India and South Africa this year celebrated the birth of Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘Satyagraha’ movement 125 years ago in this nation which became a force for India’s independence, even as New Delhi took determined steps to expand its economic and development footprint across resource-rich Africa.
In June, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was the special guest at the railway station in Pietermaritzburg city where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as a young lawyer was unceremoniously thrown off a train compartment reserved for white people, sparking his path of ‘Satyagraha’, which would see him lead both South Africa and India to oppose colonial rule.
A unique bust of Gandhi was unveiled at the station – with one side featuring him in Western attire he wore when he came to South Africa, while the other side depicts him in Indian dress in which he left South Africa after 21 years, returning to eventually lead India to freedom.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also visited South Africa in July where he attended the BRICS summit and held bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and other leaders.
Representing over 40 per cent of the world’s population, the BRICS countries’ growth rates surpass those of developed nations of the G-7.
The handprints of Prime Minister Modi were also embedded for posterity at the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ site in South Africa, alongside those of leaders of the other four BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa at the BRICS Summit.
The plaques of the leaders’ handprints were then installed next to one containing the handprints of late South African president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela at the site where some of the oldest remains of early man are on public display.
Earlier, Modi also travelled to Rwanda, becoming the first Indian premier to visit the East African nation as India extended a USD 200 million line of credit to the country. He then visited Uganda – the first bilateral tour there by an Indian prime minister since 1997 – where he held wide-ranging talks with President Yoweri Museveni and also addressed the country’s Parliament.
India extended two lines of credit worth nearly USD 200 million to Uganda in energy infrastructure, agriculture and dairy sectors.
As a precursor to the BRICS Summit, the Indian High Commission hosted the India-South Africa Business Summit in April, with participation from delegations across Africa.
“We feel that there is a huge potential that exists between these two regions,” said Suresh Prabhu, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Civil Aviation, as he shared a platform with his counterparts from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Mozambique.
Prabhu said India’s commitment to trade relations with Africa is very strong and it is trying to determine how the credit extended for project financing in some of these countries can be further improved, which will further benefit the countries where these projects are going to be implemented.
South Africa was also rocked by the resignation of President Jacob Zuma after a long legal battle over several corruption and fraud charges.
Zuma was also implicated in reports of ‘state capture’ over his links with the influential Indian-origin Gupta family.
Facing a motion of no confidence in Parliament, Zuma resigned on February 14 and was succeeded by Ramaphosa as president.
While economic relations between India and South Africa were boosted by a series of sector-specific events, they were dampened slightly by the departure of one of India’s leading public sector banks, the Bank of Baroda, after it decided to close down operations in South Africa.
The Bank said the closure was in line with a revision of its global strategy, but the local branch came under pressure for being the only bank that had been working with companies of the controversial Gupta brothers after all South African banks had severed ties with them following allegations of links of business barons Ajay, Atul and Rajesh Gupta with cases of state capture and graft involving billions of rands which was among a host of reasons that led to Zuma’s downfall.
South Africa also marked the 125th anniversary of the historic address in Chicago by Swami Vivekananda.
The Indian Cultural Centres, run by the Indian missions in both Johannesburg and Durban, were renamed in Vivekananda’s honour, and local followers of his teachings from the Ramakrishna Centre of South Africa organised a symposium.
In Pretoria, the Indian government’s partnership with one of South Africa’s largest institutions for technical training, the Tshwane South Technical and Vocational Education and Training Centre, saw the official launch of the Gandhi-Mandela Centre of Specialisation for Artisan Skills in August by South African Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor and Indian High Commissioner Ruchira Kamboj.
“This is an extremely exciting birthday gift for these two great leaders,” Pandor said as she commented on the project, which jointly marks the upcoming 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019 and the centenary of Mandela’s birth in 2018.
Expanding India’s outreach across Africa, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu in November visited Botswana, Zimbabwe and Malawi, describing his trip as “extremely productive” for taking India-Africa relations to the next level by reinforcing existing ties and forging cooperation in new areas.