Thabo Mbeki, Mandela's Heir, Is a Mediator in Meltdown

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Hero or Villain?

Thabo Mbeki was always on a hiding to nothing. Anyone taking over from Nelson Mandela, the world's favourite leader, was bound to suffer by comparison. But the South African President's failure to deal robustly with Robert Mugabe after the Zimbabwean election fiasco has exhausted not just the patience of the rest of the world, but that of his own citizens, too.

It was all so different a decade ago when Mbeki was Mandela's deputy and anointed successor. True, those who had known him as a charming and amusing student at the University of Sussex were surprised at how glum and dour he became on entering government. But Mbeki decided that there was no point in trying to compete with Mandela's charisma, and presented himself as an intellectual and a technocrat - the man capable of turning Mandela's vision of a better life into a political reality.

He cultivated the image of an independent and original thinker, and determinedly rejected populism. First, he risked unpopularity by lobbying the ANC to swap the armed struggle for negotiations with the apartheid regime. Then, in power, he took difficult decisions on the economy. He was shocked to find that the white regime had bequeathed a siege economy close to collapse rather than the stashes of cash needed to provide new homes with water and electricity for the black population. He rebuilt the economy, championing free- market economics to attract foreign investment, control inflation and create new jobs, rather than giving in to his communist and trade union comrades who wanted pay rises in the public sector. He played a leadership role in forming the African Union and its New Economic Partnership for African Development.

But the disdain he developed for what others thought of him - he wanted to be respected, not liked - led him into an intellectual arrogance. It tripped him up mightily over the issue of Aids. …