Many Africans skeptical about Clinton's strategy 6-nation tour stresses trade, plays down aid trade, plays down aid

March 29, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SOWETO, South Africa - Outside the Queen of the Earth church in this black township, where President Clinton will attend Mass today, Africa's potential and its impoverishment sit side by side for all to see.

The solid brick homes of the emerging middle class of Lake View and, beyond, the squalid shacks of the hapless squatters of Kliptown give focus to the promise of Clinton's six-nation, 12-day tour of this continent - a brighter future for all Africans.

Four years after the end of apartheid, Soweto is a microcosm of the continent, an area of overwhelming need with pockets of well-being, the sort of place that could benefit from the vaunted African Renaissance.

Voicing contrition for previous U.S. policies and acclamation of a new approach, Clinton has tried to shift the administration's emphasis from direct financial aid to Africa to trade partnerships with it.

He has run into much enthusiasm and not a little skepticism.

Here in Soweto, an abbreviation for Johannesburg's South West Township, there is nothing but excitement at the president's appearance before he departs for neighboring Botswana today.

The church was being brushed, scrubbed and polished yesterday, its grounds cleared of trash.

Donald Singo, 22, a bank clerk in casual denim shirt and blue jeans, said he and his neighbors in Lake View have "a high regard" for the American president.

"He is bringing business and investment here," said Singo, standing on the paved sidewalk outside his parents' rancher, across the road from the church, which offered a haven to youngsters during the 1976 Soweto uprising against apartheid until police shot their way in and smashed the altar with a rifle butt.

Clinton planted a tree yesterday in memory of those who died in the uprising.

He said: "Let this tree recall their sacrifice but also embody with every bloom the bright and hopeful new day they gave so much to bring to South Africa."

In Kliptown, Ouma Seitisho, 39, in a stained blue, embroidered ankle-length dress, drew water from a standpipe opposite the one-room corrugated iron shack she shares with her husband and four children, 12, 6, 4 and 6 weeks old.

She survives on the $40 a month her husband, Oliver Thlankanyane, 40, earns in a candle factory. She often scavenges in the garbage from a local fruit and vegetable market for food for the family table.

"We are happy because a great man is visiting," she said, putting her aluminum tub of water on the dirt track. "Our hope is he is going to give a few donations aimed at improving our lifestyle.

"Firstly, if he could provide us with jobs so that we could lead a better life with our kids, and then secondly if he could arrange for us to move to a better place than this."

Further afield, Clinton's emphasis on trade rather than aid has raised eyebrows on a continent with scant confidence in its future without plenty of both.

As Thabo Mbeki, heir-apparent to South Africa's President Nelson Mandela, said in an interview with a French magazine on the eve of Clinton's arrival: "I have always pleaded against the diminution of aid to Africa which we see happening."

It is not that Africans prefer philanthropy to partnership. It is that they face such overwhelming problems that they need all the help they can get.

"We are suffering a lot," said Frances Moloi, who runs a grocery stall in the sidewalk trailer here. "We have plenty of problems."

But the prospect of Congress' passing the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, which will open U.S. markets to African exporters, does not inspire unalloyed glee in the corridors of power.

To President Nelson Mandela the legislation is simply "not acceptable," despite Clinton's assertion at a joint news conference that it seemed "to strike the right kind of balance" by not imposing new burdens on anyone while encouraging democracy, human rights and economic reform on all.

Business Day, a respected daily newspaper here, said the act "unrealistically places the world's most powerful economy on an equal footing with many of its poorest nations."

The Sowetan, which circulates mainly in this black township, said: "The reality is that the continent needs more than just access to markets. It needs material aid to develop its manufacturing capacity and so enable it to exportmore than just raw materials."

Clinton, who endorsed the notion of an African Renaissance and South Africa's crucial role in it during his speech to Parliament in Cape Town, said: "Simply put, America wants a strong South Africa; America needs a strong South Africa. And we are determined to work with you as you build a strong South Africa."

The phraseology "with you" is reflective of his approach throughout his tour. The old days of telling Africans what to do and how to do it are over.

"That's the only part I heard that I like," said Godfrey Fanyana Moloi, owner of Soweto's Blue Fountain restaurant and nightclub. "Provide the expertise, be sure and help the man, and be sure he does it right.

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