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PM's visit reaffirms ties with South Africa

Singh will acknowledge the importance of the Gandhian philosophy in the violence-ridden world when he takes on the dias with Prez Meki.

india Updated: Sep 30, 2006 13:35 IST

When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh takes to the dais with President Thabo Mbeki at the Kingsmead Stadium here on Sunday to mark the centenary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha campaign, it will be a reaffirmation of the strong relations between the two countries.

But the leaders will probably also acknowledge the importance of the Gandhian philosophy in the violence-ridden world of today.

Trade is at an all-time high since bilateral relations were resumed a decade ago after India withdrew its high commissioner four decades earlier to lead at the UN the fight against apartheid.

Reciprocal ministerial visits are regular undertakings. Indian nationals have firmly entrenched themselves in South Africa in various fields.

And India ranks now among the top countries for tourism to South Africa.

"In 2002, when I arrived here, trade between India and South Africa was around 9 billion rand ($1.1 billion). This year we are standing at around 14 billion rand ($1.8 billion)," Indian consul-general Suresh Goel told the agency on the eve of his departure last month.

"More importantly, the way Indian and South African companies have become partners, the way Tata's operations have grown here, the way United Breweries has grown here and South African Breweries has taken off in India, the way financial institutions such as Sanlam and Old Mutual have taken to India, the way ABSA Bank has gone into India to look at projects over there, that is satisfying."

Goel said what was also important was that it was not just about trade and profits. There was a lot of transfer of skills and technology between the two countries as well.

The Gandhian Centenary celebrations, which have seen a spate of activities in South Africa over the past month, have provided a catalyst for further highlighting the special bond between the two countries that started when Mahatma Gandhi landed in Durban and headed for Pretoria to fight a court battle for a businessman against his own cousin.

What should have been a quick, short visit before he returned to his home country ended with Gandhi staying longer than he had planned to, even getting his family here as he got embroiled in the fight against oppressive laws enacted by the British and the Boers in the various provinces of the time.

It was in Johannesburg that his Passive Resistance campaign was born as he led the struggle against laws that would have required Asiatics to carry a pass.

The same city, in which the city centre where Gandhi had his law offices has been renamed Gandhi Square with a statue, is also the focal point of a number of activities to commemorate the occasion.

The activities aptly started off Sep 11, the day on which Gandhi 100 years earlier addressed an audience at the old Empire Theatre in Johannesburg, with a special screening of the film "The Making of A Mahatma".

On the academic front, scholars from Paris, Melbourne, New Delhi, London, Warwickshire and Durban gave public lectures in a three-day session last week at Wits University and Constitution Hill, built on the site of the Old Fort, where Gandhi was once imprisoned.

Constitution Hill will also be the venue of a special exhibition during October.

In Durban, Gandhi's granddaughter Ela Gandhi organised an event that continued a tradition of honouring local humanitarians.

But while all these diverse activities highlight Gandhi's stay in South Africa, Tolstoy Farm, the commune outside Lenasia near here that was home to the Mahatma and his companions at the turn of the 19th century lies derelict, with desperate attempts to restore its status all but dormant.

Occasional efforts by the Mahatma Gandhi Remembrance Committee, which will also host a prayer there Oct 2 in conjunction with the Gayatri Pariwar of South Africa, are few and far between, with community resources strained and prioritized to other work.

Community leaders have called for the possible intervention of the Indian government and major donors to help the Gandhi Centenary Council and related bodies to revive Tolstoy Farm as an educational and community centre.

When the leaders of India and South Africa, who have also sparked off the new tripartite alliance with Brazil, speak in Durban, they will no doubt reflect on the tremendous impact that Gandhi made on both their countries.

They will no doubt also reflect on the success of the growing cooperation between the two countries in fields as diverse as education, telemedicine, IT and others that will improve the lives of their citizens, as was Gandhi's objectives.

But the one area that they will probably dwell on is also the recognition by academics and politicians that the Gandhian philosophy born 100 years ago is as relevant today as ever.

As Indian High Commissioner to South Africa Satyabrata Pal remarked at the screening of the film Sep 11: "The satyagraha principles remain very valid today."

"Today, by an extraordinary coincidence, we have two anniversaries, separated by 95 years," Pal said.

"The (one in New York - 9/11) represents everything that is evil about man, who thought even a hundred years ago that unless they mastered the technology of violence, it would be impossible to overthrow a power that oppressed, but the Mahatma said: 'No, that is not the way to go.'"