President's 12-day visit to South Africa starts in Lesotho


President Mary McAleese arrived in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho yesterday at the start of her 12-day trip to southern Africa.

The President will meet Irish aid workers and missionaries in Lesotho over the next two days before travelling onwards to Mozambique and Tanzania.

She is joined on the trip by her husband, Martin McAleese, and Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid Conor Lenihan.

Among the highlights are a visit to Lesotho's Katse Dam, one of Africa's greatest infrastructural achievements; a courtesy call to former South African president Nelson Mandela in Mozambique, where the Nobel laureate now lives; and an inspection of the work of the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda.

While in Tanzania, Mrs McAleese will also address the national parliament in the country's newly designated capital of Dodoma. It is the first time an Irish head of state will visit either Lesotho or Mozambique. Tanzania was visited by former president Mary Robinson in 1994.

The three countries are among the poorest in the world and have a long association with Irish Aid, the overseas development branch of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Each has its own set of problems, with Lesotho having one of the highest HIV/Aids prevalence rates in the world at 23.4 per cent.

Mozambique is still recovering from a bitter civil war that ended in 1992, while 57 per cent of the people of Tanzania - a relatively peaceful state in a war-torn region - live on less than $1 a day.

President McAleese has already visited the Middle East and the US this year. She has travelled to Africa on a number of occasions previously - to Liberia in 2004 and Uganda and Kenya in 2001. She also attended the inauguration of South African president Thabo Mbeki in Pretoria in 1999.

Mr Lenihan is expected to use the visit to clarify his thinking surrounding the White Paper on development policy, due to be published before the end of the summer.

Earlier this year, the Minister of State officially changed the name of the department's funding body to Irish Aid from Development Co-operation Ireland in an attempt to boost public recognition of the agency, which had previously been called Ireland Aid.