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The Ambiguous Champion:
Canada & South Africa in the Trudeau & Mulroney Years


480 pages,
ISBN: 0802009085


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Contact, Compromise or Complicity
by Tod Hoffman

In international relations there's usually a profound gap between what's right and what's done, reflecting the gap between what's ideally just and what's in a state's narrow perception of its immediate self-interest. Not to argue that this is how it ought to be, merely to recognize that this is how it is and how it's always been. So, why would it have been substantively otherwise regarding Canada's relations with South Africa during the days of racist rule? States have shown a remarkable tolerance for the most abhorrent regimes, so long as they pose no demonstrable threat to their own well-being. And, sometimes, the stability promised by a draconian status quo has been preferred to the vicissitudes of change.

Compelling-in the abstract, at any rate-as it is to argue that we are all diminished by acts of viciousness and degradation against any people anywhere, sadly, it's not an argument upon which elections are won and lost. Decisions that affect corporate profits or cause job losses, however, are. At the same time, it is important to appear to be doing the moral thing and not to be complicit with evil. In politics, if you can coax the right media spin, appearances can bring the same benefits as actions.

In her thoroughly researched study, The Ambiguous Champion, Carleton University political scientist, Linda Freeman, argues that, contrary to the myth it has gone to some lengths to perpetuate, Canada failed to stand unequivocally against apartheid. Instead, successive governments "chose both to trade and to condemn: to support full relations with a country that Canadian leaders also regularly denounced." She concludes that a complex of "domestic considerations prevented more than half-hearted gestures"; that economic interests, even when they depended on complicity with the apartheid infrastructure, were given preference over measures-notably economic sanctions and the severance of diplomatic relations-that would have exerted genuine pressures for reform on the regime.

On an emotional level, the reflex to abstain from all contact with that which we find repugnant is difficult to suppress. That Canadian companies and investors reaped profits from exploiting a cheap labour force whose availability was ensured by apartheid caused outrage in some circles (but not all). As Freeman herself admits, the intricate web of relations within Canada between the state and civil society limited the degree to which the government could dictate how South Africa would be treated at all levels. Over the years, the state's role "was to establish and re-establish a shifting equilibrium of compromises." As a result, the evidence she presents of the disparity between Canada's accomplishments and rhetoric vis--vis the apartheid state causes little surprise.

Part of this disparity can be attributed to the pretensions of successive prime ministers, beginning with John Diefenbaker, to assume the significant role of a middle power on the world stage. When Diefenbaker played a pivotal part in South Africa's 1961 departure from the Commonwealth, the notion of Canada as an honorary front-line state (as Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda would later call it, equating Canada with those African states bordering directly on South Africa) was planted. Meanwhile, Freeman points out, South Africa continued to benefit from Commonwealth preferential tariffs until 1980. The Afro-Asian members were, nevertheless, extraordinarily pleased to have a developed white state standing with them, and against the less activist British, Australians, and New Zealanders.

During Pierre Trudeau's term South Africa became a significant international issue as internal opposition to apartheid mounted and amplified calls for economic sanctions were issued, particularly following the Soweto riots of 1976. For all of Trudeau's purported humanitarian concerns, "the reality was business as usual" as he resisted imposing sanctions. Canada even supported South Africa's application for International Monetary Fund credits.

In 1985 Brian Mulroney seized the momentum accorded his new government and took advantage of South Africa's repressive response to labour unrest to threaten total economic and diplomatic sanctions should they not move toward reform. However, his enthusiasm for the issue was short-lived and within two years he and his minister of external affairs, Joe Clark, seemed prepared to live with the regime. Indeed, Freeman illustrates how Canada's displeasure mounted in accordance with the degree of instability in South Africa; in other words, when the regime seemed securely in control, Canada was content to hold to the status quo. Similarly, the Western business community was seemingly satisfied with the apartheid state so long as it maintained stability; only when it appeared to be losing control did they move their trade and investments elsewhere.

Another consideration that was frequently invoked related to the broader aims of the Cold War. The African National Congress (ANC) had explicitly socialist aims and an alliance with the South African Communist Party. As such, the white regime had an opportunity to portray itself as a bastion against communism at the strategic tip of Africa. With Cuban soldiers participating in the Angolan civil war against American proxies, this was a particularly compelling argument. Rather than trying to engage black liberation movements and demonstrate the West's preparedness to work with them, Canada followed the line that they were a potential agent for Soviet influence. It wasn't until 1986 that senior level contact occurred between Canadian and ANC officials.

Canada never committed itself resolutely to sanctions against South Africa. Those limited sanctions that were imposed during the early Mulroney years were never rigidly enforced. In fact, they were breached regularly, often with the full knowledge of the government. This included the arms embargo imposed by the United Nations in 1977. They also retained full diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level throughout, something which Freeman at one point justifies as providing an "invaluable listening post" when states of emergency and censorship withheld news about conditions within South Africa from the media.

A vital philosophical question at the core of The Ambiguous Champion is the degree to which contact can be equated with complicity. And, as a corollary, whether isolation or engagement was more likely to prod South Africa to change. She suggests that engagement was entirely self-serving and whatever effect it may have had within South Africa was merely incidental.

The question, then, is whether Canada did all it could to encourage an end to racism in South Africa. As Freeman argues, the answer is ambiguous. The government was not entirely free to act in accordance with principle, even had it been so inclined (and her evidence regarding the position of bureaucrats within the external affairs department certainly points to ambivalence). But while Canada did less than the Scandinavian states, for example, to demonstrate their displeasure, they did act as a useful voice in the Commonwealth against the far less confrontational British. Their record is not, however, as legend would have it. Canada certainly never endured even the slightest discomfort in an effort to win justice for the South African majority. In that regard, The Ambiguous Champion is a useful re-evaluation of Canada's conduct. 

Tod Hoffman is a Montreal writer. His latest book is Homicide: Life on the Screen (ECW Press, 1998).

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