did, in fact, threaten South Africa with the possibility of “total sanctions”[28]), both of which are supposed to establish beyond any shadow of doubt Mulroney’s anti-apartheid credentials, the truth of the matter is that Canada’s opposition to apartheid was largely symbolic.  Most Commonwealth countries, along with Sweden, were far more committed to applying substantive pressure on the apartheid regime.  Mulroney’s administration did make a few minor tweaks to strengthen Trudeau’s voluntary code of conduct for Canadian corporations doing business in South Africa, but the measures remained voluntary, and oversight was lackluster at best.  Even the much touted, but still voluntary “ban” on bank loans “occurred several months after the banks stopped lending money to South Africa” for their own profit-motivated reasons: unrest and repression was making the country unstable and loan repayments uncertain.[29]  Likewise, the government’s decision to ban steel imports from South Africa was supported by the Canadian steel manufacturers lobby. According to Linda Freeman, Canada’s two-way trade with South Africa actually doubled during the 1980s over the 1970s, from approximately $2 billion to $4 billion.[30]  In 1988 alone, there was a 68% jump in Canadian imports from South Africa – a fact that caused Canada some embarrassment at the Commonwealth summit in Harare (Zimbabwe) in 1989.[31]

            Arguably, some of Canada’s provincial governments showed greater commitment than the Mulroney government both in terms of pressuring South Africa, and in terms of indirectly supporting the African National Congress.  The provincial bans on the sale of South African wines were one example.  Manitoba’s NDP premier Ed Schreyer, for example, first ordered South African wines barred from sale in the province in the early 1970s.  As soon as the Conservatives under Sterling Lyon were elected in 1977, they reversed this policy.  But when the NDP returned to power four years later under Howard Pawley, the ban resumed once again.  A debate ensued in 1984, when Conservative MLA and Tory Caucus Chairman David Blake attempted to have the prohibition overturned once more.  According to Blake, a “South African friend” of his had told him “this apartheid thing is a bunch of nonsense, that coloured folk are as welcome as anybody and they’re intermingled.”  He wanted the provincial government to allow South African wines back into government liquor stores, stating that “they even let them [blacks] on the bus now.”  It was a reflection of the shift in public discourse on such matters, that this caused a backlash by civil rights and solidarity groups, who called on Tory leader Gary Filmon to publicly disassociate his party from Blake’s remarks.[32]

            Interestingly, the Pawley Government in Manitoba had barred the sale of South African wine and spirits, but then decided to sell the remaining stock held in the Liquor Commission warehouse and turn the money over to the Manitoba Coalition of Organizations Against Apartheid (MCOAA), an anti-apartheid coalition of diverse grassroots, community, religious, and non-governmental organizations founded in July 1985.  In 1987, “a first installment of $250,000 in proceeds from South African liquor sales” was approved for MCOAA, and the organization was able to acquire its first offices, hire permanent staff, and fund an array of programing, including a newsletter and awareness-raising events and conferences as a result of this financing.[33]  Given the MCOAA’s open support for the ANC, this arrangement amounted to a tangible, if indirect, means to support the national liberation movement through local channels. 

Such provincial support stood in stark contrast to the actions of the federal government vis-à-vis Canadian anti-apartheid groups.  Under Mulroney’s watch, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Canada’s secret police, engaged in a program of surveillance, intelligence-gathering, and infiltration of Canadian anti-apartheid organizations, using – in at least one notorious case – double agents in the employ of the South African Embassy in Ottawa.  Two University of Manitoba graduate students, Geoff Shaw (History and Strategic Studies) and Ihor Wichacz (Mathematics and Philosophy), were recruited by agents of the South African Embassy in 1988-89 to spy on behalf of the apartheid regime.  Shaw and Wichacz had been hired to write letters to politicians and media that would paint the apartheid regime in a positive light, as well as to gather intelligence on individuals and groups who expressed anti-apartheid sentiments.  They had also been encouraged to offer free trips to South Africa for municipal and provincial politicians in Winnipeg.  Very early on, in March 1989, they approached CSIS to ascertain the government’s position on the matter, and received the green light to proceed as “double agents.”  Receiving funds from both the South Africans and CSIS, they set up a pro-South Africa front group called the Winnipeg South Africa Association, “part of a national network created to promote the interests of South Africa.”  As part of their job, they were told to target the MCOAA, Church groups, and other anti-apartheid organizations in Winnipeg for infiltration and intelligence-gathering.  Wichacz admitted to stealing documents from the MCOAA offices in an interview with Sheila MacVicor on The Fifth Estate.  According to one report, the operation was “blown” after six months when the South Africans discovered that their Winnipeg spies were also working for CSIS.  But in an interview with the Canadian Press, Shaw and Wichacz confessed that they themselves wanted out, that they had become “unwilling pawns in a game of espionage involving the embassy and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.”[34]  The irony, of course, was that CSIS had been paying spies to sway public opinion in favour of South Africa, ostensibly as part of a counter-intelligence operation to monitor the latter’s embassy – but not long before this, CSIS had justified its generalized right to spy on Canadians ostensibly in order to root out and stop “foreign subversives” from trying to do just that: “sway” public opinion.[35]                 

            One could go on ad infinitum with examples.  However, before wrapping up, I would like to address the recurring implication in recent media coverage of Mandela’s death, that “proof” of Mulroney’s leadership on sanctions and his “friendship” towards the ANC, is the fact that Mandela and other ANC representatives never failed to acknowledge and praise Canadian contributions to their struggle.  It is true that one can find some lovely quotes to lend themselves to such an interpretation, not the least of which is Mandela’s own speech before the Canadian Parliament in June 1990.  However, there are a few things worth considering in this regard.  First, more often than not, Mandela consciously addressed himself and his thanks to the “great Canadian people” – not to the Canadian government, let alone Mulroney.  It was the “people” themselves, according to Mandela’s address to the House of Commons, who “have proved themselves not only to be steadfast friends of our struggling people but great defenders of human rights and the idea of democracy itself.”[36]  Haroon Siddiqui’s recent article on the Toronto Star pays tribute to some of these ordinary Canadian people and non-governmental organizations, even if it still mythologized the “pioneering” work of Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Clark at the outset.[37]

            Second, Mandela and other ANC leaders were not fools.  They were adept statesmen able to speak to diverse constituencies.  They no doubt recognized that Mulroney’s government was far from the worst, and might afford opportunities for leverage vis-à-vis Canada’s traditional allies Britain and the United States.  They sought access to Canada for diplomatic and fund-raising purposes, and sought to reverse the government’s restrictions on the ANC as a “terrorist” and “Communist” movement.  Alienating the Prime Minister and his Cabinet would hardly have furthered that objective.  Mandela was under no illusions about Mulroney’s substantive record.  But like Mulroney’s views on sanctions, Mandela had his own notions of “constructive engagement” with Canada and the West. 

            Third, ANC leaders often made clear their criticisms of Canadian policy.  During a visit to Canada in 1986, for example, Desmond Tutu suggested that Canadian government efforts to combat apartheid have “room for considerable improvement.”  Joe Clark was booed and shouted down at a benefit dinner in Toronto in Tutu’s honour when he stated that the government wanted to use its business and diplomatic influence with Pretoria “before we cut it off.”  At the dinner, Tutu himself made a sharp distinction between the Canadian government and its people, and called upon ordinary Canadians “to create a climate that will dissuade the Government from dealing with the South African regime.”[38]  Similarly, on a cross-country tour of Canada in March 1990, Anglican priest and exiled ANC member Michael Lapsley stated that “Canada’s diplomatic position is excellent but there’s no teeth to it.”  He noted that Canadian trade was increasing at a time when it needed to halt.  And he called upon Canada to “follow the lead of countries such as Sweden and Denmark and begin funding [the ANC].”[39]  (Not incidentally, a month after returning to his home in Harare, Lapsley was the target of a letter bomb sent by agents of the apartheid regime, and was lucky to only have lost his hands and an eye in the explosion.[40])  In short, on countless occasions, ANC representatives commented on the weakness of Canadian governmental policy on apartheid, and the absence of support for the ANC as the legitimate representative of the vast majority of the South African population.[41]  Cherry-picking a few generous remarks made by Mandela about Mulroney hardly negates the general awareness of the ANC and its supporters that Canada’s government was no real friend of the anti-apartheid struggle.

            At the end of the day, what seems indisputable is the fact that Canada under Mulroney followed the path of its predecessors, and did everything in its power to prioritize business interests and relations with Britain and the United States, over serious efforts to dismantle apartheid.  Mulroney’s goal, like that of South African businessman Zac de Beer (of the Anglo American Corp. mining conglomerate) was to find a way to reform South Africa without threatening private profits.  As de Beer once said: “We dare not allow the baby of free enterprise to be thrown out with the bathwater of apartheid.”[42]  Rhetoric in the meetings of the Commonwealth and United Nations, and in the pages of Canadian newspapers, was on occasion lofty, but fooled neither the ANC, nor Churches and other social justice groups with even a smattering of knowledge about the issues.  Notwithstanding his recent eulogy in the Toronto Star – with its generous assessment of Mulroney and Mandela’s regard for him[43] – it didn’t fool Stephen Lewis either.  Lewis had been Canada’s Ambassador to the UN between 1984 and 1988, and appears to have taken seriously Mulroney’s pledge to impose “total sanctions” in 1985, observing at one point that “You don’t bring a government to its senses by strengthening [it].”[44]  Mulroney replaced Lewis with the more pliable Yves Fortier in September 1988, and by 1989, Lewis was harshly criticizing the government that had appointed him, for failing to live up to its UN pledge.[45]  In fact, the Globe and Mail quoted Lewis as concluding that “Canada has washed its hands of the leadership on South Africa.”[46]     

            In conclusion, it seems clear that Mandela’s history with the African National Congress, his 27-year-long imprisonment for resisting white supremacy, his charisma, and his ability to exude both a mixture of liberal humanist principles and – at least in the early days – a discourse of socialist national liberation, had inspired a diverse array of grassroots (primarily church, labour, and left) anti-racist and anti-apartheid activists the world over.  But these traits are presumably not what attracted a gaggle of right-wing politicians – many of whom had been staunch opponents of Mandela and the ANC in the 1980s – to Mandela’s funeral, like some kind of modern day “road to Damascus” conversion.  What ought we to make of Mandela’s state funeral?  It was hardly a gathering of grassroots, anti-colonial, human rights activists, let alone revolutionaries.  It was attended by upwards of 100,000 people, one hundred heads of state, and countless other dignitaries and celebrities.  From the United States came Obama, George W. Bush, Clinton, and Jimmy Carter, along with 26 members of Congress.  From Britain came David Cameron, Tony Blair, John Major, and Gordon Brown, along with Ed Miliband and Prince Charles.  Celebrities from Bono to Oprah Winfrey also made the pilgrimage.  About the only reactionary not present was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, perhaps because even he had enough prudence or self-awareness to realize the optics would be terrible.[47]  Would it not be the height of chutzpah to attend Mandela’s funeral while presiding over another country predicated on ethnic supremacy, separation, dispossession, checkpoints, pass laws, detentions without trial, routine human rights violations and state terror, and presiding over a state which has also, like apartheid South Africa, invaded and destabilized multiple “front-line” nations in the region?

Many commentators far more knowledgeable than I have pointed out that the “Western” world’s elites came to pay their respects ­– not to the anti-apartheid hero that had inspired social justice activists between the 1960s and 1980s, but to honour what Mandela had become.[48]  After his release from prison in 1990, and particularly after the ANC’s own subsequent call for an end to sanctions in 1993, and the historic election of April 1994, Mandela gradually shifted from visionary resistance leader to pragmatic statesman.  It was in this latter capacity that Mandela solidified his eternal “rehabilitation” in the eyes of “Western” elites who had once labeled him a “Communist” and “terrorist.”  Mandela’s conciliatory approach to the ANC’s domestic enemies, and the decision increasingly to court Western politicians and corporations, did not always sit well with the ANC rank-and-file, nor with international solidarity activists, especially those for whom revolutionary anti-capitalist politics was as important as human rights advocacy and electoral democracy.  There were deep divisions within the ANC itself, evident long before 1994, over how to deal with neoliberalism and the threat of neo-colonialism in a post-apartheid South Africa.  As early as 1992, prescient voices such as Patrick Bond were discussing the “weight of centrism” that had already shifted discourse amongst ANC members and sympathizers away from visions and ideals expressed in the Freedom Charter (about nationalizing industry and how the wealth of South Africa “shall be shared by all”), to a new “realism” that ostensibly required compromises with domestic and foreign capital.[49]  Veteran ANC activist Ronnie Kasrils recently referred to this transition as the ANC’s “Faustian moment,” when “we took an IMF loan on the eve of our first democratic election,” with all the structural adjustment implications that that entailed.  In Kasril’s view, that was when the ANC lost its soul “to corporate power.”[50]  Likewise, Zachary Levenson has highlighted Mandela’s January 1992 visit to Davos, Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, where he was apparently “persuaded” to abandon some of the pillars of ANC ideology:

“They changed my views altogether,” Mr. Mandela told Anthony Sampson, his friend and the author of Mandela: The Authorized Biography.  “I came home [from Davos] to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose.  We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.”[51]

After inheriting one of the most unequal societies on the continent, Mandela and the ANC were faced with the unenviable task of trying to alleviate widespread poverty and landlessness for the black majority – amidst a severely depressed economy.  Different choices could have been made during those pivotal years before and after the 1994 election.  But Canadian politicians such as Mulroney and Harper, in lavishing praise upon Mandela and attending his funeral, were no doubt honouring the choices that were made in that “Faustian moment.”  Even still, it is telling – and on some level deeply-satisfying for those of us who remember vividly the sophistries of the Mulroney government and the daily whitewashing of the apartheid regime in the media – that the presidents of India and Cuba were invited to speak at Mandela’s state funeral, and not that supposed “world leader” in the struggle against apartheid: Brian Mulroney.       


[1] For an assessment of the British brand of historical revisionism, see Marina Hyde, “Follow Mandela’s Example, and Roar with Laughter at All This Rightwing Fawning,” The Guardian (UK), December 6, 2013.

[2] Brian Mulroney, “The Miracle of Nelson Mandela,” Toronto Sun, December 5, 2013.

[3] Bruce Campion-Smith, “Nelson Mandela Thanked Brian Mulroney for Canada’s Anti-Apartheid Pressure,” Toronto Star, December 5, 2013.

[4] Mark Kennedy, “Mandela, Mulroney: Two Men, One Goal,” The Province, December 6, 2013.

[5] See the Taskforce on the Churches and Corporate Responsibility report of 1981 reprinted in John R. Williams, ed., Canadian Churches and Social Justice (Anglican Book Centre / Lorimer, 1984), p.256.  The charge of violating the arms embargo related to the production of diesel engines for use by the South African military.

[6] Conrad Black hosted at least one event for Buthelezi in Toronto.  See Haroon Siddiqui, “The Real Canadian Heroes of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle,” Toronto Star, December 14, 2013.

[7] Conrad Black cited in Sean Fine, “How Canada Failed South Africa,” Globe and Mail, April 11, 1998.

[8] Irwin Cotler, “Statement on the Passing of Nelson Mandela,” Irwin Cotler, MP (official Website), December 5, 2013,

[9] Irwin Cotler, “Turning Enemies into Allies,” National Post, December 6, 2013.  Emphasis added.

[10] Canadian Press, “Amnesty Group Fights ‘Demonic’ South African Laws,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 6, 1986.

[11] Paul Lungen, “Cotler Rejects ‘Israeli Apartheid’ — in South Africa,” Canadian Jewish News, March 2, 2012.

[12] Stephen Harper, “Statement by the Prime Minister of Canada on the Death of Nelson Mandela,” Prime Minister of Canada, December 5, 2013,….

[13] Canadian Press, “The Canadian Contingent: Harper, Chrétien, Mulroney, Campbell to Mourn Mandela,” Globe and Mail, December 9, 2013.

[14] L. Ian Macdonald, “For Mulroney, Supporting Mandela a Matter of Conscience,” Montreal Gazette, December 11, 2013.

[15] Harper’s connection to the “pro-South Africa” Northern Foundation is touched on in the following three books: Murray Dobbin, Preston Manning and the Reform Party (Lorimer, 1991); Warren Kinsella, Web of Hate: The Far Right Network in Canada (HarperCollins Canada, 1994); and Trevor Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 1995).

[16] Freeman, Ambiguous Champion; John S. Saul, “Canada’s Anti-Apartheid Record: A Class Act,” Southern Africa Report Vol. 14 No. 2 (1998); John S. Saul, “Two Fronts of Anti-Apartheid Struggle: South Africa and Canada,” Transformation 74 (2010); Yves Engler, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy (Fernwood, 2009); Yves Engler, Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt (Fernwood, 2012); Yves Engler, “Canada’s Duplicitous Economic Policies Supported Apartheid South Africa,”, December 12, 2013,… The latter article highlights some of the findings in Freeman’s book as well as Engler’s own work.

[17] Macdonald, “For Mulroney, Supporting Mandela a Matter of Conscience.”

[18] Canadian Press, “Mulroney Moderate amid Sanction Calls to Crush Apartheid,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 17, 1985.  Emphasis added.

[19] Patrick Martin, “End Policies That Support Apartheid, Clark Told,” Globe and Mail, May 23, 1985.

[20] Canadian Press, “Ottawa’s Role to Lead Provinces on Sanctions Issue, PM Says,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 23, 1985.

[21] Canadian Press, “Clark Decries South Africa’s Tactics to Quash Racial Unrest,” Winnipeg Free Press, July 30, 1985.

[22] Larry Hill, “Economic Sanctions Ruled out by Clark,” Winnipeg Free Press, August 16, 1985.

[23] Macdonald, “For Mulroney, Supporting Mandela a Matter of Conscience.”

[24] John Cruickshank, Jeff Sallot, and Michael Valpy, “Mulroney Calls for Leaders to Unite against Apartheid,” Globe and Mail, October 14, 1987.

[25] Canadian Press, “Sanctions Split Commonwealth Unity,” Winnipeg Free Press, October 19, 1987.

[26] Canadian Press, “Anti-Apartheid Conference Urges End of Ties with Pretoria,” Globe and Mail, March 2, 1987.

[27] Hugh Winsor, “Canada Shows Signs of Softening Policy against Apartheid,” Globe and Mail, September 7, 1987.

[28] For an excerpt of Mulroney’s speech to the UN, see Rhoda Howard’s chapter on Canada and South Africa in Robert O. Matthews and Cranford Pratt, eds., Human Rights in Canadian Foreign Policy (McGill-Queen’s, 1988), p.276.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Linda Freeman, “The New Rules of the Game: Canada and South Africa, 1993,” Southern Africa Report, March 1994.

[31] John Kohut, “Canada Seen as Having Few Options to Trade with South Africa,” Globe and Mail, February 8, 1989.

[32] Richard Cleroux, “Manitoba PC’s pro-Apartheid Remarks Rouse Ire,” Globe and Mail, May 15, 1984.

[33] “Budget Approved to Fight Apartheid,” Winnipeg Free Press, May 3, 1987.

[34] “The Persuaders,” Fifth Estate, November 1989; Aldo Santin, “Envoy’s Expulsion Demanded,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 15, 1989; Canadian Press, “Spying Allegations Probed,” Winnipeg Free Press, November 16, 1989.

[35] Geoffrey York, “CSIS Defends Spying on Legitimate Groups to Identify ‘Subversives,’” Globe and Mail, July 30, 1988.

[36] Campion-Smith, “Nelson Mandela Thanked Brian Mulroney for Canada’s Anti-Apartheid Pressure.”

[37] Siddiqui, “The Real Canadian Heroes of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle.”

[38] Margaret Polanyi, “Tutu Exhorts Ottawa to Take Instant Action in Apartheid Struggle,” Globe and Mail, May 31, 1986.

[39] Ruth Telchroeb, “Diplomatic Break, Tight Sanctions Urged to End Apartheid,” Winnipeg Free Press, March 16, 1990.

[40] Michael Lapsley, “No Forgiveness by Government Decree,” Amandla! (Manitoba), January 1993.

[41] Charlotte Montgomery, “Mulroney Proves Puzzling Failure in Eyes of ANC,” Globe and Mail, November 8, 1988; Charlotte Montgomery, “Pressed to Change Policy toward ANC, Ottawa Impassive,” Globe and Mail, May 11, 1989; Charlotte Montgomery, “Critics of Canada’s Apartheid Stand Lack Facts, Ambassador to UN Says,” Globe and Mail, May 25, 1989.Jeff Sallot, “Canada angers ANC by ending high-tec sanctions against South Africa,” Globe and Mail, January 23, 1992.

[42] Zac de Beer cited in Associated Press, “Scrap Apartheid Laws, Report Urges,” Globe and Mail, June 10, 1986.

[43] Stephen Lewis, “The Nelson Mandela I Knew,” Toronto Star, December 5, 2013.

[44] Canadian Press, “Sanctions Split Commonwealth Unity.”

[45] Montgomery, “Critics of Canada’s Apartheid Stand Lack Facts, Ambassador to UN Says.”

[46] Charlotte Montgomery, “PM Assailed as Lewis Greets ANC Envoy,” Globe and Mail, May 12, 1989.

[47] Josef Federman, “Israeli PM Netanyahu Backs out of Mandela Funeral, Citing High Travel Cost,” Globe and Mail, December 9, 2013.

[48] John S. Saul, “A Flawed Freedom,” The Bullet, December 13, 2013.

[49] Patrick Bond, “Politics in South Africa Today: Towards Grassroots Socialism,” Against the Current, June 1992.

[50] Ronnie Kasrils, “How the ANC’s Fausian Pact Sold out South Africa’s Poorest: In the Early 1990s, We in the Leadership of the ANC Made a Serious Error.  Our People Still Paying the Price,” The Guardian (UK), June 24, 2013.

[51] Levenson quoting Andrew Ross Sorkin quoting Mandela, in Zachary Levenson, “Why Aren’t We Discussing Mandela’s Politics?,” Africa Is a Country, December 13, 2013,

Parent, activist, researcher, amateur (and sometimes professional) historian, sci-fi/fantasy and nerd culture enthusiast, wilderness survival wannabe, former punk, red wine anarchist.

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