India and South Africa Co-operation for Strategic Partnership

South Africa Special Report 2019 By Prof Neeta Baporikar*

India and South Africa Co-operation for Strategic Partnership

Historically, the similarities between India and South Africa are rooted in their common experience, with colonialism or imperialism and the social and economic inequalities that came with it and accentuated over time.

Throughout the twentieth century, the list of the world’s great powers was predictably short. The twenty-first century will be different. China and India are emerging as economic and political heavyweights: China holds over a trillion dollars in hard currency reserves and India’s high-tech sector is growing by leaps and bounds. They are also recognised nuclear powers and developing blue-water navies. Such growth is opening the way for a multi-polar era in world politics. In an attempt to ensure that emerging countries buy into the core tenets of the created world order, there was an attempt to bolster their profiles in forums ranging from IMF to the WHO, on issues as diverse as nuclear proliferation, monetary relations, and the environment. These efforts focused more on low politics than on global issues. Today, the global distribution of power is very different. According to an estimate by Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank the annual growth in combined national income from BRICS countries will be twice that of the G-7 countries by 2025

Legacy Perspective

Historically, the similarities between India and South Africa are rooted in their common experience, with colonialism or imperialism and the social and economic inequalities that came with it and accentuated over time. They also share the status of emerging powers given their growing economic importance and the central role played by their diplomacies in multilateral negotiations. India and South Africa have been traditionally on the margins and closely involved with third world internationalism. India was in the forefront of the Bandung Conference, 1955 and later became one of the strongest advocates of nonalignment. Similarly, the current ruling party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), is one of the most important symbols of the third world struggle against colonialism and racialism in the African continent.

Global institutions cease to be effective when the allocation of decision-making authority within them no longer corresponds to the distribution of power, and that is precisely the situation today. The UN Security Council is one obvious example; the G-7 is an even more egregious one. Incorporating emerging powers while placating status quo states is no simple feat, but the task should appear less daunting when it is understood that success will benefit all. Granted, they will have to accept a multilateral order but then India has grown phenomenally by doing just that. India’s Tata Group and Vale, and South Africa’s De Beers are just a few examples of emerging economy multinationals striding steadily onto the global stage.

Regional Leadership Paradox

Regional interactions have become the crucible of legitimacy, leadership, and soft power among emerging powers in the South. The demise of superpower rivalry intruding into the affairs of states has meant that local powers have increased their room for manoeuvre in regional politics. This is particularly true in the case of India and South Africa, both of which have sought to play a leadership role in representing regional interests in trade negotiations and the management of peace and security issues in their regions.

South Africa’s Soft Power Strategy

The South African government has grown increasingly confident in the promotion of its position as a “natural” leader of the African continent and Mbeki’s articulation of “African Renaissance,” aimed to reassert South Africa’s Africanness and legitimize its continental and sub-regional leadership status. This led to the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), an initiative that seeks to engage industrialized countries to foster development within African countries. Indeed, the seminal statements on South African foreign policy emphasise the centrality of the sub-region, Africa as a whole, and South Africa as appropriate sites of action for the post-apartheid era. However, the split within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) over military intervention in 1998 and the inability of South Africa’s quiet diplomacy to have a discernible effect on the conduct of a despotic Mugabe in Zimbabwe point to its limits.

As Becker (2010) notes, “Mbeki’s Africanism and anti-imperialism led him to silence critics of Zimbabwe as racist and imperialist and wholly ignore his stated commitment to democracy and good governance.” The ANC’s close ideological ties with Mugabe’s anti-colonial struggle have also raised doubts and stained Mbeki’s image as a conciliatory figure and bridge builder. The result is a paradox, with South Africa’s inability to exercise effective influence over its region, despite the employment of military, economic, and soft power means including persuasion, while being internationally famous as the authentic, yet the reluctant voice of African interests. NEPAD’s efforts to promote democracy, corporate good governance were seen by some African leaders as a replication of Western modernization priorities at the expense of African particular needs and traditional values. This shows the diplomatic complexities involved in South Africa.

However, the attractive pull of South Africa is evident, by the expansion of South African companies in highly visible sectors like cellular telephones, hotels, television, and, above all, its commercial retailers. The success of corporate South Africa in penetrating the markets in Africa contrasts with the failure of South African diplomacy to make headway in neighbouring conflict resolution.

Given security concerns in South Asia, India’s post-independence foreign policy has been driven by two, sometimes contrary strands: first, power and national interest; and, second, the idea that an activist role (nonalignment) in international affairs would secure not only the interests of India but also of humanity at large. However, clashes with Pakistan in recent times have shifted the emphasis from Southern solidarity to a more pronounced expression of nationalism. While southern Africa resembles a “security community,” in which war is increasingly unlikely and collective security regimes are fairly well established. South Asia can be characterised as a “security complex,” based on the distribution of (mostly military) power among states.

Further, high political, strategic, and material investment in national security has diverted India’s attention, except for rhetoric and the use of multilateral forums. Yet, India’s robust democracy and growing economic and strategic importance in South Asia has consolidated its position as a regional power. India has been more skilful while using its regional influence to achieve tangible political gains in its relations with Western powers. Table 2 provides insights into regional power patterns.

India and South Africa: The Way Ahead: Strategic Partnering and Reciprocal Cooperation

While the conditions for regional leadership may be rooted in a combination of historical processes, material expressions of power, and ideational factors in conjunction with external sources of legitimization, the picture is more complex than even this depiction would suggest. Complicating the relationship between aspirant regional leaders and their respective geographic neighbourhood is the role of other emerging powers external to the region whose ability to mobilise resources challenges their presumptions of pre-eminence. For both countries, the spectacle of China, a global behemoth with tremendous financial means at its call, increasingly competitive state-owned transnational corporations, and an aggressive strategy of seeking out vital resources and market share in the pursuit of its economic needs and exercising its global reach into their regions raises significant questions.

Finally, South Africa has seen both Chinese challenges to South African interests in Africa as well as collaboration. Chinese firms especially in the area of infrastructure and selective mining as well as through their trade in manufactured goods and textiles have caused formerly dominant South African firms to lose contracts and market share at an alarming rate. At the same time, some South African firms have been able to adapt to these conditions. Example: the country’s leading financial institution. Standard Bank, sold 20 percent equity stake to China’s largest bank, the Industrial and Construction Bank of China, and embarked on a joint strategy of seeking financial opportunities in the rest of Africa.

Perhaps as troubling from a South African perspective was the growing economic presence of India in what Pretoria regards as its natural backyard. Since the late 1990s, both countries have sought out African resources as part of their overall expansion in the globalizing economy. Private mining multinationals like Vedanta took up positions in Gabon, Zambia, and Mozambique, in some cases, displacing South African firms and, in others, challenging them. Many more modest medium and small firms, especially from India, have entered into the fray and been able to acquire market share in southern and eastern Africa, sometimes at the expense of South African interests or putative efforts to expand its interests. The implications of a weakening South African claim to the trappings of economic dominance, and with that a concomitant reduction in the influence it is capable of wielding in Africa, has begun to manifest itself in policy.

Diagnostic Perspective

Huntington (1999) uses the concept of a uni-multi-polar system to describe the current structure of the international system. From a realist’s or realistic perspective, a multi-polar system can only be achieved by the emergence of regional uni-polarities that build coalitions to balance the superpower (Wohlforth 1999). As Nye (2004) argues, real global uni-polarity requires the hegemony’s dominance in two additional playing fields: global economics and other transnational problems such as terrorism, crime, global warming, and epidemics. As the current economic crisis demonstrates, transnational problems can only be resolved through the cooperation of many players.

India and South Africa have already demonstrated their ability to advance their economic goals within the existing order. ‘Binding’ strategies aim to restrain stronger states through institutional agreements (Ikenberry & Wright, 2008). Critics of the soft balancing approach are right in their argument that other categories such as economic interest or regional security concerns are alternative explanations for second-tier states’ foreign policy behaviour (Brooks & Wohlforth, 2005). But these explanations do not exclude each other; they are complementary and synergistic. The most important foreign policy instruments for India and South Africa are what Paul (2005) called ‘economic strengthening’ and ‘entangling diplomacy’.

Given the distance, strengthening transport links assumes importance for exploiting the full potential of trade and investments. The transportation sector presents opportunities for exchanging best practices and the energy sector is another pivotal area of cooperation spelled out. It must be noted that India is the world’s largest sugarcane producer. Solar energy and coal liquefaction are potential areas of further cooperation.


Given the complexities of contemporary world politics, with multilateral institutions increasingly relying on key developing states to work as “managers” of their respective regional contexts, the legitimacy and international recognition of the India and South Africa partnership depend to a large extent on strategic partnering and mutual cooperation. It is too soon to tell whether the great-power concert will succeed and as it proceeds, it may be simple to articulate but hard to execute. So the need is to keep the old friends close and new friends closer.

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