JOHANNESBURG — During Nelson Mandela's three years as South Africa's first black president, he and his government have experienced what could only be described as a foreign-policy learning curve.
Africa's leading statesman has alternately been accused of not using his moral authority to resolve regional crises, of hypocrisy on human rights, and of naively angering Washington.
But now Mr. Mandela's moment in the diplomatic sun has arrived with the uprising in Zaire. Long accused of being too timid to assume the leadership mantle of the world's most troubled continent, his government is playing a pivotal role in trying to mediate an end to Zaire's six-month conflict.
Whether hosting the first preliminary peace talks recently or sending his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to Zaire with cease-fire proposals, Mandela is finally assuming the role everyone expected him to take: as an African leader with a few lessons to teach about negotiated settlements.
Among Mandela's newfound admirers are the Zairean rebels, who are on the verge of toppling the 31-year regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. "South Africa has been one of the genuine countries that has been involved in trying to resolve problems in our country. If a South African representative is coming here, we welcome them," rebel foreign affairs spokesman Bizima Karaha said last week. Diplomatic sources say that preparatory meetings for cease-fire negotiations between the two sides may take place in South Africa in early April.
Pretoria's readiness to mediate in Zaire marks a shift to what many observers see as the logical role for the country, which has one of the continent's best-trained armies and strongest economies.
It also gives Mandela a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his critics for some diplomatic gaffes and miscalculations over recent years. For much of the past three years, South Africa's foreign policy has appeared to lack direction and consistency. Until recently, it maintained relations with both China and Taiwan, in what critics saw as a wavering approach.
South Africa's willingness to risk American wrath by cozying up to Cuba, Syria, Iran, and Libya was seen by many analysts to be naive. Arms deals were signed, or contemplated, with Syria, Israel, and Rwanda - in violation of South Africa's stated foreign policy guidelines not to sell arms to countries in conflict.
A major characteristic of South African foreign policy has been abrupt about faces. Mandela was far from steadfast when he retracted calls to severely censure Nigeria after the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995.
The interest now in Zaire is based on stability continent-wide. South Africa, like many other nearby countries, worries that the implosion of Africa's third-largest state could have devastating repercussions for the volatile region.
It is a given that President Mobutu's government will go, but how and when are the big questions. Mediators like South Africa want to avoid chaos when the end of what is left of the government finally falls.
South Africa may succeed in getting both sides to discuss a truce, but it is unlikely that in the short term rebel leader Laurent-Desir Kabila will agree to lay down his arms. Having conquered one-quarter of Zaire, there is no reason why he won't continue his advance toward the diamond center of Mbuji Mayi and the second-largest city, Lumbabashi, which is the hub of the cobalt and copper belt.
But Mr. Kabila will face a strong challenge to rebuild an infrastructure and political administration that has crumbled over three decades - and to bring cohesiveness to a country fractured by secessionist sentiment and tensions between many of its 250 ethnic groups.