When President Clinton praised the mediation efforts of South African President Nelson Mandela in the midst of the events that led to the dissolution of Zaire and the creation of the Democratic Republic of Congo, this was seen by many as further evidence of a special and warm relationship between the United States and South Africa.
Actually, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, there is a new scramble for Africa taking place and Washington and Pretoria are two of the fiercest competitors -- though they are not alone in their quest.
The United States' relationship with Africa is no minor matter. We get a significant percentage of our oil from Nigeria and Angola. Much of the cobalt necessary for everything from jet engines to cellular phones comes from Congo.
South Africa is important to the United States militarily and economically. But political change inside South Africa and across the African continent is bound to strain the relationship between these two nations.
South African interests were the loser and U.S. interests the winner in Congo. For example, DeBeers, the South African cartel that has had a stranglehold on diamond production for decades, was ousted from Congo by the forces led by then insurgent leader Laurent Kabila; instead, Kabila's forces signed a contract with American Mineral Fields, which happens to be based in Arkansas.
Though Washington traditionally cries bloody murder when governments seize private property, there was an eerie silence when Spoornet, which ran the railways in Zaire, was nationalized by Kabila's forces. South African interests had invested heavily in the railway. They've also beat out competing U.S. and French corporations for investments in hotels, telecommunications, mines and other ventures elsewhere in Africa.
South African corporations have even challenged the United States in its own backyard. Recently, Anglo-American of South Africa -- which was allied with Japanese firms -- presented a stiff challenge to a syndicate headed by NationsBank of North Carolina in competition for a multibillion-dollar deal in Brazil.
Increasingly, the African majority is gaining a toehold in some of the major South African transnationals.
Recent reports indicate that indigenous Africans control about 9 percent of the total valuation of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange -- the 10th-largest in the world. This complicates the rule of Mandela's African National Congress, as it pushes for measures that benefit the affluent rather than the propertyless majority.
It's often forgotten that the ANC rules in alliance with the South African Communist Party and that organization, which played a major role in the anti-apartheid struggle, has not been sidelined -- contrary to the fervent wishes of Washington.
Recently, South Africa's Minister of Trade and Industry, Alec Irwin -- who happens to be a Communist -- led a major delegation of government and business officials to Havana for a meeting that culminated in the escalation of commercial relations between the two nations. Washington has not been pleased with the presence in South Africa of scores of Cuban doctors, who have provided treatment in underserved areas.
Then again, during the spring of 1994 when Mandela was inaugurated, President Fidel Castro received a more rousing reception from the thousands assembled than other leaders there -- including Vice President Al Gore.
Recently, Washington expressed displeasure when Armscor, the state-controlled arms manufacturer In turn, South Africa is incensed about a U.S. plan to sanction Armscor because of events that stretch back to the days of the apartheid regime. This came in the wake of Washington's objection to a visit to South Africa by the Iranian foreign minister that led to a significant oil agreement.
In short, despite the outward displays of smiles and embraces, there is tension beneath the surface of U.S.-South African relations and there is little likelihood that this will change anytime soon.
When civil war broke out in Liberia without noticeable concern in Washington, the message was clear: Political instability in some African nations is not important.
However, Africa remains a continent rich in minerals -- diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and oil. Africa is also rich in votes in the United Nations and other bodies and this is no trivial matter as the United States moves to sanction China on human rights and other issues.
The United States is not the only nation aware of this. Chinese President Jiang Zemin toured a number of African states last year, while Premier Li Peng was there this year -- both received warm receptions.
While the United States has been moving toward leveling comprehensive sanctions against oil-rich Nigeria -- the continent's most populous nation -- China has agreed to renovate the railroad network there and provide locomotives, freight, passenger cars and new technology. This is part of Nigeria's new "Look East" policy, which portends a turn away from erstwhile trading partners in Western Europe and the United States and a turn toward Asia.
Japan has become Africa's primary aid donor and has a larger share of African trade than the United States. The European Union's share of trade with Africa is larger than that of Japan. France -- with which the United States has been clashing over Middle East and China policy -- historically has played a major role in Africa. These factors -- not altruism -- help to explain a recent flurry of activity in Washington concerning Africa. Congress is considering the "Africa Growth and Opportunity Act," which purports to supplant "aid with trade." The White House is reportedly preparing new initiatives on Africa to present to the approaching Group of Seven summit in Denver. The elite Council on Foreign Relations has just completed a report signed by former Reagan administration official Chester Crocker and Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor and Carter administration official.
However, as things stand now, France -- which just elected a socialist government -- and China are less prone to object to some of South Africa's policies that have so upset Washington. Japan, historically, has been less willing than the United States to allow such policies to upset commercial relations.
It is difficult to see U.S. policy in Africa making a great leap forward when unnecessary squabbles are breaking out with the continent's major player, South Africa. Those in Washington now chanting the current mantra of "trade not aid" should contemplate this sobering fact.
Gerald Horne, professor and director of the Institute of African-American research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author, most recently of "Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s (Virginia, 1995). Pub Date: 6/08/97