AS STEVEN Spielberg's new movie "Amistad" ends, the hero, Cinque, is on a boat nearing the shores of his home country, Sierra Leone.
A postscript tells the audience that when he landed, Cinque -- and the other Africans who refused to become slaves in the Americas -- discovered that Sierra Leone was embroiled in civil war.
More than 150 years later, Sierra Leone and many of its neighbors are still war-torn nation-states, thickets of ethnic rivalries that defy a simple sorting of the good guys from the bad. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discovered this firsthand during her recent seven-nation visit to the continent.
Ms. Albright came under fire for heaping praise on "a group of strong leaders" whom she sees as poised to move Africa toward democracy and regional cooperation. Critics saw her as naive at best, given that many of the leaders -- most of whom seized power through military force -- have no track records in democratic reforms.
Even as she met with leaders of Rwanda, the scene of genocide in 1994, interethnic killings continued. Even as she met with the new head of Congo, Laurent Kabila, he continued to crack down on his opposition, even jailing one man for distributing leaflets that Mr. Kabila said had the intent of "dividing people."
Still, Ms. Albright was right in declaring: "It is time for the people of the United States to open a new chapter in our relations with the people of this continent." The timing could not be better.
As this new chapter opens, another is inevitably drawing to a close. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela, who is 79, has begun a two-year process of retiring. He is stepping down as head of South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress. In two years, he'll step down as the country's first post-apartheid president.
With all the confusion in most of sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has seemed like an oasis of democracy and hope. I know any number of African-Americans who have moved to South Africa in search of career advancement and personal fulfillment.
They have been seduced by the aura of Mr. Mandela, whom Ms. Albright saluted as "one of the great men of our century." I'm not sure that they've allowed themselves to think of a South Africa that is not led by Mr. Mandela. In fact, he has already turned over the day-to-day governance of the country to his deputy president, Thabo Mbeki.
How will South Africa fare when he is no longer around for even pomp and circumstance? Obviously, there will be less emphasis on reconciliation -- the theme of Mr. Mandela's years -- and more on bringing the benefits of a robust economy to the 70 percent of the population that is black and poor.
In an unusually angry speech to the ANC -- a speech seen less as Mr. Mandela's swan song than as Mr. Mbeki's blueprint for the future -- Mr. Mandela warned that many whites were doing all they could to undermine efforts to transform the country, while holding onto "privileged positions."
The bloom will be off the roses when Mr. Mandela does retire in 1999; but by then let's hope that this new relationship between the United States and Africa -- based on trade more than aid -- will be set in stone. As Mr. Mbeki observed after his meeting with Ms. Albright: "The encouragement of trade, of investment . . . all of these matters become important to underwrite the peace and stability which all of us want to see on the continent."
E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.
Pub Date: 12/23/97