Why South Africa must leverage its relations with India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 15th BRICS Summit. Picture: Jairus Mmutle / GCIS

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 15th BRICS Summit. Picture: Jairus Mmutle / GCIS

Published Mar 3, 2024


By Phapano Phasha

In 2023, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, in his capacity as chair of Group of 20 nations (G20) called for the African Union (AU) to become a member of the G20 and this status was accorded at the G20 Summit that was held in India when the AU was granted permanent status.

With India’s rising power and influence in the world stage, why has South Africa not fully leveraged its BRICS relationships to advance its national and international interests as it navigates geo-political contradictions between the Global North and the Global South where the US in particular still sees itself as the global hegemon?

All indicators reflect that South Africa's regional influence is slowly eroding. It would appear that in ten years time, its position as Africa's leading strategic power broker would have diminished considerably. Central to this decline is South Africa's inability to properly balance its internal contradictions, especially as they pertain to socio-economic challenges and diplomacy.

South African foreign policy and socio-economic realities are seemingly in conflict with each other. This observation was well captured by the Norwegian Peace Building Resource Centre in a paper titled, ‘The challenges and ambiguities of South Africa’s foreign policy’. The paper, among other issues, raises political and economic concerns.

The report says that in the next few years South Africa’s relevance on the continental and global scenes will depend increasingly on its economic assets (power) and its political choices more than on the nostalgic memory of its long liberation struggle. This will be linked in particular to its capacity to solve its deep-rooted domestic problems, particularly its acute levels of social injustice, economic insecurity which feed common crime and social violence, which in turn hamper economic development and tap into the common perception that the country’s international ambitions divert scarce resource and distracts attention away from pressing domestic social and economic problems.

The ambiguities are in many ways connected to the South African Government having succumbed to the demands of G7 controlled International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank structural adjustment programs as well as the pressure from the South African European (white) oligarchs who control the structure of the Colonial and Apartheid economy.

At the recent Raisina dialogue that was held in New Delhi India, South Africa’s BRICS Sherpa and Ambassador at large for Asia and BRICS in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, Professor Anil Sooklal, emphasised India’s geopolitical position and diplomatic skill. Professor Sooklal elucidated on how India’s diplomatic ingenuity made it possible to successfully host the otherwise highly fractious recent G20 summit. As stated by Professor Sookla, both the BRICS and the West counterparts came out of the G20 conference “happy”.

SA can surely leverage on India’s diplomatic prowess to bolster its own domestic and global goals without giving up its autonomy.

But, can the South African Government balance the need to economically empower its citizens and exercise autonomy while very much within the BRICS fold, while at the same time enjoy good relations with the west?

South Africa certainly can. India under President Modi is one of the best case studies of how a country can balance both internal and external power dynamics while exploiting the interest of the global north without compromising its own autonomy and national interests. Furthermore, SA can exploit its relations with India while advancing its own multidimensional interests.

There are some common elements between SA and India that require highlighting. South Africa has the largest concentration of people of Indian origin than any country outside of India itself. This makes SA and India natural partners that can advance many common agenda issues domestically and globally.

Both countries are former colonies of the British Empire thus bearing similar socio-economic background/history. It is therefore not a coincidence that a litany of research has been conducted post 1994 to measure how these two countries have mitigated socio-economic challenges that were created by the exploitative and oppressive colonial rule. Sharing of perspectives is crucial.

For example, India’s diplomatic posture in the Russia Ukraine war was similar to that of South Africa, however the latter failed to capitalise its non aligned position by benefiting from cheap crude imports from Russia unlike India which opted to buy Russia’s crude oil and still maintained strong bilateral relations with the US and it’s G7 counterparts who also attended the Raisina dialogues in India.

Even after buying crude oil from Russia, India as a BRICS member continues to enjoys relations with both the US and Russia Government without significant interference from the US or open threats of sanctions or capital flight as is the case with SA. In the context of South Africa, the cost of living and doing business has significantly impacted South Africa as a consequence of not optimally trading with India and Russia and leveraging India’s diplomatic ingenuity.

However, this is not to suggest that the SA/Russia dynamics are the same as those of India/Russia. But here are certainly ways in which South Africa can take lessons from India’s diplomatic prowess but also lean on its India relations to economically benefit.

The South Africa India relation can also be leveraged in yet another way. India Today is one of the global ICT powerhouses while South Africa does not feature at all in this league yet the link between South Africa and India would have made it so easy for South Africa to capitalise on India’s ICT prowess. That South Africa has failed to work with India on this issue demonstrates the inability of both of these countries to cooperate on such a fundamental matter, and especially South Africa’s failure to distill its interests on the back of India’s global ICT position is worrisome.

Silicone Valley for example is ran largely by people of Indian descent. Prime Minister Modi has used his ten years in office to ensure India’s youth including those in rural areas are technologically competent which has made India the ICT labour hub of choice in the world, and this has helped the Indian Government to move millions out of poverty.

There are many other areas which South Africa can learn from India just as much as India can learn from South Africa, the list is endless but the point here is South Africa has a lot to learn from former colonies which are on a positive trajectory and also leverage its relations so as to alter it's economic and social circumstances to reposition itself both domestically and internationally.

It is, however not late for South Africa to not only learn from India’ geostrategic positioning but also significantly lean on its historic relations.

South Africa can still reposition itself as Africa’s most influential powerhouse. The country needs to view itself not only as a commodity but as a partner to those who want to do business with it and it can use India as a case study to navigate the complex geo-political terrain.

* Phapano Phasha is a Researcher and Policy developer.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.