The first government chosen by all of South Africa’s people welcomed the first U.S. president ever to visit the country Thursday, and President Clinton marked the historic moment by pledging to help preserve the new South Africa.
“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,” Clinton said in an address before the country’s Parliament and President Nelson Mandela.
Four years after South Africa abandoned its apartheid system and voted in longtime political prisoner Mandela as its new leader, Clinton praised the country’s accomplishments and held it up as a beacon of hope for nations still living with tyranny and state-sanctioned inequality.
“Now the courage and the imagination that created the new South Africa and the principles that guide your constitution inspire all of us to be animated by the belief that one day humanity all over the world can at last be released from the bonds of hatred and bigotry,” Clinton said.
South Africa’s leaders, who are struggling to build an equitable society after decades of legally enforced discrimination, are looking to the United States for continued support.
“The very survival and growth of democracy is threatened by poverty, selfishness and greed. As we face this challenge, we shall count on America to make common cause,” Popo Molefe, premier of South Africa’s Northwest province, said in introducing the president.
Clinton’s three-day stay in South Africa is the only official state visit of his landmark 12-day excursion through Africa.
Clinton was given the red-carpet treatment in Cape Town, a picturesque seaside city on the tip of the African continent. Standing side by side with Mandela on the plaza outside the Cape Town office of the president, Clinton was honored with a 21-gun salute. A South African army brass band played the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the new South African anthem, which combines the official songs of the Afrikaaners and the African National Congress. The ANC fought for eight decades to end discrimination and win equal rights for blacks.
Mandela, 79, who walks with difficulty because of age and years of forced labor, then escorted Clinton down the road to the parliament building.
Clinton brought no new monetary assistance for South Africa. But his message of continued support pleased officials here, who have been concerned that the United States would cut aid when new trade legislation is adopted. These worries stem from the debate over the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, legislation making its way through Congress aimed at boosting American trade and investment in Africa.
South African Executive Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, who virtually runs the country because Mandela has transferred much responsibility to him, made this point to Clinton in a meeting Thursday.
While Africa needs to develop trade and investment with the United States and the rest of the world, it is not ready to do without financial aid, Mbeki told journalists after the meeting.
The president brought a large delegation with him to South Africa, primarily blacks from his administration, Congress and the private sector.
At his Parliament address, he said the prominent Americans, whose ancestors were slaves, and South Africa’s current leaders, who were repressed by apartheid, are “united in the powerful poetry of justice.”
Earlier in the day, the president and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton toured low-income housing built by formerly homeless women. Since the first lady first visited the project last year, it has grown from 18 self-built homes to 104. Once each woman has constructed her home, she is expected to train another woman in home-building.
Hundreds of cheering residents watched Clinton, who tried to demonstrate his blocklaying skills by gingerly tapping down some mortar with a trowel. Afterward, the president told the women 30 years ago he had actually spent an entire summer building houses.
“And when I was out helping you,” he continued, “I realized it’s pretty hard work, and that’s why I went into politics, so I wouldn’t have to work so hard anymore.”