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Friends of Mandela Aren't US Friends

First there were twin state visits to Libya. Then two finance agreements with Iran. And finally, a castigating speech about United States sanctions against Cuba and a United Nations resolution criticizing American efforts to block third-party trade with Havana.

In the past few weeks, South Africa has scored a diplomatic hat-trick with countries the US regards as "pariah" states.

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The US and Britain, for example, accuse Libya of harboring two men suspected in connection with the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and prodded the UN in 1992 to impose a ban on air travel to Libya. South Africa's outreach, they complain, undermines the goals of such isolation policies.

But South Africa seems increasingly determined to play by its own rules. Its interests elsewhere in the world don't always mesh with its ties to the West.

The West may regard Libya and Iran as sponsors of terrorism, but to South Africa, they are friends from the struggle against apartheid. So while Washington applies the stick, South African President Nelson Mandela is more apt to dangle the carrot.

In the long run, this could shake up the way the international community deals with troublemakers, especially if South Africa captures a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But analysts also say South Africa has woven a contradictory foreign policy that could damage economic links with its Western trading partners.

"South Africa's been sort of [a] mixture between the third and the first world," says Jan van Eck, a former member of parliament and now senior analyst at the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. "It's actually always going to show a bit of schizophrenia in that. It's a very tricky balance they have to keep because they would not like to lose the West."

None of South Africa's recent maneuvers reflect anything new. One of the first embassies South Africa established after Mr. Mandela's inauguration in 1994 was in Havana. Earlier this year, the US and South Africa tangled over a proposed arms deal between South Africa and Syria.

Mandela has angrily suggested that President Clinton's criticism of his plans to visit Libya was racist. That tone continued when South African Ambassador to the UN Khiphusizi Jele urged the General Assembly to condemn the Helms-Burton Act, which seeks to punish foreign companies that do business with Cuba. "For decades Cuba has been a victim of an economic embargo, an unjust measure which causes untold suffering to its people," the ambassador said.

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While officials in both the US and South Africa say no lasting harm has been done, analysts say the latest tensions underscore South Africa's need to develop a more nuanced foreign policy.

A key part of the problem, they say, is that South Africa itself is still emerging from isolation. The contacts and ideals of the new government are based on relationships the African National Congress (ANC) relied upon during during the liberation struggle under apartheid. Whereas white-ruled South Africa sought to cultivate ties with the West and subjugate its neighbors, the ANC government recognizes a need to integrate within the rest of the continent.

Yet doing so has proved tricky. Many African states remain suspicious of South Africa. At the same time, Western trade remains crucial to development.

"We're having to, as we say, learn as we're running," says Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad.

A look within the 12-nation Southern African Development Community shows the conflict among various strains of South Africa's foreign policy priorities. South Africa and its partners recently gave the former Zaire - now Congo - fast-track acceptance into the group. But Western governments have condemned the new leadership in Congo for alleged human rights violations.

And the move seems at odds with South Africa's own commitment to human rights, which Mandela has called "the guiding light" of his foreign policy.

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