JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- President Nelson Mandela is emerging as the chief defender of Laurent Kabila, self-proclaimed president of the new Democratic Republic of Congo. But the role has put him at odds with the United States and stirred a storm in his own country.
Washington registers alarm over Kabila's ban on all political activity in the former Zaire, which his army took over May 17.
"The United States hopes this will be a short-term ban," U.S. State Department spokesman John Dinger said yesterday. "Clearly, free political activity is essential as the Congo embarks on a democratic transition, which will lead to elections."
But Mandela has said it would be "suicidal" for the former rebel leader to allow immediate political activity in a country that has been ruled by a dictator for three decades.
"It was quite reasonable for him to ensure law and order were stabilized before [allowing] all political parties to function," Mandela said.
"We understand and appreciate the concern about democracy in that country," he told a group of visiting U.S. lawmakers in Capetown yesterday. "Because of my association with President Kabila, I have no such fear at all because of the steps that he has taken already."
From the moment Kabila emerged victorious, Mandela praised him as "outstanding" and "dynamic," crediting him with handling the transition from 32 years of brutal dictatorship under ousted President Mobutu Sese Seko "in an excellent manner."
The Clinton administration's recognition of the new government was more cautious. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said: "We have hopes, but we are watching very carefully the actions of Kabila."
Mandela also has chided nations that supported the Mobutu government over the years for demanding democracy "hardly before Kabila took over the entire country."
"There is a great deal of hypocrisy," he said last week in an apparent reference to the United States, which supported Mobutu throughout the Cold War.
Said Peter Swanepoel, spokesman for the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs: "It is clear to us the new Democratic Republic of Congo is set with enormous problems.
"We are not saying we don't want to have a broad-based representative government there," Swanepoel said. But recalling South Africa's 1994 transition from the apartheid era to the election of the country's first black majority government, he said, "we experienced a much more user-friendly transitional period than is the case with President Kabila at the moment."
South Africa's role as a leading player in the negotiations that preceded Kabila's takeover in Kinshasa also is increasingly being second-guessed in Johannesburg.
Was it a success? Was it worth the millions of dollars that it cost? And what does it suggest about the country's future foreign policy in general and its relations with the United States in particular?
Although the end of Mobutu's rule came militarily, there is little doubt that the patient, months-long diplomacy by Mandela and his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, contributed to the relatively peaceful final transfer of power to Kabila.
One factor, revealed by Mbeki in Parliament last week: Secret South African contacts with top army commanders of the land known then as Zaire persuaded the officers not to put up a last battle for Kinshasa when it was finally decided that Kabila's forces should enter the capital to end the looting and violence.
"The army leadership was committed to this process and not willing to take up arms," Mbeki said.
South Africa also urged restraint on 11 African countries that had pledged to help Mobutu militarily, heading off a continental divide that could have threatened the stability of the entire region.
But Mandela's defense of Kabila's moves to put democracy on (( hold and his speedy recognition of the new government in Congo have caused a storm of controversy in South Africa.
The opposition National Party, which ruled the country during the decades of apartheid, said Mandela's stance was "deplorable" and a "setback for the establishment of democracy in Africa." His support of Kabila was "inappropriate for a head of state of his stature."
The Citizen newspaper noted that freedom of political activity was one of the key points in the peace plan for Congo put forward by Mandela and Mbeki during their recent shuttle diplomacy.
"We should keep out of what might well become a dangerous situation in which we have no real role to play and can only bring criticism on our own heads when things go wrong, as they inevitably will," said the newspaper in an editorial headlined "Don't Back Him."
The South African leadership also have been accused by the media of neglecting problems at home -- particularly violent crime -- while concentrating on the crisis abroad.
Mahmood Mamdani, head of the Center for African Studies at the University of Cape Town, said: "There is an ambivalence about South African foreign policy right now."
South Africa, he said, was seen by many as facing the choice of functioning as the conscience of the continent or acting as stage manager for U.S. power.
"There is a learning process going on," he said. "South Africa doesn't have to choose between an independent African policy and a friendship with the United States. I think the two are compatible."
Pub Date: 5/29/97