South African Deputy President Thabo Mbeki has urged Hong Kong entrepreneurs to spearhead a renewal of the region's economic partnership with Africa. He reminded an audience of Asia Society members and guests during a visit to the SAR this month that trade ties dated to 1415, when an African chief sent a giraffe as a gift to the Forbidden City during the Ming Dynasty. But he said the continent's image had been tarnished in recent years by political turmoil, social unrest, dictatorships and famine. Despite the gloom of the past, he said: 'The Africa of today is an Africa of hope, a continent that has resumed its journey out of a period of despair.' And he invited the local business community to cash in on the 'enormous potential' now presented by what was being dubbed the 'African Renaissance'. Mr Mbeki said democracy had been restored and military dictatorships ousted in Ghana and Mali. The guns had fallen silent in Somalia and mineral-rich Angola. National reconciliation was under way in Rwanda. A debilitating era of neo-colonialism had ended in Zaire and recovery was firmly under way in Mozambique. In South Africa itself, he said the 'apartheid blight had been overtaken by a new order' of democracy, peace and reconciliation. During the 1990s, more than 25 sub-Saharan African countries had established multi-party democracies and 11 of them had growth rates above six per cent last year. No fewer than 35 registered over three per cent growth. The most remarkable success story of all, land-locked Botswana, was the world's fastest-growing economy between 1975 and 1990. It no longer depended on aid but today lent money to the IMF. 'These economic changes are remarkable against the backdrop of a history of declining standards of living,' Mr Mbeki said. State enterprises were being privatised and public finances more prudently managed under IMF guidance. Now, under the banner of the newly-formed South African Development Community, which was working towards a free trade pact, foreign investment was being actively encouraged. He said South Africa, in particular, was 'keenly interested' to work with the Hong Trade Development Council and the South African Business Forum to drive home the message that big business would be unwise to leave Africa out of the equation. 'You will find in South Africa a developed infrastructure of modern communications and energy, a sound banking system and legislative framework, and stable and transparent policies,' he said. Investors would also discover a 'bridge to much of the rest of the continent'. Hong Kong and the rest of the region 'should see itself as a partner of the African Renaissance', Mr Mbeki said. 'Asians and Africans must reach across the great geographical divide to build a partnership worthy of the sentiment which drove the ancient rulers to exchange gifts. 'We believe Africa's renewal presents an opportunity for Asia to benefit from enormous economic potential - and for us to gain from your ingenuity and initiative. 'Our times demand that we do not wait another day to build on a partnership which is 600 years old.'