Africa File: Mandela sends out mixed signals

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The Independent Online
JOHANNESBURG - Pretoria dispatched the director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Rusty Evans, to Lesotho yesterday to put pressure on King Letsie III to reinstate the elected government of the prime minister, Ntsu Mokhehle, whom the king overthrew two weeks ago.

Negotiations are likely to continue for some time, but of more immediate interest are some of the conclusions to be drawn from the fact that Mr Evans continues to exercise the same role as he did under the De Klerk administration.

Having undergone, in common with several senior civil servants, the alchemic transformation from servant of apartheid to servant of democracy, Mr Evans is at the forefront of the drive to alter the nature of South Africa's diplomatic relations with its neighbours, relations that are destined to remain ambiguous.

In the figure of Mr Evans the governments of Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Southern Africa are provided with a reminder of Pretoria's big stick and President Nelson Mandela's message of amicable co-existence.

On one hand, no one in the region doubts South Africa's continuing status as regional superpower. On the other, Mr Mandela - unlike his predecessors - enjoys personal friendships with the likes of President Mugabe and President Dos Santos.

The upshot is that relations are likely to be more cordial on the political rather than the economic terrain. For example, all parties will be hoping Mr Mandela's magic dust will rub off on the region's two most volatile countries, Angola and Mozambique. Since the South African elections Mr Mandela has been working closely with Mr Mugabe to try and bash heads together in the cause of peace and stability.

At the same time, Mr Mandela is reluctant to be seen to be playing the dominant role in the region's diplomatic intiatives, and more reluctant yet to issue threats, or contemplate military intervention at a time when his chief priority is rebuilding his country's economy.

Which is also why South Africa is likely to play an assertive role in the attempt to restrain illegal immigrants from crossing its borders. Mr Mandela appears to have bent the ear of Mr Mugabe, who last week issued a statement to the effect that his government would take measures to discourage Zimbabweans from setting off on clandestine expeditions across the Limpopo river.

NO LESS ambiguous has been the attitude of South Africa's new ANC masters towards freedom of the press. Government has never been more open. For the first time in South African history, reporters are allowed full access to meetings of the standing parliamentary committees, both at national and provincial level.

A National Party member of the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vaal (PWV) legislature complained last week to his fellow members in the social welfare committee that confidential information he had shared with them had been leaked to the press. Red-faced, he learnt from an ANC back-bencher that, in keeping with the new policy, the media had been present at his 'confidential' briefing.

But the ANC premier of the PWV, Tokyo Sexwale, is sending out different signals. After being described by the editor of Johannesburg's Sunday Times, Ken Owen, as 'His Regional Highness', Mr Sexwale went publicly on the counter-attack. He accused 'some people' of being 'counter- revolutionaries' and of abusing press freedom 'to undermine government'.

If Mr Sexwale's intemperate outburst may be put down to an arguably forgiveable callowness, the same excuse cannot be made for the Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. In a speech last week to the Cape Town Press Club, President Mandela's likely successor said the press had 'a tendency to look for crises and to look for faults and mistakes'. Which would have been fine had he not presented this as a complaint.

Then he dropped another clanger. Urging the press to re-examine its attitude towards government, he asked: 'Does it continue to see itself as the conscience of the public, the watchdog?' Mr Mbeki made it quite plain that he believed the answer should be 'no'.