Behind the Veil: India's Relations with Apartheid South Africa

Article excerpt


History remembers India as a vocal and consistent supporter of the anti-apartheid movement. The existing literature on relations between India and apartheid South Africa describes an antagonistic relationship defined by decades of sanctions. However, such literature only scratches the surface of India and South Africa's true relations. Archival research demonstrates that India's stance towards South Africa was much more ambiguous than expressed on the international stage. Evidence has surfaced that India considered re-establishing diplomatic relations with apartheid South Africa and exchanged military technology. Moreover, the reasons for publicly opposing the apartheid regime were not purely ethical but also strategic. These include establishing newly-independent India as a player on the world stage, seeking to play a role in the Commonwealth and maintaining manoeuvrability in a bi-polar world. Thus, this article analyses archival evidence within India's domestic and international context, including the Indian foreign policy establishment, economic and security crises and caste issues. This article also serves a wider purpose by demonstrating the complexity of foreign policy making and the inability of a single theory to explain these complex processes.


In his address to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation in New Delhi in January 1995, former South African President Nelson Mandela eloquently stated: "I bring you greetings from the people of South Africa. In their multitude and diversity they extend their hands across the miles and oceans to profoundly thank the people of India for helping set them free" (Mandela 1995a). A day later addressing the Indian Parliament, President Mandela even more forcefully stated, "(o)ur two countries are united by strong bonds of history and geography. It is a history of shared commitment and tolerance, to social equity and the eradication of poverty. It is a history of common experience of oppression and struggle for independence and freedom. It is a history of independence in struggle and mutual support" (Mandela 1995b).

These two statements by anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela reinforce the dominant narrative of any study of Indo-South African relations: that New Delhi had played a vanguard role in the isolation of apartheid South Africa whilst simultaneously supporting the liberation movements, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). Indeed a plethora of documentary evidence could be quoted in support of such a stance. As early as 26 October 1894 Mahatma Gandhi in a letter to the editor of The Times of Natal called for non-racialism and respect for human dignity (Mukherjee 1995: v) in South Africa. On the verge of achieving its own independence, Mr Ramaswami Mudaliar, the Leader of the Indian Delegation to the United Nations (UN) General Assembly wrote a letter in June 1946, to UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie to place racial discrimination in South Africa on the UN agenda (Indian Delegation to the United Nations 1946). A month later, India was to be the first country to place a trade embargo against South Africa (Department of Commerce, Government of India 1946). With the coming to power of the National Party in 1948 and the intensification of systematic racial discrimination, Mrs Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the leader of the Indian Delegation strongly argued that the policy of apartheid was racial discrimination (Pandit 1950). Once again Indian moves at the multilateral level focused on isolating the apartheid state, specifically at that stage at the UN, but later within the Commonwealth and the Non-Alignment Movement, were also occurring in conjunction with anti-apartheid moves at the bilateral level. By 1 July 1954, the government of India severed its diplomatic ties to the Union of South Africa (Government of India 1954). Diplomatic ties between the two countries were only re-established on 6 May 1994 (Government of India 1994) following South Africa's first democratic elections and the formal ending of apartheid. …


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