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In South Africa, PM Modi looks to stop drift in ties

Narendra Modi arrives in South Africa on Friday for the first official visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 10 years. What a difference a decade makes.

india Updated: Jul 07, 2016 21:36 IST
PM Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a joint press conference with Mozambique President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi (unseen) after signing of agreements at Presidential Office in Maputo, Mozambique on Thursday.(PTI Photo)


Narendra Modi arrives in South Africa on Friday for the first official visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 10 years. What a difference a decade makes.

When Manmohan Singh met with Thabo Mbeki in 2006 India was riding a sustained economic boom, and South Africa was at the peak of post-apartheid GDP growth. The UPA government was in the first flush of achievement, and in South Africa Mbeki’s economic team, heavily influenced by the thinking of Amartya Sen, and indeed of Singh himself, were at the height of their power.

The relationship was also in rude health. The powerful Congress minister Anand Sharma, whose wife, Zenobia, is South African, shuttled back and forth, and substantial investments in telecoms, vehicles, and banking were underway.

It all seemed very natural. The DNA of South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, is coiled together with that of the Indian National Congress, not just in the well-known story of Mahatma Gandhi’s Pietermaritzburg awakening, but in the years of anti-colonial and anti-apartheid resistance that followed.

In this file photo, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shakes hands with former South African President Thabo Mbeki at Resistance Monument in Durban, South Africa on October 01, 2006. (PIB)

Some of India’s brightest diplomats staffed the Pretoria and Johannesburg missions, while South Africans of Indian descent occupied influential positions in the cabinet and bureaucracy. BRICS was still just a bankers acronym, and the talk was of the India-Brazil-South Africa partnership between three regional giants with complementary political philosophies. The big democracies of the emerging world were combining market economics with social uplift, and demanding a stronger voice in the institutions of global governance.

The global financial crisis, a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of the Congress party, and equally fundamental shifts inside the ANC have since intervened and the relationship has drifted into irritation and disappointment on both sides.

Read| 5 days, 4 nations: PM Modi heads to Africa on reach-out mission

Trade has grown, but big deals have gone sour or been torpedoed: Tata has sold its stake in South Africa’s Neotel, Bharti-Airtel was unable to close its planned transaction with MTN following South African government resistance, and First National Bank has not been able to expand its India footprint.

There is still some co-operation in major multilateral forums, but South Africa is seen by Indian diplomats as pandering to China in the jockeying for position within BRICs - particularly over the location of the New Development Bank.

Mbeki, a technocrat and reformer with a clear vision for Africa’s place in the world has been ousted, after a vicious battle within his party, and replaced in 2009 by Jacob Zuma, a post-ideological figure who presides over a growing patronage network. Like the Congress in the late 1960s, the ANC is fracturing, and popular anger over corruption and broken promises of development is fueling near-daily protest.

All of this will be in sharp focus during the visit because an Indian family is at the centre of South Africa’s most intense political crisis since the advent of democracy.

The Gupta brothers, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh rose from humdrum trading origins in Saharanpur to control a media, mining, and IT empire in South Africa. Zuma’s son, Duduzane, works in one of their companies, as did one of his four wives, Bongi Ngema-Zuma. Her private house was financed with the Gupta’s assistance by Bank of Baroda, an extremely unusual arrangement.

The family’s outsize presence in South Africa was first noticed in India when a chartered Jet Airways Airbus carrying guests to a family wedding, including Samajwadi Party leaders Shivpal Singh Yadav and Mohammed Azam Kahn, was illegally given permission to land at a South African airforce base in 2013, igniting instant controversy.

Read| From Saharanpur to South Africa: The rise of Ajay Gupta

As discontent with Zuma has risen, senior South African ANC politicians have complained publicly of the family’s direct influence on the levers of power, including a decisive role in cabinet and other public sector appointments. The opposition Economic Freedom Fighters coined the term “Zupta” to describe“state capture” by the family, and trade union leader Zwelinzima Vavi calls them a “shadow government”.

Modi’s visit will be closely scrutinised in the South African press for signs of the family’s presence in any of the business deals that are expected to be signed. Among their key ambitions is a role in marketing South African weapons in India now that the government’s blacklisting of state-owned Denel has been lifted.

The close relationship between South Africa’s president and one Indian family, however, is not mirrored at the political level. South Africa’s congress party remains in power. When Jacob Zuma praised Jawarhalal Nehru and Indira Gandhi at the India-Africa summit in Delhi last year he was paying ritual homage to their support in the struggle against apartheid, but it struck an awkward note in a BJP-led government that has campaigned against the Nehru-Gandhi legacy.

It also seems unlikely that South Africa’s large Indian community will be quite as excited about the chance to see the PM live as disapora audiences elsewhere have been. South Africans of Indian descent are not NRIs. They tend to identify as South Africans first, and many are uncomfortable with Modi’s tough Hindutva image. The fact that he has chosen to interact with the community in Johannesburg, rather than Durban, which has a much larger Indian population, suggests he may opting for something more low-key than his usual stadium-filling show.

Amid all these stark differences, one thing remains unchanged: an Indian Prime Minister visiting South Africa must make a visit to Pietermaritzburg railway station, where Gandhi was forcibly ejected from the whites only carriage of a train in 1893, and to the Phoenix settlement where he later lived, wrote and organised.

What are we to make then, of a relationship with such deep history, and so much apparent promise, that seems to have run into such choppy waters?

Perhaps only this: Shared history is a start, but it is no substitute for a clear-eyed, carefully managed policy based on the balance of interests between a big developing economy in Asia and a medium-sized one in Africa, and it must transcend the party political connections that are at the heart of that history.

Unfortunately a compromised Jacob Zuma, and a South African establishment with little understanding of the new dynamics on Raisina Hill may struggle to get there.

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