After Legendary Mandela, Thabo Who? South Africans Vote for President Tomorrow, and Front-Runner Mbeki's

By Corinna Schuler, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, June 1, 1999 | Go to article overview

After Legendary Mandela, Thabo Who? South Africans Vote for President Tomorrow, and Front-Runner Mbeki's


Corinna Schuler, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When he was a young man at university in Britain, Thabo Mbeki was often rebuffed in his flirtatious pursuits of "lovely English" ladies who would cry: "But Thabo, we don't know you!" This, even though he'd been in classes with the girls for years.

"You see," Mr. Mbeki told his glittering audience at a book launch in Johannesburg last year, "this is a persisting problem."

The crowd laughed but, even after paging through Mbeki's newly released collection of lyrical speeches, many were still pondering the recurring question that was the subject of his self-deprecating joke: Who is Thabo Mbeki? The certain answer is that he is the dapper politician headed for election as South Africa's new president tomorrow when the country holds its second all-race vote since 1994. This is the man expected to follow in the footsteps of the much-admired world hero, Nelson Mandela. But is Mbeki, as critics charge, an out-of-touch intellectual hungry for political power? Or is he, as supporters say, a shrewd leader with the strategic capability and vision needed to guide this country into the next century? Mbeki's personal history, his leadership style, and his policy priorities have been under vigorous discussion in recent months. But, despite the persistent scrutiny, the word most often used to describe him is "enigmatic." "Even his confidants talk about him in generalized terms," says Tom Lodge, a veteran analyst of the African National Congress (ANC) at the Electoral Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg. "His associates are extraordinarily discreet. That is most important to him: loyalty, control, discretion." Running the country already As deputy president to Mr. Mandela, Mbeki has already been running South Africa as de facto president for years: He chaired Cabinet meetings, kept tabs on ministers, met foreign delegations, and devised government policy. Few question his credentials, intellect, or fine grasp of policy details. The mystery is his character. Boosters call him suave, gentle, diplomatic. Detractors call him ruthless, cold, manipulative. Mr. Lodge suggests the new president will display a touch of all those traits - most of which can be traced to Mbeki's early years. His father, Govan, was a Communist freedom fighter who was imprisoned along with Mandela for almost three decades. Thabo joined the ANC Youth League at 14 (two years before the normal age of entry) and was expelled from school for his political activities. After a brief detention, he was sent into exile in 1962. Mbeki graduated from Britain's Sussex University, undertook ANC military training in the Soviet Union, and spent subsequent decades working for the organization - and for prominent party leaders such as Oliver Tambo - in offices across Africa. It was often Mbeki who greeted nervous businessmen, academics, and political officials at clandestine meetings in Zambia, when select groups of whites were making the first tentative contacts with the ANC in exile. For three decades, Mbeki did not see his parents. When he finally met his father again - in 1990 in Zambia's capital, Lusaka - there was no time for sentimentality. The men shook hands and called one another "comrade." A Mandela-Mbeki contrast Mandela is famed for his special touch with children, his love of loosefitting African shirts, his appearance at national sporting matches, his dancing ability. By contrast, Mbeki is stiff: He rarely laughs aloud, is known for his love of Irish revolutionary poetry, and is almost always seen in suit and tie. Analysts agree there has been a deliberate effort to soften his personality during the election campaign: He has taken to wearing T- shirts, embracing supporters, and dancing with a children's choir. But, when it comes to party politics, Mbeki's reputation as a ruthless operator remains unchanged. "The grooming for leadership by a secretive, authoritarian organization in exile helps to explain the manipulative style {attributed to him}," says Lodge. …

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