ICONS: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Nelson Mandela, 94, at his home in Qunu yesterday. Clinton praised the beautiful smile of the elder statesman when they met at his home during her multi-nation trade and security tour through Africa. Mandela has seen only a few visitors outside his family in recent years. Picture: Reuters

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Nelson Mandela yesterday at his home in the Eastern Cape, where he is enjoying retirement far from the public’s gaze.

Her private lunch with the Nobel Peace Prize winner was the first event of her South African visit, an indication of the prestige still enjoyed by the man who led the fight against apartheid.

The two chatted in his rural home at Qunu ahead of the meal, an honour few receive as Mandela’s health has become more fragile with age.

Mandela did not speak, but smiled as he and his wife Graça Machel posed for a picture with Clinton.

“That’s a beautiful smile!” Clinton said.

“Madiba’s smile is a trademark,” Machel added.

Mandela was elected president in SA’s first all-race elections in 1994 after spending 27 years as a political prisoner under the apartheid regime.

Clinton’s husband Bill was US president when Mandela took office. Their two families developed close ties, with Bill paying a visit to Qunu last month on the eve of Mandela’s 94th birthday.

A dozen police stood guard outside the homestead in Mandela’s village. Clinton’s motorcade attracted little attention as it rolled through.

Hillary Clinton last met Mandela almost exactly three years ago at his Joburg home, when she praised the influence that he had on her own life.

“It of course inspires in me an even greater admiration for his public work but an even greater affection for the man,” she said after viewing the mementoes in his home in August 2009. She hailed the “discipline that he brought to a life filled with so many great achievements, not only for him personally but for South Africa and the world”.

While she was meeting Mandela, a US business delegation was holding a trade meeting with South African executives in Joburg.

Members of the American business delegation include senior executives from Black & Veatch, Boeing, Chevron, EMD/Caterpillar, FedEx Express, GE, Symbion, Trimble, Wal-Mart and Zanbato.

A trade mission also includes the heads of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the US Export-Import Bank, the US Trade and Development Agency, as well as Robert Hormats, undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, and Francisco Sanchez, under-secretary for commerce and international trade.

“South Africa is critically important to America’s commercial interests on the continent,” said Scott Eisner, vice-president of African affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce.

Clinton leaves SA on Thursday for Nigeria and Benin and then goes to Ghana for the state funeral of late president John Atta Mills, before heading to Istanbul for talks on the Syrian crisis. – Sapa-AFP