A Light in the Window: Ending Apartheid in South Africa


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-and-present 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 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. “In-fighting, 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 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 front-line 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 crafted 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 post-politics 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.