India-South Africa relations: A bond oiled by the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela

South Africa Special Report 2019 By Omegere John Patrick*

India-South Africa relations: A bond oiled by the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela

India’s economic relation with South Africa has significantly flourished over time. Total trade between the countries as of 2017/18 is valued at USD 10 billion.

The relationship between India and South Africa is unique in its kind. Initial contact between people of Indian origin and South Africans can be traced to as early as the mid-seventeenth century. It’s also important to note that Mahatma Gandhi originally travelled to South Africa in 1893 on a temporary assignment to act on behalf of a local Indian trader in a commercial dispute. What was meant to be a short stop gap for the struggling young lawyer turned into a 21-year stay, with spells in India and England.

Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi: Two global Icons against one global vice

Whereas Gandhi arrived in Durban as a young law professional for short litigation, he also arrived at a time when the Indian immigration issue was at its peak. People of Indian origin were hence racially discriminated. His first encounter at the Durban courthouse and the later train incidence at the Pietermaritzburg train station were turning points in Gandhi’s life. A few years later, Nelson Mandela was confronted with the same reality. Born to the royal polygamous family in the Qunu area of the Transkei region, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was among the few to join the elite University of Fort Hare. It is here that Madiba’s political underpinnings were provoked. Mandela later played a significant role in the African National Congress (ANC) especially the youth league and later the military wing “Umkhonto we Sizwe”. More notable was the 27 years in prison and a later accession to the country’s top position post the apartheid regime. Much of Mandela’s philosophy was inspired by the Gandhian Satyagraha which was already a successful experience in India’s anti-colonial struggle. There were two leaders, though continents apart, deeply connected by the urge to deliver freedom to all.

Official diplomatic relations

Whereas India’s relationship with South Africa dates back so many centuries ago, official diplomatic relation between the two countries was established in 1994. Previously the two countries sustained strong trade ties. However, with the continuous brutality of the heavy-handed apartheid regime, India cut economic ties with the apartheid regime. India is on record to be the first country to sever ties with the Dutch colonial government and imposed economic and political sanctions. Following her independence in 1947, India intensified her struggle for the freedom of other countries still subject to the colonial rule. India championed the demands of other colonies in multilateral institutions like the Non-Aligned Movement, the United Nations among others. Prime Minister Nehru is specifically credited for raising the brutality of the Apartheid regime at the United Nations. After a gap of four decades, India re-established cultural ties in 1993, after South Africa ended its institutionalized racial segregation. Consequently, a Cultural Centre opened doors in Johannesburg in May 1993. In November 1993, an Agreement was signed establishing full diplomatic and consular relations during the visit of the South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha to India. The Indian High Commission in Pretoria was opened in May 1994. In 1996, India opened its permanent Office of the High Commission in Cape Town, which was re-designated as Consulate General of India in 2011.

India and South Africa: Convergencies

India’s economic relation with South Africa has significantly flourished over time. Total trade between the countries as of 2017/18 is valued at USD 10 billion. In 2016, the two countries made a commitment to double to trade value to USD 20 billion by 2021. The most recent figures from the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) estimates that over USD 4 billion of Indian investments has made way to South Africa directly providing employment to over 18000 South Africans. The leading Indian companies in South Africa are Wipro, Coal India, Cipla, HCL Technologies, Tata Motors, Zomato, Mahindra and Mahindra, Vedanta, and Motherson Sumi. On the other hand, the South African investment in India has mainly been in the financial sector with companies such as SASOL, FirstRand, Old Mutual, ACSA, Shoprite and Nandos among other investments valued at over USD 800 million. The flow of such investments is enhanced by the double tax avoidance treaty and the newly initiated annual India-south Africa investment forum.

Furthermore, the two countries are closely connected on several multilateral forms which include BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) among others.

The road ahead

Anyone strolling down the streets of South Africa can easily take notice of the over 1.2 million South Africans of Indian origin. South Africa hosts the largest population of the Indian Diaspora estimated to be 3 percent of the country’s total population. In a similar vein, it’s very likely that any African walking down the streets of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata would be mistaken to be of South African origin. This is a demonstration of the strength of the Indo-South African relations. More recently these ties have been cemented by frequent contacts between the Indian Prime minister and the South African President. President Ramaphosa in 2019 followed the footsteps of Nelson Mandela to become the second South African head of state to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations. However, history shows that the growth of this relationship did not have a linear pattern. It is therefore important that this relationship is more carefully nurtured. Young people should be more specifically targeted, especially considering that they constitute two-thirds of the population of India and South Africa. Through cultural exchanges and sports especially cricket, the young generation ought to be reminded of the significance of this long-standing friendship. Furthermore, collaborations should be forged in the management of the blue economy, skill development, and research.


The India-South Africa relation has an affirmed foundation in historical ties, cultural affinities and most significantly the two global icons Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Rolihlahla Madiba. As the two countries continue forward to stronger economic positions, both India and South Africa will need to keep in mind constantly that their own bilateral relationship deserves priority and has immense potential that needs to be continuously realised. n

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*The author is a Ugandan National pursuing MA-International Studies at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Symbiosis International University. He is also the Chief Africa Coordinator of The Great African Caravan.


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