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Canada must 'show some moral guts' against apartheid

For almost 50 years, South Africa was ruled by apartheid — a brutal system of racial separation that kept the nation's black majority in poverty while a white minority held the wealth and power. As unrest grew, South Africa seemed destined for a bloodbath. Canada — like many nations — was slow to react but, by the 1980s, assumed a leading role in forcing economic sanctions against South Africa. Canadian business people, activists and clergy also played parts in bringing about all-race elections in 1994, and a surprisingly peaceful end to apartheid.

Canada must do whatever it can to create an economic crisis for South Africa's racist regime. That's the opinion of the Committee of Concern for South Africa, gathered at Toronto's Massey Hall on Feb. 23, 1961. Most eloquent among the speakers is author Pierre Berton. His fiery speech compares apartheid South Africa with Nazi Germany and challenges Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to lead a Commonwealth revolt against apartheid.
• This broadcast took place a few weeks prior to the March 1961 Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference in London, England. Anti-apartheid activists hoped that event would be a turning point in the war against apartheid. South Africa was about to declare itself a republic after holding a whites-only referendum; it would lose its Commonwealth status and have to re-apply for admission. There was strong pressure for Commonwealth nations like Canada to prevent that readmission.

• The Union of South Africa was created in 1910 as a parliamentary union of four self-governing British colonies. Like Canada, it had been an independent British dominion since the 1931 Statute of Westminster. The move to become a republic was part of a radical reorganization of South Africa under the National Party that began in 1948. This included denying blacks and "coloureds" the right to vote -- a key factor in the government's 1960 referendum victory on becoming a republic.

• One reason foreign governments were slow to take a stand against apartheid was the link between anti-apartheid organizations and communism. Apartheid was implemented in the late 1940s and early 1950s, at the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Groups like the African National Congress (ANC) had close ties to communism. While the ruling National Party was oppressive, they were clearly anti-communist.

• In July 1952, ANC leader Nelson Mandela was arrested and given a suspended sentence under South Africa's Suppression of Communism Act for defying apartheid laws.
• The Act gave the government the power to declare anyone a communist if they "furthered the cause of communism" -- a very broad definition.
• At the beginning of this CBC Radio broadcast, meeting chair Fred Davis announced that although pro-communist leaflets had been handed out at the meeting, the CBC did not endorse them.


• The RCMP suspected Pierre Berton of communist sympathies and kept a file on him because of his involvement in anti-apartheid rallies, says University of Birmingham author Steve Hewitt in his book Spying 101: The RCMP's Secret Activities at Canadian Universities, 1917-1997.
• By 2003, Pierre Berton had written 46 books and won three Governor General's Awards.
• On Jan. 22, 1961, CBC Newsmagazine took a look at the build-up to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.
Medium: Radio
Program: CBC Radio Special
Broadcast Date: Feb. 23, 1961
Commentator: Pierre Berton
Duration: 15:38

Last updated: December 6, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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