Our Uneven History with South Africa

By Levine, Allan | Winnipeg Free Press, December 14, 2013 | Go to article overview

Our Uneven History with South Africa


Levine, Allan, Winnipeg Free Press


Since Nelson Mandela's death last week, there have been news stories touting Canada's defiant stand in the 1980s against the South African policy of apartheid.

It was true that almost as soon as he was elected prime minister in 1984, Brian Mulroney publicly condemned apartheid and was more sympathetic to the African National Congress (ANC) and its imprisoned leader Mandela. Mulroney also advocated economic sanctions against South Africa, a controversial policy, the efficacy of which continues to be debated.

Mulroney's close friends then-U.S. president Ronald Regan and then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher profoundly disagreed with him. They regarded Mandela as a terrorist and accepted South Africa's propaganda that the ANC intended to set up a communist state.

Mulroney recalled the problem as follows in his memoirs: "It became clear that Ronald Reagan saw the whole South African issue strictly in East-West Cold War terms. Over the years, he and Margaret continually raised with me their fears that Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were communists. My answer was always the same. 'How can you or anyone else know that?' I'd ask again and again. 'He's been in prison for 20 years and nobody knows that, for the simple reason no one has talked to him -- including you.' Besides, if I and my people were being oppressed by a racist state whose actions were killing my brethren, I'd take help from anyone if the West wouldn't give it to me. And that includes communists."

Mulroney's arguments fell on deaf ears, though as subsequent events showed, he was correct. Once Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and then was elected president of South Africa four years later as apartheid was abolished, there was no predicted civil war or communist revolution. Instead, Mandela ensured the country remained a united, if tension-filled, democracy.

Meanwhile, the historical record ranks apartheid among the worst examples of unjust and harsh institutionalized racism in the 20th century. So why did it take close to four decades before Canada officially did anything about it?

To answer that, you must consider the world of 1948, the year cleric Daniel Malan, head of the National Party, the chief Afrikaner political group, defeated Jan Smuts and the United Party. Smuts was of Afrikaner descent, but he had eventually supported British imperial interests and South Africa's membership in the Commonwealth.

Malan and the Nationalists won the 1948 election with a stark choice for white South African voters: "integration and national suicide" or "apartheid" and the protection of a "pure white race."

Though Smuts had come around to accepting some form of integration, apartheid did not suddenly appear out of the blue in the late 1940s and '50s. Under his rule and the rule of his predecessors, black Africans and all other non-whites confronted prejudice and discrimination daily. Segregation, property restrictions and unequal legal treatment were common in South Africa for decades. Malan and his supporters merely built upon the racist framework previous South African administrations had established.

When then-Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King heard about the results of the South African election, he was upset that his friend and colleague in the Commonwealth had lost. …

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