US sounds out new SAfrican leader

DURBAN: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was looking Saturday to solidify ties with South Africa in a meeting with new President Jacob Zuma, seen as a US ally on Zimbabwe and fighting AIDS.

The two leaders met in the coastal city of Durban scheduled at the last minute on a day initially seen as a quiet day in Cape Town on a hectic seven-nation trip across Africa, a sign of the deep hope the United States is putting in Zuma.

"President Obama has a special desire to work closely with President Zuma, to work closely with South Africa," Clinton told journalists at a briefing on Friday where she hailed a new spirit of cooperation between the two countries.

Zuma, who took office in May, has in the past supported a tougher line on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who has faced intense Western criticism for his crackdown on the opposition and management of a dire economy.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki had bristled at US- and British-led efforts to punish former independence leader Mugabe, preferring a softer, African-led approach.

Mbeki brokered a deal finalised in February, nearly a year after disputed polls pushed the country deeper into crisis, under which Mugabe is sharing power with former opposition leader turned prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

US President Barack Obama, whose African roots have won him deep respect across the continent, earlier this year invited Tsvangirai to the White House in a sign of support for reconciliation in Zimbabwe.

The United States and South Africa had uneasy relations when ruled by Mbeki and former president George W. Bush, whose invasion of Iraq was unpopular around the world and was harshly criticised by anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela.

Clinton on Friday met with Zuma's foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, as well as his health minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, after which she voiced hope that the two countries had turned a page.

Mbeki denied that the HIV virus led to AIDS, a disease that has ravaged southern Africa, and failed to roll out lifesaving anti-retrovirals quickly for one of the world's worst-affected populations.

Clinton said she had a "very frank conversation" with Motsoaledi, praising the new government's commitment to fight HIV which affects nearly six million South Africans.

"We have to make up for some lost time. But we're looking forward," Clinton said.

A senior official accompanying Clinton on her 11-day tour said on condition of anonymity that the United States saw a "large difference" between Mbeki and Zuma on a range of issues including Zimbabwe and AIDS.

The official said that Clinton, who has made women's rights a signature issue on her visit to Africa, would not raise Zuma's 2006 acquittal for rape.

Zuma was cleared of the charge but he faced a stern rebuke from the judge for having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and testifying during the trial that he showered after intercourse to avoid HIV.

The official said the issue was a "personal matter" and that the United States respected the verdict of the South African court.