A Chip Off the Old Block: South Africa and Canada
A Chip Off the Old Block: South Africa and Canada

A Chip Off the Old Block: South Africa and Canada

June 1 st 1994

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was sufficiently interested in the inauguration of the new President of the new South Africa, on May 10, that it gave live television coverage to the ceremonies in Pretoria. Many Canadians were up at the crack of dawn to share in that historic moment. But little did they realize just how much the two countries, Canada and South Africa, have had, and will continue to have, in common. Even less did they realize how much of that common interest is cause for concern. Not only William Blake had reason to marvel at the fearfulness of symmetries.

The Canadian-South African nexus goes back over many years, especially in the constitutional domain. In 1910, Henri de Villiers, who was destined to be the first Chief Justice of the South African Union, had come to Eastern Canada to consult the Honourable William Henry Pope, a Father of Confederation. That I learned from the mouth of his grandson, Lieutenant-General Maurice Pope, many years ago, while sitting at a camp fire in a small village on the Pacific coast of Mexico. Henri de Villiers had been chosen to preside over the Constituent Assembly that was about to draft a constitution for his country. He wanted to avoid mistakes Canadians might have made in writing their own. He and his namesakes knew about the frailties of nations. My great grandfather, Tobias Johannes Ferdinand de Villiers, had been the President of the Legislative Assembly of the old Republic of the Orange Free State before it fell under the British yoke.

In 1910, the South Africans decided not to follow the Canadian federalist model. Pope had advised his South African visitor that in the long run a Union would be better than a Confederation, and who would now argue that Pope was wrong, as far as the Canadian experience is concerned? As a consequence, Sir Henri de Villiers went to extreme lengths, in the subsequent South African debate, to overcome the natural preference of the South African provinces to opt for a federation. Indeed, the town where the Constituent Assembly met was named Vereeniging—meaning, literally, unification.

As a last desperate measure to secure a Union, the provinces even agreed to split the national capital into three parts. Cape Town became the legislative capital, Pretoria the executive capital, and Bloemfontein the judicial capital. Thus at least three of the four provinces were assuaged. To this day the principal apparatus of government, and all the foreign diplomatic missions, shuttle regularly, over a distance of more than a thousand miles, between Cape Town and Pretoria. For the same reason all foreign missions have to maintain homes and offices in both places. Government files travel constantly between the two capitals. For the sake of the children, entire school systems move with them. The socalled Zoo Train transports the civil servants. Who knows, a similar measure may yet save Canada, except that Canadian distances would require the deployment of a jumbo Zoo Plane.


In 1994, however, South Africans did follow Canadian constitutional advice, because Canadian change agents were most anxious that the new South Africa should enjoy the benefits of a Canadian-style Charter of Rights, the legacy of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The irony is, though, that the Canadian initiative may well guarantee the return of apartheid, albeit in a more modern, sophisticated, and systemic form. The greatest irony of all is that, at a time when South Africans are striving to throw off the shackles of apartheid, Canada is becoming more like the old South Africa. This reversal of roles is happening on no fewer than three levels.

The most obvious, and most readily understandable, reversion lies in Canadian efforts to create self-governing homelands like Nunavut and even separate legal systems and institutions for its native peoples in the name of separate development and separate nationhoods. In Parliament, the official opposition is also dedicated to sociocultural and "ethnically" based territorial and political separateness.

At a second, and less obvious, level, the reversal is represented by the fact that the Canadian Charter of Rights in effect relegates individual rights and freedoms to the rights and freedoms of groups. Several recent studies and books have examined this phenomenon. Under apartheid laws, the terms "race" and "group" were used interchangeably. For example, separate residential areas were created under a Group Areas Act. It used to be said that apartheid was more abhorrent than social segregation (which occurs in many parts of the world, such as India) because it was legally enforced. But in Canada, where all sorts of groups are identified for special treatment, that treatment too takes place under binding and enforceable laws.

Indeed, Canadian human rights tribunals now wield more power than the ordinary courts of the land, because their proceedings are not subject to the evidentiary and procedural safeguards and the appeals structure of the civil courts. While the decisions of the tribunals are just as binding, their activities are far more arbitrary. At least in South Africa, through all the years of apartheid, the judicial (as distinct from the police and executive) system continued to maintain the highest standards of the rule of law and the rules of natural justice. In Canada, the human rights regime has ridden roughshod over such standards.

Time and again, an aggrieved Canadian now defines his or her interest in special, legally enforced, privileges or entitlements in terms of his or her membership of one group or another, defined by sex (sex is the correct term; gender relates to the rules of grammar); "sexual preference"; disability; physical appearance; or ethnicity. (Ethnicity is the Canadian euphemism for race.) All ethnicities are equal, except that some are more equal than others. Vainly would a Scotsman sue for discrimination in Canada. And vainly would a member of an audible minority, as distinct from a visible minority, sue for redress, as people with an "upper-class" British accent have discovered.

Charter-based apartheid

As in the old South Africa, Canadian Charter-based apartheid underpins a power struggle. As Deborah Coyne of the Canadian Coalition on the Constitution said in Ottawa on October 14, 1989: "The Charter's appeal to our non-territorial identities—shared characteristics such as gender, ethnicity and disability—is finding concrete expression in an emerging new power structure in society....This power structure involves new networks and coalitions among women, the disabled, aboriginal groups, social reform activists, church groups, environmentalists, ethnocultural organizations, just to name a few. All these new groups have mobilized a broad range of interests that draw their inspiration from the Charter and the Constitution." In December of 1987, Dr. Bhausaheb Ubale, a commissioner on the Canadian Human Rights Commission, complained that "the political parties are ghettoizing ethnic groups. In this process, we are creating a new class of political power brokers within each ethnic group."

In other words, legally enforceable group-related rights have become an instrument of power, just as it was in the old South Africa. And yet a prominent Canadian, the Reverend Ted Scott, had been a member of a Group of Eminent Persons who had visited South Africa in 1986, and who professed themselves shocked by the degree to which efforts to effect change had foundered, "irretrievably, on the rocks of 'group rights' and white control." A mere eight years later, in a new South Africa equipped with its new Canadian-inspired Charter of Rights, it is already reported that the new government is "preparing legislation that will require banks and financial institutions to classify staff and customers by race and sex." According to The Globe and Mail (June 6, 1994) an official spokesperson for the governing party has said, "If the banks have nothing to hide, what would they have to fear from the new act?"

But such measures would be no different from those instituted by the Ontario government in its pursuit of affirmative action. Is the difference then between a good law and a bad law merely a question of motive? Many South Africans believed that their version of apartheid was also well meant.

The new politics of the group and of status (as in the Status of Women) has effectively succeeded the Marxist politics of class. In their book The Great Reckoning, Davidson and Rees-Mogg see danger signals in societies where "individuals are valued not according to their character and achievements, but according to their ethnic identities....The tendency to assign rewards according to status rather than through competition is a common characteristic of closed societies. To the shrewd investor, it is a leading indicator that should not be ignored."

Political postmodernism

At a third, but even more important level, the politics of the group signals the arrival of a postmodernist, post-Christian society. This is what most distinguishes Canada, and it is also the worst legacy that Canadians may be trying to pass on to the new South Africa. Gene Veith has written an excellent book on the subject, titled Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture.

One of the characteristics of political postmodernism, says Veith, is its rejection of individual identity: "People exist primarily as members of groups.... Postmodernism minimizes the individual in favor of the group. This can only result in a collectivist mentality in which the claims of the individual are lost in the demands of the group."

The new groupism also happens to reflect the teachings of the new postmodern Marxists whose main inspiration was, and remains, an Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci. "Post-Marxist radicalism constructs new revolutionary ideologies by replacing Marx's concern for the oppressed working class with other oppressed groups (blacks, women, gays). Status and moral legitimacy come from being 'excluded from power'." The link with the human rights regime is neatly illustrated by the fact that Ed Broadbent, former leader of the New Democratic Party and who now leads a Canadian government-financed international human rights centre based in Montreal, has identified the same Antonio Gramsci as the most profound influence on his own ideology. It would be surprising if Broadbent's agency, given the kind of mandate it wields, has not also been active in the new South Africa.

If anything, the postmodernist society is a Godless society. When the new South African President and Deputy Presidents were sworn in, not a single one of them took his oath of office on the Bible. In the postmodernist society, as Veith remarks, reality is not created by God. Reality is a social and cultural construct. Cultural transformation has been the public agenda in Canada since the advent of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. It would seem that the new Canada has been passing the same legacy to the new South Africa, and that the two countries may have much more in common than most of us might have thought.

Dirk de Vos
Dirk de Vos

Dirk de Vos


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