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Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Forgotten Fight Against Apartheid

Updated: Oct 25, 2020

By Luke Montalbano

This information was sourced from Memoirs by the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney and a conversation between the author and the former Prime Minister.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

On February 11th, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison a free man once again, hand in hand with his wife into a crowd of cheering South Africans. He had been incarcerated for 27 years for fighting against the segregation of blacks from whites in South Africa, most often referred to as Apartheid. Only a day later, Nelson Mandela telephoned the then Prime Minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, to thank him for Canada’s “undying and steadfast support” to end Apartheid. But what did Canada do that other nations did not? How did Brian Mulroney, the leader of a middle power country, lead the efforts for the absolute abolition of Apartheid in South Africa? First, we must understand why Mulroney decided to take a stand when very few others would.

On March 17th, 1961, a 22-year-old Brian Mulroney stood at the Ottawa airport, among the throngs of people waiting for the Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was being celebrated for his courage on the global stage. At the time, South Africa was in the midst of the largest racial civil war in history. Racial segregation had been forcibly imposed upon Black people in South Africa and left them with little or no rights to protect them in their daily lives. Canada, historically, had said nothing of Apartheid, that is until the day when Canada’s then Prime Minister Diefenbaker chose to stand alone against tyranny. 

During the Commonwealth Conference of 1961, the main issue on the table was whether the Commonwealth should accept South Africa into the organization. The opinions were mixed. No one believed that the racial segregation in South Africa was acceptable, but many leaders at the time questioned if that alone should keep South Africa from joining the Commonwealth. Brian Mulroney’s idol, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, thought differently. Diefenbaker took a stand and urged member nations not to deny South Africa’s membership in the Commonwealth, but instead declare that the Commonwealth stands for all people, free of segregation. This declaration should pressure South Africa to either lift the racial barrier of Apartheid or withdraw its application for membership within the Commonwealth. Mr. Diefenbaker thought right. South Africa immediately withdrew its application, and Mr. Diefenbaker was welcomed home a hero. Mulroney would never forget the day his political idol took a stand when no one else would. 

On September 17th, 1984, Brian Mulroney was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada, winning the election in a landslide victory, unrivaled by any Canadian political party since. He immediately made significant shifts in the political establishment by appointing the highly respected, former Ontario NDP leader, Stephen Lewis, as the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations. In doing so, Mulroney pushed aside the age-old boundary of appointing a member of an opposing party to a prominent role. As hoped, Ambassador Lewis became a respected voice at the UN, thereby enhancing Canada’s stature on the global stage and specifically its voice against Apartheid. 

Recently, I spoke to Prime Minister Mulroney, regarding Apartheid, and he told me: “The first move of [Prime Minister Mulroney] in this area was to meet with the leaders of the ANC in exile who represented the interests of Mandela. This included meetings with Oliver Tambo, President of the ANC Thabo Becky –– who would go on to be president of South Africa in later years –– and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Desmond Tutu specifically told me, that as a rich industrialized nation, a member of the G7, the Commonwealth, the Francophonie, and the United Nations, Canada would be ideally placed to assume a leadership role in the fight to liberate Nelson Mandela and dismantle the Apartheid regime in South Africa. I then met with my cabinet and advised them that henceforth the liberation of Mandela was to be a priority item on the list of Canadian foreign policies and that this matter was to be raised and vigorously defended at all international meetings in which Canada participated.”

The first official move of the Mulroney Government against South African segregation was announced in 1985 by External Affairs Secretary Joe Clark. The Canadian government would impose sanctions against South Africa, crucial for aiding in the formation of a tight bloc against Apartheid. Only a few weeks later, Mulroney would be headed to Nassau to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, where he would attempt to garner international support for the sanctioning of South Africa. The conference was a striking reflection of what had occurred with Diefenbaker 24 years earlier. 

During the conference, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher remained skeptical of Brian Mulroney’s views on Apartheid and often treated him with little respect, as she felt that he was young and naive on the political nuances of diplomatic negotiations. Despite Margaret Thatcher’s vehement opposition to the Mulroney bloc, many member states supported his actions against Apartheid, notably the Australian leader Bob Hawke and the Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi, among others. 

The Nassau Accords signed at the conference established a three-man eminent person group that was instructed to visit South Africa for first hand and fresh information of the exact status of Mandela and the injustices being committed in the name of Apartheid. The Accords also supported further sanctioning of South Africa. Canada responded to the Accords shortly afterward by blocking all shipments of arms and banning any new investment in the country. However, this alone could not dismantle Apartheid. Mulroney knew that a larger unified bloc of states was necessary. To do this, he would need to throw himself onto the international stage and get past the wall of inaction the Trudeau government had built up during their tenure. 

As the Prime Minister of a middle power country, Mulroney would have to elevate Canada’s international influence and punch above its weight to persuade the leaders of the superpowers. Before Mulroney took power, the USA and the UK expressed political indifference to the events unfolding in South Africa. The main reason why both President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher refused to aid in the fight was the fact that they believed Mr. Mandela was a Communist. Mr. Mulroney, also not a supporter of Communism, achieved a rare and impressive feat to put ideology aside to support inalienable human rights. He could not directly go out on his own without the support of global superpowers. Mr. Mulroney had to reach out to them once again, and the way to do this, he believed, was via Canada’s global associations, including the United Nations. 

Mulroney consistently discussed the matter of Apartheid with UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis and told him to bring up the issue of Apartheid whenever and wherever possible. Stephen Lewis fought almost daily to garner support for the international sanctions campaign against South Africa and was constantly fighting an uphill battle, especially against nations such as the United Kingdom and the United States of America, who regarded the use of sanctions as neither practical nor moral. All of that changed in 1988 at the United Nations General Assembly.

On September 29th, 1988, Mr. Mulroney entered the United Nations building, ready for a speech that would change the course of history. In days prior, he had spoken with Ambassador Stephen Lewis on what the address should comprise. Initially, the remarks included a strong stance against South African Apartheid, which urged all nations to aid in the struggle against it. The Department of External Affairs believed that these remarks could be dangerous to Canada’s reputation and could cause diplomatic relations to be frozen, in gestures of disapproval from every major country. Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Lewis thought otherwise and believed the fight against Apartheid must be vocalized, whatever the cost to Canada’s reputation. 

As Mr. Mulroney spoke in front of the General Assembly, he reminded those in attendance that the fight for Apartheid was far from over, that “There can be no doubt that fundamental change will come to South Africa. The only questions are when and at what cost in human life. We must make sure the answers are soon and peacefully and that a framework is preserved that will give rise to a non-racial democratic South Africa. Only then… will the children of Mandela know the gifts that freedom brings.” He also declared that Canada would impose tighter sanctions on “High-Technology” and Arms exports and hoped that other nations would follow suit. During the speech, Mr. Mulroney made an even more daring move and stated, “Canada is willing to terminate relations with South Africa totally” if the barrier of Apartheid was not lifted and Mandela was not freed. By the end of the speech, the audience was in awe, and a wave of applause filled the General Assembly. Mr. Mulroney had no doubt pulled dozens upon dozens of nations to his cause. 

Only two years later, under mounting international pressure via the international sanctions campaign headed by Canada, the Commonwealth, and La Francophonie, South Africa released Nelson Mandela to a cheering crowd on February 11th, 1990. The next day, Nelson Mandela telephoned Brian Mulroney to thank him for his “undying and steadfast support.” Four months later, he visited Canada and told Mr. Mulroney, “We regard you as one of our great friends, because of the solid support we have received from you and Canada over the years. When I was in jail, having friends like you in Canada gave me more joy and support than I can say.” By 1993, Nelson Mandela had become the President of South Africa, and the shackles of Apartheid had collapsed.

Mr. Mulroney had many significant achievements in his tenure as Prime Minister, but being instrumental in the fight against Apartheid was one of the most important. Mr. Mulroney’s efforts truly make Canadians proud to be Canadian, and this fight mustn’t be consigned to oblivion.

Written by writer Luke Montalbano

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