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Visit That Skipped the Script

Negative media coverage mars symbolic occasion for South Africans as their leaders visit the US

SOUTH Africans held their collective breath over the July 4 weekend as the country's white president and its black president-in-waiting met in Philadelphia to receive the Liberty Medal from President Clinton on Independence Day.

To American television audiences, everything appeared to go according to plan.

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President Frederick de Klerk, the white leader who helped dismantle apartheid, smiled as he shook hands with African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela, the man who directed apartheid's negotiated demise.

But, to South Africans, expecting their leaders to put on a good show, the visit did not go according to plan at all.

"SA Squabbles Ruin the Show," proclaimed the Sunday Times of Johannesburg, the country's newspaper with the largest circulation.

The Sowetan, the major daily newspaper read by black South Africans, published a cartoon of Mr. Mandela and Mr. De Klerk in the boxing ring, with a glum-looking Mr. Clinton presenting them medals.

The negative media coverage was based on the fact that Mandela, under pressure both from his own constituency and the United States anti-apartheid lobby for appearing to get too close to De Klerk, refused to be photographed with Clinton after the two had met separately with him in the White House on July 2.

At a Washington media conference, apparently miffed by De Klerk's announcement that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was ready to give South Africa a loan of $850 million, Mandela said De Klerk was "irrelevant to the lifting of sanctions."

Business Day's Washington correspondent Simon Barber wrote in his weekly column: "The script called for them [Mandela and De Klerk] to be South Africa's George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson rolled into one.

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"But theirs was the embrace less of reconciliation than of sumo wrestlers looking to butt each other out of the ring."

The game plan was clear weeks before the meeting: If Mandela and De Klerk could arrive with an agreed package on an election date and a multiracial interim commission, then Mandela could give the magic green light for the lifting of sanctions.

Both leaders would then make an impassioned plea for international loans and development aid to fund the pressing socioeconomic needs of the black majority after more than four decades of apartheid deprivation.

Clinton would then be able to announce the repeal of the Gramm amendment, which would restore South African access to World Bank and IMF funds, and would call on US city and state governments to lift sanctions with Mandela's blessing.

It was clear from events prior to the US visit that this scenario would not be realized.

Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, had it within his power to delay progress at the negotiating table by denying agreement on key constitutional issues. If he had agreed, the political requisites for the trip would have been met.

It was nevertheless a day of great symbolic significance for South Africans who look increasingly to the US Constitution and Bill of Rights as the best guarantees of democracy.

Clinton, who had to hold back on the sanctions issue, spoke the words that South Africans of all colors were ready to hear.

"The United States stands ready to help the people of South Africa as they move forward on the journey to democracy," the American president said. "We want to be your partner."

For isolated South Africans these were healing words.

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