The Indian president Patil arrived in South Africa on Tuesday amid a growing controversy over her frequent travels. She defended her hefty bills by pointing out that many of her trips resulted from invitations, as was the case with South Africa. But our president wasn’t out to impress her as much as the sizeable business delegation she lugged along.
The Union Buildings brought out the canons and the marching bands to welcome Indian President Pratibha Patil to Pretoria on Wednesday. After a cacophony of booms and national anthems, Patil and President Jacob Zuma introduced their delegations to each other, smiled for the cameras and disappeared behind closed doors. A little over an hour later, the two presidents emerged, beaming, ready to enthral the assembled press posse with their carefully selected words.
And just as it began, it ended. Both presidents read out prepared statements. Neither of them said anything particularly new or ground-breaking. It seemed like an affirmation of a friendship. Journalists, pesky creatures that we are, were not allowed any questions.
What was the point of it all then?
Zuma explained the entire spectacle as recognition of the historical relationship between India and South Africa. “This is a significant state visit because relations between India and South Africa date back many decades,” he said.
While Zuma rightfully acknowledged the rich history between the two countries, the real significance of the trip does not lie in its historical context. Patil’s visit to South Africa is her final salvo as Indian president – with just three months left in office, she has been hard pressed to defend her penchant for globetrotting. Since she assumed office in 2007, Patil has visited Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Bhutan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Spain, Poland, Russia, Tajikistan, the UK, Cyprus, China, Laos, Cambodia, the UAE, Syria, Mauritius , South Korea, Switzerland and Austria, spending a total of 79 days abroad. Her spokesman has argued that India’s rising profile is to be blamed for her frequent travels.
And though her week-long trip to South Africa is set to be her final trip as Indian president, the Indian public has been incensed by reports that she’s been accompanied by her family, further escalating the cost of her trip to the detriment of the Indian taxpayer. Her office has denied Patil has been accompanied “mostly by family members”, arguing that as well as two of her grandchildren, the official delegation includes ministers, MPs and senior government officials. The pressure then, is on Patil to prove that the expense of these trips is for the benefit of the Indian people.
Senior South African government officials concede her visit has little to do with historical ties. Her role as president of India might be largely ceremonial, but the deference offered to Patil and her accompanying delegation at the Union Buildings on Wednesday proves the value the South African government has accorded Indian investment into South Africa.
Zuma readily attested to his support for increasing trade volumes between India and South Africa. “While trade between South Africa and India are increasing steadily, we should all work to reach ever higher figures,” he said. “In 2011, bilateral trade between India and South Africa stood at R53.7-billion, with South Africa exporting goods to the value of R24.4-billion to India and importing goods from India to the value of R29.3-billion. Our ministers responsible for trade and industry and trade and commerce are of the view that we should increase our mutual trade to R111-billion by 2014. I fully endorse the view.”
Patil’s visit to South Africa, then, is just an opportunity for the South African government and business establishment to reach out to Indian business.
Abdullah Verachia, Head of the India, Africa Network at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, believes it is the healthy political relationship between India and South Africa that has allowed South Africa to open itself to Indian business prospects. He believes South Africa’s interest in India as a trading partner is the result of a number of factors, combining the historical relationship between the two countries with their current context as emerging economies in a shifting world order.
It is, however, Zuma’s grand infrastructure plan for which he appears most keen to attract investment. “We have once again extended an invitation to Indian business to invest in our infrastructure development programme, in which we are to invest more than R800-billion until 2014,” Zuma noted.
And Verachia, for one, is optimistic of the chances of Indian investment in South African infrastructure being successful. By Wednesday evening, he had already met all 61 executives accompanying Patil.
“Hopefully, the announcement of business deals will soon follow,” he said, adding that the coming months will see the announcement of India’s largest infrastructure construction companies making sizeable investments in South Africa.
India’s investment in Africa, unlike China’s, has been driven by the private sector. After the first wave of investment that saw large companies like Tata Motors opening assembly operation in South Africa, we are now likely to see a second wave of Indian investment from smaller Indian companies. If indeed these ripples of possibility translate into actual investments, the benefits to the South African economy are set to be immense. They may well justify all the canon fire – and even Patil’s penchant for flying. DM