Since Nelson Mandela's death last week, there have been news stories touting Canada's defiant stand in the 1980s against the South African policy of apartheid.
It was true that almost as soon as he was elected prime minister in 1984, Brian Mulroney publicly condemned apartheid and was more sympathetic to the African National Congress (ANC) and its imprisoned leader Mandela. Mulroney also advocated economic sanctions against South Africa, a controversial policy, the efficacy of which continues to be debated.
Mulroney's close friends then-U.S. president Ronald Regan and then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher profoundly disagreed with him. They regarded Mandela as a terrorist and accepted South Africa's propaganda that the ANC intended to set up a communist state.
Mulroney recalled the problem as follows in his memoirs: "It became clear that Ronald Reagan saw the whole South African issue strictly in East-West Cold War terms. Over the years, he and Margaret continually raised with me their fears that Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were communists. My answer was always the same. 'How can you or anyone else know that?' I'd ask again and again. 'He's been in prison for 20 years and nobody knows that, for the simple reason no one has talked to him -- including you.' Besides, if I and my people were being oppressed by a racist state whose actions were killing my brethren, I'd take help from anyone if the West wouldn't give it to me. And that includes communists."
Mulroney's arguments fell on deaf ears, though as subsequent events showed, he was correct. Once Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and then was elected president of South Africa four years later as apartheid was abolished, there was no predicted civil war or communist revolution. Instead, Mandela ensured the country remained a united, if tension-filled, democracy.
Meanwhile, the historical record ranks apartheid among the worst examples of unjust and harsh institutionalized racism in the 20th century. So why did it take close to four decades before Canada officially did anything about it?
To answer that, you must consider the world of 1948, the year cleric Daniel Malan, head of the National Party, the chief Afrikaner political group, defeated Jan Smuts and the United Party. Smuts was of Afrikaner descent, but he had eventually supported British imperial interests and South Africa's membership in the Commonwealth.
Malan and the Nationalists won the 1948 election with a stark choice for white South African voters: "integration and national suicide" or "apartheid" and the protection of a "pure white race."
Though Smuts had come around to accepting some form of integration, apartheid did not suddenly appear out of the blue in the late 1940s and '50s. Under his rule and the rule of his predecessors, black Africans and all other non-whites confronted prejudice and discrimination daily. Segregation, property restrictions and unequal legal treatment were common in South Africa for decades. Malan and his supporters merely built upon the racist framework previous South African administrations had established.
When then-Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King heard about the results of the South African election, he was upset that his friend and colleague in the Commonwealth had lost. Smuts had supported involvement in the Second World War; Malan had not. In King's diary, there is no reference to apartheid or what was to come, which is not at all surprising.
Even though the horrible revelations about the Holocaust were well-publicized by June 1948, King, like a majority of Canadians in 1948, had still not abandoned what we would regard today as blatant racist ideology -- and would not until the late '60s and early '70s. Even then, prejudice and discrimination against minorities were an ingrained feature of Canadian society.
In his diary, King usually referred to black Canadians and Americans as "darkies," and he certainly was not the only one. Anti-Semitism in the form of property covenants, job discrimination and social restrictions were also prevalent.
Canadians might not have wholly approved of the abuses of apartheid or the violence against blacks in the segregated American south. But most could understand the desire of the white South African minority to maintain its rule and keep the black majority as separate, second-class citizens.
In 1961 at the Commonwealth Conference in London, then-prime minister John Diefenbaker was the first Canadian leader to publicly speak out against apartheid. And he proposed an anti-apartheid resolution, which made it impossible for South Africa to remain in the Commonwealth. Yet he also refused to impose economic sanctions or cancel lucrative trade agreements with South Africa.
In her 1997 book, Ambiguous Champion: Canada and South Africa in the Trudeau and Mulroney Years, Linda Freeman, a professor of political science at Carleton University, argues Diefenbaker's mythic stand "was out of all proportion to his cautious role." In the years that followed, Freeman asserts, "this was the era when Canadian governments chose both to trade and condemn." Both Diefenbaker and his immediate successor, Lester Pearson, for example, would not support efforts to expel South Africa from the United Nations.
Pierre Trudeau, who followed them, followed their ambiguous policy, as well. Historian John English in his biography of Trudeau points out Trudeau regarded sanctions against South Africa as "unrealistic," was irritated by arguments to the contrary and insisted "that his energies would be used in other areas."
By the time Mulroney denounced apartheid at the UN General Assembly in 1985 as a policy that "desecrates international standards of morality and arouses universal revulsion," social and economic attitudes had sufficiently evolved. In the early '80s, multicultural Canada was hardly free of prejudice or discrimination, but from a moral perspective, a majority of Canadians had come to see the brutality of apartheid for what it was.
More significantly, as Freeman shows, western politicians (with the exception of Reagan and Thatcher) and business leaders who had staunchly opposed economic sanctions were changing their minds. By the late '80s, the end of apartheid, which had made South Africa an international pariah, was inevitable and from any standpoint it was smarter to back black majority interests.
Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.