South Africa seems to be gradually drifting out of the Western orbit. Its, at least implicit, support for Russia in its current attack on Ukraine is the most obvious sign of how South Africa is turning its back on the West and looking for new allies.
Russia is not the only non-Western ally that South Africa is courting. Ties between this country and China are also growing stronger, with the South African government actively seeking to strengthen political and economic ties.
There is nothing wrong with South Africa seeking strong ties with countries that are not in the West; as the saying goes, a country has no friends, only interests. This country should be free to build relationships with any country it sees fit, particularly if there will be a benefit from building a strong relationship.
However, there is one country which we should be courting in particular, not simply because of its growing influence on the global stage, but also because of what we can learn from it. And that country is India.
Not only are there far stronger historical and cultural ties between South Africa and India than between this country and China, or South Africa and Russia, but there is much South Africa can learn from India. India is also a country of the future, while Russia and China are countries whose moment has passed.
The 21st century is likely to be the Indian century, rather than the Chinese century.
The transformation of India in the past 30 years has been nothing short of remarkable. It has gone from being a country on the fringes to one that the world cannot help noticing. Bollywood movies and Indian music are increasingly moving onto the forefront of the global stage. The Indian Premier League, the country’s T20 cricket league, is, by some measures, the second-richest sports league on Earth, surpassed only by the NFL.
India also recently landed an unmanned probe on the Moon, becoming only the fourth country after the US, China, and Russia to achieve this feat.
Perceptions of India are changing, it is no longer a country of poverty and suffering, but rather a dynamic, forward-looking country, which can provide real opportunities for its citizens.
Unlike Russia and China, India has a strong democratic tradition, with regular elections and a tradition of secular liberalism. Of course, there are concerns over the rise of Hindi chauvinism and attacks on religious minorities, such as Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs. The democratic space is also shrinking under the current government, but many India-watchers are confident that Indian democracy will weather this storm successfully, and emerge stronger.
Hard facts also back up India’s transformation over the last 30 years – it hasn’t simply been because of a clever marketing campaign.
Indians have become much richer over the past 30 years. In 1990 the average South African was eight times as rich as the average Indian – today the average South Africa is only three times as rich as the average Indian and this gap is closing. Incomes have been stagnant in South Africa while they are rising in India.
India is also winning the battle against poverty. While poverty has been declining slowly in South Africa, in India this decline has been far more rapid, with a much higher proportion of people being lifted out of poverty each year than in South Africa. Depending on the measurement used India’s either the third-biggest economy in the world or the fifth biggest.
It currently grows at about 7% a year currently. At that rate of increase it adds output the equivalent of the entire South African economy about every 18 months or so.
South Africans can only look on jealously at those kinds of economic growth rates, which are the only way to sustainably tackle poverty and unemployment in this country.
But it was not always this way. India also used to be an economy dominated by the dead hand of the state. The so-called ‘Licence Raj’ was the name given the highly regulated Indian economy that persisted following the end of British rule in the 1940s.
The statist economy saw economic growth remain sluggish, with economists speaking about the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ in India. (The ‘Hindu rate of growth’ was still about 4% annually, a number many South Africans would love to have). This also meant that large numbers of people remained trapped in lives of poverty and penury.
However, the Indian government implemented a number of reforms, which saw the end of the ‘Licence Raj’. This saw the Indian economy deregulated and although there had been some abortive attempts at economic liberalisation previously, this was the most successful. However, the Indian government’s hand was forced, as the country was on the brink of an economic crisis, with the country on the brink of defaulting.
Along with the scrapping of the ‘Licence Raj’ state-owned monopolies were broken up and it was made easier for foreign companies to invest.
These reforms saw something of an Indian economic miracle, with the country developing rapidly, and lifting countless people out of poverty every day.
South Africa is on the brink of something similar. This country is also facing an economic crisis, and the day is not far off when Pretoria also won’t be able to pay its bills. However, it is not certain that the South African government will let reality win out over ideology and take the hard decisions necessary to set this country on a path of prosperity and success.
To paraphrase PW Botha, South Africa will have to reform or die.
India and South Africa have similar histories of colonialism and exclusion, with large numbers of people living in poverty. However, India is a country which looks more to the future, rather than the past. When driving a car, if you constantly look in the rearview mirror, rather than through the windshield, you will eventually have an accident. Of course, it is important to look behind you, but to reach your destination you have to see what’s in front of you. Indians have stopped only looking in the rearview mirror but are looking ahead too. South Africa would do well to learn from this.