Clinton's stop in South Africa is a fence-mending occasion

Relations have been strained by old disagreements over Pretoria's policies on HIV and Zimbabwe. New leadership in both countries may change that.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton briefs the media after meeting South Africa's International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane in Pretoria Friday. Clinton encouraged South Africa to use its clout to bolster reforms in Zimbabwe and said the US would build closer with South Africa after strains under the Bush administration.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in South Africa Friday as part of a seven-nation tour of the continent, intimated that Washington and Pretoria are seeing things more eye to eye than has been the case in recent years.

Under previous administrations in both countries, conflicts had arisen over how to address the spread of HIV in South Africa and how to pressure Robert Mugabe, dictatorial leader of neighboring Zimbabwe, into resolving that nation's political crisis.

"The relationship was fraught with far more difficulty than the previous administration was willing to acknowledge," one of Mrs. Clinton’s aides told The New York Times en route to South Africa. "We had little access and even less influence."

Hopes for increased cooperation seemed in evidence Friday.

Clinton, in a joint press conference with South African Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said the US is eager to “broaden and deepen our relationship.” Ms. Nkoana-Mashabane, in an apparent effort to break with the past, characterized relations during the Bush years as being “without proper coordination.”

Regarding the situation in Zimbabwe, Clinton intimated that South Africa has, on its own, moved closer to the position held by the US.

South Africa is very aware of the challenges posed by the political crisis in Zimbabwe because South Africa has 3 million refugees from Zimbabwe," Clinton said after her meeting with Nkoana-Mashabane, according to Reuters.

The US had been frustrated by South Africa’s gentle treatment of Zimbabwe's Mr. Mugabe. Under former President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa tried to mediate Zimbabwe’s 2008 election crisis but was criticized for not pushing Mugabe harder to share power with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

South African President Jacob Zuma’s new administration, just a few months younger than President Obama’s, has pledged to take a tougher line on Mugabe.

Another flash point has been former President Mbeki’s HIV policy. Even as Mbeki publicly questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, South Africa’s infection rate rose to one of the highest in the world.

"We have to make up for some lost time. But we're looking forward," Clinton said Friday after a visit to an AIDS clinic outside Pretoria partially funded by the US.

South Africa, for its part, had disagreed with US handling of the Iraq war and, while a member of the UN Security Council from 2006 to 2008, often sided against the United States. Like many African countries, it has been hesitant to align too closely with Western powers, mindful of recent colonial history.

“If you don't do it like the big ones, the French and the Americans and the British, the way they want to do them, then you are a cheeky African,” said outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations Dumisani Kumalo at the end of South Africa’s term on the Security Council. “Well I am happy being a cheeky African."

On Friday, both countries promised to improve dialogue and collaborate to tackle the continent's toughest issues.

"We have, among other things, agreed to elevate our bilateral relations to a higher level," Nkoana-Mashabane said.

The countries will “work together to build a global architecture of cooperation,” said Clinton.


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