Little over a week before the World Cup carnival set off in Johannesburg, South African President Jacob Zuma undertook his first state visit to India. President Zuma, much like his predecessors Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, has been an active traveller in the first year of his assuming office. It was only fitting that India became his last destination before the World Cup.
South Africa, for Indians, has always been a special country. It was the place where Gandhi received his political education and tested all his weapons of non-violence before employing them in the Indian freedom struggle. South Africa also has a very influential Indian community, in fact - the largest outside India.
Even before India got independence, Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government raised the issue of discrimination against Indians in South Africa at the United Nations and for the next four and a half decades, India’s was the loudest voice against the heinous system of Apartheid at all World forums. The African National Congress has, since the 1960s - when it was only a liberation movement - continued to maintain a representative in New Delhi. Relations between the two countries are very warm.
The African National Congress and the Indian National Congress have also traditionally shared a close relationship, and both show many parallels in terms of their own evolution, ideologies, methods and eclectic membership both during their pre- as well as post-liberation phases. It is not without reason that Nelson Mandela is often equated with Gandhi in India.
In a way, in the post Cold war era as India’s foreign policy eschewed its normative bias in favour of more pragmatic shores; South Africa has taken up the mantle of being the normative voice of the developing world, especially Africa. Nelson Mandela, in his Presidential term, was the conscience keeper of the world much like Nehru in his hey days. Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki was an intellectually powerful statesman who, almost fanatically, worked to bring Africa onto the world centre-stage. This, however, contributed to his undoing, and ultimate ouster from power in 2008, as his policies on AIDS and Zimbabwe were almost universally condemned.
Nevertheless, President Zuma has inherited a South Africa which usually ‘punches way above its weight’ on world forums and is generally respected as a ‘good global citizen’. It has often positioned itself as the mediator between the North and the South, and has employed innovative diplomatic skills to extract healthy bargains from both sides a number of times.
India and South Africa are also joint stock holders in the new emerging dynamics of the world system. IBSA, originally formed in 2003, has become an important platform for these two along with Brazil to come up and explore all avenues of fruitful partnership. However, one also has to be conscious of burdening this nascent forum with inflated rhetoric of third world leadership and bringing change in the world. Exclusion of South Africa from BRIC, meanwhile, also makes less and less sense since it is not only a very prominent emerging power but also the most promising one from Africa.
Very interestingly, and also in a complete contrast with how India is perceived by its neighbours, South Africa is considered a benign hegemon in southern Africa, and also the larger African continent. It has to a great part avoided employing hard power tactics in the region and encouraged consensual decision making, sometimes even to its own great disadvantage. What better example could one gather than the ongoing tussle for a seat in the UN Security Council?
Nigeria and Egypt have openly advocated their own candidature based on their historical greatness and sidetracked South Africa as just a new kid on the block. South Africa, in contrast, has campaigned rather discreetly; often not being ready to push the limits and damage its image. In fact, it has gone the other way and campaigned not for itself, but for Africa on all international forums. It has fathered initiatives like Nepad (New Partnership for Africa’s Development) with dreams of African Renaissance, and has been extremely willing to share its own resources – political, economic, military and diplomatic – with the rest of the continent. It has sold its own international mega-events, such as its failed bid for Cape Town Olympics in 2004 and the 2010 Soccer World Cup as African, not merely South African, events. As one political commentator has argued, it follows a peculiar strategy of ‘leading from the back’.
Another interesting aspect, sometimes overlooked, and also of great learning to India, is how South Africa has made use of these international events for nation building. In a short span of 16 years, it has conducted three grand sporting events - Rugby, Cricket and now Soccer World Cups. All three of them are traditionally identified with the three racial categories. Rugby is traditionally an Afrikaans game, cricket an English sport and Football is played predominantly by the blacks. In 1995, when Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa, the sport for black South Africans was an apartheid legacy. For Afrikaans, it was central to their identity. It was also the period when Mandela’s Rainbow Nation had just been born.
Despite Mandela’s great act of forgiveness, the whites feared for their identity and the blacks resented the past atrocities. The society was fragile and a great bloodbath looked imminent to many. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man`. When Mandela famously rejoiced, danced and lifted the Cup after South Africa won, many whites for the first time stated with tears in their eyes ‘this is my president!’ Even for the black majority, the game of rugby was transformed overnight into a spectre of national reconciliation, and who else could play this game better than Nelson Mandela.
Disconcertingly, sixteen years after Apartheid ended, reconciliation seems to be a fading chimera for many, as socio-economic incentives have not percolated down to the black populace. Black empowerment has benefited only a miniscule black elite, and they along with whites still control most resources. This has resulted in a growing dissent in the black majority which is threatening to expose the delicate stitch-work that ‘Rainbow Nation’ and ‘Reconciliation’ had attempted. Recently, an Afrikaans conservative leader Terre Blanche was killed in his farm, which, some associated with the violent language contained in the black apartheid revolutionary song ‘Kill the Boer’ that had recently become popular until it was banned by a High Court.
Against this gloomy background, World Cup 2010 has generated the right energies and is acting as a great unifying force for the nation. Furthermore, the event is being sold as ‘African Games’ with an eye clearly on increasingly the South African weight on the continent and also subtly projecting itself as a leader of the continent. India has lessons to take for its own Commonwealth Games, which up till now don’t seem to have generated much national pride, leave alone a ‘South Asian’ pride which no one has even thought of.
(Vineet Thakur is a PhD student in International Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is working on South African foreign policy for his doctoral thesis and was a visiting research intern at South African Institute for International Affairs, Johannesburg.)