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Friday, December 19, 1997 Published at 23:48 GMT

image: [ BBC analyst Peter Biles ] Thabo Mbeki - The ANC's New Leader

Peter Biles

The South African President, Nelson Mandela, has formally relinquished some of his official responsibilities by stepping down as leader of the African National Congress at the party's conference. The ANC's newly elected leader is Thabo Mbeki, previously Mr Mandela's deputy. He's also likely to succeed Mr Mandela as State President in 1999. Our correspondent, Peter Biles, who's at the ANC Conference in Mafikeng, has for many years watched the progress of South Africa's expected future leader - Thabo Mbeki.

Let's go back ten years. It's December 1987, South Africa is under a state of emergency, the African National Congress is fighting for the removal of apartheid. But the ANC is still banned, many of its leaders, including Nelson Mandela, are in jail while others have been in exile for the best part of 30 years.

I am drawn to the pretty Tanzanian town of Arusha, close to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, where the ANC is holding its first big international conference to garner greater worldwide support. Over lunch at the Mount Meru Hotel, a colleague and I find ourselves at the next table to the urbane figure of Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's Information Director. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal. First name terms are the order of the day. But could it be, we ask ourselves, that in years to come, we'll look back on this sultry afternoon in 1987 when it was possible to lean across and ask 'Thabo' to pass the chilli sauce. Even then, there was an unmistakeable feeling that this was a man being groomed for high office.

Listening back now to the interviews recorded with Thabo Mbeki that week in Tanzania, what comes across is his unshakeable belief that the days of apartheid were numbered. "We don't want to arouse false hopes about the immediacy of our victory", he told me, "but the Botha regime is a lot weaker than it pretends, and our victory is not very far away."

A little over two years after that encounter, the focus had shifted to Zambia as the ANC's leadership-in-exile, welcomed Nelson Mandela to Lusaka following his release from prison. Mbeki was by now the ANC's head of international affairs, and within a few short weeks, he and the other exiles were returning home.

Thabo Mbeki was born into the struggle. He joined the ANC Youth League at 14, and left South Africa in 1962 when he was 20. He acquired an economics degree from an English university and underwent military training in the former Soviet Union. The training was routine for many ANC activists, although Mbeki was always the suave diplomat rather than the guerrilla fighter. It was hard to imagine him ever carrying a gun let alone using one.

While he worked his way through the ranks of the ANC in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, his father, Govan, was in prison with Nelson Mandela ... he was only freed in 1987.

So what did most South Africans know of the Mbeki pedigree by the time the ANC was eventually unbanned. Not a lot. Thabo Mbeki had always oozed charm in international circles, and did much to break the ice with white South Africans when initial contacts with the ANC began. But at home, he was far less well known than some of the ANC's internal leadership. And that rivalry between the returning exiles and those who were more easily recognisable to the younger generation in the townships still exists to this day.

On the eve of the historic elections of 1994, Thabo Mbeki was in the unfamiliar role of cheer-leader at a football stadium on the edge of Soweto, as tens of thousands of excited supporters gathered to hear one of Nelson Mandela's final campaign speeches. Within days, Mbeki was confirmed as First Deputy President. His succession seemed assured.

This week's conference in Mafikeng marks the changing of the guard. On Tuesday morning, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki sat side by side in yellow ANC t-shirts as the seamless hand-over began. Mbeki is already handling much of the day-to-day running of the country. There are lingering doubts about South Africa in the post-Mandela era. But like Nelson Mandela before him, Thabo Mbeki has travelled a long road, over ten years, from Arusha to Mafikeng, the outcome has never been in doubt.

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