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 civil war.
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 role.
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 more.
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 meaningful way.
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 betweenCanada and South Africa under Mandela’s visionary guidance.
Keith Bezanson was president of IDRC from 1991 to 1997. He is available for media interviews.
This opinion piece first appeared in Embassy , on July 3, 2013.
SOURCE International Development Research Centre