S. African leader carries message of rebirth to U.S.; Mbeki to discuss 'African Renaissance' in address to U.N.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The man who stepped into the giant shoes of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa three months ago will try to make his own imprint this week in the United States.

Thabo Mbeki, on his first trans-Atlantic trip as president, will carry the message of what he calls the "African Renaissance" when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly this week.

An advocate of "people-centered" government, he has urged African leaders to end suppression, to introduce political and economic reforms, and to develop a "sovereign continental capacity" to benefit from globalization.

In his meetings with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the United Nations, Mbeki will cement an already close bilateral relationship.

The Clinton administration views South Africa as the keystone to its reinvigorated sub-Saharan Africa policy. The United States is the biggest single investor in South Africa. As the country with the strongest economy in the region and the strongest military, South Africa is crucial to the administration's efforts to encourage stability and democracy in a continent woefully short of both.

But how is South Africa faring five years after black majority rule replaced almost a half-century of apartheid under a white minority racist regime?

Mbeki inherited a country constantly teetering on the brink of recession, critically short of housing and jobs, and racked by a wave of violent crime that undermines social well-being and frightens off international investors and tourists.

The health and education systems are in crisis, and the racial divide is as wide as ever, with Mbeki talking of two nations -- rich whites and poor blacks.

But there is some sense of positive movement.

In his first 100 days, Mbeki, 56, has replaced the politics of charisma with the politics of reality.

His cultured urbanity, controlled rhetoric, and clear aura of leadership have reassured many whites as much as they have impressed most blacks.

Mbeki has presented himself as a leader bent on delivery. He has put his Cabinet members on notice that they will be judged on their performance in the quest to create "a nation at work to build a better life."

Some of his key Cabinet selections show bode well for the future. Those ministers will be laying out their plan for South Africa's future wellbeing at a U.S.-South Africa investment conference starting Thursday.

Mbeki has left the economy, weakened by Third World contagion from Asia and Latin America as much as by any domestic shortcomings, in the hands of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Trade Minister Alec Erwin, both of whom served under Mandela.

They are widely respected overseas, from where crucial but elusive capital investment must come if the economy is to take off and the loss of more than 500,000

manufacturing jobs in the last five years is to be reversed.

At home, a major crackdown on crime has been instituted under Minister of Safety and Security Steve Tshwete, a gravel-voiced, bull-necked former sports minister who exudes toughness in an area where it is most needed.

On the front line is a new FBI-style force, called the Scorpions. And the government, to the outrage of the local gun lobby, is tightening the laws of gun ownership in a country awash with weapons, many imported from neighboring battlefields.

The failing education system is the challenge of the studious and reasoned Kader Asmal, holder of a teacher's diploma and a law degree, who spent his apartheid years in exile lecturing on human rights.

As minister of water during the Mandela government's first term, he connected 3 million households to public water systems and earned the accolade of being one of Mandela's most successful appointees.

Asmal's transfer to education has been widely welcomed by teachers, despite their involvement in a series of strikes over the government's unilateral imposition of a 3 percent pay increase -- against union demands for at least 7 percent -- on the country's 1.1 million public servants.

Working diplomat

Mbeki has the background of a working diplomat. His work in exile during the fight against apartheid gave him a firm grasp of foreign affairs. He completed his education in England, traveled widely in Europe, and represented the outlawed African National Congress in various African states. As deputy to Mandela, he and Gore co-chaired the U.S.-South African bilateral commission, established to improve contacts between the two countries.

It is in his native continent that Mbeki hopes to leave his mark through the African Renaissance. It is a vision inspired by South Africa's liberation from a half-century of racist rule and three centuries of colonization.

He sees an Africa at peace -- proudand prosperous, controlling the natural resources from which foreigners have profited for centuries.He envisions a sense of general well-being throughout the continent and Africa as a force for peace further afield.

It is a vision that brings out the poet in him. Almost all his speeches demonstrate his literary flair, be it aquotation from Yeats, a moving allegory drawn from the continent's past, or a compelling phrase.

'Children of the abyss'

"As Africans, we are the children of the abyss, who have sustained a backward march for half a millennium. " he said in his inaugural speech in June.

"If this is not merely the wish becoming father to the thought, something in the air seems to suggest that we are emerging out of the dreadful centuries which in the practiceand ideology and consciousness of some, defined us as subhuman.

"From South Africa to Ethiopia lie strewn ancient fossils which, in their stillness, speak of the African origins of all humanity. Recorded history and the material things that time left behind speak also of Africa's historic contribution to the universe of philosophy, the natural sciences, human settlement and organization and the creative arts.

"Being certain that not always were we the children of the abyss, we will do what we have to do to achieve our own renaissance."

His intellect and eloquence, however, are no mask for one of his apparent weaknesses as a politician. He is not a born flesh-presser, baby-kisser or crowd-pleaser. There is none of the spontaneous intimacy that Mandela had with audiences. Rather, he shows a natural restraint.

Relishes power

But if he prefers reflection to adulation, he has made it clear that he relishes the power given to him in the June election, when the African National Congress won 62.5 percent of the vote.

His critics see him overcentralizing that power in the office of the presidency. He sees centralization as necessary for the sort of coordination, direction and urgency the government must apply to the problems it faces.

Certainly, Mbeki, in his first weeks, has imposed his own leadership style on a country he wants, in his own words, to be "something new, good and beautiful."

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