BARRED by the international community for more than two decades from operating in South Africa, United Nations humanitarian agencies now see the former apartheid state as a conduit for ending poverty, famine, and conflict on the African continent.
But decades of sanctions have caused South Africa to fall behind other African states - particularly in education and health care for children. And the country must make up its own backlog before helping the rest of Africa meet UN goals for providing access to such services, these agencies say.
In some areas - such as food production and medical supplies - South Africa has already become a vital base and procurement center for UN agencies.
``With its well-developed transport and communication infrastructure, South Africa could well become the major supplier of food to the region,'' UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Mercedes Sayagues told the Monitor on June 15 during a visit here. ``South Africa's record [corn] harvest - coupled with the lifting of UN sanctions - makes the country the bright spot in regional food supply.''
The WFP disclosed on June 15 that it has already bought 60,000 tons of corn and cornmeal from South Africa for distribution in Africa - 10 percent of the WFP's total food purchases for developing countries in 1993.
``This food was sent to the ports of Mombasa [Kenya] and Dar es Salaam [Tanzania] - mostly for Rwanda and Burundi and for refugees in northern Tanzania,'' Ms. Sayagues said.
After former President Frederik de Klerk signaled the end of apartheid in 1990, UN agencies set up offices in South Africa to assist with drought relief and the dismantling of apartheid. WFP helped coordinate the 1992 drought-relief effort in southern Africa from Johannesburg.
In forums like the Organization of African Unity and the Southern African Frontline States, President Nelson Mandela has played down African expectations of South African political mediation and military intervention to resolve conflicts in other African countries. But he has stressed the humanitarian contribution and advice South Africa can offer.
``President Mandela has correctly identified domestic expectations for development as his No. 1 priority,'' says a Western diplomat.
The UN Security Council lifted a 17-year-old mandatory arms embargo against the country on May 24. And South Africa, which last occupied its seat at the UN General Assembly in 1974, is due to make a formal return to the world body in September.
Aid agencies settle in
``There is considerable hope that what is taking place in South Africa can play an important role here in the African continent and the world,'' UN Special Representative Lakdhar Brahimi said in an interview in May.
Earlier this month, the United Nations International Children's Education Fund (UNICEF) - present in South Africa for over a year -
raised its profile with a visit by director James Grant. He confirmed that a $20 million donation for 1994-96 would be spent through both government and development agencies.
``It would be good if South Africa could become the base from which we could work northward into Africa,'' Mr. Grant said.
Although UNICEF has always operated as an apolitical organization, South Africa was ``an exception where we were caught under the UN embargo,'' he added. As a result, South Africa now lags behind 16 other African countries, if judged by the living standards of youth.
``But South Africa has the potential for its children to be in the most advanced position on this continent,'' he said, adding that he was confident this would take place in two to three years.
Grant addressed a meeting of businessmen in Johannesburg who were interested in commercial opportunities offered by the influx of agencies like UNICEF.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was the first UN agency to open an office in South Africa in 1992 to coordinate the return of some 15,000 political refugees to South Africa. UNHCR has been involved in procuring medicines and equipment in South Africa for Rwandan refugees in Tanzania and Uganda.
Base for refugee relief
The agency's 1994 budget for repatriating some 250,000 Mozambican refugees from South Africa is around $10 million - a small part of an overall $200 million Mozambican repatriation scheme involving some 1.5 million people in six countries.
It is estimated that about half the refugees - mainly those in Malawi - have returned spontaneously since UNHCR's repatriation program began last year.
``We are now looking to the south - as the last country to be liberated - in helping African countries to solve their problems,'' said UNHCR chief of mission for South Africa, Kallu Kalumiya, in a June 17 Monitor interview.
Mr. Kalumiya noted that almost 6 million of the world's 20 million refugees are in Africa, and the proliferation of some 700,000 refugees from Rwanda brings new challenges to UNHCR.
``Rwanda has posed enormous logistical problems, as well as unique humanitarian problems, as a result of the speed with which it has happened,'' he said. ``It is also unique in the respect that you find the perpetrators of the atrocities in refugee camps - posing as refugees.''