SOUTH African President Nelson Mandela, who is increasingly seen as the last hope for reversing Africa's global marginalization, has embarked on an initiative to close the continent's widening gap with the developed world.
``As we take our rightful place among the nations of Africa, South Africa commits itself to join our neighbors in rising to the challenge represented by a growing affliction known as Afro-pessimism - loss of confidence in our continent's capacity to overcome underdevelopment and declining standards,'' he told a conference of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) here.
Mr. Mandela, who is due to arrive in Tunis today to attend his first summit of the 53-nation Organization of African Unity, launched a drive Friday for regional cooperation and economic integration in southern Africa at the Forum summit of southern African nations.
While Mandela's appearance at the OAU marks his debut at an all-Africa summit as a head of state, his speech to the WEF provided his first opportunity to promote cooperation in southern Africa.
``Mandela has arrived on the African scene when the continent is in dire need of a statesman to raise Africa's profile and prepare Africa for a world increasingly dominated by trade blocks and agreements,'' a Western diplomat says.
At the WEF summit attended by some 300 influential investors and potential investors, South Africa and 10 countries in the region took the first tentative steps toward what promises to be a long and bumpy road to a harmonious relationship with the former apartheid state.
Potential investors responded well to Mandela's assurances that his government's Reconstruction and Development Program would be implemented with fiscal discipline, economic liberalization, and policies directed at promoting economic growth.
The Forum, which reflects the priorities of international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has played a key role in tempering some of the more socialist-leaning economic policies of the African National Congress and nurturing a consensus between the new government and the business and foreign investor community.
The summit was the first time the heads of states of neighboring Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, and Tanzania had held talks with Mandela on South African soil, and the first time they had been jointly exposed to the world investment community.
In his opening speech, Mandela, whose moral authority and stature as an international statesman draws a mixed reaction from African leaders, revived the OAU's vision of an African common market by the turn of the century. Mandela said that the short-term goal in southern Africa had to be the realization of the goals of the 10-nation Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the 18-nation Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, which emerged from the Preferential Trade Area.
There is intense competition between the two organizations, and a joint committee representing both bodies has been created in a bid to resolve the conflict.
South Africa is expected to join the SADC at its annual conference in August, but neither South Africa nor the SADC regard this as the final answer to the problem of regional cooperation or integration.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who appeared somewhat awkward in Mandela's shadow, spent much of his initial speech justifying his switch from Marxism-Leninism and Maoism to endorsement of social democracy and economic reform.
He welcomed the prospect of regional cooperation and the eventual formation of an African common market but warned that ``we small ones will not accept any bullies'' - a clear reference to fear of South African domination.
Mr. Mugabe said he had discussed the issue of Zimbabwean migration to South Africa with Mandela and told him that he would cooperate in curbing illegal migration but saw nothing wrong with a flow of skilled people to South Africa in accordance with the country's immigration laws.
Mozambique's President Joaquim Chissano was less diplomatic about the migration issue.
``We hope South Africa will see Mozambicans here not only as laborers but as brothers who are trying to build the whole region,'' he said. ``We expect South Africa will help us to attract investment for the whole region.''
Mandela was trying to acknowledge his neighbor's concerns and assure them that a democratic South Africa had no such intentions. ``We harbor no desire to be the dominant partner for the region, and South Africa itself would lose in the long-run,'' he said.
A set of ``action proposals'' - consensus between regional policymakers and investors - suggested an incremental approach to regional integration.
These included: encouraging intraregional trade and investment; recognizing the past failure of SADC and SACU; creating a free intraregional flow of capital; scrapping tariffs and excise duties and other trade barriers; agreeing on a common currency unit for trade purposes; marketing southern Africa as a region; dropping visa requirements.
``With regional integration will emerge a mutually beneficial arrangement regarding the movement of goods, capital, and labor,'' Mandela confidently predicted. He said regional economic integration was vital to counter the lopsided development of the colonial era that had resulted in the underdevelopment of many countries in the region.
``Related to this is the danger of unhealthy migration of capital as well as skilled personnel to areas with developed infrastructure,'' he said. ``It is to the overall advantage of the region that this trend is arrested and reversed.''