Nelson Mandela's triumphant visit to the United States last week in his new eminence as president of South Africa -- a role unthinkable at the start of this decade -- had one over-arching goal: To enlist Americans who played so great a part in crushing apartheid in a crusade to make the post-apartheid state a success.
Mr. Mandela knew he had the easy part: the Clinton administration's enthusiastic promise of $800 million in direct aid plus $150 million in investment guarantees designed to lure $1.3 billion from the private sector. The government-to-government arrangements he secured have their parallel only in the new U.S.-Russia economic partnership. But the hard part will be to convince a skeptical U.S. business community that South Africa is a good place to put its money.
Before U.S. sanctions on the old white minority regime were imposed, U.S. investment in South Africa totaled about $3 billion. Today it amounts to barely $1 billion. Just to get back to former levels will require more than heart-felt and well-earned appeals to peace, reconciliation and democracy. It will require reformation of a skewed and mismanaged economy, the product of apartheid enforcers who talked free enterprise but practiced statism, at the same time an impoverished black majority is demanding jobs, education and housing.
That, however, is not the end of Mr. Mandela's burden. The liberation of his people cruelly coincided with the highly publicized back-to-back tragedies of Somalia and Rwanda. And American ignorance of African geography is such that the collapse of those two far-away countries has made American business even more skittish about investment in South Africa.
It is not enough that South Africa is the natural economic powerhouse of its continent, a nation blessed with good soil, fine climate, a comparatively sophisticated industrial-financial sector and a dazzling treasure chest of mineral resources. Russia, too, has the means to be a wealthy country but, like South Africa, has to overcome serious past misuse of its people and their potential.
In his dramatic first six months as former political prisoner turned president, Mr. Mandela has done mostly right things to reassure foreign investors. Burying with finality the Marxism that inflamed his youth, the 76-year-old leader has preached and practiced an economic policy that would gladden the heart of a rock-ribbed American conservative. His first budget shifted only 3 percent of state spending to social programs beneficial to his followers. Instead, he initiated steps toward privatization of state-owned industry to provide long-range capital and carefully reined-in monetary growth lest it trigger double-digit inflation.
Americans, as inhabitants of another country with a deep racial divide, should vigorously support and assist the miracle of the 1990s that is Nelson Mandela's South Africa. It is, in his words, "as much in your national interest as ours."