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Mandela Offers Support to Clinton

Associated Press
Wednesday, September 23, 1998; Page A11

South African President Nelson Mandela pledged yesterday to stand by President Clinton even if everybody else deserts him because, he said, no other U.S. president has identified himself more with the aspirations of black people.

From a luncheon at the South African Embassy to a White House reception with black ministers, Mandela's farewell visit to the United States before retiring from politics next year played more like a pep rally for Clinton than a valedictory for the South African hero.

"It is not our business to interfere in this matter, but we do wish to say that President Clinton is a friend of South Africa and Africa and, I believe, the friend of the great mass of black people and minorities and the disabled of the United States," Mandela said.

The frail, 80-year-old Mandela led a standing ovation in the East Room after the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., whipped the assembly into a chant aimed at Clinton's detractors: "Leave him alone! Leave him alone!"

Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, reached for Hillary Rodham Clinton's hand and held it. The visiting newlywed couple was spending the night at the White House in what Hillary Clinton called "a slumber party."

The president called Mandela's friendship one of the greatest of the "many blessings for Hillary and me, far outweighing all the trials."

On policy, Mandela told the black religious leaders that South Africa was counting on them. "It is small wonder that the struggle to end apartheid drew such strength from here that we now look to you to work with us as we seek to banish poverty, hunger, illiteracy and ignorance from our land," he said.

At the luncheon at the South African Embassy, Mandela said Clinton "has my full support in everything that he does," drawing applause from guests that included presidential friend Vernon E. Jordan Jr. "In the jurisprudence of many . . . civilized countries, a person is regarded as innocent until he's convicted."

Mandela also decried the "grave injustice" of western countries judging South Africa by their standards. "We have parents who have never seen the inside of a school, who cannot write their names," he said.

Hours before meeting with Clinton, Mandela said he refrains from interfering in domestic affairs of other countries, including the United States. But he said, referring to Clinton: "I want to tell you that although I do not know the history of the United States very well, in my view there is no [prior] president who has identified himself with the aspirations of blacks inside this country and in Africa."

"I will support my friends even if they have been deserted by the entire group," Mandela added. "I will support him."

Mandela asked for U.S. investment and help in rebuilding the society and economy of his country.

He acknowledged the new black-run government has made mistakes since South Africa rid itself of the white supremacist apartheid system in 1994. But he said the missteps were partly due to inexperience of the rulers and the bureaucracy.

"Suddenly, without any previous training, they are called upon to run a developed country with modern ports and harbors, with modern communications . . . with a sophisticated banking and financial system," Mandela said.

"For you to judge us on the basis of what happens in America, in Canada and in Europe is a grave injustice," added Mandela. "Judge us from the background from which we come. . . . We came from years in prison, from the bush, from exile and from the underground."

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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