OTTAWA - African countries are having a hard time understanding why the Harper government's foreign policy shifted away from their continent, says one of South Africa's leading politicians.

"I think that on the African continent, people are asking about the Latin American focus versus the African focus," Trevor Manuel, the minister in charge of South Africa's presidential planning commission, told The Canadian Press on Thursday.

"I think there's been a tradition of much stronger support. I don't know that the shift to Latin America is fully understood."

Manuel was commenting on the decision by the Conservative government to target more of its overseas development spending to Latin American countries rather than African ones. The Harper government maintains it is not ignoring Africa, but some critics dispute that.

Analysts have said that Canada alienated the 53 countries in the African bloc, contributing to its historic failure to win a temporary seat to the United Nations Security Council in October. With just 77 countries voting for it in a secret ballot, Canada fell far short of the minimum 128 needed to win a temporary two-year seat on the UN's most powerful body.

South Africa won its second UN Security Council term in four years in the October ballot.

"There are a number of difficulties in the ways in which decisions are taken. In the UN, one country, one vote means that blocs develop very, very quickly," Manuel said.

"I don't think that the world is very well served by these kinds of blocs. Wherever you have that, you have this difficulty."

Manuel is one of South Africa's leading political figures, having served as his country's finance minister for 13 years until last year. An anti-apartheid activist, he spent nearly three years in detention before working alongside Nelson Mandela to rebuild his country in the 1990s.

Manuel was paying a brief visit to Ottawa to give a speech in honour of the 40th anniversary of Canada's International Development Research Centre.

The Crown corporation funds research in developing countries and was once banned by South Africa's racist apartheid regime.

When Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, the IDRC was instrumental in helping educate a new generation of South African politicians that would guide the country out of the post-apartheid era.

Many South African cabinet ministers, as well as at least one central bank governor, and several top business leaders are beneficiaries of IDRC programs.

Manuel fondly recalled the support of Canada in the late 1980s and the staunch anti-apartheid policy of the former Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"There were critical moments," Manuel explained.

"Mulroney comes and he maintains a consistent approach in relation to apartheid in South Africa. It was fundamentally important. I think the chemistry between him and Madiba was strong, from the get-go."

Madiba, derived from the name of Mandela's clan, has become a nickname imbued with reverence and affection for South Africa's first post-apartheid president.

Manuel said Canada's support of South Africa crossed party lines. Along with Mulroney, Liberal prime ministers from Pierre Trudeau to Jean Chretien and Paul Martin were steadfast supporters of his country's struggles.

But Manuel said that appears to have changed with Canada's current government.

"I'm saying I've kind of watched this without being in foreign relations directly -- through Mulroney, Chretien and Martin and now this. And I think there's a kind of pull back. Perhaps there's a discontinuity of issues in Canadian politics."

Last year, the Conservative government announced it would steer the majority of its aid to 20 countries from the 25 of the previous Liberal government. In doing so, it reduced the number of African countries to seven from 14.

Richer Latin American countries such as Peru and Colombia, with which Canada has pursued free-trade deals, were added to the list as part of the government's stated foreign policy goal to re-engage with its Western Hemisphere neighbours.

The Harper government also followed through on Liberal promise to double aid to Africa to $2.1 billion by 2009.

But in the most recent budget, the government has decided to freeze foreign aid at $5 billion until 2015 in order to cut the deficit. That means Canada spends about 0.33 per cent of its GDP on foreign aid.

Manuel recalled how in 1969 former Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson set what is now the UN's foreign aid benchmark of 0.7 per cent of GDP.

Manuel said Canada's aid freeze is "not helpful" but noted that only a handful of countries reached the 0.7 per cent target.