Proudly becoming the first American head of state to visit this onetime pariah nation, President Clinton Thursday called for a partnership "of mutual respect and mutual reward" with the new South Africa.

In a speech before the National Assembly, Clinton praised South Africa for ending brutal apartheid and making a peaceful transition to majority rule. He said it is time for the United States to help South Africa push forward a continentwide renaissance."Let us learn from each other to turn the hope we now share into a history that all of us can be proud of," Clinton said.

"We seek a genuine partnership based on mutual respect and mutual reward," Clinton said.

He marveled at his audience in the parliamentary chamber - white and black men in business suits, black women in traditional African garb. "I look around this hall and there is every conceivable difference on the surface . . . but underneath the same hopes," he said.

Speaking of the black Americans traveling with him, including Cabinet secretaries and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Clinton said: "It is especially important for them to be here because it was not so long ago in the long span of human history that their ancestors were uprooted from this continent and sold into slavery into the United States.

"But now they return to Africa as leaders of the United States. Today they sit alongside the leaders of the new South Africa, united in the powerful poetry of justice."

Popo Molefe, chairman of the National Council of Provinces, opened the unprecedented session with his own nod to America's civil rights leaders.

"We South Africans are proud to count Americans among those of our friends who showed consistency and loyalty to the noble cause of liberation," Molefe said.

Clinton must follow the speech with action, said NAACP president Kweisi Mfume, in order to give the historic visit "real worth rather than just an airing of polite words."

Clinton was greeted by President Nelson Mandela in a formal, red-carpet ceremony in the plaza at Tuynhuis, a 200-year-old government building that houses Mandela's offices.

As they entered the Parliament, Clinton clutched Mandela's hand tightly - their fingers intertwined - as he helped the 79-year-old president down the staircase to the assembly floor.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton watched from a gallery above and was seated beside Mandela's companion, Graca Machel.

Without offering specifics, Clinton said he would build trade and political interaction with Mandela's government because the United States "has a profound and pragmatic stake in your success."

"We, like you, need strong partners to build prosperity," Clinton said.

Before the formalities began, Clinton unexpectedly joined his wife at the dusty Victoria Mxenge housing project near a shantytown. They laid brick alongside the women in charge of construction that put 104 houses where last year there were 18.

"I went into politics so I wouldn't have to work this hard," the president joked.