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Thabo Mbeki defines himself and his views on Africanism and the rebirth of the continent
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The BBC's Allan Little
"The overwhelming mass of the people remain loyal to Mbeki"
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Wednesday, 25 April, 2001, 21:07 GMT 22:07 UK
Thabo Mbeki's difficult presidency
Thabo Mbeki with the outgoing President Nelson Mandela
Thabo Mbeki with outgoing President Nelson Mandela
By BBC News Online's Russell Smith

The task of filling Nelson Mandela's shoes when he stepped down as South Africa's first black president in 1999 was an impossible one, something that Thabo Mbeki himself readily acknowledged.

As President Mandela's deputy he effectively ran the country anyway, but two years into his first term in the top job his leadership style is increasingly in the spotlight.

President Mbeki is known for paying close attention to detail and his style leads to accusations that he is somewhat aloof, lacking the warmth and charm of his predecessor.

He also demands absolute loyalty from the party faithful, so concern bordering on paranoia will have been generated by reports that he has been losing some of his power base in the African National Congress.

Exile in Britain and Moscow

Mr Mbeki spent most of his early years in exile, studying in Britain and going to Moscow to train as a guerrilla fighter, before devoting his efforts to lobbying against apartheid across the world.

South African Communist Party (SACP) symbol
Mbeki was a member of the South African Communist Party
His long years in exile from South Africa left their stamp on his political profile. He is an urbane diplomat who enjoys the company of foreign politicians and heads of state but is most at home in his own company, quietly puffing on a pipe and reading policy papers.

Colleagues describe Mbeki as an "ideas man" and consummate politician. Whereas Nelson Mandela devoted much of his energy towards achieving national reconciliation in a racially-divided country, President Mbeki has concentrated more on raising living standards for the majority black population.

A former member of the South African Communist Party, he is well aware of the social needs of the black majority.

But in government he has chosen to champion a policy of free-market economics aimed at attracting foreign investment, at a cost to left-wing demands for pay rises in the public sector.

PR disasters

He has always been known to be sensitive to criticism, but Mr Mbeki's performance as president has become dogged by a series of public relations disasters.

The worst of these which was probably his ill-conceived comments questioning the link between HIV and Aids, which caused repercussions around the developing world.

Others included his soft shoe diplomacy on the explosive land issue in Zimbabwe, allegations of corruption within the cabinet over arms purchases and an inability to halt soaring crime levels.

Yet he is hard working and has scored some notable successes as well.

Interest rates have been at record lows during his presidency, more than four million South Africans have gained access to clean drinking water and the country is stable - remarkable given the pre-apartheid predictions of doom.

Opponents speak of an increasing paranoia coming from the top of the party and from Mr Mbeki.

But the stakes are high: The ANC is still by far the most popular party in South Africa, so its destiny is in many ways the destiny of the country.

And there are many capable and high profile figures in the party who could be credible challengers to Mr Mbeki.

Cyril Ramaphosa, 48, now a successful businessman, would be one of a number of popular possible contender for the post of party leader, so allegations of plots against senior figures - including Mr Ramaphosa - might well be seen as a pre-emptive move to stop any challenge to Mr Mbeki.

Mr Mbeki appears determined, even at this early stage, to complete his two terms and 10 full years in the top job. He has only just got his feet under the table.

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25 Apr 01 | Africa
Top ANC men 'plot' to oust Mbeki
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