Batting for business

The IPL 2 gave confidence to the South African Indian community that remained ambivalent about the country of origin of their forefathers

Sanjay Kapoor Durban

On October 5, a solemn Sunil Bharti Mittal of Airtel announced the death of $23 billion merger talks with South African telecom giant, MTN. It became clear then that the juggernaut steadily rolling after the hugely successful Indian Premier League (IPL) had been brought to a standstill due to ambivalence in the South African government.

Bharti Airtel's ambitious merger plans were supposed to give depth and meaning to the South-South cooperation envisaged in the India-Brazil-South Africa trilateral initiative. However, the South African government succumbed to pressures from the Left radicals within the African National Congress (ANC) that did not want a government-owned company to merge with a foreign entity. Sources tell Hardnews that the South African government, besides problems of dual listing, woke up to the fact that sharing the spectrum with a foreign company could have security implications, too.

The collapse of this much-hyped deal is seen as a setback for Indian companies that were riding on the enormous goodwill and influence that the IPL had created in South Africa.

In April this year, when the IPL 2 was shifted to South Africa due to the refusal of India's home ministry to spare security forces earmarked for the parliamentary election for cricket matches, South Africans did not know what Indian cricket league was all about. In a matter of few weeks, India's image of an overpopulated country from where poor indentured labour came to work had  been transformed.

Banners, hoardings, posters of the IPL and Indian cricket stars began to colour the skyline of Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. South Africans then realised the enormous money power that corporate India represented. Interestingly, Indians were flaunting their wealth when the world was mired in recession and people were just squeamish about spending money. "In just a month, Indian premier league brought in two billion dollars to the South African economy," said a local business leader.

South Africans were left swooning at this enormous display of Indian money power. It helped in raising the profile of India as an economic power that could challenge the commodity-hungry Chinese. It is not that Indian companies are not active in Africa. Tatas, for instance, is really big in the African continent. Ratan Tata is a member of the advisory council of the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma. The State Bank of India, Ranbaxy, Dr Reddy's Laboratories, NIIT and Sahara - all have a significant presence there. Common custom tariff is being worked out by the Indian government with the South African Custom Union (SACU) to encourage Indian and South African businesses to boost trade.

However, what IPL 2 has done to India in South Africa has been priceless. It gave confidence to the South African Indian community that remained ambivalent about the country of origin of their forefathers. Watching the new face of India proved to be a cathartic experience for many of those who felt demoralised by the aggressive narratives of both the blacks and whites. In spite of being fervent South Africans nationalists, they felt empowered by the rise of India. "Usually, cricket was watched by whites only. But IPL saw South African Indians, who usually stayed away from these matches, turning up in big numbers in every match."

It appeared as if cricket had re-established a severed emotional link between India and its million strong diaspora in South Africa. Hardnews found that even six months after the event, South African Indians just could not stop talking about the cricket league and what it had done to them. A sportscaster said that the IPL, which was entirely controlled by the Indians, also managed to bring many blacks to watch cricket matches. In the past if blacks and Indians showed up for any match, they supported any team that was competing against the whites.

Cricket may have created the right atmospherics for deepening ties between the two countries and its people, but South Africa due to its own complexities would need more nuanced handling by the Indian government if it wants to keep China in check.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2009