Mandela appeals to MPs for action: The ANC leader rebukes Britain for its colonial role in South Africa, but in nicest possible way

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THE PRESIDENT of the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela, spoke yesterday as if he were already South Africa's president. Addressing 300 MPs and peers of all parties crowded into the Grand Committee Room at the House of Commons, he repeated his plea for help to end apartheid - and then went into future mode, calling on Britain for a series of practical steps to aid the 'new South Africa'.

Mr Mandela began with a rebuke to Britain for its colonial role - 'hidden by the dim mists of history' - in bringing about the oppression of South Africa's black majority. This, he said, had forced blacks to resolve their conflicts through non- peaceful means. But his reproach was couched in the nicest possible way, set within the context of again expressing, as he did several times during his two- day visit to London, his admiration for Britain as the cradle of parliamentary democracy.

The intertwining of the lives of Britons and South Africans 'demands of you that you should assist us, and therefore yourselves as well, to rediscover for ourselves as a people the practice of democracy'. Nor was this mere sentimentality: Britain's own national interest demanded that it help.

Survival of a democratic South Africa depended on swift economic and social improvements for the majority of its people. He urged British companies, for 'mutual benefit', to invest, to help modernise the economy, open the way to new markets and create jobs to absorb the millions of unemployed. He asked the private and government sectors to help with education.

Mr Mandela asked for Britain's support in changing the international classification of South Africa as a middle-income country. This 'false perception' affected the country's receipt of overseas development assistance, soft loans and access to markets. 'The actual reality of South Africa is that, beyond the aggregate statistics, the majority of our population, which happens to be black, lives in conditions of dire poverty,' he said. South Africa contained both a first-world and a third-world economy. The statistics disguised the poverty and underdevelopment - 'because so rich are the few that are rich that it becomes impossible to see that the poor exist at all'. Linked with this, he asked the parliamentarians to use their influence to get the European Community to conclude a mutually beneficial agreement with South Africa as quickly as possible.

Again anticipating his future role, he ended with a declaration in which he offered a democratic South Africa as a 'reliable partner' for Britain as the world grappled with problems of human rights, development, peace and protecting the environment.

Lady Olga Maitland, Tory MP and former gossip columnist, questioned Mr Mandela about the future stability of South Africa and his relationship with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the Zulus. She emerged less than reassured. Lord Wyatt, a cross-bench peer and ardent Thatcherite, said: 'He is a rather great man. But I still think it is going to be difficult to persuade a lot of businessmen they are not going to do silly things . . . '

It was Mr Mandela's dress code that impressed at least one senior Tory. 'I was glad to see he was wearing a good suit,' said the Tory peer after the 90-minute meeting. 'I don't say that flippantly. It's a mark of his stature.'

It was a mark of how far things have changed in South Africa that Mr Mandela had met the Prime Minister before speaking at Parliament. Today he goes on a private visit to Switzerland and will then meet Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.