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South Africa elections Thursday, 3 June, 1999, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
Thabo Mbeki: A president in waiting
Thabo Mbeki with the outgoing President Nelson Mandela
Thabo Mbeki with outgoing President Nelson Mandela
By South Africa Correspondent Greg Barrow

South African Elections

Like an anointed prince, Thabo Mbeki has waited quietly in the corridors of power, taking control of the day-to-day running of government while Nelson Mandela has enjoyed the twilight of his political career.

At 56, Mbeki is still a relatively young man. His appointment as president-elect ruffled some feathers among ANC veterans in the cabinet who felt that their role in the struggle against apartheid had not been recognised.

But political insiders say few should have been surprised at the dramatic rise of this man who will carry the ANC into the 21st century.

Humble origins

Like Mandela, Mbeki was born in the Transkei, one of the most rural and under-developed regions of South Africa.

But Mbeki came from more lowly beginnings. His mother and father were both schoolteachers, and committed communists.

In later years, his father, Govan Mbeki was rarely at home, expending most of his energy in promoting the cause of communism, and the ANC.

Ultimately, Govan's appetite for the liberation struggle would lead to his imprisonment for almost three decades on Robben Island, with his fellow freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela.

Little is known of Mbeki's childhood. He was packed off to boarding school at an early age, returning briefly to his home village at the age of 16 when he fell in love with a daughter of the local headmaster.

She became pregnant and gave birth to an illegitimate son, Kwanda, causing no small amount of scurrilous gossip in the tiny rural community.

The relationship between Mbeki and his childhood sweetheart did not endure.

His son Kwanda disappeared while attempting to leave South Africa in 1970, and is widely believed to have been killed by the apartheid security forces.

Years in exile

In 1962, Mbeki left South Africa illegally to enrol at Sussex University in Britain.

It was the beginning of an extended exile which took him all over the world.

After his years of study were over, he spent time in Moscow training to be a guerrilla fighter. He then went on to represent the ANC in a number of African countries, ending up in Lusaka in Zambia where the ANC's headquarters in exile were based.

Oliver Tambo: A father figure
It was here that Mbeki cemented his relationship with the party president, Oliver Tambo, the man who was to become more of a father figure in his life than Govan had ever been.

Tambo, who led the struggle for the ANC in exile had identified leadership qualities in Mbeki from an early age, and there are many within the ANC who believe that the young Mbeki was marked for the highest political post in the party, decades before apartheid was banished from South Africa.

When the apartheid government finally lifted the ban on the ANC in 1990, some political observers were surprised to see Thabo Mbeki taking a back seat to the charismatic former leader of the Miners' Union, Cyril Ramaphosa, who led the team negotiating over the shape of South Africa's first multi-racial government.

In reality, Mbeki was probably confident of his support base, and merely waiting in the wings to ascend to the position of deputy president beneath Mandela.

He was proved right when Mandela's first cabinet was announced with no position for Ramaphosa.

Arch manipulator?

The political jockeying behind the scenes that have accompanied Mbeki's rise to prominence have prompted speculation that he is an arch manipulator, a macchiavellian individual who will stop at nothing to ensure the consolidation of political power around him.

Cyril Ramaphosa: Left out of Mandela's first cabinet
As one senior ANC official once put it, "You don't know that Thabo has stabbed you in the back until you feel the blade against your sternum."

Although Mbeki is yet to name his post-election cabinet, it is widely expected to include many of those who worked with him during his years in exile.

This will be one of the most identifiable breaks from President Mandela's government which was characterised by men who had spent time in jail during the apartheid era.

Ideas man

Colleagues describe Mbeki as an "ideas man" and a consummate politician. Where Mandela devoted much of his energy towards achieving national reconciliation in a racially divided country, Mbeki is expected to concentrate 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 need of the black majority.

But within government he has chosen to champion a policy of free-market economics aimed at attracting foreign investment.

It is a strategy that has led Mbeki into awkward confrontation with his former colleagues in the Communist Party and trade unions.

Opposition parties fear that if the ANC gains a large majority in this year's elections there will be a potential for the party to take on dictatorial tendencies with Mbeki the man most likely to benefit from an increase in political power.

Some have even described him as similar in style to Robert Mugabe, the authoritarian president of neighbouring Zimbabwe.

But even the least charitable critics admit that Mbeki is far too intelligent to allow power to go to his head.

Hard act to follow

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing Mbeki is his ability to pick up where Mandela has left off.

He will be following in the footsteps of a man who has become an icon of the 20th century, and he is well aware of the extent to which the "Mandela Magic" will be missed after the elections.

Mbeki is notoriously sensitive about questions regarding his ability to succeed Mandela, but he has on occasion found the humour to parry the inevitable questions about his ability to fill Mandela's shoes.

"I don't imagine there's any such requirement," he said to reporters in 1997, " Anyway, he's got very big feet, and I don't think I could grow taller or wear strange shirts."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Audio
Thabo Mbeki: "I am an African ..."
Audio
Greg Barrow reports on the Mbeki succession
Audio
Jane Standley talking to Thabo Mbeki
See also:

01 Jan 99 | Africa
17 May 99 | Africa
24 May 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
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