South Africa Ready for Big Growth

Article excerpt

In southern Africa, most of the trade used to be one-way. The export was political and economic sabotage by white-ruled South Africa. The aim was destabilizing South Africa's developing neighbors.

But the profound change in South Africa over the last few years, propelling the nation toward a multiracial democracy, also is contributing to a major shift in its economic relations with bordering nations.

Now there is the prospect of new cross-border highways, electric power grids, fiber-optic telephone systems, increased cooperation and higher foreign investment that ultimately could make southern Africa one of the world's economic growth centers akin to Asia and Latin America.

"South Africa is no longer engaged in destabilization," said B.K. Sebele, Botswana's ambassador to the United States and chairman of the ambassadors from the Southern African Development Community, the 10 nations that neighbor South Africa. "Certainly it would be a great benefit to the region."

The improved relationship was underscored recently when South African President F.W. de Klerk visited Botswana to confer with counterparts from Botswana and Zimbabwe about political unrest in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. Such a meeting would have been unthinkable until now.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, meeting de Klerk for the first time, praised changes he said had made it possible for South Africans to "open themselves up to the rest of the world and the rest of the world to open itself up to South Africa."

Still, the countries that once regarded South Africa as the enemy don't necessarily view it as a friend. Rather, they see both a trading partner and competitor, sharing an area rich with precious metals.

South Africa itself has roughly half the world's known gold reserves and 85 percent of its platinum. Botswana has coal and diamonds. Namibia has uranium, gold, copper and zinc. Zambia has copper and cobalt.

But the region has languished for many years, falling further behind while other underdeveloped countries from Malaysia to Mexico raced ahead, attracting increasingly sophisticated industries like car-making and computer assembly that generate more prosperity and growth.

A key reason for the disparity has been South Africa itself. Ostracized because of apartheid and hostile to neighboring governments, South Africa's ruling whites emphasized national self-sufficiency and supported rebel movements across the border to sow continual political turmoil.

"As a result of destabilization, it was quite disastrous to the region in the sense that we had to allocate a good portion of meager resources to defending ourselves from South Africa," Sebele said in an interview. …