Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday followed in Mahatma Gandhi’s footsteps in South Africa, where the liberation hero forged his famed policy of non-violent civil disobedience.
Modi is on the second leg of a five-day African trip which began in Mozambique and will also take him to Tanzania and Kenya — an itinerary designed to underline India’s growing engagement with the continent.
After talks with President Jacob Zuma in Pretoria on Friday, Modi travelled to the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, home to most of South Africa’s 1.3 million people of Indian origin — the largest diaspora population in Africa.
Modi took a short, symbolic train ride to the provincial capital, Pietermaritzburg, where Gandhi was ejected at the station in 1893 after refusing to leave the first class compartment because of his race.
Then a 24-year-old lawyer who had recently arrived in South Africa, Gandhi spent the night in the station and the insult was seen as formative in his fight against racial oppression during two decades in South Africa and later in British-ruled India.
“It was in South Africa that Mahatma Gandhi conceptualised his politics,” Modi told a thousands-strong diaspora gathering at a stadium in Johannesburg on Friday evening.
“This is the birthplace of Satyagraha (the policy of non-violent struggle).”
After the train trip, Modi travelled to the coastal city of Durban, the heart of the Indian community, where he visited the Phoenix settlement founded by Gandhi in 1904 as a community based on self-reliance.
Modi’s African visit is seen as part of India’s attempt to build ties with African nations as it vies for a greater share of the continent’s natural resources.
Across Africa, India’s economic footprint is dwarfed by that of its regional rival China, whose trade with the continent topped $200 billion last year.
In a speech to business leaders in Pretoria, Modi said that Indians “always believe in nurturing and nourishing and not in exploiting” its partners.
Diplomatic relations have recently been strained by alleged racism, with African ambassadors claiming after the murder of a Congolese teacher in New Delhi that Africans in India live in a “pervading climate of fear”.