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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Thabo Mbeki: Following the fairytale
During Thabo Mbkei's state visit to the UK this week, he was greeted with fanfare and cordiality. It seems the South African president's welcome is a lot less assured in his native land. Caroline Frost of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at a man accused of putting plans before people.

Succeeding in office the unique icon of Nelson Mandela can be no easy task. After the symbolic changes in South Africa during the past decade, President Thabo Mbeki must face more practical challenges than jiving on a musical platform like his charismatic predecessor.

Thabo Mbeki during his election campaign
Not a natural: Mbeki speaks to the crowd

But he faces suspicion from the South African people. With an intellectual education, urbane manner and natty dress code, Mbeki carries himself well on the political stage, but refrains from the populist gestures and simple soundbites that would endear him to the masses.

He is more often found tucked into his books, smoking his pipe, and is accused of lacking the common touch.

He scores regular diplomatic points overseas with his chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement and his efforts to reform the United Nations.

Back in South Africa, interest rates are lower and living standards higher. But crime levels have gone through the roof, corruption is rife and Mbeki appears increasingly intolerant of criticism from the media, the white community and even within his own party.

Shanty town scene
Unemployment is up to 60% in some villages

It is with his views on Aids that the unempathetic Mr Mbeki has come most unstuck. His acute intellect and years of study were no help to him when his country's longest-surviving Aids child Nkosi Johnson publicly chided him for his failure to tackle the disease.

And when Nkosi died on 1 June and was given a hero's funeral, Mbeki invoked further criticism by staying away.

With what South African political journalist Anthony Johnson called "stubborn eccentricity", the determinedly well-informed president insists that Aids is only one aspect of the poverty and deprivation suffered by his people.

But in a country where one in 10 has the disease, these same people bemoan Mbeki's reluctance to address the problem, and blame him for the needless deaths of thousands of children.

Mbeki's apparently unemotional way of tackling his country's problems is no doubt a legacy of his childhood, when he learned that ideas were more important than people.

Govan Mbeki
An ANC hero: Govan Mbeki

His mother Epainette was one of the first women in the country to join the Communist Party. His father Govan shared the confines of Robben Island with Nelson Mandela for 28 years.

There, Mandela and the life-long Marxist fell out so bitterly over ideology that, even jailed together on the small island, they refused to speak to one another for two years.

Family life was surrendered to the cause. Young Thabo learned about his father, not by speaking to him, but by reading his writings.

When Govan was later released from jail and was asked how he felt on seeing his son again, he said: "Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade."

Thabo's own son, whom he had not seen for 20 years, disappeared in 1981, presumed murdered by apartheid security forces. When the child's mother attempted to find him, she was stopped in her tracks by the Mbeki family, and she blamed Thabo, calling him a "faceless monster".

Thabo Mbeki in a London newspaper
As a student, Mbeki's ANC protests made the papers

Thabo's own radical outlook was enlightened by his time overseas. From the University of Sussex where he studied economics, he went to Moscow to learn guerrilla tactics. With Oliver Tambo, he spent half a lifetime abroad promoting the anti-apartheid struggle.

Although right-wing critics have made much of Mbeki's Communist immersion, his time in Britain has proved the more lasting influence.

He married his wife Zanele at Farnham Castle, and has maintained links with the British aristocracy from his days at Sussex. Such fellow old students as Lord Attenborough, called him "Sussex trained".

Indeed, he spent 27 years in exile, matching the number of years Nelson Mandela spent in prison. Lacking the popular appeal of his predecessor, however, Mr Mbeki prefers to spend his time away from the crowds.

His intellectual detachment may prevent more blood being shed in his country than neighbouring Zimbabwe, and his foreign education allows him to see the long-term fiscal needs of South Africa.

Thabo Mbeki with Nelson Mandela
A heavy mantle: Mandela passes power to Mbeki

But these very qualities are the same which prevent Mbeki enjoying the loyalty and respect of his own people.

Just as his father Govan dealt with him, so Thabo deals with the nation. He remains committed to the interests of South African citizens, but doesn't want them too close.

Unlike the tactile and universally loved Mandela, the current president will never feel comfortable cuddling orphans in townships. It is by his policies he will have to prove himself.


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