South Africa-Canada Relations: Benefit in Moving Closer, Not Further Apart

GovernmentZA via Flickr
GovernmentZA via Flickr

In May, Governor General David Johnston, led a Canadian delegation to South Africa. There, he warned and called on Canada to fix the declining relationship between the two states. This pointed to the deterioration of an otherwise traditional relationship that had once seen Canada come to the defense of many South Africans during the apartheid, but only last year saw Canada snub South Africa with a failure to attend the centenary of the founding of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Diplomatic breaks like this point to an overall decline in state-to-state priority issue sequencing, revealing a shift in stature and an interest pivot as noted by Minister of International Cooperation, Mr. Julian Fantino, that it is now an evolving relationship from “one of assistance to [one of] partnership.”

While experts attempt diplomatic CPR, it is worth reiterating that both Canada and South Africa are now reconfiguring around points of state interest, as seen in areas of trade, foreign aid, and the handling of international affairs. Of course there is an ideological element also at play, with the leftist, anti-colonial ANC’s ideology clashing with Canada’s ruling Conservatives; still, state interests dominate the reason for the breakdown in relations.

Clearly, both countries are on opposite foreign policy spectra. The roots of post-apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy path are seen in a 1993 Foreign Affairs magazine piece, by Nelson Mandela, centered on issues of human rights, democracy, world peace, good relations with fellow African states and respect for international law. Canada’s current foreign policy and/or “dignity agenda” differ from South Africa’s. As revealed in a CBC report, Canada’s foreign policy

“…[drops] any pretense of using trade deals to pressure countries such as China on human rights and other matters of democratic principle… to succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align.”

Thus, foreign policy objectives in both cases might differ. Interestingly, in that very document Canada also acknowledged Africa’s growth: “The fact remains that, over time, African countries have the potential to challenge the likes of Brazil and China as major investment destinations.” However, for now at least, there is a shift, towards Latin America and Asia’s emerging markets. Indeed, South Africa remains a place of interest for many western investors. For instance, both Canadian and South African firms hold world-class mining expertise, and both economies are relatively reliant on their mining industries for growth. Nonetheless, trade between the two countries is seeing a decline, with shifts to East Asia and Latin America being the probable cause. In 2012 South Africa-Canada trade stood at about $1.3 billion, having declined since 2009. While the 2009 financial crisis explains some of this, these numbers also point to a decline in diplomatic relations and the noted shift in interests, as both governments neglect the exchanges that are necessary to promote trade growth and mutual ties.

Foreign aid is also an area that might help shed light on these relations. For example, as part of Prime Minister Harper’s reworked development and foreign aid strategy, aid has emerged as another defining element of relations between the two countries. From the 1980s to the late 2000s, Canada was a generous contributor of foreign aid to Africa states, including South Africa. However, Canada’s shifting focus to resource-rich parts of the world has become noticeable in the area of foreign aid, just as it is the case with investment. Foreign aid has emerged as a key foreign policy instrument of the Harper government, and reveals the ordering of Canadian interests.

Such changes have irked African states, which stand to lose out from this shift. The results of such frictions are seen at global forums, like the United Nations, where, for example, an influential South Africa was reluctant to lobby the “African bloc” to back Canada’s run for a United Nations Security Council seat.  Foreign aid changes, like the closure of diplomatic missions, now forecasts shifts in commercial interests. Of greatest concern to South Africa is the seeming merger of Canadian mining interests with the provision of Canadian development programs. South Africa, which is currently marred by intense labor struggles in the mining sector, is likely to be uneasy with such practices, which could be interpreted as a tactic to push out South African mining firms on the global market, instead a poverty alleviation strategy. This has the risk of angering South Africa’s powerful labor unions, who see this as unfair competition and an abuse of South African workers.

Taken together, these are some of the issues at the root of the current state of South Africa and Canada’s relationship. Of course the easing of the relations won’t reverse prevailing trade trends. However, (South) Africa presents great potential, economically and otherwise, as rightly acknowledged by Canada. It is hard to see how Canada and South Africa totally part ways. South Africa remains a key actor in African and international affairs, and is itself home to a diverse market that caters to non-mining Canadian interests such as agriculture. South Africa, in 2009, was Canada’s 10th largest export market. Yes, there are ups and downs in relations, which warrant diplomatic intervention. However, despite such factors, Canada and many western countries continue to invest in South Africa. Like Canada, South Africa is also very interested in the European Union, which has been called South Africa’s “most important trading partner.” Reasons are plenty: a strong legal system; institutions; and some access to the (African) market, particularly the SADC region, through a strong financial system.

While Canada’s strategic shifts might be necessary, emerging powers like South Africa are crucial, as noted in relation to the United Nations or similar cases. There is a need for a revival of relations, which would present diplomatic capital. The Governor General’s call for easing diplomatic relations is a good start. For now, however, it would appear there is some willingness to begin addressing the diplomatic deficit, with some diplomatic humor at play. Still missing though is a state visit by a Canadian foreign minster to South Africa, an important gesture that will be remembered when South Africa cast a vote for Canada at the United Nations, for example. South African officials visit Canada quite often. Health Minister, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, on his recent visit, sought Canada’s help in fighting tuberculosis, a major health challenge. Canada should reciprocate this interest.

The identified divergence between Canada and South Africa can, in large, be attributed to each cases’ look to emerging Asian and Latin American markets (or intra-BRICS trading), while a very small element can be attributed to ideology. Given Asia and Africa’s regional market growth, these shifts will remain a constant and, perhaps with lesser investor uncertainty and predictability concerns, the pattern would stabilize. Africa remains a place of interest, with great market diversity. Mutual benefits warrant strengthened relations, not a pivot away from them.

-Tshweu Moleme


(Tshweu Moleme is a South Africa analyst with the BRICS Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto)