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October 31, 2006
When Shiv Shankar Menon was named India's new foreign secretary on August 31, there was intense speculation over who would succeed him as high commissioner to Pakistan. The speculation ended more than a month later, when on October 9, India's High Commissioner to South Africa Satyabrata Pal was named envoy to Islamabad.

An IFS officer of the 1972 batch, Pal served in Baghdad and Jeddah before moving to New York as first secretary, Permanent Mission of India to the UN, in August 1979.

He returned to New Delhi in July 1983, where he was deputy secretary/director in the ministry of external affairs till January 1988, when he went to Dhaka as deputy high commissioner and then to Gaborone, Botswana, as high commissioner in March 1991.

After a brief stint as joint secretary at the ministry of external affairs from April 1994 to May 1997, he returned to New York, this time as deputy permanent representative of India to the UN. Then, from April 2002 to July 2005, he was deputy high commissioner in London [Images]. He took over as high commissioner to South Africa in July 2005, which would make it his shortest stint so far.

Known as a 'quiet professional' in ministry of external affairs circles, Pal was unwilling to discuss his assignment in Islamabad before actually taking up the job. He was also sure that readers would be 'least interested' in his childhood or his heroes.

In an e-mail interview with Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta, Pal, elaborated on India's relations with South Africa, and his role in sustaining bilateral ties.

As India's high commissioner in South Africa, what are the main changes you have seen in bilateral relations since you took charge?

I don't think there have been too many changes, at least none that I can see. The political relationship is very close and of long standing, it's kept in very good repair by visits to and fro, and both countries are clear in their minds that what they have is something special, which must be nurtured. The prime minister's visit last month and the visit to India of the South African deputy pPresident just days before he came here, did just that.

What kind of a role does the Indian Diaspora play in South Africa's social, economic and political life?

Democratic South Africa calls itself the rainbow nation and South African Indians are very much a band in the spectrum. They are as active now in building the new South Africa as they were in the long struggle against apartheid.

There are perhaps not as many of them in the political leadership as there were in the years of struggle, but that's part of the churning and winnowing of democracy. They are equal in the eyes of the law, have equal political, social and economic rights, and are doing very well.

A significant percentage is in the professions, and the business families contribute quite notably to the growth of the South African economy.

There is a much smaller and more recent Diaspora of Indian citizens, lesser known and not very much talked about, which has had a chequered life in South Africa. These are teachers, doctors and nurses who drifted into what were then the 'homelands' set up under apartheid.

They broke Indian law by going there, but they helped to teach and care for two generations of South Africans in some of the most remote and difficult corners of the country, who needed these services desperately and had very few others willing to help.

Most of them are still there, in these little towns, still working, and, as I have seen when I have visited them, are much loved by the communities to which they've devoted the greater part of their working lives.

The latest arrivals are the professionals who have come here over the last decade, working for the Indian or foreign companies that have invested or set up offices here. Their numbers are small, but their work is important.

Given the historical ties, what are the areas in which the two nations cooperate, and what are the main elements of bilateral exchange?

We have a very comprehensive framework of cooperation set out in a number of political declarations, including the Tshwane Declaration that the prime minister signed during his visit with President Mbeki. The range of our bilateral cooperation is wide and growing, but we also work very closely together in international bodies, including at the UN and the WTO.

Currently, we hope to respond in any way we can to South Africa's very pressing need to meet skills shortages. They do not have enough trained teachers or municipal managers, for instance, and if standards of education or service delivery fall below expectations, any democratic government must set things right quickly.

This is now one of the most serious challenges the South African government faces, and, because these shortages are found at many levels, if they continue, it fears that it cannot meet its targets for growth.

Without growth, in turn, it cannot reduce poverty and the disparities in entitlement that were the legacy of apartheid. So this really is a critically important task.

South Africa has asked if we can help, for instance by sending trainers here and by accepting trainees in India. We have offered to do everything possible to help.

What was your primary focus during your assignment in Pretoria, and how successful were you in implementing it?

In many capitals, an ambassador spends much of his time either mending fences or trying to generate an interest in closer political ties. No Indian high commissioner has to do that in Pretoria. My focus was on the economic relationship, which was picking up, but which was still nowhere near its potential. Here, of course, governments now can be no more than catalysts.

The private sector must see it as being in its interest to trade and invest, but a lead from governments can be helpful. This was my highest priority, and I was glad to see that interest was picking up. There has been a quite dramatic rise over the last few years in the levels of trade, which started before I arrived, but which I have tried to nudge higher.

What are the areas in the bilateral ties which could do with further attention?

Cooperation in hi-tech areas is an obvious area where we can do more. Science and technology are strong points for both of us, and it makes sense to pool our efforts. Likewise in the frontier technologies that we know will be the key to growth in the next decade, where again we are among the few developing countries that have the skills base and the infrastructure to keep up with developments elsewhere. We do cooperate in these areas, but should do more.

At the other end of the scale, SMMEs (small, medium and micro enterprises) are an obvious area where we could do more. Unemployment, which is running at over 30%, is an enormous problem in South Africa. Small and medium enterprises provide employment, and there's a very keen interest in learning from our experience.

The NSIC (National Small Industries Corporation) has opened an office in Johannesburg, and there's huge interest in its project lines, but first-time entrepreneurs need technical and financial support, which is not always easy to provide. We're trying to see what we can do to help.

An area that does need attention are the problems of travelling to South Africa. We need more direct flights, and I hope Air-India or Indian or one of our private airlines will start flying here soon. But I also hope South Africa's visa policies will become more liberal. These are not targeted at Indians, because we are told that they are applied to all visitors, but they pose problems for Indian businessmen and put off the would-be tourist.

Since the South African government wants to attract more Indian investment and tourism, the visa policy is self-defeating, and I'm sure the problem will be addressed.

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