THE WORLD FROM...Johannesburg

De Klerk's breakthrough in Nigeria boosts Pretoria's bid for greater economic cooperation with Africa

EVEN South Africans familiar with their foreign minister's flamboyant and theatrical style hesitated at the sight of Roelof Botha in traditional Nigerian garb.

There on the front page of the mass circulation Sunday Times of Johannesburg - in full color - was Mr. Botha in a West African tie-dye shirt, sunglasses, and a multicolored fez-like hat.

"All set for the Organization of African Unity [OAU]," suggested the tongue-in-cheek caption.

His fancy dress, donned on the return flight from Abuja, Nigeria, over the weekend, symbolized his government's triumphant breakthrough in Africa.

Western diplomats readily agree that Nigeria's decision to receive President Frederik de Klerk and his entourage while President Ibrahim Babangida still holds the chairmanship of the 51-nation OAU was a spectacular diplomatic victory for Pretoria.

For the current chairman of the OAU to receive a white leader of a white-ruled South Africa was unthinkable even a year ago.

African diplomats say the meeting has paved the way for South Africa to send an observer to this year's OAU summit in Dakar, Senegal, and for its formal admission to the African body under an interim government next year. "So far, De Klerk is well ahead of the game," one Western diplomat said.

Spurred by the prospect of a prolific trade relationship - and the somewhat unrealistic expectation of large-scale South African investment in Nigeria's ailing economy - Nigeria pulled out all the stops for the De Klerk entourage.

Botha, who has visited most of the world's major capitals with his reformist president, described the Nigerian trip as "the most important visit of my career outside South Africa."

Pretoria officials say the visit will give fresh impetus to their vision for economic cooperation in Africa - with South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Kenya as the nuclei of four regional trade blocs. Analysts say it represents an important shift in Pretoria's foreign policy away from the West toward Africa and the Far East.

"We must help our continent to survive against enormous odds," Botha said. "If Nigeria and South Africa can put together a strategy against the world tendency to discard us, we would be fulfilling a historic mission."

The Nigerian visit closely followed the establishment of full diplomatic relations between South Africa and the Ivory Coast, and the opening of trade missions in several other African countries, including neighboring Zambia.

It was also a severe setback for the African National Congress (ANC) in its bid to prevent formal contact between Pretoria and Africa until a multiracial interim government is in place.

Since President De Klerk's decisive reformist victory in the whites-only referendum last month, the ruling National Party government has made impressive strides internationally - particularly in Africa. But he is beginning to make headway among black South Africans as well.

Within hours of returning from Nigeria, De Klerk held his first political rally in a mixed-race "colored" neighborhood near Cape Town and was greeted by thousands of flag-waving supporters. Anti-apartheid demonstrators eventually disrupted the rally, but the protests seemed to have backfired on the ANC.

Botha has long advanced the line that the Dutch-descended Afrikaners are an African tribe. "The tribe I represent has signaled that apartheid is dead," he told the Sunday Times.

De Klerk's propaganda successes at home and abroad could be used effectively to force further concessions from the ANC at the negotiations for a transfer of power to a majority government.

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