9. A Visit, a Funeral and an Elegy (2013 – 2014)
Governor General David Johnston was effusive. “I have made a very strong friendship with President Zuma that will last forever.” He had just emerged from a formal tête-à-tête with Zuma, a key moment in his state visit to South Africa in May 2013. Diplomacy demands honeyed utterances. I had to admire this one, offered without even a hint of insincerity.
A man of unfailing charm, Johnston is also down-to-earth and direct, conveys usually a positive and optimistic outlook and, as a former academic, he is eager to share his insights. Zuma and he bonded, it was said, through a discussion of their own children’s school experiences. Improving Canada-South Africa cooperation in education was a key theme of his official visit.
Johnston also disclosed that he had recommended to Zuma a book entitled Why Nations Fail by economists Darus Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. I quietly appreciated his finesse in conveying Canada’s concern about South Africa’s uncertain political trajectory while referencing a then-current bestseller. If Zuma had been discomfited by implied criticism, he seemed not to show it.
Shortly after the news conference in which Johnson proclaimed his friendship with Zuma, the two men hosted a formal luncheon attended by an array of South African and Canadian guests. It was a conclusion of a morning of pomp and circumstance. A ceremonial welcome had taken place at the Parliamentary precinct in Cape Town under magnificent sunshine. A military band was on hand to play O Canada, and the 21-gun salute echoed off the cliffs of nearby Table Mountain.
The visit had been a long time in the making. High Commissioner Dion declared from the beginning of her tenure in Pretoria that a high-level visit would be vital to put the Canada-South Africa relationship on a happier footing. Such orchestrated affairs are often considered the tried and true measure of the health of bilateral relations. Some think them antiquated diplomatic show pieces for performance of a series of practised gestures. But governments do regard them as a common currency of foreign relations. And with goodwill on both sides positive outcomes are possible.
The visit was the culmination of four years of sometimes frustrating effort. The protagonist needn’t have been the governor general. The embassy would have been delighted with a visit by the prime minister but a senior departmental official visiting South Africa who had been brought into discussions with the prime minster early in his mandate recalled Harper asking why he should meet leaders with compromised or unsavoury reputations. He said the prime minister was not talking about South Africa. But the implication was that the reservations expressed would encompass President Zuma. In the face of such unease, it appeared pursuing a prime minister’s visit might prove a lost cause.
Still a foreign minister would have made a suitable impression. And in fact, that’s where we started.
John Baird, who was long a member of Prime Minster Harper’s inner cabinet, was appointed to the role in 2011. Baird’s pugnacity was well known. He was perhaps the only Harper minister given license to engage in unscripted combat with the opposition in the House of Commons. He was deeply partisan. As a member of Parliament from an Ottawa constituency, he didn’t limit himself to wielding only his regular ministerial responsibilities. His manoeuvring to assist a Conservative candidate for Ottawa’s mayoralty unseat the Liberal incumbent was brutally transparent and effectively delayed the national capital’s light rail system for a decade. His mark was made instantly at Foreign Affairs when he insisted that a wide swath of budgeted expenditures be reviewed directly by his office. His was a little-hidden strategy of cutting spending through delay, irrespective of the impact on programs. Foreign ministers normally undertake a series of foreign visits based on policy priorities. But his choice of destinations was capricious, often decided upon at the last minute and undertaken without senior departmental advisers.
Baird’s mercurial nature notwithstanding, the high commission was eager to get his attention and persuade him of the value of an official visit to South Africa. Known for exercising considerable charm once engaged, Baird would likely make a good impression on his South African interlocutors.
Certainly, the foreign policy rationale was there. Approved language in briefing notes, speeches and memoranda always declared South Africa an important political and trade partner. There was the potential for greater trade and investment. The country was a rare exemplar in Africa of democracy, the rule of law and individual freedom. We also needed to increase our dialogue on broader international issues. Could we be allies, rather than disillusioned friends, once again?
Our efforts to win Baird over did not run smooth. There was a rather awkward contretemps in the high commission efforts to organize a seminar on Canada-South Africa relations. In partnership with David Hornsby, a Canadian international relations professor at Witwatersrand University (Wits) in Johannesburg, we would bring together Canadian and South African academics and government officials to review the evolution of relations over the years. We would begin with the apartheid era and proceed through the transition to democracy and up to the present. We looked to several sources of funds which included a conference budget that Hornsby was able to acquire from his program at Wits as well as high commission and headquarters funds that could be earmarked for these kinds of initiatives. One of the sources was going to be a sum from the “post initiative fund,” or PIF, an allotment made available to the high commission but – under new rules – now requiring approval from Baird’s office.
The submission was not well received. We were advised that the minister Baird did not care to see PIF funds go to “talking shops.” He would not approve PIF funds for this purpose. Though disappointing, this was not fatal. I was able to obtain money from a Canadian studies program overseen by headquarters that was being wound down but still had some cash in the kitty. Hornsby was able to identify some additional money from the university. With a somewhat reduced budget, we were still able to proceed.
On the eve of the meeting, our geographic desk in Ottawa sent us word that a senior aide in Baird’s office was furious. It was the aide’s understanding that the minister had forbidden the seminar from going ahead. This was not the high commission’s view. We were proceeding with goodwill, abiding simply by the order not to use PIF funds.
However, information about the seminar had come to the minister’s office by a circuitous route. Apparently, Hornsby’s father who was active in local politics in Guelph, Ontario, had expressed to local Conservative MP Michael Chong his pleasure that the high commission was working with his son in organizing the seminar. Chong, in turn, sent a note to Minister Baird congratulating him for his department’s financial support. The minister’s office swiftly reacted, asking my colleagues on the geographic desk why the seminar was proceeding when, in his view, the minster forbade it.
In the following weeks, I spent many hours explaining to the department’s accountants – who were nervously reacting to the tremors from Baird’s office – that the denial of PIF funding hadn’t constituted a prohibition of the event. We considered that the use of other available sources, including the funds provided by Wits University. If Baird didn’t like using certain funds to pay for seminars, the high commission could still use its judgement that the event could further our objective of improving relations.
The seminar did not begin well. Several Canadian academics who had been critical in the ‘70s of Canada’s continued relations with the apartheid regime seemed intent on revelling in a virtuous display of self-righteousness. They took numerous pot shots at what they considered Canada’s only tepid opposition to apartheid. As one South African colleague put it, the opening half day was “a very long awkward moment.” I began to wonder whether the minister’s suspicion of talking shops had some merit. However, later sessions dealing with more current relations generated a much more constructive dialogue. In fact, there was a reconciliation of sorts between one of the older anti-apartheid activists and Glen Babb, the controversial former South African high commissioner to Canada, who had infamously conducted his own visits to Canadian Indian reserves in the late ‘80s to make a provocative comparison with apartheid. They had found common ground over the important role of education in addressing inequality. The participation of many of our colleagues from DIRCO helped to plant some seeds of greater trust between us.
In December 2012 I attended the ANC’s five-year leadership convention in Mangaung, the municipality surrounding the better-known city of Bloemfontein, which is South Africa’s judicial capital. The main event was held under a giant marquee on the university grounds in the sweltering heat of the imminent South Africa summer. Floor demonstrations of North American political conventions have only a pale resemblance to the ANC’s equivalents. Delegates sing in elaborate call and response choruses with lyrics that are traditional but also adapted to the political themes at play. Phalanxes of delegates dance in rhythm, surging forward and back in the hall.  “Yinde lendlela esiyiambayo” (The path is long.) “Kwasho nMadela kulalendeli bahke” (To Freedom Day, Mandela said.) When President Zuma is on stage, he leads the delegates in this song and dance in an impressive display of improvisatory musical theatre. Zuma is rewarded by an extemporaneous song in his honour. “KuZuma sithembe” (In Zuma we trust). The chants are not always so exalted. Some delegates lament they haven’t received their per diems. “Asinamali” (We have no money.) “Sinaklo kaphela uqweqe lwesinkwa” (All we have are crusts.)
It was in such an atmosphere that I received a Blackberry message from headquarters advising me that Baird had selected a date to visit South Africa. I was instructed to contact the foreign minister, Maite Nkosana-Mashabane, to determine if she could receive him. I do not recall the exact date identified, but I knew that it had already been excluded as a possibility because of Mashabane’s own schedule. Although already informed of this in previous communications, it seemed to be of no consequence to Baird’s office. Moreover, it was said, Baird wanted a positive answer that very day.
I could see Mashabane on the convention floor, but it would be difficult to work my way through the singing and dancing throng. I waited for a break in the proceedings, then hurried to the exit that she was taking. I caught up with her on the crowded lawn outside the marquee. Knowing that I had no opportunity for more than a minimum of courtesies, I asked if she could meet Baird on the specified date. “It is so good to hear from my good friend John Baird,” she smiled. Of course, they had crossed paths at international forums such as the United Nations General Assembly. She said the date in question might not be possible. But she advised me to contact her appointments secretary in Pretoria.
Mashabane knew me from previous meetings. I had drawn on part of my reserve of goodwill to buttonhole her in this setting. I think she recognized that I was acting on peremptory instructions. Ever the experienced diplomat, she would not tell me “no” directly. Of course, when I called her appointments secretary, she confirmed Mashabane’s unavailability, which I dutifully relayed to headquarters.
It was gratifying to us when the prime minister’s office finally approved a state visit by Governor-General David Johnston for early 2013. If the prime minster could not make the trip, we knew at least that a visit from Johnston would likely be carried off with professional style, though discussion of many policy issues would be circumscribed by his ceremonial role. We organized a high commission team to work with our department’s and the governor-general’s protocol offices to develop a program with our South African counterparts. The themes would emphasize technological innovation and education, in keeping with Johnston’s particular interests and background as a university teacher and former president of both McGill and Waterloo universities. He would arrive in South Africa on May 19, after visits to Ghana and Botswana.
A key component of his program was to be an address to the South African Parliament on May 20, an event that we had meticulously choreographed in advance with the head of Parliament’s protocol office. On Friday afternoon, May 17, I received a phone call from the director of the Canada desk at DIRCO, Royce Kuzwayo, who advised me that the speech to Parliament was being called off. Questions had been raised by senior members of the ANC, I was told. They wondered why Canada was to be given this distinct honour. Clearly, despite our ongoing efforts, we still needed to contend with South African authorities’ diffidence. Kuzwayo was blunt in saying that no other head of state on recent visits had spoken to Parliament, which included in 2012 and 2013, Ghana, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Uganda, Nigeria, Namibia and, more significantly, India and China. Such comparisons had not been made in any of our planning with DIRCO and Parliament, and to be told of this major program change on the eve of the governor-general’s arrival, left us in a major quandary. There was now a gaping hole in what had been a carefully planned program, a hole that had not been filled when the governor-general’s flight touched down in Cape Town.
On news of the speech cancellation, the high commission’s public affairs manager, Valery Yiptong, swung into action. She contacted the ever-helpful Professor Hornsby who agreed – on clearly very short notice – to host a speech by the governor general at Wits University. This would entail a rushed flight to Pretoria after a diplomatic lunch hosted by Zuma and a previously unplanned motorcade from Pretoria to Johannesburg. When the time came, I was relieved to be riding in the speeding police-escorted motorcade on the Pretoria-Joburg freeway, heading from the military airport to the Wits campus. We arrived at the international studies centre at Wits to be greeted by a packed hall.
Johnston’s delegation included several representatives of Canadian educational institutions and non-governmental organizations with an interest in social development. His visit stimulated some interest in cooperation on a variety of fronts with respect to education and technology. Probably the most concrete outcomes of his visit were closer ties between the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town and the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. Johnston also encouraged Canadian and South African cooperation on the development of the Square Kilometre Array Telescope, which months later came to fruition in an important international agreement. Both these developments underlined the high levels of academic achievement for which in knowledgeable circles South Africa is still renowned.
Johnson was also able to increase the profile of Canadian business. He visited the Johannesburg stock exchange where he met Canadian businesses active in South Africa. Although Canadian investment in South Africa had been faltering, there was still a strong two-way trade in equipment and services, largely related to the mining sector. The governor-general also rode the recently opened Johannesburg-to-Pretoria high-speed train, or Gautrain, built by Canada’s trains-and-planes manufacturer, Bombardier.
Johnston’s visit did not in itself repair the wear and tear on the Canada-South Africa relationship. But it was a starting point to recharge a friendship that both countries perceived as faltering.
I never had the honour of meeting Nelson Mandela. During my assignment in South Africa, he was living in almost complete seclusion with his wife, Graça Machel, in a house in the upscale Johannesburg neighbourhood of Houghton. The renowned leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and the first president of South Africa’s multi-racial democracy was afflicted by a dementia that neither his family nor his ANC comrades would acknowledge. The struggle “icon”, as he was frequently labelled, was continuing to dispense words of wisdom to the country’s rulers, according to the myth-making narrative coming from various authorities. His rare appearances suggested otherwise. Graça Machel physically waved his hand for him as he was driven by golf cart into the closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup. President Zuma and several of his cabinet ministers shamelessly posed for photos around his vacantly smiling figure while claiming to have visited him to get his political advice. No one would publicly acknowledge his diminished cognitive capacities. It was his indispensable leadership that had led South Africa through a largely non-violent transition from racist tyranny to political equality and democratic freedom. Many feared for the future of South Africa without his guiding hand.
From the outset, my highest priority as political counsellor, as high commissioner Dion stressed to me, was to plan for Canada’s participation in Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The challenge was dealing with the complete reticence of any South African authorities. They would offer not the slightest hint they were making any preparations for Mandela’s death. No one would utter a word about the ailing health of Madiba, using the honorific tribal name spoken always with great reverence. Every one of the approximately 120 foreign embassies in Pretoria knew Mandela’s funeral would be an enormous, logistically challenging event. Mandela’s international prominence and the saintly regard in which he was held everywhere meant few countries would not want their leaders present. Our view at the high commission, and shared by headquarters, was that Prime Minister Harper must attend. We knew Governor-General Johnston would also be a choice. But given the greater political weight of the prime minister, as perceived not just in Canada but abroad, we believed, for the sake of our relations with South Africa, that Prime Minister Harper should be our principal designated mourner.
We were uncertain as to his receptivity to performing this role. His degree of appreciation of South Africa and its history was an unknown. During South Africa’s democratic transition, Stephen Harper was organizing the newly formed Reform Party. He served as a Reform MP between 1993 and 1997. The Reform Party’s focus on strengthening Canada’s regions and promoting fiscal conservatism included little attention to foreign policy. When Nelson Mandela was awarded honorary Canadian citizenship in 1998, Harper, no longer in the House of Commons, was head of the National Citizen’s Coalition, a conservative think tank with strong economic priorities. I was not convinced the prime minister, whose political focus had always been domestic, would be easily persuaded to attend the funeral. But working closely with the foreign affairs advisers in the privy council office, we obtained an early affirmative response. It came with the important and understandable proviso that the prime minster be informed immediately upon Mandela’s death so that he could issue a statement of consolation without delay. That statement would also initiate the logistics for his funeral attendance.
Mandela was rushed to hospital on several occasions starting in 2011. The government and family being ever protective of his privacy, the nature of these crises was not revealed, other than usually vague references to respiratory issues. (He had survived tuberculosis contracted during his prison years on Robben Island.) Each of these hospitalizations triggered panic among the embassies in Pretoria. At no point had the government revealed any of its contingency plans for a funeral, and few missions were able to get guarantees to book the many hotel rooms and vehicles that senior delegations would need on short notice.
After a sudden hospitalization in March 2013, the embargo on public statements began to fracture. Conflicting fragments of information about Mandela’s health started to appear. It became evident that the many parties who had a direct interest in Mandela’s health were not unanimous on how to communicate with the public. There were views of the immediate family, his current wife Graça Machel and the various Mandela children from his two previous marriages; of the ANC, both party and government leaders; and of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, established by Mandela to protect and further his legacy. After an agreement that South African vice president Kgalema Mothlanthe should become the official spokesperson, the government at last decided to start talking about possible funeral arrangements, although not entirely transparently.
In fact, my colleague, Patrick Cram, the high commission’s second secretary, and Colonel Richard Milot, the defence advisor, had to dig to find reliable sources in their respective networks. At last some of the rudiments of the funeral planning began to take shape, including the locations, Pretoria City Hall and the Union Buildings, the office of the South African presidency, for his lying-in-state; Johannesburg’s World Cup stadium for the public memorial service; and finally, Mandela’s home village of Qunu for the formal ceremony and burial.
In June 2013, after another sudden admission to hospital, a rumour spread that Mandela was already dead and that the family, the government and the foundation were arguing over the funeral arrangements. Delaying the death announcement seemed far-fetched, but a recent incident involving neighbouring Malawi fed the rumour mill. Less sensational than the rumour he was already dead was the claim that Mandela was being kept alive through medical intervention. This notion was fed by the statement by Mandela’s oldest daughter from his first wife Evelyn that her father was “at peace.” By being kept alive be extraordinary measures, the various “stakeholders” would have time to coordinate their efforts, the theory went.
The rumours and uncertainty sparked a reaction. Hotels we had had preliminary discussions with now became willing to enter into agreements to block rooms. Their readiness to enter into contracts allowed our headquarters to release funds so that an expected Canadian government delegation of some 80 people could attend. This would include Prime Minster Harper and former prime ministers Jean Chrétien, Brian Mulroney and Joe Clark, former governors-general Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, as well as the core staff of the prime minister’s office to provide administrative support and security. The high commission assembled its own logistics team to manage local transport and accommodation as well as organize whatever parallel program would be needed for senior delegation members. Colonel Milot undertook an advance visit to Qunu in the Eastern Cape province.
As much as our deep respect for Mandela motivated our preparations for the funeral, we were also driven by our desire to resuscitate our relationship with South Africa. It was not evident that our fractious relationship could be readily repaired. But we could try to create an atmosphere in which we could do so. Participating fully in mourning the loss of this pivotal figure of freedom – the political liberator of his people, Nobel Peace Prize winner and honorary Canadian citizen – would be an important show of respect to South Africans and their country.
I did not have the opportunity to travel any further down reconciliation road, however. Suzanne and I left South Africa at the end of August of that year. Days following our departure, defying the pessimistic forecasts of so many, Mandela rallied and was released from his prolonged hospital stay. But his recovery would not last long; he had only a few more months to live. He died at home on December 5, 2013. The plans the high commission put in place for attendance at his funeral were implemented by high commissioner Barban and my successor, Brad Belanger.
In the weeks before our departure, the Johannesburg Symphony Choir presented Benjamin Britten’s Cantata on Saint Nicholas. The tale of the death of the fourth-century churchman renowned for his care of the poor and oppressed seemed to resonate with the audience as it evoked what all knew would be the imminent passing of Madiba. “Let the legends that we tell praise him, and our prayers as well. We keep his memory alive in legends that our children, and their children’s children, treasure still.”
In the years following our departure from South Africa, the always rumoured deep corruption of the Zuma administration was spectacularly exposed. The Gupta family’s complicated involvement with the Zuma family and their role in lining their pockets through “state capture” was the subject of the Zondo inquiry, called after Zuma was forced from office. One of the precipitating factors in his fall was his role in trying to hand Russia a major contract to build South African nuclear reactors. Once the Zondo inquiry got rolling the magnitude of the misappropriation of funds under Zuma became almost awe-inspiring.
Badly sideswiped in the revelations was the Canadian company Bombardier, which had persuaded Export Development Canada to lend the Guptas some $10.4 million to buy one of their corporate jets. A shadow was cast over Bombardier’s much larger contract to sell locomotives to the South African government rail corporation Transnet. The high commission had been advised of Bombardier’s interest in the Transnet bid about 2012. I had joined high commissioner Dion in a meeting with several of the company’s representatives in the high commission’s board room, where they outlined their objective of bidding on the Transnet tender. We encouraged them in their efforts. Evidence presented before the Zondo commission revealed that interventions by senior South African government officials were critical in denying Chinese firms an inside, exclusive track to the Transnet contract. (It was eventually apportioned between two state-owned Chinese firms and Bombardier.) Still, the tender was tainted by efforts at the highest level in Transnet to inflate the size of the contract and channel payments through Gupta family-controlled companies.
The Zondo inquiry was an invaluable exercise in exposing the mechanics of Zuma’s corrupt regime. In the late months of my assignment, a large Canadian resource company intent on exploration of promising structures in the South African offshore visited the high commission asking us to join it in a visit with Zuma to discuss the company plans. Word came later that Zuma preferred to meet the company alone without a Canadian high commission representative being present. Evidently, what Zuma might propose was best kept from the Canadian government’s prying eyes.
Governor General Johnston’s veiled warning to Zuma in his reference to Why Nations Fail was not off the mark. Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s thesis is that nations that succeed establish a virtuous circle in which “inclusive” political institutions and “inclusive” economic institutions reinforce each other in processes of continually positive feedback. Zuma’s government was one on the verge of initiating a vicious circle, where his government was becoming an “extractive” political institution incentivising “extractive” economic behaviour by him and his cronies. But South Africa’s political institutions still proved strong enough to derail Zuma’s predations, so that the country’s virtuous circle could be saved from becoming a vicious one.
From the point of view of South Africa’s potential and its capacity to lead an African economic take-off, the Zuma years were lost years. Much hope was attached to his replacement, Cyril Ramaphosa, who, in addition to his being a prominent leader in the anti-apartheid movement, was a successful businessperson in the rainbow nation’s early years. But the desire of many in the multi-faceted ANC alliance to reap the financial spoils of their political success and the still strong attraction of the ANC to the BRICS and China in particular, for its brand of state-sponsored growth, will weigh on Ramaphosa. Will South Africa again become a stronger partner with Canada in the rules-based international order characterized by free trade and open markets? Or will the siren song of managed trade and the dubious benefits of closer ties with authoritarian regimes (and the prospects of becoming a client state) prove more alluring?
Acemoglu, Daron & Robinson, James A., Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, Crown Publishing Group, Random House, New York, 2012 ↑
https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/lifestyle/2012-12-23-zumas-song/ Not knowing isiZulu, I compared my notes with this Sunday Times account of the conference. ↑
Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika dies suddenly in April 2012. To delay the appointment to the presidency of vice-president Joyce Banda, the president’s brother, who had ambitions to replace him, claimed he was still alive. In a rather elaborate ruse, the corpse – with medical equipment attached -- was flown to a South Africa military base to be transported to a Pretoria hospital where he would supposedly receive treatment unavailable in Malawi. Although the South African pilot initially refused to transport the obviously lifeless body, the plan took off after the South African high commissioner was summoned to the airport by Malawian authorities. But after the arrival in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma refused to go along with the charade and announced Mutharika’s death two days after the fact. Despite Zuma’s role in lifting the shroud of mystery in the Malawi case, many South Africans – highly sceptical of Zuma and many of his ANC comrades – promoted the notion South African authorities were concocting their own Malawi caper. https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-03-20/curious-case-death-malawi-s-president ↑