It’s not just the decision to implement a controversial travel ban on southern African nations, which since has been revoked, but the way in which Canada went about announcing the plan, that irked South Africa’s envoy in Ottawa.
Outgoing South African High Commissioner Sibongiseni Dlamini-Mntambo said she learned that Ottawa was imposing the ban not from a representative of Global Affairs, but from the news.
“Not picking up the phone to say, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ Because in terms of diplomacy this is what is supposed to happen. I read about this in the papers. I heard about this on the news,” she said. “It is the way it was handled.”
A Global Affairs spokesperson said the department told the South African High Commission about the travel ban on Nov. 26—the same day it was publicly announced by Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos (Québec, Que.) and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra (Mississauga Centre, Ont.). The spokesperson didn’t respond before publication deadline if the high commission was informed about the ban prior to or after the public announcement.
In a follow-up email, Dlamini-Mntambo confirmed that she learned about the ban from the media. She noted that there was “general communication” sent to “affected countries” on Nov. 27, highlighting the announcement and the press statement. But she said that came after the announcement. The South African high commissioner said she confirmed with the High Commission’s first secretary that it did not receive any notification from the government until Nov. 27.
After South Africa detected the Omicron variant, Canada imposed a ban on travel from foreign nationals to Canada from South Africa and six other southern African nations on Nov. 26, which increased to 10 African nations on Nov. 30. The ban was eventually revoked on Dec. 18.
The governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union took similar actions to ban travel from southern African nations amid news of the new variant. Canada was the only G7 country to couple the travel ban with a requirement for third country testing.
The ban was criticized by the United Nations and World Health Organization. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the bans “travel apartheid” and “unacceptable.” Some critics said the decision for Canada to impose the travel restrictions lacked scientific backing.
Dlamini-Mntambo said the ban punished South Africa for being responsible.
“South Africa was open and they informed the world about Omicron. In informing the world, it felt like we were being punished for being responsible,” said the departing South African high commissioner, adding that if a country is being punished for alerting the world to the variant, it will incentivize dishonesty and hiding the truth about emerging variants.
“It felt more like the variant is an African variant and the West does not want it to come to the West,” she said.
She said that the main issue isn’t how Canada chose to manage the virus, but how the relationship was managed.
“It’s something that we need to handle better,” she said. “We should respect each other. We should work better.”
Dlamini-Mntambo added that she still believes it will be an issue that the two sides will be able to work through.
“We believe we have very strong relations with Canada. We respect the country and we hope that the country respects us in return,” she said.
The high commissioner said it is possible that when Canada announced the travel ban, it didn’t think about the implications of how it was choosing to inform South Africa.
Global Affairs spokesperson Jason Kung said after the South African High Commission was informed about the travel ban on Nov. 26, Canada maintained contact with “South African interlocutors” through the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria.
Kung also highlighted Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) call with South African Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor on Nov. 30, in which they spoke about “Canada’s measures to combat the Omicron variant and to thank her for South Africa’s transparency.”
“Canada continues to prioritize the health and safety of all Canadians by continuing to take a risk-based and measured approach to its entry requirements. Canada’s border measures are in place to limit the spread of COVID-19. The Government of Canada’s emergency border measures have been effective in reducing the importation and transmission of COVID-19 into Canada,” he said. “Canada highly values its close partnership with South Africa and remains committed to working towards a global solution to this crisis.”
Carleton University professor David Hornsby, an expert on Canada-South Africa relations, said the bilateral relationship is at a “new low.”
“We’re in a moment right now where I think Canada pays very little attention to the South African government and I would probably say equally, on the other side, that the South African government pays very little attention to the Canadian government,” he said.
Hornsby said Dlamini-Mntambo has highlighted “a highly irregular” circumstance of not being informed of the Canadian government’s decision.
“That does underscore a degree of neglecting the relationship,” he said, adding the decision on the travel ban didn’t give attention to South Africa’s “robust public health framework.”
He said the decision on the ban and how it was announced will be something with a “lasting impact” on the relations between the two G20 countries.
“What it has done is it has absolutely broken trust,” Hornsby said.
“What we need to do is talk about real material things that Canada and South Africa can do to bring themselves closer together politically.”
University of the Fraser Valley political science professor Edward Ansah Akuffo, who is an expert on Canada’s engagement in Africa, said the relationship between Ottawa and Pretoria has been strong, but it has been wounded through the handling of the pandemic.
“What appears to me is that the Trudeau government basically wanted to please the Canadians and it made the government appear that it is … prioritizing the health security of its citizens, so it acted in that way. But it also sends a wrong signal and that wrong signal [was a] target on South Africa among other African countries,” he said, highlighting that dozens of countries had Omicron cases, but many others weren’t targeted.
“The simple question we should ask is: if Canada is indeed going to impose travel bans on the United States and the United Kingdom, would Canada just wake up and impose those bans? Will they just do it without informing them?”
“Canada has historically had a very strong relationship with South Africa and therefore there was no need, in my view, to jeopardize our relationship given the fact that Canada has been a strong multilateralist,” he said. “Right at the beginning of this pandemic, Canada was following the WHO guidelines. It was following the science from the WHO, but it has deviated.”
Akuffo said work must be done behind closed doors to address the situation.
“I think both countries have been very smart in terms of [not] escalating this thing to jeopardize the economic relationship,” he said. “The economic relationship has remained fairly stable despite the political disagreement.”
Questions continue over Canada’s delay on COVID-19 TRIPS waiver
For months, global health experts have been pushing Canada to endorse a World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) COVID-19 waiver that was introduced by South Africa and India in October 2020.
In the 16 months since, Canada has neither supported nor rejected the waiver. Some critics have said the delay in making a decision on the waiver amounts to rejecting it.
Experts have long said that without increased global vaccine equity, new variants would continue to be a concern.
Dlamini-Mntambo said she has been very active in her engagement with the Canadian government on the waiver, but “up to this day” there haven’t been any positive developments.
“I’m not sure why Canada is not supporting the TRIPS waiver, but I am hopeful. We have said a lot, and at some stage, Canada might support it. Right now, there is a shortage of vaccines in Africa.”
Dlamini-Mntambo said she has spoken to Global Affairs about the waiver, as well as provinces. She noted that the office of Quebec Premier François Legault was supportive of the waiver. A spokesperson for the office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While the Canadian government cites its contribution towards COVAX—which has been criticized for being insufficient—Dlamini-Mntambo said the waiver remains “very crucial.”
The Hill Times