By Abhilash Puljal

 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had great affection for India and her people. In his acceptance address, when he was awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize on 16 March 2001 he called India his “home away from home” and “count[ed India] amongst those countries that [he has] had the honour and privilege of visiting most frequently since [his] release from prison.”

Madiba, as he is fondly called, always recognised the shared common histories of India and South Africa. He drew great inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, leaders who were also imprisoned like him, from time to time for India’s freedom. He admired Mahatma Gandhi who he called his “political guru” and in his diaries from Robben Island, he wrote about the Mahatma and his inspiration for resistance came from the Indian community that Gandhi had led in South Africa. Madiba also read Jawaharlal Nehru’s books closely. In September 1953 he delivered his first major political speech and in which a particularly popular phrase he uses, inspired by Nehru’s writing, is “there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere;” decades later, the phrase influenced the title of Mandela’s autobiography - “Long Walk to Freedom.” He was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding for the year 1979.

Shortly after his release from prison on 11 February 1990, where he served a 27 year sentence, a journalist asked which country he would like to visit first, Madiba replied:

“there is no doubt that my first preference would be India because of the close ties between the African National Congress and the India government… The fact that Nehru, Gandhi and other leaders were in and out of prison encouraged a great deal in our struggles.”

When Madiba became the President of South Africa in 1994, he appointed several people of Indian origin to his cabinet such as Jay Naidoo, Mac Maharaj, Kader Asmal, Dullah Omar, Mohammed Valli Moosa and others. He is also the first South African Head of State to have visited India, setting the stage for an enduring strategic partnership between the two nations.

India and South Africa: a shared history

India and South Africa are similar in terms of diversity in race, religion, languages and culture and South Africans of Indian descent are very much a part of this vibrant society. Indians and South Africans have a sense of common belonging which emanates from a shared history of oppression and resistance to oppression. In India, it was resistance towards the British colonial rule and in South Africa, it was resistance against the apartheid rule.

In 1946, India broke trade relations with aparthied led South Africa —the first country to do so. And a year later on behalf of the African National Congress and the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses, Dr. G.M. Naicker and Dr. Y.M. Dadoo visited India to to make a case for support for South Africa’s freedom and pave “way for greater and closer cooperation between the African and the Indian people.” In 1967, India was the first nation to acknowledge diplomatic status of the African National Congress and supported South Africa’s campaign against racism in international fora including the United Nations.

Mahatma Gandhi spent 21 years in South Africa. It is here that the idea of Satyagraha and Ahimsa were born and evolved. Madiba followed these philosophies and preached them around the world. On one of his many visits to India, Madiba visited Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to pay tribute to the Mahatma whom he upheld as a “sacred warrior.” He further went on and called for South Africans to consider Mahatma Gandhi as a national hero and referred to South Africa as Mahatma Gandhi’s adopted country from where he launched a notable passive resistance movement against the British which served to create a new brand of political consciousness in South Africa.

India’s love for Madiba

Nelson Mandela remains the second non-Indian to have received the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India in October 1990. He has been bestowed with many awards here including the Indira Gandhi Award for International Justice and Harmony in January 1996. However, it is important to note that he is not just popular among the elite echelons of society, but also among ordinary Indians. In December 1988 a prominent road in New Delhi was named after him which now houses popular malls. It is not uncommon to find the children’s version of ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ on the shelves of bookstores across Indian cities. Commenting on the health and his interaction with the icon, Amitabh Bacchan wrote earlier this year in June on the “most gentle, but determined human, the likes of which can be rarely found,” in his blog. Also, around the same time, earlier this year, on the beaches of Puri in Odisha, acclaimed sand artist Sudarshan Pattnaik wished Madiba a speedy recovery through a beautiful sand sculpture. I, like many Indians from smaller cities in India, was inspired by Madiba and his charisma during my formative years when I read about his release from prison in 1990 and followed his life’s journey through the years. I was greatly humbled when I visited his prison cell on Robben Island in October 2002 where he was imprisoned and classified as class D, the lowest grade of prisoner and assigned to work on a lime quarry, an experience that partially damaged his eyesight.

Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha were adjourned last Friday as a mark of respect to Madiba and India is observing a five-day state mourning when our national flag will fly at half-mast —a rare gesture.

Today, the world is saddened by Madiba’s demise. He has left us with learnings of peace, having long finished what he set out to do —awakening global societies in reducing race-related tensions. The world will always remember the legacy Madiba bequeathed —one of tolerance, equality and equal opportunity. Requiescat in pace Madiba.

(Abhilash Puljal is the Managing Director of Avignam Group, a development advisory company working on the development of the private sector in emerging economies with a south-south agenda. He is also the Regional Ambassador – South Asia for the London School of Economics Alumni Association. He can be reached at [email protected]).