South Africa and the Gandhi legacy

Its time to move beyond Gandhi and Mandela

India’s President Abdul Kalam is on a state visit to South Africa with an itinerary that is full of Gandhian nostalgia. However, the Mahatma is not universally liked in South Africa, especially given his not so very charitable opinion of the blacks. Abiola Lapite has an interesting post on Gandhi’s racist views, with an excellent response from Gene Expression’s Razib. Allowing the inevitable controversies of history to colour the canvas of bilateral relations with South Africa is not the best way forward.

Indeed, the strongest foundation for a better bilateral relationship with South Africa lies in the common problems the two countries face in the socio-economic sphere, especially those brought about by globalisation. With the Doha round of trade talks on the horizon, India and South Africa should prepare to begin singing from the same song sheet. And then there is AIDS, where it is in both countries’ interest to work out an agreement on affordable treatment.

South Africa has also indicated its willingness to support both India and Brazil in their quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. And just as Gandhi (him again) inspired Mandela in his anti-apartheid struggle, there is much that India can learn from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. India can adopt the South African model to heal the wounds of the decade-long conflict in Kashmir.

The Indian President’s visit is largely symbolic in nature, but it is time to find some new symbols that are appropriate in the new circumstances. It is time to throw Gandhi off the train again. This time for reasons that are not likely to pain the Mahatma.

6 thoughts on “South Africa and the Gandhi legacy”

  1. A strong relationship based on economics and globalization is anytime likely to fill more tummies than one based on “ideology” and emotional bonds. If as you say, the emotional bonding is becoming baggage, then this would be a good time to stress on mutual cooperation in money making instead.

  2. The Truth and reconciliation commission style politiical package for kashmir? Sounds hajaar interesting, must admit.
    can we have a little more on what this commission is all about, its mandate and achievements etc pls? The acorn can and should use the distributed intelligence of the web to do a little bit of analysis and opionating (think-tank style) to come out with an out-of the box solution. Who knows, it might actually end up making sense?! IN any case, the power of this medium would be underutiised unless we actuallt try out something like this, eh?

  3. Sudhir,

    Appreciate your comments.

    South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission essentially offered amnesty (and limited punishments) for people who confessed to crimes during the apartheid era; crimes committed by both sides of the conflict. But only after people stopped the violence and owned up to their crimes. I believe this is a good model if done in an apolitical way. Related Links: From facts.com and from US Institute of Peace.

    One reason it will not be easy to do this in Kashmir is because of the role of Pakistan, whose agenda is inimical to reconciliation. Unless Pakistan drops its irredentist line on Kashmir (or is forced to, which is more likely), both truth and reconciliation will not be possible. I’m confident that India will be able to ‘truth-and-reconcile’ as soon as Pakistan stands down. Pakistan knows that and hence will use any means fair and foul, mostly foul, to keep jihadi irons in the fire.

    That is why I think the Indian government must get its priorities right – that means getting Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism in Kashmir, which can happen only when the Pakistani army is no longer the power behind or on the throne.

  4. Yes. I agree. The concept of the Truth and Reconciliation commission has found some imperfect parallels in the ‘voluntary surrenders and pardons’ policies followed ad-hoc against NE rebels, ULFA, Naxalites etc. Their record has been mixed at best.

    You’re right in that if a movement is completely indigenious (i.e. no external moral/political/diplomatic support) then political solutions are feasible. Mizoram is the best example of this. In Kashmir too, there exist bands of militias loyal to Delhi, surrendered militants led by the late Kukka Parrey kinda people whose experience points to a rather sad failure of that policy in J&K.

  5. It is important to embrace the past critically, so I am satisfied to see that the reality about Gandhi’s views at the time and experience in South Africa has been stated. Of course, he did modify his views, but I think it is fair to say that they remained firmly within the conservative end of the social spectrum on a whole range of issues. More importantly, I think the Brazil-India-ZA axis can play an effective role in international forums like the WTO and trade negotiations where they have a substantial overlap of interests and can benefit from acting together in a way that wouldn’t happen if they acted individually. It also provides them with a rare chance to show some leadership for other smaller LDCs that can’t exert much influence otherwise in such platforms to get their interests heard.

    South Africa has also indicated its willingness to support both India and Brazil in their quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

    I wouldn’t get too excited about this, as it will be the big powers who will act as the gatekeepers on who gets admitted to the UNSC or not. I also don’t see a permanent seat with veto powers as being such a great goal, it might massage the egos of our armchair foreign policy watchers, but it is not necessarily going to do much else. A permanent UNSC seat, is an indicator of national power it isn’t an element of such power in itself.

    And just as Gandhi (him again) inspired Mandela in his anti-apartheid struggle, there is much that India can learn from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. India can adopt the South African model to heal the wounds of the decade-long conflict in Kashmir.

    Well, Gandhian tactics and philosophy borrowed heavily from external sources as well such as Thoreau and Tolstoy which isn’t well acknowledged today and I don’t think the ANC’s struggle was primarily non-violent as such; though it certainly incorporated a strong moral dimension just as Gandhian nationalism did. I am highly sceptical of the TRC model being adopted though; many analysts now think that its implementation and conception was flawed, and there were numerous attempts at sabotaging it which were only evaded by the sheer determination of some of its members and supporters. But this is to miss the larger point, the TRC was constituted by the victorious side in a national-liberation struggle and one who were the disproportionate victims of violence. It wasn’t the brainchild of the old regime; and I can’t see how it can be adopted unproblematically to the Indian context in Kashmir. It needs to be remembered that it followed a political resolution of the conflict and one that enjoyed a broad enough consensus across the diverging political forces, enough to survive. To adapt it to conditions in Kashmir, it can only follow a similar political resolution of the conflict there and it should be something that comes from and is run substantially by various Kashmiri actors themselves; it can’t be something instigated by the Indian side simply to salve a troubled conscience or as a sop. This might be worthwhile or effective as a separate measure but it won’t be a real TRC. Apart from anything else all sides need to be willing to listen to each others’ grievances without denial or prejudice. I don’t think we are at this stage yet.

    The Indian President’s visit is largely symbolic in nature, but it is time to find some new symbols that are appropriate in the new circumstances. It is time to throw Gandhi off the train again. This time for reasons that are not likely to pain the Mahatma.

    Presidential visits are largely symbolic, but they also point the way towards changing foreign policy thrusts; frex under the last regime there were visits to Sudan and Syria (both accused sponsors of international terrorism) while under this one there have been this one to Africa to ZA and Tanzania, very different states with different political histories. I don’t think this is accidental. I don’t find anything wrong in the use of old symbols, at an ideological level, increased trade ties and manoeuvring in international security organisations is not going to grab the popular imagination or influence public opinion at a mass level; which is why broader historical symbols are used, such as the Gandhian connection. I see nothing wrong in this, if they are to be discarded it is because of their unsuitability on their own criteria. Secondly, I am doubtful as to whether the ‘Mahatma’ would be so eager to be put into the relative background; it is too often forgotten that Gandhi was an adept and extremely skilful politician and like all members of this species, they are extremely reluctant to cede power. It is also unlikely that given his views on international conflict and modern industrial society he would have been impressed by the direction of contemporary Indian policy on this score but that is a separate matter.

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