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Mugabe courts SA as a peace-keeper: Mandela and De Klerk charm Pretoria's former foes

PRESIDENT F W de Klerk, a senior member of the cabinet seven years ago when South Africa bombed Botswana and Zimbabwe, met the two countries' presidents yesterday in the company of his government's one-time prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

It was the first time that South Africa's Nobel Peace Prize duo had jointly represented their country's interests abroad.

The purpose was to formalise South Africa's transformation from regional war-monger to regional peace-keeper, from malevolent giant to friendly neighbourhood superpower.

Suddenly the term 'Frontline States' seemed as inappropriate to describe South Africa's neighbours as 'Communist Bloc' was to characterise Eastern Europe.

The meeting was in Gaborone, capital of Botswana, at the behest of the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, once the harshest critic of the regime Mr de Klerk has served as an MP for 21 years. President Mugabe wanted to find a common solution to the crisis in Lesotho, a tiny country within South Africa's borders whose stability is threatened by a military revolt.

A proposal by President Mugabe suggested that a regional military force, to include the South African Defence Force, should be sent to Lesotho as a symbolic statement of support for the democratically-elected government. Messrs de Klerk and Mandela evidently judged that such an action would be a trifle premature, for it was decided instead to appoint a joint task force to address the Lesotho crisis.

That President Mugabe should have contemplated such a proposal offered a dramatic indication of the way international perceptions of South Africa have changed in the four years since Mr Mandela's release from prison.

At a press conference in the office of Botswana's President Quett Masire, Mr Mugabe described his first meeting with Mr de Klerk - sitting beside him with Mr Mandela - as an 'historic, happy occasion'.

The Zimbabwean President said it was unfortunate it had taken so long for people to change their minds about apartheid, but he praised Mr de Klerk for the role he had played in bringing about reform. 'It is possible to open themselves up to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to open itself up to South Africa and that is what has happened now,' Mr Mugabe said.

As if to reinforce the point, Mr Mugabe gave his blessing to a remarkable regional peace- keeping conference yesterday in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. Every organisation that has been at war in Southern Africa over the past 10 years was represented: senior officers of the South African police and army; members of the African National Congress and their more radical liberation cousins, the Pan-Africanist Congress; Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party; the Mozambican army and the Renamo rebels; and the government of Namibia.

Among the 70 international participants was a representative from Britain now serving in the Commonwealth Observer Mission to South Africa, Chief Superintendent Peter Stevens of Scotland Yard.

(Photograph omitted)