Governor-General David Johnston calls it a mistake, an embarrassment and even a "terrible tragedy." But intentional or not, Canada's refusal to issue visas to some members of South Africa's ruling party is continuing to haunt relations between the two countries.
Members of the African National Congress, the liberation movement once led by Nelson Mandela, can be subject to Canadian visa restrictions because the ANC was deemed an advocate of violence in the apartheid era. The seemingly outdated Canadian policy is an issue that still rankles the ANC, and it sparked more emotion when Mr. Johnston met ANC leaders in Cape Town on Tuesday.
In a four-day visit this week, Mr. Johnston is trying to patch up relations between Canada and South Africa, which have drifted apart in recent years as the Harper government lost interest in Africa and the South African government shifted its interests more toward Asia.
The tensions are still sometimes visible. South Africa mysteriously cancelled a plan to have Mr. Johnston give a historic speech to a joint session of South Africa's two houses of parliament. The speech had already been published in Mr. Johnston's schedule when it was cancelled just a few days before his arrival.
At a press conference with Mr. Johnston on Tuesday, South African President Jacob Zuma said the Canadian visa policy "needs to be addressed."
Earlier in the day, at a private meeting, another senior ANC official was even more frustrated, telling Mr. Johnston how he had been barred from Canada because he had been a political prisoner in the apartheid era and was considered to have a criminal record.
"It was an unfortunate slip-up that occurred with one of the people at the table today," Mr. Johnston said in an interview after the meeting.
"He had a police record because he was in prison as an anti-apartheid activist. It was just a mistake, it should never have happened, and when it happened we apologized. It was a terrible tragedy and we were very sorry about it."
Mr. Johnston did not identify the ANC official who raised the visa issue, but two prominent ANC members – anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada and former cabinet minister Barbara Hogan – are among those who were affected by the Canadian visa restrictions in the past.
The Canadian government has repeatedly promised to tackle the issue. It has eased the visa restrictions, and no ANC members have been blocked in the past year, a Canadian official said. But the policy is still on the books, angering many ANC members and creating friction in Canada's relations with Africa's most economically important country.
"We understand how they feel," said Deepak Obhrai, parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, in an interview in Cape Town.
The Canadian law is not targeted specifically at South Africa, he said, and Canadian diplomats are "working hard" on a case-by-case basis to ensure that ANC members can get visas if they want to visit Canada.
Despite the visa issue, and despite the absence of any visit to South Africa by a Canadian prime minister or foreign minister in more than a decade, Mr. Zuma said there are "deepening" relations between Canada and South Africa. He urged Mr. Johnston to help promote Canadian investment in South Africa.
Mr. Johnston has talked frequently about Canadian mining companies and other investors in Africa during his 10-day tour of Ghana, Botswana and South Africa. Private investment and foreign aid can reinforce each other, he said, citing a Canadian diamond mining company in Botswana that has helped guarantee loans to local villagers and is also investing in expanding an abattoir to provide long-term jobs in the region.