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PM 'feels' Mahatma's presence in South Africa

Manmohan Singh began a three-day visit to South Africa by paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at a railway station in Pietermaritzburg.

india Updated: Oct 02, 2006 15:04 IST

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began a three-day visit to South Africa on Saturday by paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at a railway station here where the latter's humiliating ouster from a train in 1893 inspired the launch of the historic satyagraha campaign.

Manmohan Singh's visit to the Pietermaritzburg Station was his first engagement upon arrival at Durban from New Delhi earlier in the day.

He paid a moving tribute to Gandhi, whose political graduation in South Africa eventually led him to take charge of the Indian freedom struggle.

"I am moved by the experience of being here. I shall bear this memory forever," said Manmohan Singh, the first Indian prime minister to visit South Africa since IK Gujral in 1997.

"Pietermaritzburg is a place in South Africa that almost all Indians know about. It is hard to put my feelings into words as I stand here. It is easy to feel the presence of the Mahatma here and to imagine what he went through during that night of June 7, 1893," he added.

"It was the experience of MK Gandhi, barrister-at-law here, that changed him forever and started his extraordinary transformation from a lawyer into the Mahatma," said the prime minister, reading from a prepared speech.

"This is, therefore, a place of worthy of inscription as a world heritage site. The vision that came to the Mahatma here is part of a legacy that belongs not only to South Africa and India but to the entire world," he said.

During his visit, the prime minister will participate in the 100th anniversary celebrations of Gandhi's historic satyagraha movement and discuss bilateral issues, including major UN reforms and the India-South Africa Strategic Partnership, with President Thabo Mbeki.

On arrival at Durban earlier, Foreign Minister Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma greeted Manmohan Singh. Sbu Ndebele, premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, and Durban Mayor Obed Mlaba were also present along with India's Minister of State for External Affairs Anand Sharma.

In a statement in New Delhi before his departure, Manmohan Singh said they would exchange views on international issues as "our two countries share a common vision of a cooperative, rule-based multi-polar world order".

"I think South Africa and India have a major role to play in carrying forward the agenda for reforms at the UN, including the expansion of permanent membership of the UN Security Council, so that the interests of the developing world are better reflected and realised," he said.

India has teamed up with Brazil, Germany and Japan to seek inclusion as permanent members on the UN Security Council.

Manmohan Singh's remarks indicate New Delhi may be trying to rope in South Africa as well in the efforts.

He said he would also meet Nelson Mandela, "whose life and work bear Gandhiji's deep influence".

"I hope to discuss with Mbeki measures that both countries can take to further deepen our partnership. I will also visit the Umbilo Park Memorial where several years later brave South Africans opposed the injustice of the apartheid regime."

The statement went on: "South Africa is India's biggest trading partner in the African continent. Many Indian companies are expanding their business presence there. Similarly, I think that there is much that South Africa can offer India.

I hope we will be able to identify steps to enhance our current commercial and economic relationship."

Manmohan Singh will also go to the Phoenix settlement near Durban where the Mahatma started an agricultural commune.

The Phoenix settlement near Durban was inspired in 1904 by John Ruskin's "Unto This Last" and extolled the virtues of the simple life of love, labour and the dignity of human beings.

Exhibitions on Gandhi and pictorial representations of his life story in Durban and Pretoria form part of the prime minister's itinerary.

Manmohan Singh and Mbeki, who met in Brasilia in September for the first summit of IBSA grouping that also comprises Brazil, are expected to finalise a clutch of agreements in the fields of railways, education and cooperation in science and technology.

A preferential trade agreement with South African Customs Union and agreements for bilateral investment protection and cooperation in agriculture and sports are also under consideration.

The leaders of the two countries will address a joint press conference before Manmohan Singh flies back Tuesday.

Meeting representatives of the Indian community - who constitute over one million of the 45.3 million people of the country - and South African business leaders form an important component of the visit.