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Towards a 'strategic partnership'

Print edition : Oct 18, 1997 T+T-

Linked by history, Mahatma Gandhi, a million-strong Indian-origin community and growing political, economic and cultural ties, and discovering a commonality of strengths and problems, India and South Africa strive to contemporise a relationship now defined as a "strategic partnership".

TO those opposed to such larger-stage political strivings, Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral's strong reiteration, on South African soil and within the chamber of the South African Parliament, of a "strategic partnership" between two regionally pre-eminent countries reaching out to a more ambitious international role has an element of the pious as well as the wishful. For one thing, the idea - which has been long discussed by Indian strategic affairs specialists and espoused recently by the two governments, notably by the emerging top South African leader, 55-year-old Thabo Mbeki - is unlikely to find support in most Western capitals or in certain developing country quarters or in white racist holdouts within South African politics. But what Gujral's visit brought to the fore was not merely the Indian keenness to strengthen ties with the new - democratic and multiracial - South Africa but the warmth of the reciprocation by the top leaders of the African National Congress, notably President Nelson Mandela and his more or less designated successor to head both the ANC and the state and government, Deputy President Mbeki.

To go by the Joint Press Statement issued at the end of the visit, the developing India-South Africa relationship ranges over the political, developmental, economic, commercial, defence and cultural fields. It will have the following elements: strengthened mechanisms of bilateral cooperation and consultation; the business of implementing two new agreements, one on cooperation in geology and mineral resources and the other in the field of tourism, and a programme for cooperation in the field of science and technology (including frontier sciences such as biotechnology, micro-electronics, information sciences and renewable energy resources); increased two-way trade which is expected to reach a level of $ 2 billion by the year 2000; opportunities for investment in each country; defence cooperation in the sense of South Africa being able to offer some useful military hardware and equipment, including extended range ammunition for the 155mm Bofors howitzer, and committing itself not to sell arms or lethal technology to any of India's neighbours, and India offering more training slots to South Africans in various defence installations; and working in close cooperation in international and regional forums, including the Non-Aligned Movement and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, and vis-a-vis challenging issues such as nuclear disarmament and United Nations reform.

Take the ANC away and nothing is left of the strategic partnership. This becomes clear from informal discussions with the Indian Prime Minister, senior Indian officials specialising in the area, and ANC representatives. India's long-standing South Africa policy has been one of partisanship: solidarity with the liberation struggle led by the ANC, which is made up of ideologically and politically diverse streams ranging from members of the South African Communist Party (SACP) to conservatives and 'pragmatists'. The Deputy Minister who gave the vote of thanks in Parliament said, to notable applause from the floor, that he hoped he was not disclosing any state secret by expressing appreciation to India for providing the liberation struggle with arms (and, by implication, other material assistance, including financial).

Gujral's four-day visit to South Africa was the more striking for having zero political contact with the elements of the former apartheid system, notably National Party leaders, and no direct contact with once-reviled business groups such as de Beers. Gujral is, of course, the first Indian Prime Minister to visit South Africa; it could not have been otherwise given the political history of South Africa and the consistently pro-liberation character of India's policy.

THE pre-history of India's South Africa policy can be said to go back to the barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's "political birth" in this country more than a century ago. Gujral quite appropriately thanked the people of South Africa for giving India the Mahatma, the political and moral leader, the organic link between two great freedom struggles. On June 7, 1893, only a week after he arrived in Durban, the 'coolie barrister' boarded the first class compartment of a train to Pretoria and at Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal, was thrown, bag and baggage, on to the platform after a white passenger objected to his 'coloured' presence (notwithstanding the fact that he had with him a valid first class ticket). Gandhi spent the night in the waiting room, shivering through the bitter winter cold and working out the path to take: "Should I fight for my rights or go back to India, or should I go on to Pretoria without minding the insults, and return to India after finishing the case?"

The decision he made was of epochal significance. The barrister who had come for 12 months decided to stay and fight; he actually stayed 21 years. Here he developed the tools and weapons of non-violence and satyagraha and showed that non-European, non-white people could be mobilised against racism and imperialism.

Pietermaritzburg was the birth of Gandhi's public persona, the experience he considered "the most creative" of his life. It was an event that was honoured on April 25, 1997 by the posthumous conferment of the freedom of the city on the Mahatma by President Mandela. Prime Minister Gujral's visit of October 9 to the ex-colonial railway station was an event marked by great feeling. There were many other emotional resonances struck with the South African Gandhi during this visit: the Indian Prime Minister visited Johannesburg Fort, a notorious prison which over the years held both the Mahatma and Mandela, the Tolstoy Farm on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and the Phoenix Settlement in the vicinity of Durban (the last two 'heritage sites' in quite a sorry state).

But it was in the inspired hands of Jawaharlal Nehru, preparing to head the government of independent India, that the South Africa policy recognisable today took shape. In 1946, India became the first country to sever trade relations with white racist South Africa. The policy was expressed in V.K. Krishna Menon's magnificent work in the United Nations of mobilising, in the face of obstacles, international opinion against the apartheid regime. The inextricable link, emphasised by Nehru and other progressive leaders, between India independent and South Africa's protracted liberation struggle waged against the hated white regime and its international allies and apologists is the base on which the present 'strategic relationship' is sought to be built. It is an open secret in South Africa that right up to very recent times, India has extended significant material assistance to the country's liberation forces.

GUJRAL, during this visit, repeatedly referred to President Mandela as "the tallest person in the world today" and Mandela , approaching the end of his brief term as the ANC's and the country's chief, did the Indian visitor proud. His interactions with India over the past seven years have been impressive and substantive. Citizen Mandela visited India in 1990 to huge popular acclaim soon after the release from his 27-year incarceration, and was conferred the Bharat Ratna; President Mandela visited the country in January 1995 and again in March 1997. While the first visit was truly inspiring, the second and third were also very productive for bilateral ties: they produced a treaty on the principles of inter-state relations, an agreement on the establishment of a Joint Commission, an agreement on Foreign Office Consultation and, perhaps most significantly, the Red Fort Declaration of March 28, 1997, which outlined the vision of a unique and special relationship between South Africa and India underpinned by the mutuality of interests and perceptions.

But it was Deputy President Mbeki, leading a large delegation to India in December 1996, who first officially endorsed the idea of a "strategic partnership" between the two countries. In a keynote speech made at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, he declared:

Our common hope of success will depend on our ability to act together. We are reassured that we can count on India as our strategic partner in this historic endeavour, which seeks to give birth to a new world of a just and lasting world peace, of prosperity for all peoples and equality among nations.

In terms of the future of the relationship, it is surely significant that Mbeki met Gujral for a detailed and businesslike discussion of the task of strengthening the relationship, and also seconded a trusted lieutenant in his office, Deputy Minister Essop Pahad, a Central Committee member of the SACP, to accompany the Indian Prime Minister on a leg of his visit. The Indian Prime Minister also had a useful exchange of views with other members of Mandela's Cabinet, in particular the Ministers handling the portfolios of Foreign Affairs, Defence, Home and Finance. India would do well to keep in close touch with the younger generation of the ANC's leadership which is in place to take over the reins from Mandela.

For this correspondent accompanying Prime Minister Gujral as part of the media team, there were three highlights to a well-conceived and very worthwhile visit. The first was the meeting and interactions with Mandela followed by Gujral's warmly received address to the two houses of the South African Parliament. The second was the visit to some of the heritage sites of the South African liberation struggle, above all to Robben Island where Mandela and the other convicted Rivonia trialists spent 18 horrific, awesome and eventually elevating and transforming years, and Gujral (and a few of us who accompanied him by hiring a helicopter) was given a once-in-a-lifetime briefing by one of Mandela's closest comrades, Ahmed Kathrada, an ex-SACP leader who is today a laidback ANC Member of Parliament and the President's eyes and ears. The third was the emotion-laden conclusion to the visit: the 'pilgrimage' (Gujral's term) to Pietermaritzburg with which the political Gandhi is inalienably linked.

The atmospherics aside, President Mandela, who has weak knees and damaged eyes - the first from a fall and the second from years of working in the lime quarry at Robben Island, courtesy the apartheid regime towards which he is, remarkably and Gandhi-like, unrevengeful - gave a clear-sighted answer to a question on what the "strategic partnership" between India and South Africa meant to him: it was essentially something based on "long-established relations", able to identify common ground on the gamut of international issues and speaking, if not in one voice, then in very similar voices in world bodies, forums and theatres where the real political challenge lies.

Gujral's address to the South African Parliament was, in turn, clear-eyed and well-crafted (although in portions stumblingly delivered). It made the following points:

The past, and quite outstandingly, the 21 years Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi spent in South Africa, "unite the histories of our two countries". In fact, Gandhi, who was born in Porbander, was "politically" born in South Africa, which had earned India's "lasting gratitude" for "giving us the visionary giant who led India to freedom."

Secondly, the Indian freedom struggle became an inspiration to liberation struggles in the whole of Asia and Africa, and in turn "the painful struggle of your people made us in India realise that as long as the people of South Africa remained in bondage, our own freedom remained incomplete." The values which gave life to the Indian freedom struggle "found fulfilment only on February 11, 1990" when Mandela stepped out a free man and in that first step, "mankind learned that freedom is always earned, never conferred."

Thirdly, India and South Africa, "united by a shared past and by the frontiers of a common ocean", were also united by values parading their societies which are "multi-racial, multi-ethnic and muli-lingual" and by their current polities which are committed to pluralistic and tolerant democracy, "freedom of choice" and secularism.

Fourthly, the countries shared essentially the same challenge: how to realise social, economic and political justice.

Fifthly, there was a need to contemporise a relationship based on "our deep and abiding commonalities", shared interests, experiences and perceptions, and work out a "blueprint for the future". The various aspects of the bilateral relationship need to be strengthened and expanded, with the long view kept in mind and with concrete targets set and worked for in very practical ways.

Sixthly, the geo-strategic locations and regional pre-eminence of India and South Africa suggested promising opportunities but also policies of good neighbourliness: using "our size as an instrument" for shaping a trend of cooperation in the neighbourhood and in favour of regional peace and stability. (The 'Gujral doctrine' was set in this context.)

Seventhly, both countries needed to play an assertive role in strengthening the ties among the littoral communities of the Indian Ocean. India saw South Africa as a "bridgehead into the markets of Southern Africa" and "we hope we can play the same role for your country as a springboard into South Asia and beyond."

Finally, there was "the imperative need for greater interaction between our two countries in such world forums, and on such international issues, that have the power to mould our common destiny and aspirations in the decades ahead." One such challenge was to revitalise and reinvigorate the Non-Aligned Movement, whose chairpersonship South Africa will assume in 1998. Another was to make progress in the field of nuclear disarmament while opposing the unequal global nuclear bargain: "we believe that the nuclear nations of the world cannot be permitted to eternalise their monopoly while demanding a different behaviour from the others." Yet another challenge was presented by "the vital question of the reform" of the United Nations: "it is imperative that this unique institution strengthens its democratic credentials and provides greater and due representation to the aspirations of developing countries," and India and South Africa need to work together to ensure that "the democratisation of the United Nations, and in particular the Security Council, is fair and equitable, and on the basis of global, non-discriminatory and objective criteria." Both countries incidentally are more or less declared candidates for permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.

One caveat needs to be entered about how Prime Minister Gujral responded, during this visit, to the challenge of inequality, exploitation, mass poverty and socio-economic injustice which dominate the experience of South Africa as much as India. The governments of both countries seem ambivalent about so much as recognising the centrality of these problems: they are there for everyone to see, discuss and analyse but official economic policies, in the propagandistic mode, either downplay them and deny their centrality or seek to sideline them in socially damaging pursuit of liberalisation and 'reform'. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), adopted by the ANC in 1994, seems to have receded in the list of priorities of the ANC-led government of South Africa. Unemployment and its social effects among blacks and Indians in "new South Africa" are at appalling levels and a drive from Durban to Gandhiji's Phoenix reveals slums, and a level of mass destitution, that seem comparable to what is found in Indian metros (even though South Africa's annual income per capita is better than ten times India's $304). In both Uganda where he stopped on the first leg of this visit, and South Africa, Prime Minister Gujral put out two divergent and conflicting messages: in a larger political context, he highlighted mass poverty, destitution and a denial of socio-economic justice as a central challenge before India, while in a typical business lunch, as in Johannesburg on October 6, he claimed (against facts that are there for Citizen Mandela and everyone else to see) that "poverty has been forced into retreat as, in these fifty years, India has progressed from a largely rural and agricultural economy to an industrialised forward-looking economy, confident of facing the challenges of the 21st century."

This inconsistency in the analysis of the same problem before two audiences illustrates the disjunction between domestic and foreign policy that is a notable feature of the United Front experience. Only this time, the contradictions of domestic policy seem to have encroached on the sphere of foreign policy.