Mbeki calls on spirit of apartheid struggle

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South Africa's ANC government, which celebrates a decade in power next year, is using the anniversary to "reconnect" with Britons who campaigned against apartheid, as well as seeking British aid and investment.

More than a dozen South African ministers and the country's first lady, Zanele Mbeki, will be in London this week for the largest conference the country has ever held in Britain. The three-day event at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre is expected to attract 700 leading British figures with ties to South Africa, from stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle to business executives with investments there.

"This is the biggest conference of its kind anywhere in the world, because the anti-apartheid movement was broader and more diverse in Britain than anywhere else," said Jo-Ann Johnston of the South African High Commission in London. But the theme, "A decade of freedom ... the decade ahead", appears designed to reawaken interest among Britons who tended to assume South Africa's problems ended with the overthrow of apartheid.

When Peter Hain, now a British cabinet minister, led protests against Springbok sports teams 30 years ago, the Anti-Apartheid Movement's support numbered in the hundreds of thousands. South Africa is still facing huge economic inequalities and the image problems created by high crime and the world's fastest Aids infection rate, but the AAM's successor, Action for Southern Africa (Actsa), has about 6,000 supporters and 3,000 voting members.

Actsa sees numerous issues to do with British aid and investment in South Africa. "Britain's basic approach is to treat South Africa as a middle-income country," said Alastair Fraser, the organisation's policy officer. "The Department for International Development's biggest single contract there, worth £30m, is with the Adam Smith Institute to advise on privatisation. The institute is not known for its focus on poverty.

"Privatisation is an extremely controversial issue in South Africa, and Britain is seen as being very much on one side of the argument."

Although Tony Blair lent highly public support to Nepad, an African development initiative fostered by President Thabo Mbeki, Mr Fraser said British involvement was "very limited".

South Africa, which is due to hold its third free election next year, is counting the cost of forgotten promises made in the euphoria of the mid-1990s. Many developed countrieshave seen the "rainbow nation" as an economic threat, particularly in agriculture. The EU refused to allow South Africa to join its aid scheme for developing countries, and after nine years a trade and development agreement has still not been fully tied up.

"Our aim is to rekindle the ties of solidarity with the countries who supported our struggle against apartheid," said a South African spokesman, Malusi Mahlulo.

The conference runs from 24-26 October. For details, phone 020 7451 7139 or see www.southafricahouse.com