The Making of South Africa's New President

By Hamill, James | Contemporary Review, October 1999 | Go to article overview

The Making of South Africa's New President


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


On 16 June 1999, following the resounding victory of the African National Congress (ANC) in the country's second democratic elections, Thabo Mbeki became the President of the Republic of South Africa, an office vacated by Nelson Mandela, the 'father of the nation' and one of the true political giants of the post-war era. But who is Thabo Mbeki? Despite an impressive ANC background - he is the son of lifelong ANC and South African Communist Party (SACP) activist Govan Mbeki - his crucial role during the organisation's years in exile, and his period as the first Deputy-President from 1994 to 1999, Mbeki remains an enigmatic figure around whom political speculation continually swirls without a genuine consensus emerging as to his precise ideological orientation. Against this rather ambiguous backdrop, these two articles on the new South African leader have the following objectives:

* to identify the major landmarks in Mbeki's unfolding political career;

* to sketch out the basic tenets of his political philosophy;

* finally, to assess the likely political trajectory of South Africa under Mbeki's stewardship.

The Exile Years

Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki was born on 18 June 1942 in Transkei, Eastern Cape, the heartland of ANC support. His parents, Govan and Epainette, were prominent ANC and SACP figures and Mbeki was a child of 'the struggle', hailing from what might be loosely termed 'liberation aristocracy' (the Mandela and Sisulu families also come to mind in this respect). By his late teens, Thabo was an ANC youth organiser having joined the Youth League in 1956. However, the ANC was declared a proscribed organisation in April 1960 in the wake of the infamous Sharpeville massacre and, following a period working in the movement's underground structures, Mbeki chose to go into exile in 1962.

In June 1964, many of the senior figures in the ANC leadership - including Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki - were given life terms at the conclusion of the so-called 'Rivonia trial', an episode which effectively decapitated the movement inside South Africa and rendered it entirely ineffective. Thereafter, under the leadership of Oliver Tambo, the emphasis shifted to rebuilding the organisation as a political and military force from outside the country and Thabo Mbeki carne to play an important role in this area. After earning a Master's degree in Development Economics at the University of Sussex in the UK, he received military training in the Soviet Union in 1970 - at the time a routine procedure for a high ranking ANC official - before representing the ANC in Botswana, London, Swaziland, Nigeria and Zambia, where he also served as assistant secretary of the movement's Revolutionary Council. He was elected to the National Executive Committee in 1975 and he became political secretary in the office of the ANC President (Oliver Tambo) in 1978. During the same period Mbeki was also an active member of the SACP - it was not uncommon for senior figures in the liberation movement to be members of both organisations and, by the late 1980s, he had risen to membership of the party's central committee.

From 1985 through to 1989, Mbeki was the ANC's Director for Information and from 1989 he served as the head of the organisation's International Affairs department. In each position he was the key ANC figure orchestrating the international anti-apartheid campaign, raising the movement's diplomatic profile, and acting as the principal point of contact for foreign governments and international organisations. These were areas where he could claim to have secured significant breakthroughs for the organisation by the late 1980s; indeed the ANC may even have eclipsed the Pretoria government's Department of Foreign Affairs for the breadth of its international contacts and by the end of the decade economic sanctions enjoyed an unprecedented legitimacy as a means of addressing the apartheid issue. …

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