April 07, 2020
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Goodwill Hunting

Mishra rushes to SA on a two-pronged damage-control mission

Goodwill Hunting

WHAT made Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, rush to South Africa on less than a week's notice? Mishra left New Delhi in such a hurry that the South Africans had to call their deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad—the South African foreign minister, Alfred Nzo, was then in Vietnam—back from Israel to meet him.

Mishra's mission is essentially seen as damage control—South Africa has been quite critical over New Delhi's nuclear tests. But insiders in Pretoria said much of Mishra's task was also to focus on improving Indo-South African relations ahead of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Durban in early September.

Speaking to an Indian journalist in Johannesburg, Mishra denied there was any tension between the two nations on the nuclear test issue. But he confirmed that he had explained India's rationale for the tests to the South African government. Yet, South African sources indicate that the country is angry about India's nuclear tests and, moreover, its casual approach to Africa in general. "India, despite all its talk about Third World solidarity, doesn't take Africa seriously," said a South African official.

India and South Africa have long differed on the nuclear issue. South Africa was a threshold nuclear weapon state during the apartheid era. But, just before the transition to the Black majority, the White regime rolled back its nuclear weapon programme and at the end of 1994, South Africa signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The message was clearly that the Black regime could not be trusted with a nuclear programme. Of course, the rolling back also fitted in with the African National Congress' (ANC) policies which had long opposed the country's nuclear programme.

The two countries have also differed on the issue of global nuclear disarmament. While the Indians have been pushing for timebound nuclear disarmament, the South Africans support nuclear disarmament without a time-frame. In fact, they were a party to the NAM declaration of the Cartagena summit in 1995, which called for timebound global N-disarmament. Subsequently they have sought to distance themselves from it. Indian diplomats and strategic affairs experts agree that Pretoria is now singing the American tune on the N-issue—global nuclear disarmament without linking it to any time-frame.

Indian sources pointed out that once at a meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, it was pointed out to the South African delegate that Pretoria was a party to the Cartagena declaration, where it was represented by deputy president Thabo Mbeki. The delegate had rather ingenuously commented that their leaders could be fallible. Similarly, when India and South Africa signed the declaration for a Strategic Partnership during President Nelson Mandela's March 1997 visit, the South Africans had refused to include a reference to global nuclear disarmament in a timebound framework.

Indians ascribe this pro-American tilt on the issue to the dominance of the powerful White bureaucracy. They say that while President Mandela has added an individualistic touch to his country's foreign policy—in matters like visiting Libya twice, severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establishing them with China, and looking towards Africa—on a lot of foreign policy initiatives it's the White bureaucracy which runs the show.

In this background the critical comments from Pretoria have worried South Block, which fears that these may find their way into the NAM declaration. Which is why Mishra rushed to Pretoria to convince South African leaders of the need to avoid critical comments on the nuclear issue in the NAM declaration.

According to Mbeki's spokesman, Ricky Naidoo, Mishra met with South Africa's de facto president for 20 minutes, which he described as a "courtesy call". He said that he was "not aware" whether the nuclear testing issue had been broached between the two. Naidoo said, however, that Mishra had held "substantive discussions" with Pahad. Dr Abdul Minty, deputy director general of South Africa's foreign affairs department for multilateral issues, including nuclear disarmament, who sat in on the meetings between Mishra and Pahad, said: "We had discussions on various matters with regard to the NAM meeting". He confirmed that the Indian nuclear tests was also one of the issues discussed. "We had an envoy from India and another from Pakistan and both put forward their positions on the testing. We listened to them," added Dr Minty cryptically.

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