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S. Africa is increasingly upbeat about its future, envoy says

South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994 amid emotional uncertainty. The country now is more firmly established and more upbeat about its future, a government official told Utah audiences this week.

Sheila Violet Makate Sisulu, South Africa's ambassador to the United States, made her first visit to Utah this week, meeting with Lt. Gov. Olene Walker, business representatives and LDS Church leaders. She also toured Brigham Young University and Utah Valley State College campuses.Sisulu, South Africa's first black ambassador to the United States, also met with the editorial board of the Deseret News Thursday.

"We're upbeat as a nation, even more than we were in 1994," Sisulu said, referring to the county's first free elections. "But emotionally, that was another place. Now, we have our feet firmly on the ground and we're facing reality. But we feel good about where we are."

Sisulu was appointed by former President Nelson Mandela in 1999, just three months before he resigned.

Now under the leadership of President Thabo Mbeki, Sisulu is focusing on the role U.S. companies can play in the transformation of South African society.

"Mbeki has come into his own, because he is an economist as well as an astute politician," she said. "It's a rare combination in an elected official."

Sisulu and Albert J. van Rensburg, acting consul-general for South Africa, visited with more than a dozen Utah business leaders to discuss trade.

Although details about the meeting were proprietary, van Rensburg said that South Africa has a large automotive export industry and would be interested in doing business with one of Utah's major employers, Autoliv.

"Air bags would be a nice addition," he said. "We do some safety-belt manufacturing already."

Sisulu said she sees solving South Africa's high illiteracy rate as a key economic strategy.

Before beginning her work with the consul-general in New York in 1997, Sisulu held various senior positions in the South African Committee for Higher Education. From 1978 to 1988, she edited distance education publications and a children's magazine and headed the student service department of a distance education college.

She said she was "fascinated by the educational experience" in Utah, particularly what she saw at Utah Valley State College and "would like to come back to explore that."

"We want this kind of seamless education," she said of Utah's universities and junior colleges. "In South Africa, we have technical colleges, something similar to your community colleges and universities, but they are rigidly separated. Yours is a model I'd like to look at again."

From 1988 to 1991, Sisulu was the education coordinator of the African Bursary Fund of the South African Council of Churches. She assisted member churches and organizations in developing discussions about critical issues.

Sisulu told the Deseret News that churches in Soweto and Johannesburg are playing a key role in helping South Africans through the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel set up to look into apartheid-era abuses.

"All of us deal with a mixture of feelings about this, depending on what we hear in the news that day," she said. "Anger, pain, shame, relief. Sometimes I just turn the TV off. But it is a good process . . . to look ourselves in the eye. We can't unlive the past, but we can be sure not to relive it."