Contact Africa: Canadian Foreign Policy, the Contact Group, and Southern Africa

Article excerpt

"Verona found Sam."1 This opening to a May 1977 telex helped further an intense and genuine foreign policy engagement in southern Africa by Canada and other western powers on the United Nations security council. Canada and West Germany were months into two-year temporary terms and were, along with the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, participating in a diplomatic "contact group" (also called the "five"). Canada had been included by the others because of its council seat.2 The group, an initiative of President Jimmy Carter, had come together in March to find an internationally acceptable solution to the problem of Namibia, which South Africa was administering in defiance of world opinion - as defined by a 1966 United Nations general assembly resolution revoking South Africa's League of Nations mandate over the territory, and a 1971 International Court of Justice advisory opinion that found its presence to be illegal. The solution, embodied in council resolution 385, 31 January 1976, called for Namibia's transition to independence and majority-rule after United Nations-supervised and -controlled elections.3 The group was not formally a part of the security council or the United Nations, but its members planned to ask the organization to deploy peacekeepers to handle implementation.

To get to that point, the group needed to find Sam. The president of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), Sam Nujoma had avoided meeting the group and could not be found in April or May when they sought to give him an initial working paper. Nujoma's support was crucial because SWAPO was Namibia's leading liberation movement. The general assembly had recognized SWAPO as the sole and authentic representative of the Namibian people.4 And suddenly, there he was, in the VIP lounge of Maputo airport, Mozambique. Nujoma was in Maputo for the United Nations international conference in support of the peoples of Zimbabwe and Namibia, 16-21 May, and Verona Edelstein of Canada's permanent mission to the United Nations had found him. She received instructions from all five governments to convince Nujoma to meet the group in Maputo. With the help of Salim Salim, Tanzania's ambassador to the United Nations, who took a great personal risk as a representative of a socialist state in encouraging the western initiative, she managed to do so. Nujoma told the conference delegates that he had no confidence in the "gang of five" (as the non-aligned movement tended to call it), but would participate "for whatever it was worth."5

That the group did not free Namibia during 1977-79, ^s three most active years, is not this article's main concern. (It argues that failure was the result of South Africa's wanting to delay for as long as possible the moment when it had to surrender Namibia.) The article is largely about an examination of Canadian foreign policy towards Africa and southern Africa in the mid- to the late-i970s. Canada's Africa policy in that period has been dismissed as having been subject to its liberal-capitalist system and the western alliance, as improvisational and undisciplined by a clear sense of the national interest in Africa, and as hardly changing from 196 1 to the mid1980s. For most Canadians, the continent stirred only on the level of the imagination.6 In fact, Canada had significant political and security interests in Africa that the government was actively reviewing and pursuing in light of the change sweeping the continent. Just as important, the group forced the Department of External Affairs to learn an enormous amount and fully elaborate Canada's foreign policy towards Africa. This all meant that External Affairs was ready when Brian Mulroney began calling for the imposition of sanctions against South Africa in the mid-1980s.

Before the group's initiative, Africa and southern Africa received less attention from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau government than other files of comparable scope and complexity. …