Mbeki takes centre stage in fairytale pageantry

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Thoughts of Aids, crisis in Zimbabwe and Africa's economic misery vanished briefly yesterday when President Thabo Mbeki began a state visit in fairytale pomp and splendour beneath the walls of Windsor Castle.

As a 41-gun salute thundered out at the Tower of London, the South African leader and the Queen, followed by his wife, Zanele, and the Duke of Edinburgh, led a procession of seven open carriages to the gates of the castle, cheered by crowds waving British and South African flags.

Accompanying them were detachments of the Grenadier Guards and the Household Cavalry, their gold and silver cuirasses gleaming in the warm sunshine. If Mr Mbeki's wife looked slightly bemused, he was clearly revelling in the occasion ­ and surely reflecting on how times had changed since he first alighted on these shores.

That was in the early Sixties, when he was a political fugitive from the apartheid regime. Now the former refugee is centre stage in the Disneyland pageantry of the British monarchy on full dress parade, honoured leader of the country on which Britain and the West is banking to lead an African renaissance. His lodgings will not be digs at Sussex University where he took a degree in economics, but the sumptuous apartments of Windsor Castle.

"Africa needs a successful South Africa and the world needs a successful South Africa," was the mantra at the Foreign Office before Mr Mbeki arrived, and it guarantees some serious diplomatic and financial business later this week.

As the leading foreign investor in South Africa and one of its top three trading partners, Britain has more at stake than most in the region' stability and prosperity. But both are endangered by the ever-deepening crisis in Zimbabwe.

Britain's own efforts to bring President Robert Mugabe to his senses having failed, Tony Blair is likely to lean ­ politely but firmly ­ on Mr Mbeki when the two leaders meet at Downing Street tomorrow to step up the pressure on South Africa's northern neighbour.

Already Zimbabwe's tottering economy is only kept from collapse by South African energy and financial credits. Now, with his country's own financial standing tarred by sheer geographical proximity with Zimbabwe, Mr Mbeki may be inclined to listen.

Britain will also be urging South Africa to boost its presence in international peacekeeping missions in Africa, and exploring how to step up the fight against Aids, the scourge of Africa.

But the nub of the visit is economic. Mr Mbeki desperately needs to entice more British investment to South Africa, to generate jobs and reduce an unemployment rate already more than 30 per cent. Travelling with him are not only eight ministers but some 80 representatives of the business community, seeking new contacts and new deals.