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Mbeki's British Trip to Focus on Investment - 2001-06-12

South African President Thabo Mbeki leaves Tuesday for a formal state visit to Great Britain, made at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II. He is expected to discuss regional issues and HIV/AIDS when he meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But, the South African leader will be focusing on investment, not aid.

It is not the first time Mr. Mbeki has visited Britain since he took office in 1999. But his senior advisers say this trip is "one of extraordinary importance for South Africa."

The focus will be investment, not aid. Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad says the South African leader is not going with hat in hand, to ask Britain for help. He says what Mr. Mbeki wants is partnership.

"We do not have a shopping list, we do not have a shopping list wherever we go," said Mr. Pahad. "We have stopped begging, so we are not going with a shopping list to say give us this or give us that."

Britain is one of South Africa's top-three trading partners, and government officials say they want to strengthen that relationship even more. President Mbeki takes with him eight cabinet ministers and a large delegation of South African business leaders, who hope to drum up interest from British investors.

The South African economy has struggled recently, and government officials admit HIV and AIDS could devastate the work force if the epidemic continues to spread at its current rate. But the government says it is addressing that problem, and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have both called South Africa a good business environment. But for some reason, the money has not been coming.

The president's advisers say South Africa offers many advantages to foreign investors including a good infrastructure, a well-educated and skilled work force, and a relatively weak currency that offers good value for the dollar, euro, or pound.

Mr. Pahad points to DaimlerChrysler as an example of successful foreign investment in South Africa. The automaker has moved a large part of its Mercedes-Benz manufacturing operation here.

"They did not do it because they like Table Mountain, they do," said Mr. Pahad. "But they invested here because they think we have got the necessary skills, we have got the necessary infrastructure in place, and they think this is the right place to come to invest that much more money into the production units themselves."

But Mr. Mbeki will not be concentrating only on South African issues when he visits Britain. He will also be pushing his development program for the African continent, the Millennium Africa Recovery Plan, known as MAP. Another of the president's senior advisers, Frank Chikane, says South Africa does not see itself as an island, whose fate is separate from the rest of the continent.

"Those of you who have been listening to the president, even before he was president, [he] will always talk about the continent rather than just talk about South Africa because he sees the solution for the problems of the continent as critical to the development of South Africa itself, in terms of the interaction we need to have," he said. "And so that is going to be a major critical issue as well."

Mr. Mbeki is also expected to discuss other regional issues, including the wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And he will not be able to avoid talking about his troubled neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe.

Britain and South Africa have taken very different approaches to dealing with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. London has aggressively criticized him, while Pretoria has chosen the route of engagement, or so-called quiet diplomacy. But Essop Pahad says Mr. Blair and Mr. Mbeki understand each other's positions on the issue. He says they may have different priorities, but there are no really fundamental disagreements between the two as far as what needs to happen in Zimbabwe.

"Now obviously from a South African point of view, there are issues that are of great direct relevance to us that are not to Britain," said Mr. Pahad. "If Zimbabwe collapses, there's nobody going to England. They are going to come here, to South Africa. We have to face the consequences of that, not Britain, who might have to face the consequence if something collapses in the Balkans or something....And I frankly don't believe this is an issue of serious dispute between ourselves and Britain."

Mr. Mbeki's state visit to Great Britain continues until Friday.