A Medal for Mandela

South Africa's elder statesman is honored in Congress as his troops take a beating in Lesotho.

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While Nelson Mandela was collecting a congressional medal in Washington Wednesday, his army back home was recovering from a bloody firefight in Lesotho. "The intervention in Lesotho is hardly unprecedented," says TIME Johannesburg bureau chief Peter Hawthorne. "The old regime did it on a number of occasions." Past coup attempts in the tiny land-locked kingdom faded as soon as the South African army arrived, however. This time the troops that arrived to prop up Lesotho's government met fierce resistance, and on Tuesday at least nine South African soldiers were killed.

No one expects Lesotho's rebels to hold out for long against the continent's best-equipped army. But the fracas underscores Africa's continuing troubles as its foremost statesman takes his final bow on the international stage. Mandela plans to retire next year, and on Monday delivered his valedictory address to the United Nations. The South African leader's congressional award could be seen as quid pro quo for the Order of Good Hope medal he bestowed on President Clinton earlier this year. The White House, however, seems to be soft-pedaling that point, perhaps because the other recipients of South Africa's highest honor are Fidel Castro, Muammar Ghaddafi, ex-president Suharto and Yasser Arafat.