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Africa's Dreams Begin to Take Root

Clinton's trip to still-troubled continent highlights growth of democracy, markets.

The main streets of Mozambique's capital, Maputo, are still named for Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. But they no longer show a socialist direction in the government, the path taken by most African countries when the post-colonial era began in the 1960s.

Today they are just signposts of a disastrous past that Mozambique wants to put behind it as it embraces free-market capitalism and democracy, Africa-style.

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President Clinton came to Africa on a trip that ends April 2 to celebrate the "African renaissance," a term coined by South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki. From Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) to Dakar (Senegal), democracy is gaining strength, business is growing, and peace is making progress, Mr. Clinton said in a speech to the South African parliament. "In coming to Africa, my motive in part was to help the American people see the new Africa with new eyes," he said.

Of the 48 sub-Saharan African states, the State Department now counts 23 as democracies, compared with five in 1989. Annual economic growth in such notoriously poor places as Mozambique and Uganda tops 7 percent, outstripping the rates of Canada and the United States. "Africa is not a backwater, a jungle with bodies floating down river," says Susan Rice, US assistant secretary of state for Africa.

In a landmark speech last year, Mr. Mbeki described his "African renaissance" as the "third moment" in African liberation. The first, he said, was the struggle for independence from overt colonial rule. The second was the struggle for release from neocolonial rule - gross mismanagement by Africa's own leaders.

Mbeki said East Asia's leap out of poverty, ignorance, and impotence could be repeated in Africa. In 1960, for example, Ghana had a per capita gross national product equal to that of South Korea. Today, South Korea's is 10 times larger. The "African renaissance," Mbeki said, depends on good governance and decent education; fair access to world markets and information technologies; and the emancipation of women, the backbone of Africa's subsistence-farming economies.

Focusing on 'trade, not aid'

Cynics say Clinton came to sunny Africa only to get away from the grim grind of scandals and accusations at home. But in fact, he has been boosting Africa for the past year. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited 11 African countries on her 1997 tour. That was followed by the US House of Representatives passing Clinton's African Growth and Opportunity bill in early March, which awaits action in the Senate.

The bill signals Clinton's determination to make "trade, not aid" the basis of the US-Africa relationship. It has been criticized here for offering Americans more advantages in African markets than it does Africans in American markets. "Our trade with Africa is 20 percent greater than our trade with all the former Soviet Union," Clinton told listeners in Johannesburg, with people back home clearly in mind. "It supports 100,000 American jobs. The average annual return on investment - I hope they're listening back in America ... is 30 percent."

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In that speech he also promised to try to alleviate some of the huge foreign debt owed by African countries. The administration's budget request, he said, would permit up to $1.6 billion in bilateral debt relief for Africa. "I challenge others in the industrial world to offer more relief, so that we can free up resources for health, education, and sustainable growth," the president said.

After years of wars and disastrous economic mismanagement in many countries, Africa's 740 million people have nowhere to go but up. Between the end of colonialism and the end of the cold war, they lost everything from dependable infrastructures to social cohesion. Despite decades of (usually misguided) foreign assistance, African countries still occupy the bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index.

Uganda has led Africa's recovery this decade. The government of President Yoweri Museveni has attacked corruption and drastically reduced the civil service. Penalties for tax avoidance are so strict that waiters in restaurants and clerks manning highway tollgates insist that patrons take their tax receipts with them.

Africans are beginning to work regionally as well. The central bankers of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania want a single currency for East Africa, la European monetary union. The Southern African Development Community is slowly developing a regional peacekeeping force. Regional trade barriers, particularly in transport, are falling, encouraged by the possibilities of coast-to-coast trucking offered by the new Trans-Kalahari Highway in the southwest and the new Maputo corridor (toll road and rail line) between Johannesburg and Maputo, Mozambique.

Significant challenges remain, of course. Africa still is beset by hunger, disease, and ignorance. Corruption, nepotism, and sexism eat away at hard work and initiative. Dictatorships or civil strife hold back Nigeria, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi, and the two Congos.

"But still, I'm very optimistic," says John Gerhart, the Ford Foundation's representative in South Africa. "Since 1989, every country south of Zaire has had multiparty elections, except the kingdom of Swaziland.... The people no longer suffer in silence, and newspapers are telling the stories where once they would have been silent."

Entrepreneurship is flourishing too. Take the herb lady in the central market in Maputo. She sells three kinds of basil, a kitchen herb that's not easy to find even in modern Johannesburg's tony shops. Refusing to give her name for fear of the tax man, she whispers, "I save 77,000 meticals ($7) per day." That's a fortune in Mozambique, where the average annual income ($90) is the lowest in the world.

In Uganda, people who used to dream of winning cushy civil-service jobs now think about running their own businesses. Today, "the definition of a middle-class man in Uganda is someone with a bicycle," says one community worker. Those village-to-village bicycle traders turn the wheels of the country's rural market economy.

The "African renaissance" is the result of the convergence of several trends. In the 1980s the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund forced severe structural-adjustment programs on African nations that could not pay their foreign debts. Those programs forced governments to cut back health and education programs so drastically that gains made in previous decades were reversed. However, they also rid countries of many impediments to economic growth. These ranged from government-run agricultural-marketing boards that were the only way to sell farm produce (the problem was that the boards often neglected to pay the farmers) to export tariffs and currency restrictions that stifled trade.

Africans ready to do business

Until 1989, African peace and prosperity was also hindered by conflicts sponsored by the cold-war superpowers the US and the Soviet Union, South African apartheid, and the final spasms of territorial rivalry between Britain and France. These led to war in Mozambique and Angola, sanctions on South Africa, and skullduggery in Zaire, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Now, Africans just want to be free to do business. In 1996, the flow of private capital to sub-Saharan Africa was nearly $12 billion. More than half that money goes to just one country - South Africa. But South Africans often then reinvest it elsewhere on the continent.

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