Address by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ms Sue van der Merwe, on the occasion of the launch of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand, Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Minister of State for India, Mr Anand Sharma
Vice Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Nongxa
Your Excellencies High Commissioner Bhatia
Acting Director of the Centre, Professor Gelb
Distinguished Guests

It is indeed a great honour for me to participate in the launch of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa here at the University of the Witwatersrand, at one of South Africa’s foremost tertiary Institutions.  It is indeed a great privilege for South Africa and for Wits to host this first Centre for studies between the African Continent and India. This initiative will surely serve as a catalyst to give expression to the “special relationship” between India and South Africa referred to by President Mandela.
Sometimes we forget how far back Africa’s relationship with India goes. Here in South Africa, we remember the Indian women sold into slavery in the Cape in the 1600’s, we remember the indentures Indian workers who helped build the great sugar industry in Kwa-Zulu Natal; we remember the profound impact that Mahatma Gandhi made on South Africa.  All these Indian men and women and their descendents have made their mark on our society, made our country what it is today, rich and diverse.

But India’s relationship with Africa goes back long before the first Europeans found the passage to India around the Cape. The relationship goes back many centuries to the time when trade flourished between Asia and Africa.  It was a time when great dynasties in countries bordering the India Ocean grew and were prosperous.  The worlds of the people living on the shores of the Indian Ocean were linked through the buying and selling of goods, and the connection was the great warm ocean that gave life to these countries and their people.  Their lives were governed by the monsoons, the winds which drove the ships first in one direction, from India to Africa, with traders carrying spices and silks; and then back again to India, carrying gold from Africa.  In his compelling book, the “Empires of the Monsoon”, Richard Hall describes the era and the great civilizations that bounded the Indian Ocean.  He starts:

“Turn the map of the world upside down and the Indian Oceans can be seen as a vast, irregularly shaped bowl, bounded by the shorelines of Africa, Asia and the island of Indonesia, and the coast of Western Australia.  Unlike the Atlantic and the Pacific, merging at their extremes into the polar seas, this is an entirely tropical ocean; to mention it calls up a vision of palm-fringed islands and lagoons where rainbow-hued fist dart amid the coral. That is the tourist brochure image, but behind it lies the Indian Ocean of history, a centre of human progress, a great arena in which many races have mingled, fought and traded for thousands of years.”

“The lives of ordinary people, .... were always ruled more by nature than by great events, by the perpetual monsoons rather that ephemeral monarchies. ....For six months they blow one way, then in the reverse direction during the other half of the year. The summer monsoon, coming from East Africa and the southern seas, is pulled eastwards by the rotation of the earth after passing the equator, so that it sweeps across India and up through the Bay of Bengal.”

So was built the great relationship between the people of Africa and the people of India, a relationship which has been nurtured by our great leaders since, in India and in Africa.  A relationship built on commerce at first and then on common ideals, on a common understanding of humanity, on our mutual desire to better the lives of our people and to build a better world.

It is  entirely appropriate that this relationship and its many facets should be explored here further through research and learning.

With its beginning as a commercial relationship, our leaders and our people have expanded this relationship and its focus.   

In 1995 President Mandela visited India.  He delivered on that occasion the Rajiv Ghandi Foundation lecture where he said:

" seeking to strengthen Indo-South African relations, we do so also motivated by the need to forge a partnership whose significance should outstrip the narrow confines of our own self-interest. While we should seek to exploit one another's lucrative markets; take maximum advantage of trade and investment opportunities; expand cultural, sporting and tourist relations; co-operate on security matters, including the combating of drug trafficking, we would be less than equal to the tasks at hand if we did not realise the broader canvass with which this has to take place.”
President Mandela went on to say:
"The 'natural urge of the facts of history and geography' that Nehru spoke of, should broaden itself to include the exploring of the concept of an Indian Ocean Rim of socio-economic cooperation and other peaceful endeavours; of a special relationship that should help improve the lot of the developing nations in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, Commonwealth and Non-aligned Movement."  Unquote
He spoke later of the special partnership between India and South Africa  as “... above all , premised on building a future that will benefit our people and the nations of the Indian Ocean Rim.”
This “broader canvas” of which he spoke is in many ways the essence of how we in South Africa see ours, and indeed Africa’s relationship with India.
Thus, in 1997, in response to President Mandela’s plea, the countries bordering the Indian Ocean formed the Indian Ocean Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC). 

This association promises great opportunities if you consider that the Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest Ocean. Today it carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the bulk cargo traffic, two-thirds of the world’s oil shipments. It is a lifeline of international trade and economy. The region is woven together by trade routes and commands control of the major sea-lanes. The Indian Ocean Rim constitutes between a quarter and a third of the world’s population (close to two billion people) which makes it a massive market. It is rich in strategic and precious minerals and metals and other natural resources, valuable marine resources ranging from food fisheries to raw material and energy for industries. It has abundant agricultural wealth in terms of the variety and mass of arable land and has significant human resources and technological capabilities. Many countries of the Rim are becoming globally competitive and are developing new capacities, which can be jointly harnessed through regional co-operation efforts.

Six African countries, including Island states, form part of this association on the Indian Ocean Coast.  These countries in turn link with the African hinterland, combining to form our continent, as they did 1000 years ago when the monsoons brought the tiny trading vessels from Asia.

From South Africa’s point of view, the development of our continent and unity among its states is central to achieving our aspirations.  Consequently, the first pillar of South Africa’s foreign policy is the advancement of the African Agenda.   South Africa works on the assumption that she cannot flourish and prosper without the prosperity of our neighbours on the African continent.  It is to this end that our foreign policy approach has, since 1994, put Africa at its centre.
In the cut and thrust of everyday politics, the vision and determination of our current day leaders to place Africa as our first priority should not be forgotten. Detractors of this vision call Africa a lost cause, the dark continent.  We do not think so.  We believe that Africa has the potential to overcome its demons and to prosper and flourish with the rest of the world.  This takes a steely determination and visionary leadership.  It requires us to pursue the democratic path rigorously and implement good governance models;   it requires the political and civil will of the African people and it requires the support of the developed north to achieve it. 

It also requires alliance partners in the developing South. India has been our steadfast partner in this process, and, as a country and as a continent, we look to India in this regard.

When history is written, I believe that the period since the launch of the African Union in 2002 will show what extraordinary progress has been achieved during this period.  It will show that conflicts in Africa have declined and more democratic elections have been held on the continent than ever before.  It will show that the New Partnership for Africa’s development (NEPAD) has launched us as Africans, on a new approach to development; no longer the aid recipient approach but rather an approach that says: 

  • We have the worlds youngest population – these are the people to educate;
  • we have abundant natural resources – these can be sold and developed to benefit Africa’s people;
  • we have the forests and the environment – these can consume the carbon that is destroying the world;
  • we have the beauty of the wild – to be preserved for future generations; and now
  • we have the political will to do this.

As the largest economy on the African continent, South Africa has a special responsibility to be a locomotive in this development process.

But it is not only commerce and economic success that drives us, nor will this alone allow us to achieve our development objectives.  The promotion of a progressive agenda, for a new world order that is based on human solidarity, on the protection of human rights, on multi-lateralism  and the rule of law is something we share with India too.

In a paper presented to the Fifth Indira Gandhi Conference in New Delhi in 1995, ES Reddy argued that the wider interests of humanity need to be underlined because the end of colonialism and the end of the cold war have not brought peace and security to Asia and Africa and the rest of the developing world and that:


“India and South Africa are uniquely qualified, by joint efforts to promote the unity of the developing countries and rally support of public opinion in the rest of the world for this purpose. They occupy strategic positions in the two sister continents of Asia and Africa. The freedom movements of the two countries - with populations of varied origins, speaking many languages and professing many faiths - have set an example of unity in diversity. Their struggles for freedom, which attracted world-wide interest and support, thanks to the statesmanship and moral stature of their leaders, have shown that human solidarity is stronger than greed and narrow national interests, and that the human spirit can overcome power politics. They are endowed with human and material resources, as well as valuable experience in international cooperation. They have co-operated for many years in the Non-aligned Movement and other fora, and have a common outlook on world affairs.”

We in South Africa are indeed fortunate to have had leaders such as OR Tambo and Nelson Mandela who believed passionately in internationalism and in human solidarity – and their many Indian counterparts.

In 1946 in a news broadcast on September 7, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said:

“In South Africa racialism is the State doctrine and our people are putting up an heroic struggle against the tyranny of a racial minority.  If this racial doctrine is going to be tolerated, it must inevitably lead to vast conflicts and world disaster…”

This was 6 days after the Interim Government of India was established with Nehru as Prime Minister.   During that same month Mrs Vijaya Laksmi Pandit was Chair of the Indian delegation to the United Nations General Assembly and made a powerful complaint on racial discrimination, even before the establishment of a national government, and this because of the strong public sentiment of the Indian people against racism and apartheid.

Since we achieved our democracy, India has shown her solidarity also in practical ways.

As I have mentioned, our young people need to be educated to compete with the best in the world.  Our government has identified the skills shortage here as one of the binding constraints to the development of our economy.  In 2006, the Joint Initiative for Priority Skill Acquisition (JIPSA) was launched to address this shortage and contribute to the acceleration of our economic growth rate to 6% by 2010. 

India is amongst the major countries that have pioneered the skills development project amongst her own people, and has since grown to master the art of excelling in critical areas such as ICT, construction and Business Process outsourcing, amongst others.  Recognising this and the fact that India holds massive expertise particularly in the ICT area, South Africa has engaged with India in sourcing these skills in India, in placing our graduates in Indian companies to receive expert training.  The total figure of South African trainees who have received various training programmes in India since the inception of the initiative has by far exceeded the target.  This is due in large measure to the depth of the relationship between our two countries and to the common purpose in improving the lives of the people of our respective countries. 

We hope that as these programmes grow and evolve that such models might prove instructive and useful for future collaborative ventures in skills training and development.  I am sure that this Centre will also provide such opportunities for our young people.

But, having said all this, we have a lot more work to do.

We have not given full effect to the potential that lies between our African continent and the Indian sub continent.  We have not realized the full potential of the Indian Ocean Rim organisation.  We are moving forward in this process. The great Asian continent and the Indian sub-continent are emerging as great world powers, as is our own African continent coming of age.

Richard Hall, in Empires of the Monsoon, describes our current positions thus:

“ But Africa south of the equator has been twice liberated since the mid-nineteenth century: first from its isolation, then from a colonialism, which , although short lived, seemed to have forged unbreakable bonds with the North, with Europe.  Now the monsoons of history are blowing afresh, as the balance of world power swings back to the East. The start of the twenty-first century is seen as ushering in a new ‘Age of Asia’, in which the natural unity of the Indian Ocean can once more asset itself.  This is the arena where the full potential of the people of sub-Saharan Africa will be put to the test.”

Let us make sure that we are up to the test.

Thank you

Quick Links

Disclaimer | Contact Us | HomeLast Updated: 17 September, 2008 8:23 AM
This site is best viewed using 800 x 600 resolution with Internet Explorer 5.0, Netscape Communicator 4.5 or higher.
2003 Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of South Africa