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Mandela Reigns as Chief of Southern Africa

ZIMBABWEAN President Robert Mugabe once enjoyed a high international profile as the champion against apartheid in neighboring South Africa and a leader in ending white rule in the former Rhodesia.

But these days he is anxiously watching his influence fade in the shadow of the man he fought so hard to promote, South African President Nelson Mandela.

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Diplomats say Mr. Mugabe welcomes his ally's leadership of South Africa's first black majority government that swept to power in democratic elections a year ago. But the Zimbabwean leader misses being in the regional spotlight as the leader of the now-obsolete organization of Frontline States that pushed to bring down apartheid -- and is actively promoting himself as African peacemaker to retain his status. He was also a prominent leader of third-world nations.

Mandela's moral authority and the wealth of his country, however, mean Mugabe is continually pushed aside as other nations look to South Africa as the continent's political and economic powerhouse -- and problem solver.

''After being in the diplomatic limelight all these years, Mugabe suddenly finds that President Mandela is the flavor of the month,'' said one African diplomat. ''Mugabe is trying to push initiatives all the time, to maintain his role as the big boss in the region.''

On the surface, the two men have a lot in common. They are ascetic septagenarians, who studied at South Africa's Fort Hare University, a breeding ground for liberation thinkers. Both were jailed -- Mugabe for 10 years, Mandela for nearly 30 -- for their struggles against white supremacy.

But Mugabe cannot compete with Mandela's unrivalled air of saintliness, which verges on the mythical in Africa.

Once hailed as a model for the transition to democracy, Mugabe's 15-year reign has garnered the reputation of a corrupt one-party state intolerant of dissent.

While Mandela lambasts the corruption of his officials, Mugabe has created laws to favor his ruling party.

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Mandela makes a point of meeting with opposition leaders; Mugabe has toned down the reconciliation he once preached. Mandela's African National Congress jettisoned initial proposals for nationalization to win over vital business support. Mugabe's experiments with socialism cost the economy crucial investment and wealth.

To compensate for his loss in status, Mugabe has been actively pursuing diplomatic initiatives. Last month his Foreign Minister, Nathan Shamuyarira, flew to Lesotho to try to resolve a crisis involving mutinous officers in the latest attempt at problem-solving in the troubled mountain kingdom.

Mugabe has been mediating a territorial dispute between Botswana and Namibia, and in February hosted a summit between the two countries' presidents. Mugabe played a pivotal role in averting disaster in Mozambique's October elections, persuading opposition leader Gen. Afonso Dhlakama to end his boycott of the poll and support the democratic process. Zimbabwe has pledged hundreds of troops to a United Nations peacekeeping force destined for Angola.

Political analysts say it is a one-sided rivalry -- but Pretoria will assert itself if Mugabe is perceived to be acting out of line. African diplomats tell of a meeting of the Frontline States in which Mugabe proposed that he, as the region's most senior leader, be made chairman. After South African Foreign Minister Alfred Enzo pointed out that that proposal would snub Mandela, Mugabe backed down and accepted a rotating chair.

''Mugabe still thinks Zimbabwe has much to offer and that South Africa has much to learn. I don't think he takes second place gracefully,'' says political scientist John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe.

''We see tensions between South Africa and Zimbabwe heighten when they have to resolve regional disputes, because nations look to South Africa first. Mugabe would have to be overtaken rather than relinguish his role as regional guru,'' Mr. Makumbe says.

SOUTH AFRICAN officials, however, are quick to stress that Mandela prefers a low profile, beleaguered with enough problems at home and desirous to distant himself from the bully-boy interventionism of his white predecessors.

''We are not trying to play that [leadership] role and threaten other leaders in the region,'' said one South African official. ''We would rather take the back seat, such as making Harare as the regional center for security. In Lesotho we tried to let Mugabe lead and make him seem to be the driving force. We are trying to be consultative and not to be seen as pushing or pulling.''

Whatever the rivalry, relations between the two neighbors are improving after years of apartheid-era chill. Talks are underway over renewing a 1964 preferential trade agreement that expired three years ago to increase trade worth nearly $400 million a year.

Last month the two countries signed a pact establishing a joint commission for economic, technical, scientific, and cultural cooperation. More similar ventures are to come, diplomats say.

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