This opinion piece first appeared in Embassy, on July 3, 2013.
As the anti-apartheid icon fights for his life in a Pretoria hospital,
the past president of Canada's International Development Research
Centre reflects on their partnership to support South African
By Keith Bezanson
OTTAWA, July 5, 2013 /CNW/ - It was a Friday early in 1992. I was in
Cape Town with plans to fly out the next day when I got the call from
one of Nelson Mandela's closest advisers. Was I available to have tea
with Madiba on Sunday? I cancelled my flight and two days later was
sitting in the living room of his modest Soweto home.
Tea, a Mandela hallmark, marked a new stage in a long-term Canadian
collaboration to build the policies needed to support a strong
democracy in South Africa, led by Mandela.
It was an important time in South Africa. So much had happened in the
previous few years: the African National Congress had been "unbanned"
and scores of political prisoners, including Mandela, had been
released; the four-year state of emergency had been lifted in most of
the country; the government had started dismantling the legislative
framework for the apartheid state; and formal negotiations had begun to
sketch the roadmap to a new, non-racial constitution.
There was also great distrust and dissent in the country, not just
between whites and blacks but between the ANC and the Inkatha Freedom
Party. There were rumblings of a coup and fears that this precious
political space opened up by Mandela's release would deteriorate into
Mandela was determined to build a government of reconciliation and he
recognized that his cadre of freedom fighters needed training and
support to prepare themselves to serve as cabinet ministers and civil
servants. This was where Canada already had been playing a significant
Following the strong stand against apartheid taken in the late 1980s by
then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, his secretary of state for foreign
affairs, Joe Clark, asked Canada's International Development Research
Centre what it could do to help the ANC prepare to govern. It was the
beginning of an outstanding collaboration between IDRC, the Canadian
International Development Agency, and the then-Department of External
Affairs to deliver a multi-million dollar transition program for most
of the next decade.
At first IDRC organized research projects and meetings to help the
brightest minds among exiled South Africans stay connected to each
other. These efforts fostered the development of research and policy
initiatives on economic policy, urban migration, women rights and
health, among others.
As the pace of change picked up, the Canadian government wanted to do
When I visited South Africa in 1992 as president of IDRC, it was to
attend the official opening of our Regional Office for Southern Africa,
the new hub of IDRC's support for South Africa's peaceful transition,
led by Marc Van Ameringen.
Mandela invited Marc and I to tea in part to say thank you to Canada and
also to talk about what else we could do. Over the next two-and-a-half
hours he spoke about the wing of the ANC that wanted revenge for
decades of repression. Among other things, they wanted massive
redistribution of wealth, including nationalizing South Africa's
industries to take them out of the hands of the whites. "If we go that
way we're doomed," Mandela told us. "It will be civil war and
bloodshed. There's only one way to go forward and that is together."
At Mandela's request, IDRC arranged for key advisers and policymakers in
the ANC to talk to others who had tried radical policies, and work out
for themselves what the options really were. We sponsored study tours
to places such as Chile and Argentina, and brought experts and leaders
together for seminars on macroeconomic policy and how to maintain South
Africa's industrial and business base.
Mandela also wanted to open up avenues of employment and liberate the
civil service and Crown corporations to serve all South Africans. The
state had been organized around the overriding goal of sustaining
apartheid and Mandela was concerned that his vision of a rainbow nation
would be in peril unless the government found an entirely new way of
operating. With significant CIDA funding, IDRC advised the ANC on
developing a comprehensive transition.
Over time IDRC team members became trusted partners of the ANC. They
organized seminars and workshops and supported the establishment of
think tanks to help a new generation of leaders learn how to manage
what lay ahead. Many members in Mandela's first cabinet had
participated in IDRC research projects.
Leaving Mandela's home that day, I felt I had been in the presence of a
man who was going to change history. It touched me deeply that Canada
and IDRC were able to support his plans for South Africa in a
On the occasion of IDRC's 25th anniversary in 1995, Mandela wrote a letter to thank Canada and IDRC
for the "critical role" they had played, a reflection of the enormous
reservoir of trust established between Canada and South Africa under
Mandela's visionary guidance.
Keith Bezanson was president of IDRC from 1991 to 1997.
SOURCE: International Development Research Centre
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