President Mbeki deserves our continuing support

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The Independent Online

President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, whom the Queen welcomed at Windsor Castle on the first day of his state visit to Britain yesterday, has not proved the shining success that was hoped for in the hand-picked successor of Nelson Mandela. Mr Mbeki's stewardship of the economy has been impressive. On the political front, however, his first two years in office have been dominated by controversies over his eccentric views on Aids, the muted nature of his public criticism of the political thuggery in Zimbabwe, and the paranoia which last month led to wild accusations against three ANC leaders that they were plotting to cause him physical harm.

This should not obscure the fact that both President Mbeki and South Africa badly need ­ and deserve ­ continuing British support. South Africa is in the midst of a disastrous Aids crisis. Growing unemployment has worsened the crime rates. But the fundamentals are stable. South Africa needs investment. Mr Mbeki deserves to succeed in his attempts to persuade more British businesses to invest in South Africa, and more tourists to visit his spectacular country, for so long a pariah state.

Britain has had close ties with South Africa, not least because of our links with the anti-apartheid struggle. Just because that struggle has succeeded is no reason to diminish British support, or to forget Africa's needs. Just the opposite. More of that support is required now, at a time when South Africa, which has ambitions to play a leading role on the regional and world stage, urgently needs to clamber out of the economic problems it has inherited from its troubled past.

It makes little sense for Mr Mbeki rigorously to pursue the demand for reparations for slavery and colonialism. Financial compensation is not the way to solve the problems of colonial history. The UN conference on racism, scheduled to take place in South Africa in August, should look forward rather than back. But a helping hand is needed.

It is in Britain's interest that South Africa should not follow the terrible example of Zimbabwe in the years to come. President Mbeki's declared plans for an African recovery have a greater chance of success if South Africa is stable, and is regarded as a positive role model on the continent. That possibility remains hearteningly real.