ITS the season for high-profile visitors. Chinese President Jiang Zemin will have barely left India when another visitor of importThabo Mbeki, executive deputy president of South Africawill arrive on December 3 for a five-day tour. Mbeki is widely considered heir to President Nelson Mandela, who has announced that he wont seek re-election at the end of his present term in 99.
This wont be the only exchange between the two countries over these five days, even discounting the visiting cricket team. Mbekis visit will be preceded by the second meeting of the India-South Africa Joint Commission, set up in January 95. And in late November, India hosted a business delegation from Kwazulu-Natal led by Premier Frank Mdlalose.
India attaches much importance to political and economic ties with South Africa, seen as a powerful entity not just in Africa but also globally. While South Africas linkages with the First World continue to be strong, it wants to play a leading role in the Third World. It is currently seeking to become the next chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Old ties and current stances present a contradictory face of South African foreign policy, which diplomatic sources say cant necessarily be seen as negative, especially as the country is going through a period of transition from white to black rule.
But, despite their much-attested historic linkages, the two countries share a "baggage of ignorance" about each other, said a diplomatic source. This has necessitated the furious pace of exchanges at the ministerial, official and business levels since May 94, when Mandela came to power.
Major areas of interest for India are the South African defence and space sectors, and harmonised efforts there could pay huge dividends, said a source. South African Deputy Defence Minister Ronnie Kasrils is accompanying Mbeki and will be taken around some important defence establishments. Missile technology and electronics is an area of potential, where cooperation can take the form of joint development and marketing.
There are weapon capacities with South Africa which, with a little help from India, can be improved qualitatively. Also, Pretoria has advanced missile launching technology which India would like to check out. "Defence research is a very big area and niche areas have to be identified for cooperation," said a source. A dialogue on strategic matters between the two defence forces, including sharing training facilities, has already begun. Science and technologyan area where the apartheid regime did not lag behindalso has a huge scope for mutual efforts. Teams of scientists from the two countries have exchanged visits in the last one-and-a-half years.
Business, of course, is the acknowledged area of coinciding interests. At least 75 Indian trade delegations have visited South Africa in the last two years. South Africa is keen to have Indian investment. Bilateral trade, which stood at $20 million in 92-93, touched $566 million last year. This does not include the value of the 60 per cent of South Africas diamonds which come to India for polishing and processing. During Mbekis visit, two agreements to be signed deal with protection and promotion of trade and investment and avoidance of double taxation.
Officials point to the enormous fund of mutual goodwill in both countries. Mahatma Gandhis role in establishing the foundations of the South African struggle, Indias sustained support to the anti-apartheid struggle, the shared commitment to democracy in a multicultural society form the basis on which India hopes to consolidate its strong ties with South Africa.
This doesnt mean there are no problems. On disarmament issues, India and South Africa differ radically. In fact, India was rather put off by South Africas active role in the NPT extension conference in 95. It was South Africa which moved two crucial resolutions to save the US from getting a conditional extension. Again, it went with the West during the CTBT negotiations and had tried to persuade India to sign. South Africa also opposed a common statement by the NAM countries at the Carthagena summit last year. The country had an advanced nuclear programme; it was disbanded only some years before black majority rule was in place. Now, South Africa backs western disarmament initiatives.
The joint commission, which will meet on December 2-3, has been divided into three subcommittees. One relating to political and defence affairs, will review the budding bilateral ties. More importantly, it will take up the disarmament issues. This is timely: the CTBT negotiations are over and the Fissile Material Cut Off is coming up. And India will want to convey that it encourages Pretorias disarmament efforts, but not necessarily in the way the West defines it.