Mahatma and Madiba are watching: Are we ready?

The Mahatma and Madiba (Nelson Mandela) both would be concerned about South Africa. Violence and unrest continue to spread across the country even as Covid-19 remains a challenge.

mahatma nelson
Nelson Mandela (left) and Mahatma Gandhi (right). (Photo source: IE)

By Dr Anjani Kumar Singh, 

The Mahatma and Madiba (Nelson Mandela) both would be concerned about South Africa. Violence and unrest continue to spread across the country even as Covid-19 remains a challenge. After President Jacob Zuma’s arrest, the violence that erupted over corruption charges and contempt of court has claimed more than 100 lives. In light of the already beleaguered economy, with the rising unemployment rates and poverty, the violence has taken a life of its own. This may have significant consequences for the country and also India, as it seeks partners on the global stage. The government sources in South Africa have maintained that criminal and antisocial elements have taken over the protests. The disruption in medical work such as vaccination against Covid-19 has been flagged as a concern. The world watches with trepidation.

Traditionally India and South Africa have an affinity based on common colonial experience and a common stand against the Apartheid rule and the quest for shaping a more equitable global order. The presence of a large Indian community which is now an integral part of the socio-economic-political fabric of the country is another bridge linking the two. They are key partners bilaterally with Cyril Ramphosa, the South African President, being the chief guest of the republic day parade in 2019. Both are multi-ethnic, diverse and vibrant democracies. South Africa is a key voice at the African Union (AU) and a key partner in the IAFS process. Their partnership in reforming global institutions such as the UNSC is crucial. Both are also part of new and smaller interest-based multilateral groupings like BRICS and IBSA. They have adopted a common position in the context of the Covid-19 related challenges and economic response at the WTO, including on the issue of intellectual property rights and the need for making medical care and vaccines accessible to billions of people. As the Indian ocean re-emerges as a key vector in India’s grand strategy, partnership in maritime security and blue economy, as also reflected in the SAGAR approach of the government, requires a secure, stable and prosperous South Africa. Perhaps most importantly, the ideas of the Mahatma and the Madiba for the world need reiterating. The leadership of ideas and action is important at this juncture.

Worryingly for India, attacks on the people of Indian origin and businesses have been reported in provinces like KwaZulu Natal and cities like Durban with large Indian diaspora. If the situation continues unabated, many see the prospects of exit of people of Indian origin and capital, as happened in Idi Amin’s Uganda, as real. However, such projections at this moment must be made with caution. Nonetheless, India cannot play a direct role in protecting this diaspora. It has to work through its counterparts in that country to both defend its principle and interests. This explains EAM S. Jaishankar’s call to his South African counterpart, the Consulate General in Durban, in touch with the South African government and outreach to Indian community leaders through diplomatic channels. Much adroitness is required to convey the concerns to a friend and assist it in building capacity to deal with such challenges. India has also witnessed multiple protests, most recently over the differences on the Farm laws even during the pandemic. However, India’s democracy has withstood multiple challenges in more than seven decades, with many valuable lessons for the new democracies in Africa. However, it has also displayed alacrity over external comments on its internal issues. Thus, the need for caution in carrying the message while maintaining the principle of non-interference.

In a year when India is slated to host the BRICS summit, one may recall how the meetings of IBSA, a grouping of India, Brazil and South Africa, suffered due to domestic turmoil in Brazil in the previous decade. Even as the BRICS summit returned to Fortaleza in 2014, IBSA summits have not resumed. While BRICS has more of an economic focus, IBSA has the scope for political issues being discussed more openly given the other members of BRCS, i.e. China and Russia are not exactly democracies. Thus, as India needs more partners globally, it cannot afford South Africa to plunge into uncertainty. India must take an active interest in the country without making it too obvious. It is all the more important as the long-term competition with China in the continent can only be denied by either a die-hard optimist or one closing their eyes to the unfolding pattern. Indian model, as against the Chinese model, has been argued to be more relevant by many, including former EAM Shashi Tharoor. However, these choices may not be as obvious for African countries as they are faced with rising demography, youth bulge, democratisation in societies with traditional ethnic differences exacerbated by the colonial nature of political boundaries.

India and South Africa being part of the G-4, are leading contenders for a permanent seat at the Security Council. Even as the path to reforms remains uncertain. The domestic turmoil continuing for long periods weakens the candidature of these countries. Similarly, India’s challenge has been to work towards a consensus among 54 members of the AU to move closer to two-thirds of votes needed by the UNGA to effect the reforms. The challenges of South Africa, thus, affect this difficult process as well. One may also note the joint position taken by India and South Africa at the WTO most recently in response to the Covid-19 affecting developing and least developed countries. These are the champions of South-South cooperation; they gain by standing together in other multilateral negotiations as well, for instance their coming together, along with China and Brazil, as BASIC in 2009 Copenhagen negotiations. Both democracies are rich in biodiversity and also vulnerable to adverse impacts of climate change. As the meaning of security moves beyond the traditional notions, newer areas like public health, climate change and its impact on food security cannot be ignored. This requires bilateral, regional and global partnerships.

India’s rise as a major power depends upon sustained economic growth, military modernization, and internal cohesion and strength. Its rise is significant for its more than a billion people and for billions across the globe, including the people of South Africa. However, India also has a global responsibility. The time is now. Firstly, subtle messaging and communication at the highest possible political level is important. Second, avenues to share experiences in maintaining internal security in a democracy would go a long way in cementing the ties. After all, China has taken a lead in Africa to sell surveillance equipment, which it uses to monitor and suppress domestic unrest. India can help in this area of capacity building; here training and exposure visits for relevant officials is important. Importantly, South African leadership needs to go back to the message of Nelson Mandela on truth and reconciliation as the basis of justice. India has the responsibility to showcase the example of its power and, more importantly, the power of its example. Only time will tell if we are ready in form and in spirit.

(The author has a Doctorate from School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)


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