S. Africa-US: Odd Couple

Clinton's three-day visit reveals how two democracies can agree to disagree.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When President Clinton and his wife, Hillary, visited Johannesburg's famous black township Soweto this weekend, traffic was backed up for nearly two miles off the Soweto Highway. Vanloads of cheering, flag-waving people careered through the dusty streets.

But the traffic jam was caused by a funeral cortege. And the vans were heading for a soccer game between the Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs, local rivals.

In contrast, the Clintons' commemoration of Hector Peterson, the black schoolboy who was the first casualty of the 1976 anti-apartheid Soweto uprising, was a muted, VIP-only affair. All that ordinary people saw of the Clintons was a flash of smoked glass and a flutter of stars and stripes as their cavalcade slipped through a ring of armored police vehicles surrounding the site.

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Outside the circle of armored vehicles, Clara Radebe stood among a crowd of girls from the Major Majorettes of Mofolo North, their slightly threadbare black-and-gold uniforms contrasting with the bright blue of the police cordon before them.

"I don't know what has happened," Mrs. Radebe said. "The sports council in Soweto invited the children to perform last week and said they must be here for 11 o'clock. Now all of a sudden, the police won't let us in."

Secret Service bodyguards, who almost allowed Mr. Clinton to be mobbed by an overenthusiastic crowd in Ghana, seemed determined to keep closer guard on him in Johannesburg, recently called the world's fourth-most-dangerous city after Algiers, Algeria, and Bogot and Medelln, Colombia.

Diplomatically, the trip was also less than smooth sailing. South Africa, a new democracy with the most developed and well-trained army in Africa, is seen by the United States as its key partner on the continent. But while South Africa is eager for more US trade and investment, it is also reluctant to appear as a mere vehicle for American interests.

Clinton came touting the Africa Growth and Opportunity Bill, which would give African countries better access to US markets in return for market reforms at home. But President Nelson Mandela made a point of publicly rejecting the measure twice during the Clintons' four-day visit that ended yesterday.

Mr. Mandela said he found "totally unacceptable" provisions in the bill on bilateral trade deals that would "restrict our freedom to trade with other countries."

He also reiterated South Africa's close ties to Cuba, Iran, and Libya. At a joint press conference with Clinton Friday, Mandela told journalists that those seeking to turn his government against its old friends, seen as "pariah states" by the US, could go "jump in a pond." Standing beside him, Clinton chose to laugh off the remark.

South African analysts say their country's touchy relations with the US in part represent the desire of Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) to steer an independent course in the world.

During the struggle against white rule, the ANC received funds, weapons, and training from several socialist countries, most notably Cuba. The US and Britain at times appeared to be hostile to the ANC cause.

Now Iran has offered itself as a major trading partner for South Africa, particularly in oil. Libya has little to offer in the way of trade or investment. Nevertheless, Mandela courted US and British displeasure last year when he flew to Libya to present Col. Muammar Qaddafi with South Africa's highest honor, the Order of Good Hope. Ironically, he presented the same award to Clinton Friday.

But while Mandela may be prone to outbursts against US meddling, diplomats say the underlying US-South Africa relationship is both good and improving. The Clintons' state visit to South Africa underscored both South Africa's status as Africa's leading democracy and the American desire to do business.

The tour has also provided Clinton a break from scandals back home. But yesterday, before leaving for a two-day safari in Botswana, the Clintons attended a Sunday mass at a Roman Catholic church in Soweto. They heard a sermon based on the story of the adulterous woman (John 8:1-11) whom Jesus defends ("He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her") but then admonishes, "go, and sin no more."

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