Can-SA – A worthy relationship

By David Hornsby

16 May 2012

Dr David Hornsby explores the South Africa-Canada relationship and asks why they often find each other on opposing sides of important problems and why this leaves many within each corridor of government wondering if we are really allies.

As the official bilateral consultations between South Africa and Canada conclude, the opportunity to invigorate an often neglected relationship is upon us. The reasons for doing so are based in history and strategic necessity.

The South Africa-Canada relationship is one that is based on a rich history and many common values. Canada was active in supporting the anti-apartheid struggle providing many activists with refuge during the darkest days of this undemocratic regime. Canada took a strong stand in support of South Africa within the Commonwealth when the then Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, publicly chastised the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for maintaining commercial ties with the National Party government and referring to the African National Congress (ANC) as a terrorist organisation.   

In a post-apartheid South Africa, Canada was a supportive partner offering over R1.4 billion in direct development assistance. The South African Constitution takes much from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – documents that embody common progressive values of human rights, multiculturalism and equality. Canadian and South African civil servants continue to share much technical information and work closely together to build effective government institutions. 

Canadians admire South Africa’s transition and recognise it as a responsible international actor. In 2001, Canada bestowed honorary 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. In 2006, the Canadian Governor General made a state visit to reaffirm ties.

But behind all this goodwill, South Africa and Canada often find each other on opposing sides of important problems. The conflicts in Libya, Syria, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan and the International Criminal Court arrest warrant for President Bashir of Sudan, and the political crisis in Zimbabwe have resulted in the relationship becoming fraught and uneasy. This, combined with an apparent decreasing engagement by Canada in South Africa, leaves many within each corridor of government wondering if we are really allies.

When such fundamental questions are asked, smaller points of contention are exacerbated and mistrust is reinforced. For example, the long standing, but rarely applied, Canadian entry visa ban on a number of leading ANC members still causes unnecessary delays for members of the government to visit Canada. Canada’s refugee system and its application to Brandon Huntley, the white South African who claimed his life was at risk if he was deported, has caused embarrassment for both sides.  

Vice versa, lumping Canada with the anti-western, anti-colonial rhetoric from the Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Ebrahim Ebrahim raises queries from a country whose own history as a colony would suggest more space for commonality than difference with South Africa. Or seemingly rewarding the former High Commissioner to Canada, Mohau Pheko with a plumb post in Japan after she swept aside diplomatic tradition to criticise the government of Canada publicly as opposed to through traditional channels, would seem to suggest that Canada is not respected by Pretoria.

All these ‘little’ irritations, which normally could be resolved during official bilateral consultations, in this case, are not being addressed effectively in discussions. This feeds a larger narrative in Pretoria and Ottawa that these governments just do not understand each other anymore. This is a shame as these two countries should be working more closely together. 

Indeed, the South Africa-Canada relationship is worth invigorating as it maintains both importance and strategic value.

It is important because of the common values that Canada and South Africa share. It is strategic because both bring unique opportunities to the table. South Africa as a BRICS country is an emerging power that is reshaping and redefining the international system. South Africa is also the gateway to Africa with a stable investment and business environment, providing real opportunities for Canadian businesses.   

Canada as a result of its close relationship with the G8 countries, particularly the USA, could be of strategic import to South Africa. When bilateral diplomacy fails, countries like Canada can act as an important interlocutor. Canada also maintains significant financial capital that could be put to use in South Africa.

In an international system that is becoming increasingly polarised and competitive, common values and shared histories take on renewed importance. South Africa and Canada have much from which to build and it would be a waste not to take advantage of this.

Dr David J Hornsby is a lecturer in International Relations at Wits. He convened a Colloquium on Canada-South Africa Relations which took place on 14 and 15 May 2012 at the South African Institute for International Affairs at Wits University.