JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Hoping to dispel doubts about the Bush administration's commitment to Africa, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell promised an audience of South African college students yesterday that America would be the troubled continent's partner "every step of the way" in trade, aid and development.
But the first African-American secretary of state said the United States cannot be the leading force to make peace in Africa, where there are more armed conflicts than on any other continent.
"Peace is not a foreign concept here, nor can it be a foreign import. Africans themselves must bear the lion's share of the responsibility of bringing stability to the continent," he said during a nearly hourlong talk at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Speaking before an audience of more than 3,000, Powell was applauded when he lashed out at Zimbabwean President Robert G. Mugabe, whose refusal to loosen his grip on power has sent the country into political and economic turmoil.
"After more than 20 years in office, Zimbabwean President Mugabe is determined to remain in power. It should be up to the citizens of Zimbabwe to choose their leader in a free and fair election, and they should be given one, so they can make their choice on how they will be governed in the future," Powell said.
But the secretary was heckled inside and outside the auditorium by students demonstrating against his role as U.S. military chief in the Persian Gulf war. A group named the South African Student Congress passed out handbills that described Powell as an "Uncle Tom for both Bushes."
"America's 'assistance' to Africa will only mean wealth for a few and continuing poverty for the masses," the handbill said.
Yesterday's address was billed as the keynote speech of Powell's five-day tour of Africa. South Africa was his second stop after visiting Mali. Earlier yesterday, he met with South African government officials and toured an AIDS clinic in Soweto. Today, he travels to Kenya and Uganda.
Lacking in any detailed goals, Powell's visit was viewed by many observers and South Africans as a symbolic gesture to assure Africans that they will not be marginalized under President Bush.
"It may be that nothing is decided between the two countries on this visit, that no plans are hatched. But this matters less," concluded an editorial in yesterday's edition of the Star, a Johannesburg daily newspaper. "Americans are keen on diplomatic signals, and this visit so early in the Bush term is obviously aimed at allaying South African, African and Third World fears that Washington will be indifferent toward them in the next four years."
President Bush generated those fears on the campaign trail, where his foreign policy discussions often overlooked the continent.
Powell said many ties link Africa to the United States: America has more than 35 million citizens of African descent. Last year, there was more than $30 billion in U.S.-African trade, and America is Africa's largest single market. America is the leading foreign investor in Africa.
"America will hope with you. America will act alongside you. America will be with you every step of the way into the future," Powell said.
Powell urged Africa to put its trust in democracy, the rule of law and free trade to help pull it from poverty and suffering.
"Trade and private investment with openness in a country lead to growth and development. ... Capital will run from those countries which are closed, which are corrupt, which do not have open systems, which do not believe in the rule of laws," he said.
More than 30 African nations will benefit from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a bill passed under the Clinton administration that will encourage more free trade between Africa and America, he said.
Powell said he was "cautiously optimistic" about peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a war has raged for more than two years and has drawn in more than a half-dozen African nations.
And the secretary said the United States was committed to helping in Sudan, where an 18-year civil war has killed more than 2 million people. He said the Bush administration was planning to appoint a special envoy to work on a peace process there.
But Africa's moves toward peace, development and economic stability may be undone by HIV and AIDS, Powell said. More than 25 million Africans are believed infected with the virus that causes AIDS, about two-thirds of all the world's cases.
In many African nations, the epidemic is still misunderstood and their communities marginalize those who suffer from it, he said.
The United States recently committed an additional $200 million to a trust fund to fight AIDS. But this was just the beginning of what should be an integrated approach, he said, to combat AIDS with affordable drugs, research and prevention.