Geo-Strategic Interface between South Africa - India - Sri Lanka

By Srimal Fernando and Vedangshi Roy Choudhuri

19 August 2020

The importance of South Africa in the political, economical, social and geographical context has been on the rise. Arguably, leadership has been the key element in leading the growth and increasing influence of South Africa. The other African countries have been leveraging the dominant role of South Africa to their favour in aspects of social and economic advancements. South Africa’s transformation lies in the steady growth in their political and economic developments fuelled by their international relations, beyond the borders of the African continent. Improving relationships have been led by South Africa’s growing influence with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), South African Development Cooperation (SADC) and Brazil Russia India China and South Africa ( BRICS) member states.


Broad similarities are made with India and its growing influence in South Asia. India’s significant leadership role in the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which is a group of eight nations, has been through trade and commerce and setting up international relations for the prosperity of the SAARC region counties. Both South Africa and India have their strategic geographical advantage as regards their location. South Africa, being in the Southern tip of Africa overlooks on trade routes around the Cape towards the busy Far East and at a vantage position of being en route to the rich oil trade. The significant trade route has the vested interest of American and European countries, some in legacy and most of it with the exploration of mineral wealth and burgeoning industrial, commercial and financial growth. Similar to SAARC in South Asia, South Africa’s leading role in SADC, a group of 15 African nations, has provided the strength and impetus of the importance in the region. However, a stark contrast of SADC, SAARC’s intraregional trade is in dismal 5% and has to do more to tap its immense potential.

India and South Africa

History unites both India and South Africa in many ways. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for equality and independence had originated in South Africa, even before he was successful in leading India to independence. India has also played a significant role in their support of the anti-apartheid movement, evidenced by severing trade relations with the apartheid Government in the mid 20th century. This was further followed with sanctions and imposing an embargo on South Africa across diplomatic, cultural, commercial and sporting links. India’s persistence on the anti-apartheid movement has seen fruition by tabling the issue on the agenda on various forums such as the United Nations, Non-Aligned Movement and other multilateral organisations. The impetus witnessed the imposition of comprehensive international sanctions against the apartheid South African government. The presence of the Africa National Congress representative office in New Delhi from the 1960s further strengthened the relations. India’s support and campaign for the Africa Fund helped to support and sustain the anti-apartheid struggle across the world. Recently in India, January 9th has been designated as the Pravasi Bharathiya Diwas dedicated to the Indian diaspora the world over, as a mark of respect to Gandhi’s arrival on the same date in 1915.

Leadership across both the countries and their stewardship have lent credence to both India and South Africa, both in its history, struggles and in finality, their independence. Gandhi and Mandela have demonstrated to the world that human dignity and freedom from oppression is a birthright and needs to be respected. Both of them campaigned and built inclusive societies and in being one nation, was a guarantee to stand united and fight backwardness and exploitation of all forms by the elites and supposed occupiers. This idea is adequately reflected in the make-up of the “Indian” as well as the “South African” — the notion of all-embracing citizenship combined with the conception of the public good.

The South African Indian origin community forms the largest Indian diaspora with more than 1.6 million and forms more than 3% of the South African population. Dating back from the first arrivals in 1860, the Indian origin community has grown and become a significant part of the social, political and economic community of South Africa. Integrated into the lives of the South African populace, Indian origin people have found their niche in fields of business, industry, technology and academics. Culture is a great unifier amongst people from India and South Africa and the Indian diaspora plays a significant catalyst in that sense.

India is South Africa’s fifth-largest export destination, and fourth-largest import origin and is the second-largest trading partner in Asia. Both countries are working to boost trade volumes in the coming years. Bilateral trade between India and South Africa currently stands at $10 billion. In 2016, both countries set a target of doubling bilateral trade and investment to $20 billion by 2021. (High Commission Of India, Pretoria, South Africa.)

As of September 2019, total expenditure by Indian travellers in South Africa touched a four-year high. Over 100,000 tourists from India visit South Africa annually. In the first half of last year, the average length of stay of travellers from India rose 8% on a year-on-year basis. Connectivity between the two countries has improved significantly in the past years. Major airlines connect the two nations.

South Africa and Sri Lanka

The future of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and Africa hinges upon the development and building of an economic common market that includes South Asia and African nations. These will provide the appropriate opportunities to nurture, grow and enhance the potential growth for Sri Lanka and African nations. The onus lies with both Sri Lanka and African policymakers to explore the existing framework of SAARC and the African consumer markets and taking forward the Revitalised Africa foreign policy initiative. Again, it is the strategic location of this island nation to become a logistic hub that provides a brilliant opportunity to African nations to access the growing South Asian markets. The main engines of growth in today and the future economic development lie in maximising the potential of the island nation in the Indian Ocean,  with collaboration, cooperation and co-creation of a common market between South Asia and African nations, given that the Indian Ocean maritime trade routes provide as the 21st century's "silk route".

Nelson Mandela and Chandrika Kumaratunga would often end up sitting next to each other during multi-lateral conferences since the countries they represent are alphabetically connected. Furthermore, Mandela held a great deal of respect for Kumaratunga’s mother Sirimavo Bandaranaike, she told to BBC in an interview. Though he had never met her, Mandela never forgot the letters Bandaranaike sent that had provided him with support during his long incarceration in the South African prison. Kumaratunga stated that “The Elders”- ( a group of leaders that Nelson Mandela had brought together in 2007 to address major causes of human suffering)  had approached her confidentially to address the reconciliation in Sri Lanka and minority rights.

Economic ties between the two countries have been based on apparel, tourism and maritime connectivity. However, bilateral trade between the countries leans in favour of South Africa. According to trade figures for 2017, Sri Lanka’s imports from South Africa amounted to $ 286 million while the country’s value of exports to South Africa was only $ 42 million.

South Africa and Sri Lanka have completed 25 years of fraternity in the field of trade, commerce and diplomacy.

Analysing the above, we conclude that the deep-rooted bonds between South Africa, India and Sri Lanka have completed 25 years of formal diplomacy. Going beyond the official relations the two fathers of the nations, Mandela and Gandhi have revitalised the Southern African and South Asian Foreign Policy. This is a major stepping stone for a stronger relationship, which turns a page to a new chapter in the foreign policy-making of these distant nations.


Dr Srimal Fernando, a recipient of the prestigious O.P Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and the SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He is also the winner of the 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ award in South Africa, and has been the recipient of Global Communication Association (GCA) Media Award for 2016.]

Vedangshi Roy Choudhuri is pursuing Bachelor Of Arts (BA.Hons.) in Journalism and Mass Communication at OP Jindal Global University She mainly focuses on foreign media relations. She was also a recipient of the ICASQCC Gold Medal in Mauritius. Ms Roy is member of the SGRC at Jindal Global University and Social Activist in Chennai.