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Helping S. Africa Is in U.S. Interest

Foreign affairs: President Mbeki's visit here this week is an opportunity to show support for one of Africa's best leaders.

May 22, 2000|ANTHONY HAZLITT HEARD | Anthony Hazlitt Heard, a former Nieman fellow and editor of the Cape Times in Cape Town, is a special advisor in the presidency of South Africa. The views expressed here are his own

Against the tide of many world perceptions, an African president is on a state visit to the United States with a message of hope about the continent. He deserves support in this cause.

President Thabo Mbeki, the South African successor to Nelson Mandela, is a lesser-known figure and, by comparison, rather reserved. Yet, as deputy, he was in de facto charge of government business a few years before legendary Mandela retired as president last year. Mbeki knows how to govern.

Mbeki is committed to the "African renaissance"--a modern-day revival of what was impressive in Africa's ancient, pre-colonial past, for example, in arts, crafts, music, social organization and other spheres of achievement. He sees this rebirth not in romantic but in realistic terms, a vehicle for economic development in an unfolding African century.

Mbeki presides comfortably over one of the world's newest, most remarkable and hopeful democracies. He is without doubt the major hope of his country and, indeed, a key hope of Africa--a democrat who will not forsake the cause of freedom and open society despite Africa's difficulties.

Mbeki needs to employ a firm, centrally coordinated hand in dealing with the huge challenges of governance and the residual mess left by apartheid. To those who see this as a trend toward what Arthur Schlesinger called "the imperial presidency," the answer is, no, Mbeki seeks an effective presidency, in accord with a democratic constitution and accountability to Parliament.

Mbeki, it might be said, is an African Nehru, the manager of continued nation-building after the almost Gandhian figure of Mandela. With the transition to democracy under Mandela, Mbeki must transform and modernize a still-divided society so as to deepen democracy, meet black aspirations and calm white fears--an uncomfortable three-way stretch.

Mandela suffered in jail, triumphed and brought tears to the eyes of the world as he ushered in what retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu called "the rainbow nation." Mbeki fought apartheid in exile, returned and now has the task of making rainbows work. The hard slog ahead suits his undramatic, business-like style.

He is not afraid to get embroiled in sensitive debate, and did this recently over AIDS, even being blamed for favoring "dissidents" who doubt that HIV causes AIDS and who question certain drugs. But intense debate is not new to Mbeki's decades-old African National Congress party, nor, surely, to Americans living under the 1st Amendment. Far from taking sides, he has shown how much he cares, seeking to poll all experts to draw the most effective battle lines against what will be the scourge of Africa for years to come.

Mbeki's style is not to be steamrollered into "megaphone diplomacy" over African events such as Zimbabwe's violence. There, his steely but quiet diplomacy is already showing signs of reaping rewards. He refuses to be browbeaten by those who point to current wars, pestilence and instability as scuppering the African renaissance. The classic European rebirth took many, many years.

The state visit provides the opportunity for the American nation to forge even closer partnerships with an industrial powerhouse of Africa that stands ready and able to help address all-Africa problems. These are world problems, and require action, not neglect. Fortress America will not solve them.

Yet no U.S. administration would wish to get embroiled in Africa on the ground. South Africa is on the ground in Africa. In company with others like Nigeria, Mbeki's nation is most suited to play a leading role. It has shown its paces, for instance in an African Dunkirk when 12,000 stranded people were plucked by helicopter from trees in flooded Mozambique, or in sending peace missions and using gentle but firm clout to press countries to act reasonably.

Mbeki admittedly must address major problems at home apart from AIDS, for instance, high levels of urban crime and unemployment. But South Africa is free, financially stable, growing economically and well-endowed. It will live up to the hopes the world had for it after apartheid.

Nor will Africa as a whole curl up and die. The question is: Under what conditions African people will live? What the U.S. and others can do is help South Africa's efforts--and live up to implied past commitments to assist when South Africans were urged to throw off racial tyranny. Such help is not charity but an investment in a democratic Africa that works, enriching the economies and cultures of all countries.

Here is a chance for the U.S. people, teaming up with Mbeki and other Africans who are on the side of freedom and progress, to rehear the visionary calls of people like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. They knew, with Donne, that no man is an island.

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