Note: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has left for South Africa from Mozambique on Thursday night (7 July) as this copy was being published.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has arrived in Mozambique, the first stop of a four-nation tour that will also see him touchdown in South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.
Copious volumes have appeared about ancient trade ties between India and Africa since around 1 CE. Tomes have been compiled about Mahatma Gandhi's life in South Africa and the quasi-birth of India's independence struggle there. And reams have been published on India's heightened interest in Africa since the first India-Africa summit held in 2008, the second in Addis Ababa in 2011 and the last in New Delhi in 2015. The thrust of India's 'reaching out' to its gigantic continental neighbour across the pond - in our case, the Indian Ocean, has been summed up repeatedly by the MEA as well as think-tanks. India wants to further developmental and trade ties, cooperate over energy and maritime security and forge new defense partnerships with her African "partners in progress". The unsaid? To beat China at all of the above and effectively contain its rapidly widening 'String of Pearls' strategy in the Indian Ocean.
But just how much do we know about the four of Africa's 54 countries that Modi is touring, or their citizens about us?
The four states chosen by Modi in sub-Saharan Africa are those with ties both ancient and relatively modern with India. Except for Mozambique which was colonised by Portugal, the other three countries share our British colonial past.
Like anywhere in the world, there is an Indian diaspora in all four countries: 75,000 in Mozambique, 1.5 million in South Africa, 80,000 in Kenya and 70,000 in Tanzania. (Let's brace ourselves for some more dizzying Bolly-Dandia-Bhangra spectacles when Mr Modi addresses them).
And like anywhere in the world, the enterprise and industriousness of Indian-origin Africans (excluding shameful historical aspects like slave-trading African natives on behalf of our British colonial masters), has earned them comfortable positions in society. India's frequent engagements in UN peace-keeping operations across the continent too, have earned praise.
But our 'habshi' mentality—that has shown its ugliest sides recently in brutal attacks on some of the roughly 25,000 African students in India—and our fatal flaw of viewing ourselves as a superior race wherever we go, have also ensured that no matter what governments eager to forge deals tell us, Indians are not on top of the pops in most of sub-Saharan Africa.
"What can we do with Indians, they are staring Africa in the eye," rapped the Durban hip-hop group AmaCde, two years ago. "Black people let us..tell them to go back and cross the ocean. If they refuse, it is time for action." To intervening authorities who received complaints from the SA Hindu Mahasabha which warned of growing racial attacks on Indians, AmaCde defended the text as a 'reality for many Africans'.
So are we doomed to remain 'charous' (South African slang for 'blackened man') and they 'habshis' (today a synonym for the N-Word) to us?
We are not entirely to blame, neither are the Africans. It was the usual suspects—the colonial British—playing their old games who began it all. They brought in Indians for clerical jobs to Africa, while neglecting to improve the educational and job prospects for native Africans. Independent India's Nehruvian ideology didn't help us do much better. Given our premature ambition of gaining entry into world bodies prior to 2008, India viewed African nations not as equal partners but more as fellow-Third-World countries whose votes for India in various global forums and not 'partnerships in progress', were what mattered most of all.
When Indians settled by the British in countries like Uganda and Kenya rejected local citizenship of the countries where they had built fortunes after their independence from colonial rule and set their sights on greater affluence in Britain - whose passports they still carried, anti-Indian sentiment burgeoned.
Given a trade volume of $200 billion as compared to India's at $70 billion in 2014, China is Africa's No 1 trading partner. Other than in Mauritius, Chinese investment in Africa far exceeds that of India. The Chinese too, have ancient trade links with the world's second largest continent. But since they did not include cross-border colonialism under the British and therewith at least one shared language, the pressure upon India to re-fabricate her social and cultural ties with Africans is far greater. Further, China is already being charged of 'neo-colonialism' in Africa, so it will be all the more up to India to ensure a trickle-down effect for all her investment in the continent.
Further, it is myopic to blather on about the Mahatma's connection and therewith our 'natural partnership' with South Africa. Be it in railways, medicine or IT and despite Pretoria's support for us in forums like BRICS, South Africa is the continent's largest economy, enjoys racial and cultural links to most other sub-Saharan African states and sees itself as the natural leader in all pan-African matters of trade and investment. Consequently, India must remember that South Africa will primarily be a competitor, not a 'natural partner'.
Ties between countries are forged by governments. Which, in turn, are elected or toppled by millions of ordinary citizens. Consequently, there can be no success in Africa unless there is a sea-change in our world-view and attitudes towards African people. A few clumsily composed DAVP 'public interest' campaigns urging us to 'love African students' won't make the grade. The Modi government will have to launch an intensive, penetrative and informative education programme to eliminate the many hateful, pre-conceived notions held by millions of us. Is the new HRD minister listening?
(The author is a senior foreign correspondent and former South Asia bureau chief, Der Spiegel.)