Tag Archives: South Africa

Canada opposed Cuba’s key role in ending apartheid

Did Canada lead the international charge against apartheid and white rule in South Africa or criticize a country that, in fact, did?

Recent commentary about Canada’s policy towards southern Africa’s liberation struggles distorts history that should inform debate over Canada’s planned military deployment to the continent today.

Globe and Mail article last month described “Canada’s strong support for the anti-apartheid movement” while a Kingston Whig Standard story last week claimed a “senior Canadian diplomat and his wife became engaged in providing support to a wide array of South Africans actively opposing the apartheid regime.” A Le Devoir columnist wrote that “faced with apartheid South Africa, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, in the 1980s, was the first in the Commonwealth to adopt a policy not of inclusion but of economic sanctions, against the government of Pieter Botha.” But, this statement is only plausible if you reduce the Commonwealth to the European settler states. Does anyone actually believe Ottawa was more opposed to the white regime than Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, India, etc.?

Toronto Star editorial about Fidel Castro’s death hinted at a position hard to align with this self-congratulatory revisionism. (Or a Star story after Nelson Mandela’s death titled “Canada helped lead international fight against apartheid”). The editorial pointed out that in the late 1970s Prime Minister Pierre “Trudeau was also voicing deep concerns to Castro… over Cuba’s military involvement in Africa, especially Angola.” The Star editorialists failed to elaborate on Trudeau’s “deep concern”.

Not long after Angola won its independence from Portugal, apartheid South Africa invaded. In an important display of international solidarity Cuba came to Angola’s defence. Thousands of Cuban troops, most of them black, voluntarily enlisted to fight the racist South African regime. Contrary to Western claims, Cuba decided to intervene in Angola without Soviet input (Washington knew this at the time). Cuba’s intervention helped halt South Africa’s invasion.

This successful military victory by black forces also helped bring down apartheid in South Africa. The famous township rebellion in Soweto took place three months after South Africa’s initial defeat in Angola. Nelson Mandela’s ANC noted “their [the South African army’s] racist arrogance shrank when our MPLA [Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola] comrades thrashed them in Angola.” For its part, Johannesburg’s Rand Daily Mail warned that the legacy of Angola resulted in “blows to South African pride.” The paper viewed the defeat as, “the boost to African nationalism which has seen South Africa forced to retreat.” In a similar vein another South African analyst observed “whether the bulk of the offensive was by Cubans or Angolans is immaterial in the colour-conscious context of this war’s battlefield, for the reality is that they won, are winning, and are not white: and that psychological edge, that advantage the white man has enjoyed and exploited over 300 years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away. White elitism has suffered an irreversible blow in Angola and Whites who have been there know it.”

Ottawa freaked out, diplomatically speaking. Trudeau stated: “Canada disapproves with horror [of] participation of Cuban troops in Africa” and later terminated the Canadian International Development Agency’s small aid program in Cuba as a result.

Conversely, Ottawa funnelled aid to Zambia during this period partly to support its “moderate” position in southern Africa’s racial conflict. In Canadian Development Assistance to Zambia Sinkala Sontwa explains how Ottawa “lent support to what they considered as Zambia’s moderate stand among the Front Line States on Southern African politics.”

A few years earlier Canadian officials expressed apprehension about providing indirect backing to Ghanaian and Tanzanian proponents of what Ottawa dubbed a “war of liberation” in southern Africa. At the end of the 1960s, Canada failed to renew its military training in Tanzania partly because the government provided limited support to the liberation movement on its southern border in Mozambique.

Canada’s position towards the African liberation struggles of the 1970s and 80s should influence how we view deploying troops to the continent today. This history – and the media’s distortion of it – suggests the need for a healthy dose of skepticism towards Ottawa’s intentions.

To paraphrase George Santayana, Canadians who cannot remember the past are condemned to allow the bad guys to repeat it.

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Filed under A Propaganda System, Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada in Africa

Glorifying a very bad war

In their bid to brand Canada a “warrior nation,” Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seek to glorify Canadian military history, regardless of its horrors.

On Saturday Canada’s Minister of Veteran Affairs released a statement to mark “113 years since the end of the South African war.” Erin O’Toole said, “Canada commemorates all those who served in South Africa, contributing to our proud military history.”

But the Boer War was a brutal conflict to strengthen British colonial authority in Africa, which ultimately led to racial apartheid. In the late 1800s the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers, increasingly found themselves at odds with British interests in southern Africa. Large quantities of gold were found thirty miles south of the Boer capital, Pretoria, in 1886 and the Prime Minister of UK’s Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, and other British miners wanted to get their hands on more of the loot. There was also a geostrategic calculation. The Boer gold and diamond fields in the Orange Free State and Transvaal were drawing the economic heart of southern Africa away from the main British colonies on the coast. If this continued London feared that the four southern African colonies might unite, but outside of the British orbit, which threatened its control of an important shipping lane.

Between 1898 and 1902 London launched a vicious war against the Boer. With Cecil Rhodes’ Imperial South African Association promoting anti-Boer sentiment in this country, some 7,400 Canadians fought to strengthen Britain’s position in southern Africa.

The war was devastating for the Boers. As part of a scorched-earth campaign the British-led forces burned their crops and homesteads and poisoned their wells. About 200,000 Boer were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Twenty-eight thousand (mostly children) died of disease, starvation and exposure in these camps.

In Another Kind of Justice: Canadian Military Law from Confederation to SomaliaChris Madsen points out that, “Canadian troops became intimately involved in the nastier aspects of the South African war.” Whole columns of troops participated in search, expel and burn missions. Looting was common. One Canadian soldier wrote home “I tell you there is some fun in it. We ride up to a house and commandeer anything you set your eyes on. We are living pretty well now.” There are also numerous documented instances of Canadian troops raping and killing innocent civilians.

As with the Boer, the war was devastating for many Africans. Over 100,000 blackswere held in concentration camps but the British failed to keep a tally of their deaths so it’s not known how many died of disease or starvation. Some estimate that as many as 20,000 Africans were worked to death in camps during the war.

Unlike the Boer, the blacks’ plight didn’t improve much after the war. In Painting the Map Red: Canada and the South African War, 1899-1902 Carman Miller notes, “Although imperialists had made much of the Boer maltreatment of the Blacks, the British did little after the war to remedy their injustices.” In fact, the war reinforced white/British dominance over the region’s indigenous population.

The peace agreement with the Boer included a guarantee that Africans would not be granted the right to vote before the two defeated republics gained independence. In The History of Britain in Africa John Charles Hatch explains: “By the time that self-government was restored in 1906 and 1907, they [the Boer] were able to reestablish the racial foundations of their states on the traditional principle of ‘No equality in church or state.'” Blacks and mixed race people were excluded from voting in the postwar elections and would not gain full civil rights for nine decades.

For Harper’s Conservatives the details of the Boer War are barely relevant. What matters is that Canadians traveled to a distant land to do battle beside a great empire. That’s the “warrior” they seek to re-create.

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Filed under The Ugly Canadian