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India and South Africa: Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of apartheid

Manu Bhagavan

Updated: April 8, 2014, 4:12 PM IST
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This month will mark 20 years since elections that brought the system of apartheid in South Africa to a formal end. India can rightfully celebrate its historic opposition to one of the world's most grotesque and brutal forms of state discrimination based in segregation.

Indeed, it was Nehru's government that initially stood up to the precursor to apartheid, the Ghetto Act, championed in 1946 by none other than Jan Smuts, Gandhi's old sparring partner. In one of the first acts of the newly established United Nations, it was Nehru's sister, Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, who led the fight against the South African law, and with oratorical flourish, called on the "conscience of the world" to bring justice to the oppressed.

This move internationalized the issue, cracking a defense based on domestic jurisdiction and the protection of sovereignty, and helped empower the new international organization forever after. Madame Pandit carried a General Assembly vote in her favor with a 2/3 majority and South Africa went down to defeat.

But Jan Smuts lost the follow-up election and his radical successor grew the Ghetto Act into apartheid. India continued to fight against this new system, working in concert with other anti-racist forces led by the American National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), seeing all of this as part of a larger anti-colonial struggle. The NAACP had been advocating on India's behalf throughout much of the 1940's, and its leaders saw global forms of racial and economic exploitation as linked.

Carol Anderson is a scholar of African American studies and history at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, USA. She is currently working on a new book, Bourgeois Radicals (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press), which focuses on the NAACP's internationalist fight against colonialism. I had a chance to speak with her about this project, about India's role in challenging apartheid, and about the lasting legacy of this justice struggle on politics today.

Questions for Carol Anderson:

1. Can you tell us a little about your new project on the struggle for colonial liberation?

CA: I'm looking at the key role of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in anti-colonial struggles in the 1940s and '50s. The NAACP worked with the India League, Madame Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Reverend Michael Scott, the Somali Youth League, and more to discredit many of the pillars that held up "the white man's burden." Their collaborative efforts scored some major victories along the way. In addition, I'm working on an article detailing the collaboration between the ANC and the NAACP in challenging a series of World Bank loans (1949-1953) to the newly-created apartheid government.

2. Can you summarize the role that India, as a state actor, played in challenging apartheid?

CA: India was absolutely essential in this struggle. When, in 1946, India went to the UN and charged Pretoria with violating the human rights of Indians in South Africa, that one action stopped the annexation of current day Namibia and put an international spotlight on a racist regime. Then, with the advent of apartheid in 1948, India took the lead in the United Nations demanding international censure for a regime that was a throwback to the Nazis. India, as Nehru made clear, viewed its role in the international system as leading the charge against European colonialism.

3. How effective do you think international efforts were in changing things in South Africa?

CA: Without the UN, without the global divestment movement, without government after government issuing sanctions, the people of South Africa would probably still be laboring under the scourge of apartheid. Oliver Tambo was very deliberate in seeking allies and the media to tell the tale of a virulent white minority rule regime and the toll it took on lives, rights, and dignity. The growing isolation of South Africa began to make the regime's ability to function very difficult.

4. Part of the question and original defense had to do with domestic jurisdiction, state sovereignty, and the place for international activism and policy. How did these tensions play out, in your opinion?

CA: By the mid-1950s the U.S. State Department's legal division noted that regardless of how hard the imperial powers clung to Article 2(7), a series of challenges in the UN had begun "whittling away" at domestic jurisdiction. Two of the key cases in the United Nations were the "Treatment of Indians in South Africa" and the UN subcommittee on apartheid, which authorized the United Nations to investigate the internal racial policies of South Africa.

5. Was India consistent in its policies, or were there any areas where you found inconsistency or outright hypocrisy?

CA: India had to deal with the difficulties of being an idealistic champion of equality and a nation riddled with caste and battling Pakistan over Kashmir. One of the key moments when those contradictions clashed was during the UN sessions on South West Africa (an international mandate that South Africa was determined to annex). At the initial one, when the State Department (urged on by Pretoria and London) tried to stop the Africans' emissary, Michael Scott, from entering the U.S., India stepped up and made him an official member of the UN delegation. India and Scott were masterful in putting South Africa on trial. The next year, however, the British and Americans convinced India that the last thing New Delhi wanted was to set a precedent where a disgruntled Indian would end up on Pakistan's UN delegation. Michael Scott then had to find another way into the U.S. to argue the case of the Herero, Nama, and Berg Damara before the UN.

6. In some of your work, you critique the American Civil Rights movement for its shortcomings, arguing that human rights would have had a more transformative impact on American society. Can you explain this distinction briefly? What role do you think international human rights norms and instruments played in the creation of the South African rainbow nation?

CA: In 1942 and 1943, the ANC crafted and published a series of documents that envisioned Africans' freedom in relation to the Atlantic Charter's articulation of human rights. It was clear, early on, that not just political freedom (the right to vote; the right to due process; the right to assemble- civil rights) but also economic rights (the right to a standard of living, healthcare, housing, and employment-human rights) were essential for fulfilling the human dignity of those who had been swallowed up in the vortex of a white supremacist system.

7. What is the most important lesson we might learn from India's historic engagement with South Africa, and where might the future take us?

CA: An injustice is an injustice. Michael Scott received a lot of his training in India in the passive resistance movement. He took those skills to South Africa. India received a lot of blowback from the British government for refusing to follow London's lead in the Commonwealth and just accept South Africa warts and all. That ability to stand tall, to lead, to provide a voice to those whom a government is determined to silence, is how change is made.
First Published: April 8, 2014, 4:12 PM IST