Mbeki under fire for sucking up to tyrants

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AFTER years of talking up his vision for an "African Renaissance", South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki gave a broad hint last week that his brand of renaissance may owe more to Machiavelli than Michelangelo, writes Ed O'Loughlin.

On Tuesday night a presidential spokesman admitted that former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam had been allowed to leave the country the previous Friday, despite requests from human-rights groups and the Ethiopian government that he be arrested for genocide. Then next day it emerged that the African National Congress leader had persisted in refusing to meet one-to-one with the Dalai Lama, who was visiting South Africa for a congress of world religious leaders.

Mr Mbeki's office claimed that this was because he was too busy, but critics have accused the government of pandering to China, whose Prime Minister, Li Peng, was feted by Mr Mbeki in South Africa last month.

Pro-Tibetan activists accused the ruling ANC of refusing to offer solidarity to a racially and culturally oppressed people, despite having benefited strongly from international support during its own years of exile. Last Wednesday the Dalai Lama turned down a late offer of a group meeting with other religious leaders, saying he was already scheduled to take part in a debate at the time.

The two incidents have led to a fresh outcry over post-apartheid South Africa's oft-professed desire to serve as an international beacon for human rights.

Critics of the ruling ANC's foreign policy are demanding to know why Mengistu, who ruled Ethiopia for 17 bloody years, was allowed to enter South Africa for medical treatment at the end of November.

Since fleeing to the protection of Zimbabwe in 1991, he has dared or been permitted to visit only one other foreign country: North Korea.

As leader of "the Dergue" military government from 1974 to 1991, the man dubbed "the African Stalin" is accused of presiding over the murder of thousands of suspected opponents and the imprisonment and torture of tens of thousands more.

When news of his presence in a Johannesburg private clinic broke at the end of November, however, the department of foreign affairs first described him as a "refugee", and then claimed that he could not be extradited because there was no extradition treaty with Ethiopia.

Finally, on Monday, a foreign affairs spokesman told newspapers that the government had decided to "review" the case for Mengistu's arrest in the light of an extradition request received from the Ethiopian government the previous Friday.

On Tuesday night human-rights activists were angered - but not surprised - to learn that Mengistu had already left the country.

"Clearly [the announcement of a review] was a public-relations job," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Africa at the New York- based group Human Rights Watch. "I think there is a definite lack of political will within South Africa.... Obviously this would come as a disappointment to those who look to South Africa as a pace-setter on human rights and accountability."

Safely back in his mansion in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, Mengistu did little to ease his recent hosts' embarrassment when he told the BBC that the South African government had fully briefed him about the moves against him and that he was considering returning to South Africa in the future.