Mandela is silent over dissidents

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD'S most famous former political prisoner, Nelson Mandela, firmly side-stepped the question of China's human rights record yesterday and said that "as an individual" he was "not prepared to interfere in their domestic affairs".

On his final state visit before retiring as South African President next month, Mr Mandela said he would need "more knowledge than I have" before offering any advice to the mainland's political prisoners.

Anyone hoping to see Mr Mandela use his moral authority to chastise China's leaders over human rights would have been disappointed as he wrapped up his 48 hours in Peking. This final trip, also taking in Russia, Hungary and Pakistan, was to thank countries which had supported the African National Congress "during the days when we were almost all alone in the world".

Mr Mandela said of the dissidents: "I do not know what they have done. I know that in our country, for example, we were justified in breaking the laws of the apartheid regime, because they were against the interests of the majority of the country ... I cannot say that the dissidents in the People's Republic of China committed offences which are similar to our case in South Africa. I would have to know far more than I know about the situation to be able to make a fair statement.

Any discussion of another country's internal situation should be through organisations not individuals, President Mandela stressed.

Nor did Mr Mandela's comments on democracy offend his hosts. "The purpose of democracy is to ensure that we solve the questions of poverty, of hunger, of illiteracy and of disease ... That is the aim of giving people votes and creating popular institutions," he said.

"But we know as a fact, that in most of the countries in the West, although you say you have democracy, many people have nothing to put in their stomachs, there is a wide range of illiteracy, poverty, disease, without governments caring.

"And yet there are countries where there are no popular institutions, where the people, almost everybody, comparatively enjoys a high standard of living, where the level of education is very high, where everybody has had the opportunity to go to school, where medical services are free, where you have the best subsidies for houses and for transport.

"We still insist in those countries that there should be popular institutions, but we should not be dogmatic, just to think that because people have been given votes in a particular country, they have solved a socio-economic problem."

South Africa broke off relations with the newly democratic Taiwan in 1998, a decision which Mr Mandela said had proved "quite correct".