JOHANNESBURG — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Malawi's leaders Sunday for reforms in the impoverished African nation before arriving in South Africa for talks with government officials and a private visit with Nelson Mandela.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, Clinton pledged continued American as she met with President Joyce Banda, the first woman to lead her country and only the second female African head of state.

A longtime champion of women's empowerment, Clinton encouraged Banda to stay on a course of economic reform to make Malawi more attractive to foreign investment. Later, Clinton visited a girls' secondary school and an agriculture project supported by U.S. assistance.

Clinton, the first secretary of state to visit Malawi, was clearly pleased to meet Banda and told her that the United States "strongly supports you and your government and your efforts on behalf of the people of this absolutely wonderful country."

Banda, a women's rights campaigner who had been Malawi's vice president, took over the top job in April after President Bingu wa Mutharika died in office. She told Clinton that "for a long time we have both been women and children's activists and I was looking forward to the day that we would meet. And we meet today in an official capacity and I am proud."

Banda has been keen to differentiate herself from her predecessor, who had a rocky relationship with international development agencies and whose policies led the U.S. to suspend a $350.7 million assistance package last year. In May, the country devalued its currency by one-third and loosened restrictions on foreign currency exchange.

In June, the International Monetary Fund and Malawi agreed to a $157 million aid package to be distributed over three years and the U.S. restored its aid, which is aimed at improving energy infrastructure. The program is run by the Millenium Challenge Corporation, which offers assistance to developing countries that can prove they have good government practices.

In addition to that package, the U.S. provided Malawi with $230 million in bilateral development aid in 2011. Malawi is an AIDS-ravaged nation with an agriculture-based economy and few natural resources.

On Monday, Clinton was to pay her respects to Mandela at his home in the town of Qunu. Mandela, 94, became South Africa's first black president in 1994 after spending 27 years in prison for his fight against racist apartheid rule. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Clinton planned talks Tuesday with government officials.

Clinton is on an 11-day tour of Africa that has already taken her to Senegal, Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya. After South Africa she will travel to Nigeria, Ghana and Benin.

She then heads to Turkey on Saturday where she will have talks with Turkish officials and others on the deteriorating situation in Syria.

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