OTTAWA – As Canadians spend the week marking their country’s close ties with Nelson Mandela, the celebrations have obscured a troubling reality — a steady decline in relations with South Africa.
The current state of the Canada-South Africa relationship adds a darker hue to the bright portrait that has been painted since Mandela’s death last week — particularly the support of former prime minister Brian Mulroney in helping win Mandela’s freedom, and the considerable development assistance Canada gave his post-apartheid government.
The decline started after Mandela left the presidency in 1999, and was marked by a general diplomatic drift away from the African continent, and a particularly irritating visa hurdle for South African travellers to Canada, analysts say.
“The present Canada-South Africa relationship is best characterized as ambivalent and at arm’s length,” concluded David J. Hornsby, of the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, in an essay in the 2013 book “Canada Among Nations,” a joint publication by Carleton University in Ottawa and the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
In an interview Wednesday, Hornsby said Canada needs to “ramp up” its political engagement with South Africa because it can be a “strategic partner” in helping meet Canada’s goal of increasing trade on the continent and engaging politically with institutions such as the African Union.
“South Africa really does punch above its weight in both contexts and could be helpful to Canadian foreign policy objectives if only the government would invest in some good old fashion diplomacy,” said Hornsby.
He said Canada’s general political disengagement from Africa “has cost it dearly in terms of its ability to influence or maintain relevance among African leaders.”
“Particularly in my travels around the continent, I am often asked, ‘What happened to Canada?’ It seems that Canadian efforts to ‘focus’ our foreign policy and development assistance has not been perceived as helpful or smart.”
South Africa’s resentment towards Canada bubbled to the surface last summer in Ottawa at a symposium to launch “Canada Among Nations.”
South Africa’s high commissioner to Canada, Membathisi Mdladlana, used strong language to complain about Canada’s continued imposition of a visa on South African travellers.
“It’s actually become quite disgusting,” he told the gathering.
Canada’s policy on visitors from South Africa has been a sore point with Johannesburg because some former African National Congress members ran into trouble obtaining visas. In the days when Mandela vigorously fought apartheid, many ANC adherents were jailed, ending up with criminal records.
“The issue has been discussed with the Government of South Africa on a regular basis for at least a decade, at various levels and in different forums,” the Conservative government acknowledged recently in a response to questions from Liberal MP Irwin Cotler.
“Elected members of the South African government have raised this issue with the (Canadian High Commission) on numerous occasions. Prominent non-elected members of the ANC have also raised this issue in public meetings with Canadian officials present.”
The federal government says the African National Congress has undergone substantial change as an organization, so membership should no longer be considered grounds for being barred from Canada.
No visa applicant has been turned down based solely on becoming a member of the ANC after 1994, the government says.
The visa issue was raised as recently as October by a senior official of South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation with then-deputy Foreign Affairs minister Morris Rosenberg during consultations between the two countries in Ottawa.
Mdladlana said that dealing with the Harper government on the issue had become “irritating.”
When approached at the book launch by The Canadian Press afterwards, Mdladlana declined an interview — but not before he’d already vented publicly about Canada.
He said Canada had lost its bid for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2010, saying it displayed an “abrasive and combative approach at the UN.”
The comment gave some credence to the theory that Canada’s failed bid was due in part to losing the voting bloc of Africa’s 54 countries in the secret UN ballot.
Rohinton Medhora, the CIGI president, said Wednesday that, “rightly or wrongly,” there is a sense among African countries that Canada’s interest in the continent is drifting.
“The South Africans heard that, and saw that,” said Medhora.
But Medhora said relations are slowly being rebuilt through a greater focus by Canada on trading with the continent. The large delegation of ex-prime ministers that accompanied Stephen Harper to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela this week will also help, he added.
Canada’s new economic driven foreign policy plan identifies South Africa as an emerging market it wants to target.
Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said the minister has met with South African Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe in Ottawa and hopes to travel to his country soon “to broaden Canada’s partnership with South Africa.”
After three memorable visits to Canada from 1990 to 2001, the Mandela era is a hard one to follow, said Medhora.
“When you’re on that kind of high, where do you go from there? Anything that follows is going to look pedestrian,” said Medhora.
“Relations aren’t bad; they haven’t even soured in my view. But if our benchmark is that high point, we have to be ready for a different kind of relationship.”