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Has Zuma surrendered South Africa's disarmament policy to India?
13 July 2016

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just completed a four-nation tour of Africa, which he will no doubt regard as a great success and another feather in the cap of India’s expanding all-Africa policy. He visited the littoral states of Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya, pushing further ajar the Indian Ocean gateway to Africa and particularly its landlocked states, as his officials told journalists.

His safari was meant to raise India’s profile as a key African partner, particularly in development, energy, trade and investment in Africa – and no doubt also to counter the influence of China, which has become the most conspicuous foreign presence on the continent.

In Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya, Modi’s visit was entirely uncontroversial, as far as one could tell. He distributed largesse in the form of development grants and concessional finance, and promised more investment; mainly tapping the US$10 billion in lines of credit and grant assistance of US$600 million, which he promised at the third India-Africa Forum in New Delhi in October last year. 

Modi's safari was meant to raise India's profile as a key African partner
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He and Tanzania’s President John Magufuli beat the drums very vigorously when Modi was received at State House in Dar es Salaam on the penultimate leg of his tour. That just about summed up the celebratory mood of his African safari. Modi met and feted the local Indian diaspora in a big public event, as he did at his three other stops.

He received unstinted and rapturous welcomes everywhere – except in South Africa, ironically, where India’s historical and emotional ties are closest. That dates back to the country’s intimate association with Mahatma Gandhi, who developed his satyagraha non-violent civil disobedience philosophy in South Africa.

Modi paid homage to that historical and emotional link by re-tracing Gandhi’s train journey in 1893, from Durban to Pietermaritzburg – where he was thrown out of the first-class compartment, even though he had a first-class ticket – because he was not white.

And the African National Congress (ANC) in exile was strongly supported by the Indian government under the ANC’s sister party, the Indian National Congress, which was in the vanguard of international efforts to isolate the apartheid government.

Modi, though, is the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is Hindu nationalist.

By all accounts, ordinary South African Indians received Modi as warmly as the other African diasporas he met. But some Indian intellectuals, particularly Muslims, did not.

Ismail Vadi, a board member of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, suggested before Modi arrived that South Africans might still be ‘haunted by the ghosts of Gujarat’ – a reference to the Hindu ‘pogrom’ against minority Muslims in that state in 2002; when Modi was premier.

Whether SA's public backing will help re-invigorate India's NSG campaign is unclear
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‘The jury is still out as to whether or not the official organs of the Gujarat state were complicit in those attacks,’ Vadi wrote in City Press. He suggested that Modi should learn from South African Indians who had committed themselves to a secular, non-racial society along with all other peoples of the nation.

‘Indian South Africans … have no aspirations to return to India,’ he lectured.

Indian officials with Modi shrugged off such criticism, noting that Kathrada had attended a meeting that Modi held with struggle heroes in Durban. 

Perhaps the major diplomatic success of Modi’s visit to South Africa was in securing President Jacob Zuma’s public support for India to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).

The NSG – a limited association of 48 states trading in nuclear materials and technologies – now consists only of members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); the premier instrument for preventing the spread of atomic weapons. India is not a member of the NPT.

As Noël Stott, a senior research fellow and disarmament specialist at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), points out, the NSG was – ironically – established in the immediate aftermath of India detonating its first atomic device in 1974. And so it is, unsurprisingly, considered another instrument of non-proliferation.

But, under pressure from the United States – seeking contracts to build Indian nuclear power plants – the NSG member states made an exemption for India in 2007. Under the assurance that such material would only go into its civilian nuclear power programme and not its nuclear weapons programme, India was allowed to trade in nuclear fuel and technology.

India insisted that it needed this nuclear material and technology to boost its production of nuclear power; the needs of which were large given its huge development backlog and the imperative to curb its massive greenhouse gas emissions.

Last month, India tried to go a step further by seeking permanent membership of the NSG but was thwarted, mainly by China, but also by some principled small anti-nuclear states such as Austria, Ireland and New Zealand.

Indian officials say China’s aim was to deny India membership of the NSG unless Beijing’s ally, Pakistan – India’s neighbour, archenemy and fellow nuclear-armed power – was also admitted to the club.

The Indians claim they were happy to accept these terms, but that several other NSG members were not – and so India’s bid stalled.

Disarmament champions are dismayed by what they regard as Zuma's capitulation
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Whether South Africa’s public backing will help re-invigorate its campaign is unclear. What is certain is that disarmament champions in civil society – and even some in South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) – are dismayed by what they regard as Zuma’s capitulation.

‘Nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are fundamental pillars of South Africa’s foreign policy,’ said one Dirco official. ‘We are, after all, the only country that has ever voluntarily abandoned its nuclear weapons.’ (In 1990.) They are also puzzled at what motivated Zuma’s decision, especially as it was sure to anger another major ally, China.

On the other hand, it is argued that India is an ally that can be trusted to keep its word, to build a Chinese wall, so to speak, between its civilian and its military nuclear programmes. And it has a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons; whereas Pakistan has no such policy, Indian officials point out. They also note that it was Pakistan’s nuclear physicist AQ Khan who passed on nuclear secrets to the nuclear rogue regimes, North Korea and Libya.

Nicolas Kasprzyk, an expert on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear issues at the ISS, analyses India’s attempts to join the NSG in light of its recent accession to the Missile Technology Control Regime and to the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, and of the ambition to join the Australia Group and the Wassenaar Arrangement. He notes that these moves converge to the ultimate goal of having India further recognised on the international scene as a responsible actor on non-proliferation.

Nonetheless, opponents of the Modi-Zuma agreement fear that admitting a non-NPT member into the NSG, risks undercutting the NPT and all it stands for. ‘Perhaps this is the crux of the matter,’ says Stott. ‘How to broaden NSG membership without undermining the very foundation of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.’ 

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Picture: ©Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO

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