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Hidden histories and political legacies of the Canadian anti-apartheid movement

AfricaSocial MovementsSocialism

Anti-apartheid activist Lennox Farrell hurled a ceremonial mace at South African ambassador Glen Babb in a 1985 debate in Toronto.

This piece originally appeared in the March-April (2014) issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. Subscribe or buy previous issues HERE.

One could be forgiven for thinking that graying Tories were the vanguard of Canada’s anti-apartheid efforts after witnessing the official delegation to Mandela’s memorial. It is a cruel irony of history that the likes of Brian Mulroney, Joe Clarke and John Diefenbaker are lionized while those who were in the trenches against apartheid are written out of history.

The history of those ordinary Canadians who fought against apartheid has tragically been lost, and those who decried Mandela as a communist terrorist elevated as humanitarian heroes in his passing.

This is a modest attempt at correcting this narrative, but it also suggests that the Canadian antiapartheid movement is the best example we have of a broad-based, dynamic and successful (depending on who you ask) social movement. At the same time its legacy is a contested one. The Canadian movement was a complex and contradictory political beast, shaped as much by its divisions as by its unity. The debate surrounding Mandela’s legacy is, in a very real sense, also reflective of the Canadian movement’s triumphs and failures.

A brief history of the Canadian anti-apartheid movement

Yola Grant, a respected Toronto labour and human rights lawyer, is sitting in my living room going through a photo album. She points to a photo of a crowd of people holding placards bearing Mandela’s face and the slogan “A Better Life For All!” In 1994 Grant went to South Africa to carry out popular education on voting among the country’s newly enfranchised population. The path that led her there began at the University of Toronto where as an undergraduate she, along with many others, became active in the Canadian wing of the international anti-apartheid struggle. It was at the U of T’s downtown campus that she watched fellow activist Lennox Farrell hurl a ceremonial mace at South African ambassador Glen Babb in a 1985 debate. “It was a provocation,” she tells me, “through the Hart house debating society, under the guise of free speech, they decided to host him, and for a lot of us that was viewed as a provocation.” In a piece published in the campus press Farrell condemns the event for reducing apartheid to a student plaything, something to be debated by “budding parliamentarians!”

By 1985 the Canadian anti-apartheid movement was a broad church involving religious congregations, local solidarity chapters, NGOs and efforts by university and high school students. Never assuming the form of a centralized anti-apartheid movement, as it did in the UK or Sweden, the network of activists is described by former CUSO staffer and long-time African solidarity activist Dave Beer as a “string of pearls,” consisting of groups from the east to west coast, mobilizing thousands of supporters and raising millions of dollars.

The Canadian movement lagged behind those in Europe and the US, where there had been anti-apartheid groups since the defiance campaigns in South Africa in the 1950s. Garth Legge at the Africa Desk of the United Church of Canada and Cranford Pratt at the U of T led some of the earliest solidarity efforts in the 60s. In 1970 they authored, along with Rick Williams and Hugh Windsor, the touchstone Black Paper: An Alternative Policy for Canada Towards Southern Africa in response to Trudeau’s white paper. During this time South Africa was just one front of international solidarity activism, with groups like TCLPAC (Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Portugal’s African Colonies) forming in the early 70s and working to support liberation movements against Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea Bissau.

Many of those who would go on to play a leading role in the movement witnessed the process of decolonization firsthand. Jim Kirkwood, who coordinated the Africa Desk for the United Church, ran a parish in rural Zambia just prior to independence. Experiencing the liberation of an African nation “got into my blood,” as he puts it, and he was to devote the next 30 years of his life to the cause. Dave Beer, who would later go on to work for the ANC, describes how after witnessing South African soldiers washing their clothes in the Zambezi River, across from CUSO-sponsored schools, he asked an AGM in Ottawa: “How can it be that we’re not politicized? We need to educate Canadians about this.” Beer returned to Ottawa from Zambia to establish an education program on decolonization in Africa for CUSO.

The 1970s would see the movement expand dramatically, from a few student-based divestment groups to major campaigns against Canadian banks and corporations. The ANC set up its first office in Toronto in the 70s with Yusuf Salajoee at the helm. TCLPAC, after the fall of Portuguese colonialism, changed its name to TCLSAC (Toronto Committee for the Liberation of Southern Africa), and the churches took a leading role in corporate and government divestment through TCCR (Taskforce for Church and Corporate Responsibility) headed up by Renata Pratt and Bill Davis. Brenda Wall and Ken Luckhardt were the force behind the SACTU Solidarity Committee in 1980, challenging the anti-communist line of the Canadian Labour Congress. The strong ANC presence in Toronto, and its connections with the Communist Party of Canada, led to the formation of Canadians Concerned with Southern Africa (CCSA).

The 1980s would see the movement swell into a broad-based coalition of NGOs, churches and activist groups from coast to coast. And little wonder, as the repressive apparatus of the apartheid state was unleashed with brutal force during this period, while activists pressured Mulroney to implement sanctions and divestment. Greater coordination and unity within the movement resulted in the 1982 Ottawa conference in supported of the ANC and Namibia’s SWAPO—the largest anti-apartheid conference held in Canada. In Toronto a range of groups would come together in 1985 to build support for liberation movements and coordinate boycott and divestment efforts. Their campaigns were varied, targeting everything from racism in the Toronto Sun to divesting City Hall employees’ pension funds from South African companies.

Race, Cold War politics, and the meaning of international solidarity

The 1970s saw the rise of black consciousness thought within South Africa and beyond. For Grant, black activists like Lennox Farrell and Charles Roach always played a prominent role, but Black Nationalism itself was never pivotal to the Canadian movement. Divisions between largely white solidarity groups and the black community did exist however. Grant describes how CCSA’s annual celebration of African Liberation Day drew the ire of black activists for being an overwhelmingly white affair. While black consciousness thought had some impact on the US movement, largely through black power struggles, it never gained much traction in the Canadian context. Where its influence was felt, it was largely a cross-border affair as in the Biko–Rodney–Malcolm Coalition that gave awards to musicians who refused to entertain apartheid.

It is important here to view the movement within the broader political context. This was still a time, as CCSA chair Joanne Naiman puts it, when “the ANC was seen as a commie organization.” Indeed, when the ANC’s Oliver Tambo first met Mulroney in 1987, he was lectured on the dangers of communism and terrorism. Within the church, Kirkwood describes how combating anti-communist propaganda became one of his major roles. The United Church at the time was acting on the recommendation of the World Council of Churches, whose Program to Combat Racism included giving direct support to those groups fighting against it; this included the ANC which at the time had ties to the Soviet Union. There was significant pushback from conservative elements within the church. The Christian Businessmen’s Association launched their own campaign against the church’s anti-racism program. “They would have us use our influence with the white powers to help end apartheid,” says Kirkwood. “To them faith was personal, to us it was political.”

While the movement’s enemy was clearly white minority rule and the collusion of Western governments and corporations, who to support was a different matter. As TCLSAC’s John Saul puts it, there were some “whose line was basically ‘let’s get rid of these whites,’ and then others would say ‘and their capitalist masters,’ but not everyone would say that.” The mainstreaming of the movement in the 1980s produced a variety of political tensions between socialists, liberals, and those government and business interests who began to see apartheid as a problem for global capitalism.

From its early days TCLSAC was rooted in politics that melded decolonization, particularly experiments in African socialism, with politics of the New Left. Judith Marshall, who later went on to work in Mozambique’s liberated areas, explains that what mattered was not just decolonization but how this process happened: “We didn’t settle for a narrow definition of what it meant to end racism, but really about broader transformation.” While the group aligned itself directly with other liberation groups, it remained sceptical of the ANC as the sole actor on the ground within South Africa. For Saul, “the real running in the 80s was being made by the unions and by the United Democratic Front,” not solely by the ANC. Beyond this, Marshall claims that they never had a clear sense of what the ANC’s politics really were and whether there was a potential for broader change. In this sense, history has absolved them, but the group’s position generated heated opposition.

As a way of establishing itself as the legitimate voice of the South African people, the ANC devoted significant energy to its international work. Through its Toronto office, it organized solidarity visits, fundraisers and events, and built connections with solidarity chapters across Canada. From the mid-70s until 1989 the ANC attempted to set up a cross-Canada network similar to the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the UK. They attempted this through CCSA, which, according to Naiman, was set up as an arms-length body: “The ANC was setting up an office in Canada, and they wanted a solidarity group that would give sole support to the ANC.” For CCSA activists like Domenic Bellissimo there was never any doubt that the ANC was the primary player in the struggle: “We were very clear that we don’t equate the support the ANC or PAC have inside the country, that we support the ANC as the leading organization.”

For Saul and Marshall critical support was crucial, but in hindsight not critical enough. “We were nervous about the ANC, if you look at their journal it’s full of pro-Soviet bullshit,” Saul says, “but we had to blur our analysis because without these movements, well, there’s no real resistance to these white and capitalist regimes.” While TCLSAC’s support was often seen as a qualified form of support, Saul emphasizes that these movements were often given leniency (perhaps too much, he adds), but at the time these were difficult calls to make: “Sometimes you choose your friends by who the enemy is.”

Victory, defeat and political legacies

The legacy of the movement, for Saul and Marshall, is ambiguous: did the movement in Canada unwittingly make the ANC and other liberation movements “safe” enough that they were eventually courted by corporate capital? If so, what was the cumulative impact of this on the political direction of post-independence governments? The debates around Mandela’s contested legacy and ongoing issues of inequality in South Africa are, in this sense, also about the global anti-apartheid movement and its internal politics. While the expansion of popular anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s helped build support for Mandela’s release, it also made it a “safe cause,” in Bellissimo’s words. Solidarity events went from pickets outside the LCBOs in 1982 to business luncheons and honorary citizenships for ANC cadres in the mid 1990s. For Grant, however, the movement’s dissolution was the only appropriate response: “For me, after 94, I said I’m done, now you need to work it out internally.”

It is remarkable that within a few years of Mandela’s release the Canadian anti-apartheid movement virtually disappeared. What then are the legacies and resonances of this movement in the present day? If we imagine social movements not as fixed, but as political currents that flow from one period into the other, then overlaps begin to emerge. The anti-apartheid movement was the first example of a truly global campaign against racism. These resonances have made themselves felt in the Palestinian solidarity campaign, and in the description of Israel as an apartheid state—something supported by numerous South Africans. Yet the situation is a great deal more complex as international solidarity in the Palestinian context is usually not directed toward specific political formations but toward a nebulous civil society. These ongoing debates over “legitimate voice” of the Palestinians hearken back to the movement debates of the 70s and 80s. For Saul the primary resonance is that despicable forms of racism can, and indeed must, be overcome through collective action, but movements should always, in Amilcar Cabral’s words, claim no easy victories.

Chris Webb is a PhD student at the University of Toronto and a regular contributor to Canadian Dimension.

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