South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations this year. His visit provided an opportunity to re-energise India's engagement with an important member of the international community. India and South Africa have a strategic partnership and are members of BRICS and IBSA but the relationship has not realised its potential. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ramaphosa decided during their meeting on January 25 to move bilateral ties comprehensively forward in "political, economic, defence, scientific, consular and socio-cultural spheres". Of these, defence production and mining are two areas where South African industry has proven strengths; hence, bilateral cooperation will be mutually beneficial.
It is significant that Ramaphosa's visit took place in the year that marks Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary. The India-South Africa Joint Statement on Ramaphosa's visit noted that he and his wife Dr Tshepo Motsepe "paid respects to the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated both nationally and internationally". While a visit to Rajghat is part of the protocol of state and official level visits of foreign leaders it is significant that the joint statement mentioned that the international community will join in Gandhiji's 150th birth anniversary celebrations. At a time when, in one or two sections of African opinion, serious anti-Gandhi sentiments are being expressed it was opportune that South Africa along with India underscored the universal nature of Gandhiji's message and work. Ramaphosa fleshed this out in his address to the Indian Council of World Affairs in New Delhi on January 25.
As South Africa continues to celebrate the 100th birth anniversary of Nelson Mandela who was born in July 1918, Ramaphosa mentioned the influence of Gandhiji's teachings on him. He said, "For Madiba (a term of "respect and affection" used by South Africans for Mandela) Gandhiji was an inspiration and a role model". More than anyone Mandela symbolised the struggle of the oppressed against the violent racism of apartheid, the racist segregation system, imposed by the minority white regime in South Africa. it was practised in the country since colonial times in the nineteenth century but formally imposed in 1948. Ramaphosa also spoke of Gandhiji's work in South Africa and said, "We are privileged to claim these two icons (meaning Mandela and Gandhiji) as our own and to know, as we do, the deep impact that Gandhi had on Mandela".
These words are meaningful in the context of the removal of Gandhiji's statue from a university campus in Ghana in December 2018. It was unveiled in 2016 by President Pranab Mukherjee during his visit to that country. A campaign for its removal was launched on the ground that Gandhiji was a racist who had biased sentiments against black Africans. The protestors asserted that Gandhiji had used the derogatory term 'kaffirs' for black Africans and he had also been indignant against the colonial policies of putting the Indian community in South Africa in the same bracket as the 'half-heathens'.
Gandhiji had gone to South Africa in 1893 when he was a 24-year-old barrister. All through his two decades in the then British colony his focus was to obtain equal treatment for the Indian community, on par with white people. His views on the black or native African people only became enlightened in time. The fact is that all persons, grow with time. What matters is how they respond to their experiences. In Gandhiji's case the discriminatory treatment in a railway compartment in South Africa lit a spark which led to his gradual transformation into one of the great liberators of humankind from oppression. His political philosophy for struggle-satyagraha- became an inspiration for Mandela and in the United States for Martin Luther King in the US as they fought against white supremacy policies.
The legacy of the great is always up for scrutiny. It is constantly interpreted and re-interpreted. That is how it should be; what is relevant for a time and place is to be accepted and other views should be discarded. Also, no person, howsoever great, is perfect in every way for absolute perfection is only an attribute of the divine. Perhaps, very obliquely, Ramaphosa referred to the recent controversy about Gandhiji when he said in his ICWA address, "Gandhiji's formative activism focused on the vulnerable Indian minority in South Africa. His documented views, especially those around securing the franchise for the Indians in South Africa, but also on western civilization, on racial hierarchies in India, or on secularism, could today be read through a different prism. But of this we are certain. They (Gandhi and Mandela) believed in the innate dignity of the human being, in the moral authority of a non-violent mass resistance to oppression and in the enduring strength of peoples' power".
There can be no better response to the Gandhiji's critics in Africa than these words of Ramaphosa. The Indian government did well in not making an issue of the Ghanaian action. This is particularly because India's role in the decolonisation movement is recognised as emphatically recognised by Ramaphosa.
What India has to note though is another sentiment expressed by the Ghana protestors: "It is better to stand up for our dignity than to kow-tow to the wishes of a burgeoning Eurasian superpower". India is an Asian power but we can let the geographical discrepancy pass. What we must never allow in Africa and elsewhere is the perception that our actions are only in our own and not in mutual interest.