By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan,
The release of Nelson Mandela from the Victor Verster Prison in Cape Town on 11 February 1990 was the most striking symbol of the end of apartheid in South Africa. His dramatic walk from the gates of the prison captured the world’s imagination. The Struggle for freedom and dignity had borne fruit. Apartheid, the policy of racial segregation had fallen under the weight of its own contradictions. A free Nelson Mandela commenced negotiations with F W DeKlerk, the then president of South Africa, to dismantleapartheidand to work towards a peaceful transition to majority rule.
An exultant India which was a torchbearer in the worldwide movement against apartheid, was now walking in step with the new South Africa. With every brick of apartheid falling, India was takingcalibrated steps forward in restoring relationsafter nearly five decades of boycott. To recall, India was the first country to sever trade relations in 1946 and subsequently imposed a complete- diplomatic, commercial, cultural and sports – embargo on South Africa. Moral and material support was extended to the movement both within South Africa and outside it.The proscribed political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) were recognized, their cadres allowed to travel on Indian passports and live in India in exile.
To begin with, people-to-people contacts were established. Travel resumed. The directive ‘not valid for travel to South Africa’ was removed from blue passports. Visas were issued by our Embassy in Botswana. The establishment of full diplomatic and consular relations had to await further positive developments in South Africa.
We had no official presence in South Africa. It was decided that the Indian Embassy in neighboring Botswana led by then High Commissioner Satyabrata Pal would be our eyes and ears on South Africa; Indian diplomats stationed in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, were allowed to visit the country, should the need arise.
In a calibrated move, it was proposed to open sports relations. This was also the demand of civil society. What best way to do so than by sending the first Indian cricket team to South Africa? Given the impact sports, particularly cricket, has on everyone’s minds, all eyes were glued on us.
Everything about South Africa was political. Being sensitive, every step in the opening of relations had to have approval of the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs (CCPA) which dealt with foreign affairs, among other things. Before the matter was placed before the CCPA, the PM had to approve.
I prepared a Draft Note for the CCPA as per the format. The political situation in South Africa was analyzed.The progress towards the dismantling of the apartheid structure was looked at with the minutest of detail. A convincing argument had to be made about why the time was ripe to put our cricket team on the ground in a country that had seen the worst of racism. The Draft Note for CCPA was annexed to a covering Note Sheet Initiated by me as Under Secretary. The chain of command warranted the approval of my Joint Secretary, MrsChokila Iyer (future Foreign Secretary), Secretary (West)Mr Kris Srinivasan (next Foreign Secretary), Minister of State Salman Khurshid, whereafter the Note would go to the Prime Minister’s Office for the approval and signature of PM (PM was then also holding the foreign affairs portfolio). Yes, those were still days when the Prime Minister signed on the same note sheet initiated by the Under Secretary.The entire hierarchy recommended the proposal for approval of the PM.
The file came back with the signature and noting of then PM the late PV Narasimha Rao. The PM had reserved his decision: the PM in his own hand advised us to wait more.
Wait I did, but not for long. My instincts were working overtime. People were anxious. After a decent wait of one month, I moved the file again. One month was a long time in South Africa: the transition was happening fast. The proposal was reviewed and analyzed with updated facts received from High Commissioner Pal. The file was prepared a second time for the PM’s approval.
The file once again came back with PM’s noting that we should wait some more time still! Temptation was high to cold store the file.
I did not let this discourage me. After another one month, I decided to move the file again. The national reconciliation process was ongoing in South Africa. The outgoing head of Government, FW DeKlerk’s statesmanship-like approach was working. Mandela was in the mood to forgive. A peaceful transfer of power was in the offing.All appeared well.
The PM approved the file on my third attempt. Hard work had paid. Persistence had been rewarded. There was jubilation in the Cricket Control board. The team was prepared to move on its maiden journey to South Africa. Coming from India which had lent its able shoulder to the anti-apartheid movement, a hero’s welcome awaited the team. It was a heady moment. History was being created.
But this was not to be the end of the story for me. On a request from the Union Department of Sports, I was asked to go as the liaison officer with the team. Anyone else would have given his or her right hand to be in my shoes. I had two babies at home; my husband was soldiering at the borders ‘somewhere in the western sector’, we were cut off for months together, the telephone operator at the other end relayed messages of each other’s welfare.
I prepared the file. None of us in the Ministry ever had our boots on the ground in South Africa. I argued that in order to be an asset to the team, we should instead depute a diplomat from our Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana, familiar with the terrain. My day was made!
Thus, in 1992-93, India had the privilege of being the first international side to play a Test in South Africa since 1970 and the series got off to a scintillating start in Durban, when Kapil Dev dismissed Jimmy Cook from the first ball. Prior to this, in 1992, the South African team played in India for a three match one-day series, nearly 22 years after being isolated from the international fold due to apartheid. Though India won the series, even in defeat the guests returned home with memories of overwhelming response from the Indian public. An emotional captain Clive Rice was quoted as saying, “I know how Neil Armstrong felt when he stood on the moon”.
The South African cricket team drawn from a multi-racial society became the epitome of a changed South Africa. The South African cricket stars went on to become household names in India and vice versa. In 1996-97, a strong South African side arrived in India for their full test tour.
Things are never so smooth after all; there are always bumps in the pitch. A googly was bowled. A directive came from the private Secretary to PM that henceforth all Notes requiring PM’s approval and signature should be initiated in the name of the Joint Secretary. An era in the civil service culture ended.
When we restored trade relations overnight South Africa became our largest trade partner in Africa, and the largest market for Indian exports in the continent. Eventually, the agreement to establish full Diplomatic and Consular relations was signed on 22 November 1993 in New Delhi between the then South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha and his new Indian counterpart, the late Dinesh Singh; being a historic moment we were all over BBC!
Anera had passed and a new one had begun. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 for their efforts. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became the first black President of the Republic of South Africa. Currently, South African cricket is facing some challenges; we hope for the best…
(The author is a former Ambassador. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).