AFP – US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Nelson Mandela Monday at his rural homestead where South Africa’s first black president is living out retirement far from the public eye.
Her private lunch with the Nobel Peace Prize winner was the first event of her South African visit, an indication of the prestige still enjoyed by the man who led the fight against white-minority rule.
The two chatted in his home ahead of the meal, an honour that few receive as Mandela’s health has become more fragile with age.
Mandela did not speak but smiled as he and his wife Graca Machel posed for a picture with Clinton.
“That’s a beautiful smile!” Clinton said.
“Madiba’s smile is a trademark,” Machel added.
Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first all-race elections in 1994, after spending 27 years as a political prisoner under the segregationist apartheid regime.
Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, was the US president when Mandela took office. Their two families developed close ties, with Bill Clinton paying a visit to Qunu last month on the eve of Mandela’s 94th birthday.
“Madiba not only repesents all that there is great in the world, but (is someone) who to the secretary is a close friend… somebody who she has learned a lot from,” a US official said ahead of the secretary’s meeting.
A dozen police stood guard outside the homestead in Mandela’s village in Eastern Cape province. Long accustomed to high-profile international guests, Clinton’s motorcade attracted little attention as it rolled through.
Hillary Clinton last met Mandela almost exactly three years ago at his Johannesburg home, when she praised the influence that he had on her own life.
“It of course inspires in me an even greater admiration for his public work but an even greater affection for the man,” she said after viewing the mementoes in his home in August 2009.
She also hailed the “discipline that he brought to a life filled with so many great achievements, not only for him personally but for South Africa and the world.”
While she was meeting Mandela, an American business delegation was holding a trade meeting with South African executives in Johannesburg, the commercial hub of Africa’s largest economy.
Members of the American business delegation include senior executives from Black & Veatch, Boeing, Chevron, EMD/Caterpillar, FedEx Express, GE, Symbion, Trimble, Wal-Mart, and Zanbato.
A trade mission also includes the heads of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the Export-Import Bank of the United States, the US Trade and Development Agency, as well as Robert Hormats, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, and Francisco Sanchez, under secretary of commerce for international trade.
“South Africa is critically important to America’s commercial interests on the continent,” said Scott Eisner, vice president of African Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.
“Expanding the US-South African commercial relationship is in the interests of companies and workers who produce goods exported and sold in South African markets. We applaud Secretary Clinton’s attention to the importance of the growing economic relationship between our two countries.”
Clinton is set to leave South Africa on Thursday for Nigeria and then Benin. She is also expected in Ghana for the state funeral of late president John Atta Mills, before heading to Istanbul for talks on the crisis in Syria.