Cape Town – President Nelson Mandela and a bevy of Cabinet ministers on Thursday laid on a red carpet welcome at Tuynhuys for Indonesian President Mohamed Suharto, soon after 38 Cosatu members were arrested outside Parliament for protesting against Indonesia's human rights record.
The 28 men and 10 women Congress of South African Trade Unions members were bundled into a police van and later charged for holding a placard demonstration within 100m of Parliament without the necessary permission. They will appear in court on Friday.
Suharto, who arrived 10 minutes later, was greeted instead by about 200 supporters, mostly Muslim schoolchildren, who were allowed through the parliamentary gates to await the Indonesian president's arrival. Suharto, who has been nominated by his party for a seventh term of office, has withstood a barrage of criticism for his government's human rights record and forcible occupation of East Timor, which Indonesia annexed in 1976.
Both the Pan Africanist Congress and the Democratic Party on Thursday criticised the visit, although the Muslim Judicial Council and several businesses took out a full-page advertisement in Cape Town newspapers welcoming Suharto.
Following the customary 21-gun salute and inspection of a guard of honour, Mandela and Suharto disappeared into Tuynhuys for hour-long talks and also witnessed the signing of two bilateral agreements on trade and aviation.
Mandela later emerged on the Tuynhuys steps with the Indonesian leader at his side and described their discussions as "very fruitful".
Mandela said he was confident progress had been made on the East Timor question.
The United Nations still recognises Portugal as the territory's legitimate administrator and is sponsoring peace talks involving Portugal and Indonesia.
Mandela, who during a state visit to Jakarta in July was allowed to visit jailed East Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao, is using his close relationship with Suharto to nudge the peace process forward.
He was expected to renew his call for Gusmao's release during his meeting with Suharto.
However, Mandela declined to reveal details, saying "we are discussing a very sensitive subject which effects the lives of many people".
He also wished to report back to UN secretary-general Kofi Annan first.
"There is still quite a lot which we have achieved in this regard, but it would be a calamity for us to come to the press to discuss these questions before I have to report to the United Nations secretary-general."
On his meeting with Gusmao, Mandela said it was precisely because he had handled the matter confidentially that Suharto had allowed him access.
"There were many high-profile people who wanted to see Gusmao, but because I handled the matter confidentially, without any publicity, it was easy for the president to allow me to make the breakthrough."
Mandela said he and Suharto were "close friends" and that the Indonesian leader had been among those who assisted the ANC financially "for us to win the elections".
On the arrests of the Cosatu members, Mandela said he had the support of the trade union federation's leadership for his efforts on East Timor.
Cosatu at its recent conference committed its more than two million members to support the struggle of the people in Indonesia and East Timor.
On Wednesday Cosatu launched a spate of protests countrywide to coincide with Suharto's three-day visit.
Suharto will meet Deputy President Thabo Mbeki on Thursday afternoon and will be the guest of honour at a state banquet at Tuynhuys later in the evening.