Reflecting a recent foreign-policy focus on Africa, Japan plans to invite South African President Thabo Mbeki as a state guest in early October, government sources said Friday.

Although a date has not yet been fixed, Mbeki is expected to stay for several days for talks with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other political and business leaders and for an audience with the Emperor, the sources said.

Koizumi and Mbeki are expected to focus on strengthening bilateral relations, especially political and economic ties, and also on stepping up Japan’s cooperation in fighting the AIDS epidemic on the continent.

The so-called Millennium African Plan is also expected to be on the South African leader’s agenda. Proposed by Mbeki and other African leaders, the plan aims at securing a brighter future for Africa amid ongoing globalization.

Inviting the South African president as a state guest is the latest in a recent series of diplomatic efforts to strengthen relations with African countries.

In January, then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori became the first Japanese prime minister to visit the continent when he toured South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. In May, Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo visited Tokyo, though not as a state guest.

At the end of this year, Japan will host a ministerial meeting to prepare for the third Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD III) in 2003. TICAD has been held in Tokyo twice — in 1993 and 1998 — with African heads of state and other top leaders, including Mbeki, attending.

The recent foreign-policy focus on Africa is partly to win backing from some 50 countries for Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the security council of the 189-member United Nations. Only the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France hold permanent seats.

While many foreign leaders visit Japan each year, the annual number of state guests is usually limited to three or four foreign heads of state.

Mbeki’s planned visit will be the second such trip by a top South African leader. In July 1995, Mbeki’s predecessor, Nelson Mandela, visited Tokyo as a state guest.

In April 1994, Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, won South Africa’s first all-race elections and formed a new government, ending about 340 years of white minority rule.

Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president in June 1999 following the ANC’s decisive victory in the country’s second democratic elections.

Mbeki visited Japan twice in 1998 as vice president. He visited as president in July for an unprecedented meeting between leaders of the Group of Eight nations and those of developing countries during the G8 summit in Okinawa.

Japan has placed particular importance on strengthening relations with South Africa, by far the biggest economic power in sub-Saharan Africa. The nation accounts for more than 40 percent of gross domestic product in the region.

South Africa is a major supplier of gold, diamond and other rare metals to resource-poor Japan and accounts for more than half of Japan’s trade with sub-Saharan Africa. More than 60 Japanese companies are invested in the country.

As a major nonaligned nation, South Africa has also been a leader in trying to narrow the often sharp differences between industrialized and developing countries.

Because of Pretoria’s notorious apartheid policy of racial segregation, it was only in January 1992 that Japan resumed diplomatic relations with South Africa in recognition of significant progress toward democratic reforms under the white minority government.

In July 1994, three months after South Africa’s first all-race elections, Japan pledged to extend a total of $1.3 billion in official aid over two years. During Mandela’s five-year term as president, Japan actually provided a total of $1.5 billion in official aid. When Mbeki was sworn in as president in June 1999, Japan promised to extend the same amount of aid to South Africa during his five-year tenure.

When Mbeki visited Tokyo for the first time in April 1998, Japan and South Africa agreed to set up a regular high-level forum to promote partnership and cooperation on a wide range of areas, including politics, economics, culture and science and technology.

The Japan-South Africa Partnership Forum has so far been held three times. The next meeting will be held in Pretoria next week, with the Japanese delegation being headed by Seiken Sugiura, a senior vice foreign minister.

The biggest domestic policy tasks for the Mbeki government is to narrow the still huge gap in income between the black majority and white minority and to lower the stubbornly high jobless rate, especially for black citizens.

AIDS has also emerged as a major challenge to the Mbeki government in recent years. The infectious disease is most serious in South Africa in terms of the number of people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

According to the U.N., some 36 million people are infected by the virus that causes the AIDS around the globe. Of that number, 70 percent are living on the African Continent. An estimated 4.2 million people in South Africa are infected with the AIDS virus.

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