The Long Journey of Thabo Mbeki: Reaching the Summit

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

The Long Journey of Thabo Mbeki: Reaching the Summit


Hamill, James, Contemporary Review


The previous article on Thabo Mbeki discussed his career from the early 1960s through to his appointment as South Africa s first Deputy President in May 1994. This second and final article has three main objectives: To assess Mbeki's performance as Deputy President between 1994 and 1999, to trace his eventual rise to the summit of power - the State Presidency itself - following the ANC's election victory in June and to identify the principal challenges awaiting the new leader.

A Poisoned Chalice? Mbeki as Deputy-President, 1994-96.

To most observers, the Deputy-Presidency would have seemed a natural and highly promising base from which Thabo Mbeki could progressively expand his control over the conduct of government business and his wider political influence. However, during his first two years in office, the realisation of that ideal was obstructed by three underlying political realities. The first was constitutional. Under the terms of both the interim Constitution of 1993 and the final Constitution of 1996, the office of Deputy-President could claim no original powers of its own. The incumbent was simply required to carry out tasks assigned by the State President and to assist the latter in 'the execution of the functions of government.' The powers and responsibilities of the position were, therefore, entirely at the discretion of the State President and they would be as expansive or indeed as limited as he desired.

An additional complication was the existence of a second Deputy-President to be drawn from the next largest party in the National Assembly, in this case the former ruling National Party (NP). This arrangement - and the agreement to have a government of national unity (GNU) for five years - was a product of the negotiated settlement reached by the ANC and the NP in 1993, a settlement which had been designed to reassure the latter party, and its largely white constituency, that its interests would be accommodated in the new South Africa. Consequently, in May 1994, F. W. de Klerk, the NP leader and former State President, took his place as the country's second Deputy-President. Inevitably, this tended to encroach upon the power and authority of the first Deputy-President although in his recently published memoirs, The Last Trek: A New Beginning (1999), de Klerk speaks highly of Mbeki's abilities, praising his grasp of economics and his understanding of the complexities of modern government. Such observations hardly convey the impression of a relationship fraught with difficulty or punctuated by ongoing turf disputes; in fact, de Klerk's major problems in the 1994-96 period appeared to lie with Mandela rather than Mbeki. That said, although the two deputies were technically equals, Mbeki, as a prominent figure in the country's largest party, was, to use an Orwellian phrase, the 'more equal.' Thus, it is interesting to note that de Klerk was never invited to serve as Acting President during Mandela's frequent trips abroad - that honour was reserved for Mbeki. He did, however, chair the Cabinet in Mandela's absence - a task rotated between the two deputies - as well as becoming the permanent chair of the security and intelligence sub-committee with Mbeki chairing the economic sub-committee.

The final impediment to Mbeki was President Mandela himself who, despite his many achievements as head of state, proved to be an unpredictable, and at times eccentric, manager of the government's affairs. Specific issues and themes would periodically grab his attention - primarily, although not exclusively, in the foreign policy arena - causing him to develop policy 'on the hoof' without adequate consultation with Mbeki. Having delegated a particular issue to his deputy, Mandela would often fail to relinquish it, a situation which often complicated the task of policy formulation and produced confused outcomes. Speaking to the South African Weekly Mail and Guardian, an ANC 'insider' commented: Mbeki has things in train to deal with a situation and then gets derailed [by Mandela]. …

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