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Governor General David Johnston Reflects On Africa's Past And Future

06/10/2013 05:30 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston recently made a historic trip to Africa at the request of the Prime Minister. His travel included Ghana, Botswana and South Africa.

In announcing the historic trip of Canada's Governor General, Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted how "Canada has unique relations with all the African countries being visited by the Governor General, including strong commercial and educational ties with Ghana, significant mutual investment with Botswana, and strong education and commercial ties with South Africa."

The Governor General looks back to his historic trip, reflects on the vast opportunity that exists for Canada and Canadians to make an impact in the continent and finally reflects on his visit to a museum dedicated to the history of apartheid and a noted famous (honorary) Canadian citizen, Nelson Mandela.

At the request of the Prime Minister, you undertook an extensive historic state visit to Ghana, Botswana and South Africa. What were some of the highlights and what surprised you most about the continent.

I must say I was very much looking forward to returning to Ghana and South Africa, two countries that I visited some 20 years ago when I was Principal and Vice-Chancellor of McGill University. I was most impressed by both countries' tremendous progress which I think is due to their openness and commitment in establishing good governance and democracy.

It was my first time visiting Botswana. I was enchanted by the beauty of the country and the warmth of its people.

In Ghana, you paid homage to Africa's giant - the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and his late wife. Why was it important to pay tribute to the former President.

Sharon and I paid homage to the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, former president of the Republic of Ghana, who oversaw the nation's independence from British colonial rule on March 6, 1957, and became the first president of the country. It was an honour for both of us to lay wreaths on behalf of the people of Canada on the tombs of this great leader and his wife, Fathia Nkrumah.

In the countries you visited, you highlighted the need to strengthen bilateral relations between Canada and them. What are some of the relations you would like to see strengthened?

I believe we need to focus even more on the globalization of education and innovation through the concept that I call the "Diplomacy of Knowledge." The sharing of ideas and expertise is key to reinforcing existing partnerships and assessing opportunities to create new ones for greater cooperation between Canadians and Africa. The diplomacy of knowledge also requires us to take action across borders.

While such diplomacy operates on many geographic levels -- local, regional and national -- it's particularly potent when we cross international borders and cultivate interactions among teachers, researchers, students and schools in different countries.

In Ghana, you visited BasicNeeds Ghana, where you witnessed how Canadian funds are having an impact. Why do you think such institutions are still great investments for Canada and Canadians?

As a matter of fact, my wife Sharon visited BasicNeeds. She was impressed by the NGO's great outreach program to communities. She witnessed how Canada's support helped improving the lives of so many Africans living with the daily challenges of mental illness.

Botswana is a country where Canadian companies have a powerful role in business and charity. While there, you highlighted how the adult population in the country is 25 % HIV affected. What role do you see for Canada and Canadians in helping lower the HIV epidemic in the country?

Once again my wife visited the Tebelopele HIV Testing and Counselling Centre. She was blown away by the professionalism and the sensitive counselling offered by the youth at the clinic. Her visit allowed her to witness how Canada's support towards HIV clinics can make a difference in eliminating this infectious disease. She also did the HIV test and mentioned to local media how easy, quick and harmless the experience was.

In Botswana, you had a chance to visit a diamond facility owned by Canada's Lucara Diamond Corporation. The company's mission "is to build a leading African-focused diamond production and development company". Why is it important for Canadian companies to be engaged to Africa's long term interest as well as their own?

It is important for Canada and Africa to share their knowledge and expertise. We can learn so much from one another. Throughout my visits to Ghana, Botswana and South Africa, I was accompanied by a Canadian delegation that helped reinforce people-to-people linkages with their counterparts. These encounters play an important role in reinforcing Canada's continued engagement in Africa.

In South Africa, you addressed a university crowd on Canada-South African relations. What were some of the highlights of the speech?

I felt it was important to focus on the diplomacy of Knowledge and the sharing of expertise. I also touched on the great collaboration between our two countries. Canadians and South Africans are partners in new and exciting initiatives in research, education, mining, aerospace, agriculture, food services, transportation and energy. Another example of our collaboration involves a number of South African post-secondary institutions, including the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, Stellenbosch University and the University of Witwatersrand.

You were a noted academia before your appointment as Governor General. What role should Canada play in the establishments of educational opportunities in South Africa?

We need to focus on life-long learning and education in order to achieve innovation. Education is the wheel that leads us to success, the achievements of our goals and the development of new partnerships. Another great example of Canada-South Africa collaboration is our work in establishing and nurturing the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences and the Next Einstein Initiative.

This idea came from physicist Neil Turok, a South African who now heads up the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. The institute he set up with support from the Canadian Government and others in Cape Town is truly innovative. The aim is to help build a critical mass of scientific and technical talent on this continent, and I am delighted to see the idea catching on in other African countries.

You also had a chance to visit the Apartheid Museum. What was the experience like?

I was privileged to have the Curator of the Museum explain key moments in the history of the apartheid and deepened my understanding of South Africa and its people. Leaders such as Nelson Mandela, who is an honorary citizen of our country and an Honorary Companion of the Order of Canada, was central to every stage of South Africa's epic struggle against apartheid.

This is from formulating a new approach in the 1940s and leading the mass struggles of the 1950s to the formation of Umkhonto we Siswe in the early 1960s and his 27-year imprisonment. The wisdom, courage and conviction of this great leader is remarkable and is an inspiration to us all.