India’s application for membership in the 48-member Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is set to come up for discussion at the group’s plenary meeting in Seoul on June 20. South Africa, along with China, New Zealand, Ireland, Turkey and Austria, are opposed to India’s entry into this elite club. The opposition of most of these countries is because India is yet to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. South Africa’s position on this issue has, however, come as a surprise.
Especially because, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, had, during the 9th India South Africa Joint Commission meeting in May 2015, assured External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj that South Africa would support India’s bid for membership in the NSG. So, why is South Africa, India’s strategic partner on the African continent and an old friend, now holding out? India and South Africa share a historical relationship that can be traced to the arrival of Indian labourers in Natal province in 1860.
No one can forget that Mahatma Gandhi developed his concept of Satyagraha during his sojourn in South Africa. India was the first country to break trade ties with the apartheid government and had consistently called for comprehensive sanctions to be imposed against it at the United Nations. India was also an ardent supporter of the South African ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), during its struggle against the apartheid regime.
The ANC has had an office in New Delhi since the 1960s. After South Africa’s transition to majority rule in 1994, India’s relations with that country grew by leaps and bounds. Commercial relations have flourished with bilateral trade now standing at USD 15 billion; and India’s investments in the country was pegged at USD 6 billion in 2014. A number of Indian companies such as Tata, Mahindra, CIPLA, Ranbaxy, UB group, Infosys, WIPRO and Essar have a presence in South Africa.
Similarly, South African companies, including SAB Miller, ASCA, SANLAM, Old Mutual, ALTECH and Adock Ingram, have invested in India. At the political level, India and South Africa have joined hands for the formation of multilateral groupings such as the IBSA and IORA, and are also members of others such as BRICS and BASIC. They also have common concerns relating to global governance reforms and sustainable development.
India has argued that its membership in the NSG would enable it to seek investment for its nuclear power sector. India has embarked on a nuclear power programme in a bid to address its energy deficit and also to fulfil its commitment to ensure a clean energy mix. While India has a 2008 waiver from the NSG that allows it to trade in nuclear materials, there is concern that this privilege could be withdrawn in the future.
NSG membership would address this uncertainty and facilitate the flow of nuclear fuel and technology into the country. India had hoped that South Africa would be sympathetic to India’s need in this regard especially given the recent unveiling of plans to develop 9,600 megawatts of nuclear power capacity to address its energy challenge.
South Africa does carry a lot of baggage on the nuclear issue. It was the first country in the world to give up its nuclear weapons programme in 1989. The ANC had opposed the apartheid government’s nuclear weapons programme and has continued to do so in the post-apartheid era. Since 1994, the South African government has been committed to a policy of non- proliferation, disarmament and arms control. It has also been an active participant in various non-proliferation regimes and supplier groups.
South Africa had expressed its ‘deep concern at the nuclear testing’ following India’s 1998 nuclear tests and had stressed that it “opposed all nuclear tests, since they do not promote world peace and security.”5 Yet, its reaction was milder compared with those of the United States and Japan. Further, its opposition to India’s NSG membership does not seem to lie in its anti-nuclear stand. Rather, its opposition appears to be motivated by geopolitical rather than ideological reasons.
The change in the South African position may have something to do with the growing Chinese influence in the country. China’s relations with South Africa have deepened in recent years. The year 2014 was termed the “Year of South Africa in China”, while 2015 was marked as the “China Year in South Africa”. In December 2015, South Africa hosted the second Forum of China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit and the 6th ministerial conference at Johannesburg.
Trade between the two countries is booming; the latest reports suggest that the value of two way trade is around USD 20 billion.6 Indeed, China has become South Africa’s largest trading partner. It seems that the ANC-led government is quite enamoured with China. The 2015 ANC foreign policy discussion document applauds “the exemplary role of the collective leadership of the Communist Party of China” and hails China as “a guiding lodestar of our own struggle.”7 Such statements suggest that South Africa may be in the process of making a geopolitical pivot towards China.
So has South Africa buckled under Chinese pressure to oppose India’s membership in the NSG? While this cannot yet be confirmed, there are strong indicators that it could be a possibility. So where does that leave India? It should obviously step up efforts to engage with the South Africa government to make it understand India’s viewpoint.
Until that happens, the road to Seoul is going to be via Beijing.