UN Agencies See South Africa as Base for Aiding Continent

Article excerpt

BARRED by the international community for more than two decades from operating in South Africa, United Nations humanitarian agencies now see the former apartheid state as a conduit for ending poverty, famine, and conflict on the African continent.

But decades of sanctions have caused South Africa to fall behind other African states - particularly in education and health care for children. And the country must make up its own backlog before helping the rest of Africa meet UN goals for providing access to such services, these agencies say.

In some areas - such as food production and medical supplies - South Africa has already become a vital base and procurement center for UN agencies.

"With its well-developed transport and communication infrastructure, South Africa could well become the major supplier of food to the region," UN World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Mercedes Sayagues told the Monitor on June 15 during a visit here. "South Africa's record {corn} harvest - coupled with the lifting of UN sanctions - makes the country the bright spot in regional food supply."

The WFP disclosed on June 15 that it has already bought 60,000 tons of corn and cornmeal from South Africa for distribution in Africa - 10 percent of the WFP's total food purchases for developing countries in 1993.

"This food was sent to the ports of Mombasa {Kenya} and Dar es Salaam {Tanzania} - mostly for Rwanda and Burundi and for refugees in northern Tanzania," Ms. Sayagues said.

After former President Frederik de Klerk signaled the end of apartheid in 1990, UN agencies set up offices in South Africa to assist with drought relief and the dismantling of apartheid. WFP helped coordinate the 1992 drought-relief effort in southern Africa from Johannesburg.

In forums like the Organization of African Unity and the Southern African Frontline States, President Nelson Mandela has played down African expectations of South African political mediation and military intervention to resolve conflicts in other African countries. But he has stressed the humanitarian contribution and advice South Africa can offer.

"President Mandela has correctly identified domestic expectations for development as his No. 1 priority," says a Western diplomat.

The UN Security Council lifted a 17-year-old mandatory arms embargo against the country on May 24. And South Africa, which last occupied its seat at the UN General Assembly in 1974, is due to make a formal return to the world body in September. Aid agencies settle in

"There is considerable hope that what is taking place in South Africa can play an important role here in the African continent and the world," UN Special Representative Lakdhar Brahimi said in an interview in May. …