Drawing a link between Indian and South African cultures during his four-nation visit to Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the journey from “Gujarat to Durban” as one “through the spirit of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (globalism) to Ubuntu”, the last a Zulu word that expresses the core of humanism. The evocative reference imbues the historical links between India and African nations with a unique warmth. But Mr. Modi also made it clear that this visit was more than about words. In an interview to a South African newspaper, he outlined his focus areas: energy, food and maritime security. His stops at Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya were accompanied by discussions on securing lines of coal and natural gas and funding capacity-building in energy production. In Tanzania and Mozambique, in particular, there were discussions on enhancing the export of pulses to India to meet a demand shortfall. As he travelled along the southern coast of Africa, Mr. Modi spoke to his hosts in detail about shoring up maritime ties as part of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and linking India’s own “Sagar-Mala” outreach for Indian Ocean islands with the South Africa-authored “Operation Phakisa”, that focusses on Africa’s combined strengths in blue economies and ocean governance. India has been slow to upgrade ties with Africa, and it must chart its own trajectory without competing with, or being inhibited by, China’s formidable presence in the continent. China’s current hold in trade and investment in Africa is three times India’s, and South Africa, for instance, has a key role in promoting the Maritime Silk Route programme as part of the One Belt One Road initiative.
Mr. Modi’s visit to these four countries in southern and east Africa should, therefore, be seen as a work in progress. Africa is a continent of 54 countries, and each has diverse reasons to improve ties with India — from sharing low-cost technologies and pharmaceuticals, building on the Solar Alliance and renewable energies, and growing markets for each other’s goods. For instance, 84 per cent of India’s imports from the Sub-Saharan region still come from raw materials and natural resources, not consumer or processed goods. However, if there was one message that Mr. Modi could have emphasised more, it was the concern over racism in India that students and others from Africa often face. As he spoke in Durban to the Indian community on the history of racism that Indians and Africans had fought together for many decades, a line about India’s commitment to fight the remaining vestiges of racism domestically would not have been out of place. The omission is, in fact, also a reminder that the outreach to African countries needs to be sustained back home in Indian cities too, in the true spirit of “Ubuntu”.