If there was ever to be a standard definition of South Africa it would likely read: the Rainbow Nation; the home of Nobel Peace Prize laureates Albert Lituli, Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela; the country that institutionalized a brutal and racist system of division and oppression called apartheid, yet overcame it in a peaceful return to democracy in 1994; governed by Africa’s oldest freedom fighting party, the African National Congress; creator of one of the most progressive constitutions in the world; the scene of such emotional books as Cry, the Beloved Country and Country of My Skull and tear-jerking films as Cry Freedom and Invictus; home to a diversity of wildlife including the besieged rhino and one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Table Mountain; the largest economy in Africa, a member of the BRICS club of emerging economies along with Brazil, Russia, India and China; and the gateway to the continent in terms of trade and investment.
But South Africa also boasts a number of uncomfortable truths, such as being the country with the highest level of inequality and rates of violence in the world, a growing rate of corruption and nepotism seeping into government business, and an increasing rate of failure when it comes to providing key government services such as education and health. It is increasingly defined in terms of events such as the 2012 Marikana massacre, where the police gunned down over 30 protesting miners, the sexual (and financial) exploits of its polygamous president, Jacob Zuma, and the ongoing squalor and abject poverty of much of its population.
When one thinks about South Africa, these are the competing narratives that now characterize what still is a poster child for peace and reconciliation as a powerful alternative to division and costly civil wars. But some choose to interpret the mere existence of two sides to South Africa as meaning it is a country in decline. In my view, such analysis is based on an unrealistic expectation that 60-plus years of institutionalized racism, oppression, brutal violence and dignity-destroying policies could be resolved in just over 15 years of democracy. Yes, South Africa has its challenges and deserves criticism, but the post-apartheid project still exists and merits attention.
Canada, for a long time, has been a partner in this project and, on the surface, it appears that we are the closest of allies. Canada has been an important provider of much-needed developmental assistance and investment. South Africa’s constitution was developed using the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a template. In 2001, Canada bestowed honourary citizenship on Nelson Mandela—an honour only given to four other people in Canadian history. In 2003, President Thabo Mbeki went to Ottawa and signed a joint declaration of intent aimed at strengthening bilateral relations and cooperation. And in 2006, Canadian governor general Michäelle Jean made a state visit to reaffirm ties.
But behind all this, we find each other on opposing sides of important international problems. The conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, the political crises in Syria and Zimbabwe, and efforts to achieve multilateral agreements on climate change indicate the differing directions that each country appears to be going. Indeed, the story detailed here speaks of a relationship that once appeared strong and full of opportunity but now is disconnected and difficult.
This is a particular quandary for Canadians as we have a long history of cooperation with South Africa that resulted in a number of firsts for our emerging Dominion. It is not often realized that Cape Town was one of Canada’s first foreign missions, being established in 1906, and a pre–World War One veterinary research program between the Canadian Department of Agriculture and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute was Canada’s first international cooperation program. We were allies during the First and Second World Wars, engaging in joint training initiatives as part of the Commonwealth’s efforts. But these bonds forged have never flourished into a special relationship such as we have with other countries. This is in part due to the intervention of history, but also because there has never been a proper realization of the strategic value that South Africa possesses in terms of helping Canada realize its own foreign policy objectives in the region.
This essay details the Canada–South Africa relationship and suggests that all the foundations were built for a deep and meaningful relationship to exist, but short-sighted policy decisions have brought it to the brink of inconsequence. Permitting the relationship to continue its decline will only result in a further erosion of those important foundations and will have an impact on Canada’s influence in the region.
Canada and Apartheid
In the immediate post–World War Two context, as the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, human rights became relevant to statecraft and were a foundational motivation for the newly formed United Nations. It is within this framework that the emergence of the apartheid system (apartheid is Afrikaans for “the status of being apart”) was particularly shocking and troubling to many. It resulted in the exit of South Africa from the Commonwealth and the cooling of its relations with many countries, including Canada.
However, it would not be until the 1976 Soweto student uprising and the increased brutality of the state against black communities that Canada would take an active role in opposing the actions of the apartheid state. There are surely many reasons for Canada’s quiet role in South Africa leading up to that period, but probably the most prevalent relates to Cold War dynamics, where South Africa was a lone supporter of western capitalist values in a sea of states sympathetic to communism. As such, South Africa was a strategic player in the Cold War chess match, at one point hosting six nuclear weapons. But the increasing use of violence could not be condoned. Eventually, Canada ceased further trade promotion and began imposing sanctions on particular aspects of the relationship.
On the surface, the commitment to punishing apartheid South Africa through sanctions sent a strong message to the South African government, but was also important for Canada’s own efforts at enshrining cosmopolitan values of multiculturalism. For Canada, it was believed that we were the example of how integration and equal access of opportunity for all could be a successful project, and we needed to transmit that image abroad. In reality, however, business interests in South Africa were pretty significant due to mining and other industries taking advantage of the cheap labour market and easy access to minerals and other resources. This provided a counterbalance to adopting any activist policy that would result in far-reaching sanctions beyond the sale of arms.
It would not be until 1985 that Canada would reconsider its role in apartheid South Africa. By that time, the Cold War was in its final stages and increasing human rights violations resulted in the uprising of various unions within South Africa. It was at this juncture that the Canadian embassy in Pretoria, at the insistence of the foreign minister, Joe Clark, began providing assistance programs. A former staffer at the embassy, who later went on to become Canada’s high commissioner to South Africa, Lucie Edwards, has written about how she was the liaison with the black opposition and labour movements in that period. She notes that in three years she visited more than 112 townships, providing assistance but also playing an important witness function, showing up at rallies, trials and even church services to watch and witness the role of the apartheid government in clamping down on what they considered subversive activities. It was believed that such a function was crucial in constraining the actions of the apartheid forces.
Canada provided much-needed financial assistance for the creation of community education programs and scholarships, and for community governance skills development. Canada was also active in the independence push for what is now Namibia. The Canadian government encouraged partnerships between Canadian non-governmental organizations and church groups and, in the dying days of apartheid, supported skills development in negotiations for many of the struggle’s leaders.
Despite Canada coming late to the anti-apartheid struggle, an important contribution was made. Cold War dynamics and some significant business interests prevented an activist role emerging earlier, although there was always a consistent distaste for the racist regime. But it would be Canada’s role in the emergence of a democratic and non-racial South Africa where the relationship matured and real goodwill was established.
Canada in the Rainbow Nation
The collapse of apartheid and the transition to democracy was a defining international moment. I remember exactly where I was when Mandela was released from prison. I was ten years old, but knew what I was watching on TV was significant. There was a sense of awareness that good had triumphed over evil, that the pen was mightier than the sword and that a positive future lay ahead for South Africa. What I did not realize at the time was the important role that Canada would play in the ensuing days and years in assisting the transition and reinforcing key institutions of the state.
Unlike other states that saw sustained civil conflict over a long period of time, South Africa had an advanced infrastructural base that remained intact. So the need for massive investment of that nature was simply not required. Instead, Canada, through the International Development Research Centre and the Canadian International Development Agency, started providing training for public servants as well as technical support for the electoral commission and for the first national census. Canadian constitutional scholars arrived in South Africa to provide assistance to negotiators as part of the new constitutional negotiations taking place through the Convention for a Democratic South Africa.
Through the 1990s, Canada’s contribution to South Africa’s development was modest, but it was impactful and targeted accurately. It seemed that South Africa was a priority for Canada. Even as the overall aid budget was getting cut in Ottawa and amounts to sub-Saharan Africa slashed, the proportion given to South Africa grew during this period and represented a larger portion of Canadian aid to the region. Canadian expertise and assistance made a real difference and helped the emergence of the new South Africa dramatically. Indeed, it was during this period that Canada and South Africa were at their closest.
From a trade point of view, Canadian business also came to the party. Trade with South Africa tripled with the end of sanctions in late 1993 and continued to grow through to the end of the decade. In the period of 1992 to 1997 bilateral trade increased by $500 million, reaching a total of $800 million in value. Canada and South Africa engaged in negotiations over a foreign investment protection agreement, which was largely believed to smooth the path for more Canadian investment into South Africa. Canadian trade investment was considered integral to South Africa’s development as it brought much needed jobs to the millions of black South Africans looking to make a better life.
However, the refusal of South Africa to ratify the FIPA in 1997 appears to have put a damper on things. At the time, South African officials believed the agreement’s terms were unfair and did not allow sufficient leeway to support emerging South African–based industries. Indeed, even today Rob Davies, South Africa’s minister of trade and industry, recently imposed a moratorium on negotiating FIPAs with any country. The impact in 1997 saw trade and investment slow markedly, despite efforts by officials to create a stopgap arrangement through the Trade and Investment Cooperation Arrangement. It would take another seven years, until 2004, before bilateral trade increased a mere $200 million to hit the $1 billion mark.
But this did not affect Canadian efforts to be partners with the modern, mature and responsible South Africa. In fact, these two Commonwealth cousins extended their partnership and worked closely to address a number of global problems including nuclear non-proliferation, the trade in conflict diamonds and the trade-distorting effect of subsidized agricultural policies. It seemed that Canada and South Africa were natural allies and formidable proponents for their joint causes.
So what happened to the Canada–South Africa bond that has resulted in the present-day disconnect?
The Decline of Canada–South Africa Relations
With the welcoming of a new millennium, there was much hope and optimism in South Africa. The country appeared to have put the worst moments of transition out of apartheid behind it, was posting impressive growth rates between 6 percent and 7 percent annually, and an emerging black middle and upper class was giving everyone hope that systemic inequality was being addressed. But South Africa still faced problems surrounding the emergence of HIV/AIDS and education, issues with which Canada sought to get directly involved.
Early in the 2000s South Africa became an epicentre for HIV/AIDS. Canadian officials seeking to act swiftly to address this horrific disease circumvented Pretoria and sought to form partnerships at the provincial and local levels or with any group that seemed prepared to ignore official government policy against the use of retroviral drugs. In retrospect, this moment created real tension between officials in each country. For many in Ottawa, it seemed counterintuitive that South Africa would misjudge such a clear and present problem, but for official South Africa, Canada was interfering in a domestic matter.
There was also an emerging consensus coming out of Ottawa that South Africa was well on its way developmentally and there were other countries in greater need. Indeed, South Africa had attained middle income country status and was beginning to focus on regional initiatives to advance development not just in South Africa but in other countries as well. As such, Canadian development aid began to be channelled in other directions. At first, the Chrétien government sought to enlist South Africa as a partner in doing this. On a trip to Canada in 2003, President Mbeki sat down with Prime Minister Chrétien and chartered out the $500 million Canada Fund for Africa and the Canada Investment Fund for Africa, which would be directed through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. Such a sum represented a real boost for Mbeki’s newly created baby and was received very well in Pretoria. However, the monies were never fully realized, despite support for such an initiative from Chrétien’s successor, Paul Martin, and ended up being a source of disappointment for South Africa. For Canada, the costs of the war in Afghanistan and a move toward more focused aid provision under Stephen Harper’s government has resulted in a different path.
The Harper government’s push for more focused aid has seen a dramatic increase in official direct assistance to sub-Saharan Africa, but the share for South Africa has declined sharply. In 2000 Canada gave South Africa $10.7 million out of the $217 million dedicated to sub-Saharan Africa. In 2011, Canada gave South Africa $11 million out of $1.5 billion assigned to aid to sub-Saharan Africa. This amounts to a real decline in support once amounts are adjusted based on inflation and spending power. Perhaps Canada genuinely believes that South Africa does not need its assistance as much as previously. But HIV/AIDS, income inequality, and poor primary and secondary education, among other issues, still plague this country.
Indeed, South Africa received $1.2 billion in foreign aid globally in 2011, of which the Canadian contribution of $11 million was a drop in the bucket. For Canada, reducing its support at the exact moment that South Africa has needs, and others recognize those needs, is confounding, particularly given the track record of success that many Canadian-funded programs maintain. But what is particularly striking is that little has been occurring to offset the decline of Canadian support. Canada’s contribution to regional initiatives such as the African Development Bank has been declining, commitments to supporting NEPAD were never fully realized and Canada’s role in the Southern African Development Community is virtually non-existent. It appears that very little is happening to build on the goodwill established through Canada’s past contributions, commitments and support.
In a declining development assistance context, it is possible to offset changes in the relationship on the trade and investment side of things. But looking across the relationship, a decline is also apparent here. Although Canada was an important trade and investment partner in the 1990s, its role in the first decade of the new millennium borders on insignificant. The current trade balance with South Africa sits at $1.6 billion in 2011, which is a change of $400 million since 2004. While 2007 did see a peak where it reached just over $1.8 billion, the global recession of 2008 and recovery in 2010 did not see a return to this level. All this suggests a small trade relationship exists between South Africa and Canada in real dollar terms. But if the value of the relationship is considered in relative terms, another story is apparent.
In fact, Canada has not grown as an export destination for South Africa since 1994, in the immediate aftermath of sanctions being lifted. This helps explain why, despite trade between the two countries increasing steadily since the end of sanctions, Canada’s position as an export market for South Africa has slipped from 22nd place in 1999 to 30th in 2010. According to an analysis by Martin Nicol, a former South African trade consul, in 2010 only 0.7 percent of South African exports came to Canada. If one looks back to the bilateral trade relationship in the 1970s, before sanctions and economic boycotts became an issue, Canada was the destination for 2.6 percent of total South African exports. Canada, as an export destination for South Africa, was more important in the 1970s than in 2010, an amazing thing to consider in light of Canada’s supposed intolerance for the apartheid regime.
On the imports side, Nicol also tells a story of declining importance. In 1994, approximately 1.4 percent of South African imports came from Canada, but only 0.8 percent in 2010. This means that Canada’s position in terms of imports to South Africa slipped down to 29th in 2010. When considering what is generally the impetus for close bilateral relations, declining trade figures hardly create a context for deepening or strengthening ties.
The reasons for this decline in trade and investment would appear to be the problems that arise in doing business in South Africa. Three common concerns consistently get mentioned: concern exists over the alliance between government and unions as this suggests a bias in the business environment; the costs associated with setting up a business in South Africa remain onerous for foreign enterprises due to the country’s heavy regulatory environment; and increasing reports of government corruption scare off many Canadian investors. But it is also clear that the populist tendencies of Jacob Zuma are not helpful. He recently caused an uproar with his call to business to financially support the ANC: “Everything you touch will multiply. I’ve always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC … because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business.” That said, it appears that the ANC’s commitment to the liberal economic order persists, in spite of Zuma’s rhetoric, and many are hopeful that the election of billionaire businessman Cyril Ramaphosa to the position of deputy president will ensure South Africa is open. Without the binding elements of aid and trade, historical foundations diminish in importance and smaller points of contention simmer and fester, since there is no high-level need or desire to resolve them. For example, Canada still maintains an entry visa ban against leading ANC members, which causes unnecessary delays for members of the South African government to visit Canada and inflicts real harm. Canada’s refugee system and its application to Brendan Huntley, the white South African who claimed his life was at risk if he was deported, has caused embarrassment for both sides and exposed some unpleasant assumptions held by Canadians and reinforced by the South African diaspora regarding the modern-day South Africa. Finally, the lack of official Canadian representation at the ANC’s centenary celebrations in January 2012 left many in government wondering if Canada and South Africa were really allies anymore.
On the Canadian side, officials often feel hurt and struggle with being lumped in under the anti-western, anti-colonial rhetoric used by some South African government officials. As well, Ottawa felt slighted when the former South African high commissioner to Canada was seemingly rewarded with a plum post to Japan after she swept aside diplomatic tradition to criticize the Harper government publicly as opposed to through traditional channels.
All these small issues now define the bilateral relationship and chip away at the important foundations that were built in the final days of apartheid and during the 1990s. Simply put, Canada–South Africa relations now sit on the precipice of inconsequence. Such a situation is remarkable and not really in our foreign policy interest as South Africa is an important example of democracy in the region, maintains the largest economy on the continent, and is an influential actor in the G20, the BRICS and among other African states.
It appears that the Harper government is slowly coming around to the importance of South Africa. Signposts such as the intervention by immigration minister Jason Kenney in the ANC visa issue and in the Brendan Huntley affair (although he is still in Canada) are efforts the Canadian government are making to repair the relationship. Likewise, the South African government, with the appointment of former ANC labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana to the position of high commissioner, a person who has direct access to Zuma and to the executive structure of the ANC, is sending a clear signal that it wants to get relations with Canada back on track.
Clearly more needs to be done. As South Africa continues to develop and address the challenges it faces, it needs partners who are interested and willing to engage. Canada has a positive history in South Africa, and in the region as a whole, but as time passes and others fill the void, the opportunity to build on our positive history withers.