A Light in the Win­dow: End­ing Apartheid in South Africa

Policy - - In This Issue - Book Ex­cerpt /Fen Osler Hampson

In this ex­cerpt from his forth­com­ing book, Mas­ter of

Per­sua­sion: Brian Mul­roney’s Global Legacy, Fen Osler Hampson re­counts the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s fight against apartheid and his role in lib­er­at­ing Nel­son Man­dela from a South African prison.

“One re­calls the mo­men­tous time of our tran­si­tion and re­mem­bers the peo­ple in­volved both within and out­side South Africa. As prime min­is­ter of Canada and within the Com­mon­wealth, you pro­vided strong and prin­ci­pled lead­er­ship in the bat­tle against apartheid.”

—NEL­SON MAN­DELA, FOR­MER PRES­I­DENT OF SOUTH AFRICA, IN A LET­TER TO BRIAN MUL­RONEY

Nel­son Man­dela is one of the tow­er­ing fig­ures of the 20th cen­tury, a man who stands larger than life—and with good rea­son—as a sym­bol of free­dom, hu­man rights, dig­nity, and na­tional unity not just in his own coun­try but around the globe. It was no sur­prise, there­fore, that on his death Canada as­sem­bled a full court press of the coun­try’s serv­ing and for­mer prime min­is­ters to at­tend his state fu­neral and mourn his pass­ing along­side other world lead­ers.

But the sym­bol­ism of four of Canada’s lead­ers of dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal stripes find­ing them­selves on the same plane fly­ing to South Africa for Man­dela’s state fu­neral on De­cem­ber 10, 2013, was not lost on some mem­bers of the Cana­dian me­dia. As Terry Ped­well of the Cana­dian Press wryly ob­served, “Even af­ter his death, Nel­son Man­dela has done what no one else seem­ingly could—bring Canada’s past-and­p­re­sent po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship to­gether, in one space, for a sin­gle cause—if only for a few hours. Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper and three of his pre­de­ces­sors—Jean Chré­tien, Brian Mul­roney and Kim Camp­bell—sat in close quar­ters as they winged their way to South Africa late Sun­day in the elab­o­rate front cabin of a gov­ern­ment Air­bus.” Ped­well went on to point out that it was “not just any air­craft” the lead­ers were fly­ing on. “The lead­ers were headed to pay their re­spects to Man­dela com­fort­ably seated in what Chré­tien once non-af­fec­tion­ately dubbed the ‘Taj Ma­hal,’ a ref­er­ence to the front state­room with which the plane was retro­fit­ted when Mul­roney bought a fleet of the jet­lin­ers dur­ing his time in of­fice. Now, how­ever, the an­i­mos­ity of the past was gone, at least on the sur­face. ‘I’m not a grubby politi­cian any­more,’ Mul­roney said with a smile as he spoke of the sig­nif­i­cance of be­ing in such close prox­im­ity with his for­mer ri­vals. ‘I’m a states­man now,’ he laughed.”

Of those on Cana­dian Air Force 001 that day, Mul­roney had played the big­gest role in help­ing to end apartheid in South Africa and work­ing to se­cure Man­dela’s re­lease from the six-foot-square cell on Robben Is­land where he had spent 27 years of his life. Why had Mul­roney been an anti-apartheid cru­sader? His own views and per­sonal com­mit­ment to end­ing apartheid had been in­deli­bly shaped as a young man by the ef­forts of another Cana­dian prime min­is­ter on March 17, 1961.

On that day, John Diefen­baker, Canada’s thir­teenth prime min­is­ter, from 1957 to 1963,

was wel­comed home by a large crowd of well-wish­ers af­ter fly­ing overnight from the United King­dom. He was com­ing home in tri­umph, hav­ing led the ef­forts that saw apartheid South Africa with­draw from the Com­mon­wealth due to its racist in­ter­nal poli­cies. Diefen­baker’s in­stinc­tual op­po­si­tion to apartheid, driven in part by his life-long cham­pi­oning of the dis­en­fran­chised in Canada—Ja­panese Cana­di­ans, pris­on­ers, and oth­ers he rep­re­sented as a de­fence lawyer be­fore achiev­ing his dream of be­com­ing prime min­is­ter—came from his gut. As a re­sult, in tak­ing up the cause of black South Africans he had no hes­i­ta­tion in split­ting with, and an­ger­ing, the prime min­is­ters of tra­di­tional Cana­dian al­lies such as Bri­tain, New Zealand, and Aus­tralia.

The Ot­tawa Jour­nal of the day de­scribed the scene at Up­lands air base in Ot­tawa that greeted Diefen­baker when he and his wife, Olive, stepped onto Cana­dian soil af­ter ex­it­ing their RCAF plane that his­toric day. “Prime Min­is­ter Diefen­baker came home to­day to that kind of full-dress red car­pet wel­come the Cap­i­tal usu­ally re­serves for its most dis­tin­guished heads-of-state vis­i­tors from abroad,” the Jour­nal’s Richard Jack­son re­ported. “It was such a wel­come as the Prime Min­is­ter has of­ten ac­corded oth­ers but un­til this morn­ing never him­self had re­ceived at home.” Jack­son con­tin­ued, mak­ing spe­cial men­tion of the young peo­ple who joined in the ex­cite­ment of wel­com­ing their na­tion’s prime min­is­ter home. “The Young Con­ser­va­tives took a 50-car cav­al­cade to the air­port and were wait­ing, lined up on ei­ther side of the red car­pet with their signs and plac­ards ‘Wel­come Home’ and ‘A Job Well done’ when the Prime Min­is­ter and Mrs. Diefen­baker came into the hanger,” Jack­son wrote.

Among those cheer­ing the loud­est was a young law stu­dent from Baie Comeau, Que­bec, who was three days shy of his 22nd birth­day. His name was Martin Brian Mul­roney. He never for­got the mo­ment and the time his ear­li­est po­lit­i­cal hero, Diefen­baker, fought apartheid. And there can be no ques­tion that Mul­roney’s own anti-apartheid sen­ti­ments were heart­felt and gen­uine. As Stephen Lewis re­counts, in the very first con­ver­sa­tion he had with Mul­roney about the con­di­tions of his UN am­bas­sado­rial ap­point­ment in Oc­to­ber 1984, Mul­roney made it clear that his top for­eign pri­or­ity was to work to end apartheid in South Africa. “I re­mem­ber,” Prime Min­is­ter Mul­roney said, speak­ing 29 years later in in­tro­duc­ing the newly freed Nel­son Man­dela to Canada’s Par­lia­ment in June 1990, “with pride, the stand taken by Canada’s prime min­is­ter, John Diefen­baker, at the Com­mon­wealth Con­fer­ence of 1961, which re­sulted in South Africa’s with­drawal from that body. Prime Min­is­ter Diefen­baker brought the Com­mon­wealth to de­clare un­equiv­o­cally that racial dis­crim­i­na­tion was to­tally con­trary to its fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples and that, if South Africa did not change, Mr. Diefen­baker said then South Africa must leave. He did so against some con­sid­er­able op­po­si­tion, but with the strong con­vic­tion and the cer­tain knowl­edge that it was right. Mr. Diefen­baker’s ac­tion marked the be­gin­ning of in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on the apartheid regime.”

Upon form­ing his gov­ern­ment in Septem­ber 1984, Mul­roney wasted lit­tle time sig­nalling to a re­luc­tant bu­reau­cracy at the Pear­son Build­ing that tak­ing up the cause of ma­jor­ity South Africans was a def­i­nite po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity. As Mul­roney re­calls, “I said to the Cab­i­net, I thought about it, and then I am go­ing to put Man­dela and the Apartheid sit­u­a­tion on the top of our for­eign pol­icy agenda. And we are go­ing to raise this at the G7 ev­ery time there is a meet­ing. At the Com­mon­wealth. At La Fran­co­phonie. And even­tu­ally, a year later—I think it was a cou­ple of years later at the oas, al­though when we joined the OAS this thing was in the process of be­ing re­solved in South Africa. But we had quite a range of op­tions. And I did that. So, we started to work on this very se­ri­ously.”

Mul­roney’s point man on the South Africa file in the UN was also en­cour­aged to use his bully pul­pit at the UN

Mul­roney had played the big­gest role in help­ing to end apartheid in South Africa and work­ing to se­cure Man­dela’s re­lease from the six-foot-square cell on Robben Is­land where he had spent 27 years of his life. Why had Mul­roney been an anti-apartheid cru­sader? His own views and per­sonal com­mit­ment to end­ing apartheid had been in­deli­bly shaped as a young man by the ef­forts of another Cana­dian prime min­is­ter on March 17, 1961.

Upon form­ing his gov­ern­ment in Septem­ber 1984, Mul­roney wasted lit­tle time sig­nalling to a re­luc­tant bu­reau­cracy at the Pear­son Build­ing that tak­ing up the cause of ma­jor­ity South Africans was a def­i­nite po­lit­i­cal pri­or­ity. As Mul­roney re­calls, “I said to the Cab­i­net, I thought about it, and then I am go­ing to put Man­dela and the Apartheid sit­u­a­tion on the top of our for­eign pol­icy agenda.

to rally oth­ers to the anti-apartheid cause. In his 2007 Mem­oirs, Mul­roney noted that he had “stunned” the for­eign af­fairs es­tab­lish­ment by ap­point­ing for­mer On­tario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, no fan of con­ser­va­tives and the son of famed fed­eral NDP leader David Lewis, as his UN am­bas­sador.

Later, Mul­roney also re­vealed in his mem­oirs Lewis’s view of the bu­reau­cratic re­al­ity he faced. “He [Lewis] is shocked at what he sees at the De­part­ment,” Mul­roney ad­viser Charley McMil­lan wrote to his prime min­is­ter af­ter a dis­cus­sion with Canada’s rookie am­bas­sador to the UN. “In­fight­ing, woe­fully weak anal­y­sis, no in­for­ma­tion ex­change across de­part­men­tal bound­aries…”

Al­though the bu­reau­cratic tug of war con­tin­ued be­hind the scenes, Mul­roney pushed for­ward. Stephen Lewis mar­shalled his un­matched elo­quence—both in pub­lic and in pri­vate at the UN—as Canada upped the po­lit­i­cal ante in join­ing the world’s voices call­ing for an end to apartheid. A first round of Cana­dian sanc­tions levied against South Africa’s gov­ern­ment—mild, ad­mit­tedly, but some with bite all the same—were an­nounced by Clark at a cab­i­net meet­ing in July of 1985 in Mul­roney’s home­town of Baie-Comeau. At a min­i­mum, it is hard to ar­gue that Canada had not changed its tone.

The tim­ing of this an­nounce­ment was sig­nif­i­cant be­cause the 18th prime min­is­ter was just weeks away from his maiden Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing (CHOGM), sched­uled to take place in Nas­sau in Oc­to­ber. It was there that Mul­roney—like Diefen­baker be­fore him in fac­ing apartheid—faced his great­est Com­mon­wealth ob­sta­cle on the file: The United King­dom’s prime min­is­ter. But while Diefen­baker had to deal with the gen­tle pa­tri­cian that was Harold Macmil­lan, Mul­roney had Mar­garet Thatcher, the Iron Lady, to con­tend with.

It is im­por­tant to re­call that by the time Com­mon­wealth lead­ers met at Nas­sau in 1985, Thatcher had been prime min­is­ter for six years. Supremely self-con­fi­dent and with her suc­cess in the Falk­lands War al­ready a his­tor­i­cal fact, she had lit­tle time for po­lit­i­cal “rook­ies” on the world sum­mit scene, es­pe­cially a young Cana­dian prime min­is­ter who was a neo­phyte and green around the ears.

Still, the Com­mon­wealth did not split com­pletely, and Mul­roney, joined by Ra­jiv Gandhi of In­dia, Bob Hawke of Aus­tralia, and oth­ers, sol­diered on. Right af­ter the Nas­sau meet­ing, Mul­roney made his de­but ad­dress be­fore the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in New York City. Sources con­firm that in the orig­i­nal speech Mul­roney was sup­posed to de­liver, De­part­ment of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs of­fi­cials had care­fully re­moved any ref­er­ence to the use of sanc­tions against South Africa. As Mul­roney and Lewis sat out­side the Gen­eral Assem­bly Hall mo­ments be­fore he was to de­liver his speech, they dis­cussed whether Mul­roney should rein­sert the ref­er­ence to sanc­tions. And, so he did. Mul­roney’s speech to the Assem­bly was elec­tri­fy­ing. Del­e­gates rose to their feet. They were stunned and ex­hil­a­rated.

In a word, the UN speech trans­fixed not just the del­e­gates in the Gen­eral Assem­bly who had never heard a ma­jor Western leader speak so pas­sion­ately against apartheid, but also many Cana­di­ans, even those who were still sus­pi­cious of Mul­roney and his gov­ern­ment’s true com­mit­ment to the an­ti­a­partheid cause.

In a word, the UN speech trans­fixed not just the del­e­gates in the Gen­eral Assem­bly who had never heard a ma­jor Western leader speak so pas­sion­ately against apartheid, but also many Cana­di­ans, even those who were still sus­pi­cious of Mul­roney and his gov­ern­ment’s true com­mit­ment to the anti-apartheid cause. “My gov­ern­ment has said to Cana­di­ans that if there are not fun­da­men­tal changes in South Africa, we are pre­pared to in­voke to­tal sanc­tions against that coun­try and its re­pres­sive regime,” Mul­roney de­clared. “If there is no progress in the dis­man­tling of apartheid, our re­la­tions with South Africa may have to be sev­ered com­pletely. Our pur­pose is not to pu­n­ish or to pe­nal­ize, but to has­ten peace­ful change. We do not aim at con­flict but at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion—within South Africa and be­tween South Africa and its neigh­bours. The way of di­a­logue starts with the re­pu­di­a­tion of apartheid. It ends with the full and equal par­tic­i­pa­tion of all South Africans in the govern­ing of their coun­try. It leads to­wards peace. If it is not ac­cepted, the course of sanc­tions will surely be fur­ther pur­sued. Canada is ready, if there are no fun­da­men­tal changes in South Africa, to in­voke to­tal sanc­tions against that coun­try and its re­pres­sive regime. More than that, if there is no progress in the dis­man­tling of apartheid, re­la­tions with South Africa may have to be sev­ered ab­so­lutely.”

The Mul­roney gov­ern­ment, po­lit­i­cally at least, kept up the pres­sure, with the prime min­is­ter be­com­ing, in 1987, the first G7 leader to visit the front­line African states that bor­dered South Africa. Canada also lob­bied in­ces­santly to have con­dem­na­tion of South African apartheid made a reg­u­lar fea­ture of G7 pro­nounce­ments. But it was at the an­nual CHOGM, which had in re­cent years been tepid, rather an­o­dyne gath­er­ings with lots of photo ops, that the real bat­tle about how to deal with South Africa’s apartheid regime was fought. If the pot had come to a slow boil in Nas­sau, it boiled over at the 1987 sum­mit in Van­cou­ver, where Thatcher and the rest of the Com­mon­wealth broke ranks. Not only did Thatcher refuse to im­ple­ment the sanc­tions pack­age that had been craft-

ed ear­lier at Nas­sau, but she lam­basted Canada for be­ing a poor role model for oth­ers when it came to curb­ing trade with South Africa (there was more than a grain of truth to her as­ser­tion Canada was a poor role model). Her tone was vit­ri­olic, and again she pulled no punches in dress­ing down the Cana­dian prime min­is­ter pri­vately and pub­licly.

How­ever, Mul­roney fought back just as hard. In the pres­ence of all the lead­ers at the Van­cou­ver meet­ing, he went af­ter Thatcher. He point­edly re­versed the apartheid equa­tion and asked Thatcher what her re­sponse would be if she was deal­ing with a coun­try with a pop­u­la­tion of 25 mil­lion whites that was ruled by four mil­lion blacks. There were gasps around the room. Com­mon­wealth Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Shri­dath “Sonny” Ram­phal was lit­er­ally be­side him­self and as­tounded by the de­ter­mi­na­tion of Mul­roney to con­front Thatcher in the pres­ence of ev­ery­one.

In the end, though, Canada was on the right side of his­tory and Thatcher was not. The walls of apartheid came tum­bling down barely a year later, be­gin­ning with Pres­i­dent de Klerk’s an­nounce­ment in Fe­bru­ary 1990 of a series of po­lit­i­cal re­forms that al­lowed the African Na­tional Congress (ANC) to be rec­og­nized as a le­git­i­mate po­lit­i­cal party, and of his de­ci­sion to end the state of emer­gency and, most im­por­tantly, to re­lease Nel­son Man­dela and other black lead­ers from prison.

And so it was that in early 1990 Nel­son Man­dela walked out of a South African prison. The next day, he spoke by phone with Mul­roney in Ot­tawa. The for­mer pris­oner quickly agreed—with apartheid regime South African se­cu­rity agents lis­ten­ing in— to visit Canada and ad­dress Canada’s Par­lia­ment, not least be­cause he had heard of Mul­roney’s vig­or­ous ef­forts to end apartheid while lis­ten­ing to the BBC in his prison cell.

In June 1990, Man­dela, soon to be the duly elected pres­i­dent of South Africa af­ter non-racial elec­tions, did just that, say­ing, “I would . . . like to pay spe­cial trib­ute to the prime min­is­ter of this coun­try, Brian Mul­roney, who has con­tin­ued along the path charted by Prime Min­is­ter Diefen­baker, who acted against apartheid be­cause he knew that no per­son of con­science could stand aside as a crime against hu­man­ity was be­ing com­mit­ted. Our peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tion (the African Na­tional Congress) re­spect you and ad­mire you as a friend. We have been greatly strength­ened by your per­sonal in­volve­ment in the strug­gle against apartheid with the un, the Com­mon­wealth, the G7 and the Fran­co­phone Sum­mits. We are cer­tain that you will, to­gether with the rest of the Cana­dian peo­ple, stay the course with us, not only as we bat­tle on to end the apartheid sys­tem, but also as we work to build a happy, peace­ful, and pros­per­ous fu­ture for all the peo­ple of the South and south­ern Africa.” The rest of the story is well known. Man­dela was soon elected the first pres­i­dent of his na­tion to be sent to South Africa’s high­est of­fice af­ter a non-racial elec­tion.

Stephen Lewis, who sub­se­quently forged a spe­cial per­sonal re­la­tion­ship with Man­dela dur­ing the course of his work to com­bat aids in Africa, re­ports that Man­dela was un­equiv­o­cal in his be­lief that Mul­roney was fun­da­men­tal to his re­lease, and that he said so on more than one occasion. “On the 10th an­niver­sary of our democ­racy,” Man­dela wrote in a per­sonal let­ter to Mul­roney, “one re­calls the mo­men­tous time of our tran­si­tion and re­mem­bers the peo­ple in­volved both within and out­side South Africa. As prime min­is­ter of Canada and within the Com­mon­wealth, you pro­vided strong and prin­ci­pled lead­er­ship in the bat­tle against apartheid. This was not a pop­u­lar po­si­tion in all quar­ters, but South Africans to­day ac­knowl­edge the im­por­tance of your con­tri­bu­tion to our even­tual lib­er­a­tion and suc­cess.” That let­ter has a point of pride in Mul­roney’s pri­vate post­pol­i­tics of­fice to­day.

Ex­cerpted from Mas­ter of Per­sua­sion by Fen Osler Hampson. Copy­right, 2018, by Fen Osler Hampson. Pub­lished by Sig­nal, an im­print of McClel­land & Ste­wart, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House Canada Ltd. Re­pro­duced by ar­range­ment with the pub­lisher. All rights re­served. fen­hamp­son@ci­gion­line.org

PMO photo

Nel­son Man­dela and Prime Min­is­ter Brian Mul­roney in the House of Com­mons in June 1990. Freed af­ter 27 years in prison, Man­dela chose Canada’s Par­lia­ment as the first he ad­dressed be­cause of Canada’s fight against apartheid and Mul­roney’s cham­pi­oning of his cause.

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