India’s relationship with South Africa is both fundamental and unique, dating back several centuries and is anchored in common ideals, ideas, interests, and icons – like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
However, their bilateral relations remained strained for a long time due to South Africa’s apartheid government. Following its independence, India intensified its struggle at multilateral organisations like United Nations (UN), Commonwealth, and Non Aligned Movement (NAM), and was the first country to sever trade relations in 1946, and subsequently imposed political and economic sanctions against it.
After a gap of four decades, India re-established trade and business ties in 1993, after South Africa ended its institutionalised racial segregation. In May 1993, a cultural centre was opened in Johannesburg. In November 1993, diplomatic and consular relations were restored during the visit of then South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha to India. The Indian High Commission in Pretoria was opened in May 1994. In 1996, India opened its Permanent Office of High Commission in Cape Town, which was re-designated as Consulate General of India in 2011.
India and South Africa’s shared common experiences and collective strength have shaped how they both view the world together. As two nations which have shared their struggle to freedom, the responsibility to improve the lives of others is embedded within India and South Africa’s consciousness. After South Africa achieved democracy in 1994, it was the Red Fort Declaration on Strategic Partnership between India and South Africa, signed in March 1997 by then Indian PM Deve Gowda and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, which set the parameters for a rekindled relationship.
The 20th anniversary of signing of the declaration was commemorated by an India-South African cultural extravaganza comprising music and dance performances, and an event organised by High Commission of India, Pretoria on April 9, 2017. This Strategic Partnership between the two countries was again reaffirmed in the Tshwane Declaration (October 2006).
Both these declarations have been instrumental mechanisms that have contributed in the past to both South Africa and India for achieving their respective national objectives.
India is South Africa’s fifth-largest export destination and fourth-largest import origin and is the second-largest trading partner in Asia. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s visit to New Delhi as the Chief Guest on India’s Republic Day in 2019 marked a significant shift in the bilateral relations between the two countries, which converged old solidarities with good economics.
During his visit, President Ramaphosa renewed the Red Fort Declaration with the Three-Year Strategic Programme of Cooperation (2019-2021) which aimed to boost cooperation between the two countries in a time-bound manner.
Since then, trade between India and South Africa has exceeded the $10- billion target set by the leaders of the two countries. This was despite the restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in both countries.
The Indian investment in South Africa has also gone up. Over 150 Indian companies have invested more than $10 billion in South Africa, employing over 20,000 South African nationals. These companies bring critical skills, technology and entrepreneurship and create jobs, income and wealth for both India and South Africa.
The South African Government has invited Indian companies to invest in their 13 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and export to entire Africa, USA and European Union, as South Africa has signed trade agreements with them.
Building on a growing trade and investment portfolio, India now has a strategy with clear guiding principles and areas of focus. The private sector is the key to this strategy, particularly in the areas of skill and capacity-building initiatives, healthcare, agriculture, and the digital revolution.
Moreover, underpinning the seriousness of India’s Africa policy shift, the country has made maritime security a key pillar in most of its engagement with countries like Kenya and South Africa.
Present mega trends in Africa are supportive of India’s trade and investments in the region. Africa’s large working-age population, its growing middle class, and the significant share of services are all ingredients for value adding trade and investment relationships.
Consumer-driven goods related to agribusiness, apparel and clothing, pharmaceuticals, and automotive components are opportunities for India’s foreign direct investment (FDI) where Africa, through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), is putting in place the appropriate rules of origin to assure their optimisation.
Recent Export Credit Agency (ECA) estimates suggest that gains from the AfCFTA will create additional opportunities for adding value to natural resources and diversifying into new business areas.
In fact, a low-hanging fruit that can be exploited by Indian firms is the strengthening of the pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity in Africa. The proposal to waive certain provisions of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), by the leadership of India and South Africa, has been reassuring to developing countries.
Indian diaspora: Beyond Gandhi’s legacy
Around the world, the South African Indian community is associated with Mahatma Gandhi, whose 21 years in the country were formative in his mission to lead India’s freedom struggle. Today, South Africa is home to the largest population of people of Indian descent (1.3 million) on the continent.
It is one of the most developed ethnic communities in South Africa. Although it forms 2.5 per cent of the total population, professionally and educationally they are ahead of other ethnic groups.
“The South African Indian diaspora has changed with history,” says Zainab Priya Dala, a fourthgeneration South African Indian, whose book What Gandhi Didn’t See provides an account of their journey through history.
The majority of them came as indentured labourers under British colonialism. When indenture was abolished, there was apartheid.
Indians played an important role in the anti-apartheid struggle, and a few rose to positions of power after the 1994 elections in South Africa.
After the end of apartheid, it seemed like many Indians, particularly the poor, had begun to support formerly white parties such as the Democratic Alliance and New National Party, as they felt threatened by the policies of the ruling African National Congress. This trend appeared to have been reversed in the 2004 elections, with most historically Indian areas voting for the ANC.
It’s only after Nelson Mandela was elected as President (in 1994) that South African Indians saw themselves as a diaspora that is not part of some horrible subjugation in history.
People of Indian Origin (PIO) contributed significantly to democratisation and human rights in South Africa. Their contributions to South Africa as a political group during apartheid period and now as the most advance educational and professional ethnic group is recognised and appreciated by democratic government of postapartheid South Africa.
The Indian diaspora played a prime and crucial role in bringing South Africa and India closer. Under globalisation, Indo- South Africa relations are growing fast. Since India has also changed its diaspora policy under globalisation, which has become more proactive, South African Indians have potential to contribute significantly in promoting India’s relations with South Africa.
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