India and South Africa at Multilateral Fora: Deciphering the Stances

South Africa Special Report 2019 By Dr. Faisal Ahmed*

India and South Africa at Multilateral Fora: Deciphering the Stances

India-South Africa cooperation has always been evident at the forum of the United Nations. Be it the support for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expansion or the contribution to UN Peacekeeping, the two countries have generally held common positions.

Relations between India and South Africa have been evolving and have both geo-economic and strategic orientations. The same convergence is also witnessed in their cohesive approaches and the common positions that they have held at various regional and multilateral levels.

This article, therefore, delves deeper into understanding the converges in the stances adopted by India and South Africa as exhibited at various multilateral and inter-governmental fora viz. World Trade Organisation (WTO), the United Nations (UN), Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) and India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA), and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

In the WTO

Both India and South Africa are strong proponents of rule-making at the multilateral level and their commitment to the multilateral trading system is extraordinary. In the 2017 WTO Ministerial in Buenos Aires, India and South Africa held common positions on several key issues to strengthen the multilateral trading system. The two countries held similar stances for securing a permanent solution for public stockholding programs, under which the current WTO rule provides for a fixed subsidy of 10 percent. The G-33 countries have been demanding that their food security programs be exempted from such a subsidy limit. This issue has been raised overwhelmingly for a long time, but especially since the Bali Round of 2013 when the Peace Clause was agreed upon. Also, India and South Africa have held common positions on the issue of farm subsidies, and call for developed countries to reduce such trade-distorting farm subsidies.

Moreover, at the multilateral level, both India and South Africa took common stances in opposing the issue of investment facilitation in the agenda General Council meeting of the WTO. They argued that the WTO rules on investment facilitation intrude into their policy space. The Joint Ministerial Statement on Investment Facilitation for Development issued on December 13, 2107, by countries like China, Brazil, Russia, Canada, Argentina, and many others at the close of the WTO Ministerial Meeting asserted that it shall not address contentious issues like market access, investor-state dispute etc. India and South Africa along with the United States were also opposed to any discussion on this issue in the G20 summit in Hamburg in 2017.

Another instance where both India and South Africa have taken a common position is the opposition to the moratorium on customs duty for e-commerce transmissions. Both countries are not willing to continue with the current multilateral trade rule of not imposing customs duties on e-commerce transmissions. It was in the year 1998 that the WTO members had agreed for a temporary moratorium on customs duties for such transmissions. The United States has demanded that this temporary moratorium now be made permanent. But countries like India and South Africa which are witnessing more of such transmissions in recent years are opposed to a moratorium like this fearing revenue loss. In a joint proposal at the WTO last year, India and South Africa argued that “the realities prevailing in 1998, when WTO members agreed for the first time to the temporary moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions, have changed significantly during the subsequent two decades”. Whereas, the United States in its proposal argued for a tariff-free treatment of digital products.

In the UN

India-South Africa cooperation has always been evident at the forum of the United Nations. Be it the support for United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expansion or the contribution to UN Peacekeeping, the two countries have generally held common positions.

Both India and South Africa are in the L.69 group of developing countries. This group constitutes of forty-two developing countries across Asia and the Pacific, Africa and Latin America. The purpose of this grouping is focused on ensuring reforms in the UNSC, including expansion of both permanent and non-permanent membership. This would make the UNSC more relevant and representative in today’s evolving global order. In fact, key advocacy of the L.69 group is that either the right to veto be abolished or be also given to new permanent members upon UNSC expansion.

One of the key contenders for the permanent membership has been India. If the restructuring and expansion take place, India’s candidacy is quite strong. This owes to the fact that India has been pro-actively contributing to the restoration of global peace and security. India has been doing this through its meaningful interventions in the restoration of peace and support to the UN peacekeeping missions.

Moreover, in September 2018, at a UN summit, the member states adopted a political declaration and recognised the period of 2019-28 as the Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace. It emphasises the lifelong efforts and commitments made by President Nelson Mandela in promoting international understanding, human rights, and universal brotherhood. Also, the United Nations through its resolution 69/131 proclaimed June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. This Indian proposal was seconded and supported by several countries including those in Africa.


India and South Africa have generally taken common positions at the BRICS platform. This includes those related to regional trade, climate change, and development cooperation, among others. They, together with other BRICS countries, have been instrumental in strengthening the Southern voice.

Moreover, within the BRICS, IBSA has been a congregation with a unique characteristic owing to its ability to balance democracy and development. India and South Africa have held common positions at the IBSA platform as they share the values of democracy and human rights. They have also made concerted efforts toward promoting South-South Cooperation. The IBSA Declaration on South-South Cooperation, Pretoria (June 2018) stated that “IBSA recalls all efforts over the decades to bring about greater solidarity among South-South countries, including the Bandung Conference 1955, NAM 1961, UNCTAD, G-77 grouping, Buenos Aires Plan of Action 1978, Nairobi Declaration 2009.”

As part of IBSA, the two countries have also reasserted the centrality of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to the cause of “common but differentiated responsibilities” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. IBSA also holds a common commitment to the issues pertinent to the global development architecture including the Official Development Assistance to the countries of the global South.

In November last year, the 15th Anniversary of the IBSA Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation (IBSA Fund) was celebrated at the UN. The Fund has been instrumental in capacity building and forging development partnerships in several countries of the global South by facilitating projects in the areas of agriculture, employment, environment, health, and water resource management.


South Africa is an integral part of the IORA. The 18th IORA Ministers meeting held in November 2018 celebrated the 150th year of the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the 100th birth anniversary of Nelson Mandela. The Indian Ocean is a geopolitically vibrant region and both India and South Africa have been working together to build a safe and economically viable blue economy.

Moreover, both countries along with other IORA members have also partnered for ensuring maritime safety and security. They have been working closely to leverage benefits from the provisions as envisaged under the Jakarta Concord and the IORA Action Plan. The Jakarta Concord called for strengthening maritime cooperation and developing a stable Indian Ocean. The IORA aims to work towards securing sea lanes of communications, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, people-to-people contacts, and trade and investment by promoting open regionalism.


With so many convergences at the multilateral and regional levels, the way ahead for India and South Africa is to leverage the benefits of such cooperation for strengthening their respective global outreach. This will help create win-win advantages for the people of both countries. n

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