Clinton commits to fight against Aids

US secretary of state in South Africa meets both Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma while focusing on minutiae of foreign politics.

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CULLINAN, SOUTH AFRICA // At an HIV/Aids treatment centre on the outskirts of Cullinan, a small mining town east of the South African capital Pretoria, Hillary Clinton watched and smiled as a group of children sang a welcome song for her. After a short tour of the centre, the US secretary of state spoke about America's commitment to fighting the disease, which has ravaged much of Africa, describing the clinic as "a partnership and collaboration between the people and government of the United States and the people and government of South Africa".

As night fell - Mrs Clinton was running about two hours late at the end of a long day of meetings and speeches - one of the clinic's patients talked of the benefits of his treatment at the centre, which is partly funded by the US President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar) programme, and, to laughter, thanked his HIV infection for enabling him to realise a "high ambition" of his to "stand next to a senior US politician".

On her visit, Mrs Clinton also met Nelson Mandela and talked of the anti-apartheid leader's inspirational role. "He kept improving on himself, which I think is a lesson for us all," she said afterwards at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, saying his life was "filled with so many great achievements, not only for him personally but for South Africa and the world". South Africa was the second stop on a seven-nation trip in Africa by Mrs Clinton, who had already been to Kenya and was yesterday on her way to Angola, with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde also on her itinerary.

As secretary of state, Mrs Clinton has had to play a more nuanced role on her trip than the president, Barack Obama, did last month on his brief but triumphant visit to Ghana. Mrs Clinton has had to focus more on the minutiae of policy and international relations. At the clinic in Cullinan, she diplomatically glossed over the failures on Aids of Thabo Mbeki's administration, which long sought to play down the link between the virus and the disease, to the horror of orthodox scientists and at a cost estimated to be in excess of 300,000 lives. "We have the challenge that everyone is aware of, we have to make up for some lost time, but we are looking forward," Mrs Clinton said.

On Zimbabwe, standing alongside the South African foreign minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, she said the crisis in its northern neighbour was a burden for South Africa too, and that it was "a very difficult situation for South Africa and for the United States". After a meeting with the new South African president, Jacob Zuma, he said the two countries were taking their ties "a level higher", while Mrs Clinton talked of their mutual desire to "work more closely together ? on regional and global challenges that we need to be leading on - the betterment of not only both of our nations but the world".

Mrs Clinton's trip also gives some substance to Washington's pledges that it will place more importance on Africa - no US president and secretary of state have ever visited the continent so early into an administration. But in the face of a global economic downturn, there will inevitably be other, perhaps more immediately pressing demands on America's attentions. Washington has been unable to find a home in Africa for its recently set up United States military command, which remains headquartered in Germany, and Mr Zuma said the topic was not even discussed.