Promoting relations between India and SA

2012-09-10 00:00

VINOD Kumar Sharma, India’s newest diplomat in town, says he’s been richly rewarded with his posting to Durban.

The 57-year-career diplomat, father of Nikhil (32), an IT systems engineer in California, and Aakansha (26), an actuarial analyst in New Delhi, said he is honoured to occupy India House at Lillieshell Manor, where Archbishop Emeritus Denis Hurley spent years speaking out against apartheid and laying the foundation for a powerful ecumenical movement.

“When I was given some choices for my next posting at the end of my term in Canberra, I chose Durban. This is the historic place where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi practised law, learnt his politics and returned to free India.

“Durban is the unique home of the largest concentration of Indians outside India,” said Kumar, who has served his country’s foreign service in Cambodia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Australia.

As is the traditional political pilgrimage with all new Indian diplomats and visiting government leaders and dignitaries, his first port of call was to pay homage to India’s post-independence Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, at the railway station in Pietermaritzburg where the fiery lawyer-turned-pacifist was kicked off a train almost 120 years ago.

Sharma also visited Phoenix Settlement where Gandhi experimented with his Satyagraha (non-violent protest) principles, as well as the place where he worked alongside fellow peace activist and neighbour John Langalibalele Dube within the Indian and black communities while publishing their respective newspapers, The New Age and iLanga Lase.

A businesslike career diplomat with 35 years of foreign service, Sharma plans to enjoy every moment of his stay in Durban and has so far engaged KwaZulu-Natal premier Zweli Mkhize, city mayor James Nxumalo and other political and community leaders. He’s also attended social events, including polo matches featuring the Indian team, breaking fast with the Muslim community and receiving spiritual succour from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

Sharma is keen to strengthen the sister-city relationship between Durban and Chennai (Madras), signed in 2010.

And he says his three-pronged core business of boosting trade and economic relations between South Africa and India, servicing thousands of local and foreign Indians with visa applications and promoting cultural exchanges and language studies will keep him busy, often up to 14 hours a day and at weekends.

“The workload ensures the viability and practicality of the consulate, its upkeep and budget. A consular staff of 20 processes up to 150 visa applications a week and we attend to queries and assist thousands of Indian nationals working, visiting and doing business in the city.”

Bilateral trade between India and South Africa peaked at U.S.$11 billion to $12 billion in the 2010-2011 periods: “Exports from India to SA account for $3,98 billion and trading mainly comprises vehicles, auto components, transport equipment, drugs and pharmaceuticals, dyes and intermediate textiles, rice, gems and jewellery.

India imports about $ 7,14 billion worth of mainly gold, coal, copper ores and concentrates, manganese ore and aluminium from South Africa.

“There is a lot of potential between both countries. As a developing country, our need for resources is huge. South Africa is rich in resources and we can have a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Sharma says India strongly promotes cross-cultural exchanges, granting scholarships to 40 local candidates a year and building capacity and human capital with the government and municipalities. It provides scholarships for 150 public servants to travel to India for technical training and education.

KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Economic Development and Tourism Mike Mabuyakhulu’s recent visit to India has accelerated a new campaign to boost tourism across the exotic destinations on both sides of the Indian Ocean Rim.

“Up to 100 000 Indians visiting South Africa is really nothing out of India’s 1,21 billion population and we have begun encouraging Indians to visit South Africa and invited South Africans to go to India because the diversity India has to offer is unparalleled in the world,” said Sharma.

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