A public life

It can’t be an enviable or easy task to fill the shoes of a living legend. Yet that is what Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been called to do for the past five-and-a-half years as the second president of post-apartheid South Africa, following Nelson Mandela’s retirement in mid-1999. Mbeki had the scattered but intense upbringing befitting the scion of a family deeply involved in the anti-apartheid struggle which, he says, he was «born into» in June 1942. Both parents were teachers and activists, and his father, Govan Mbeki, was later imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island. Studious from an early age, young Thabo was already an activist in student politics at 14, until his expulsion after a student strike led to more studies at home. His involvement with the African Students’ Association during a wave of arrests led to his being sent away from South Africa at the behest of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1962. Time spent in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Tanzania led to postgraduate work in economics at Sussex University in Britain. He worked in London for Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo before being sent to the USSR for an anomalous, post-masters degree stint in guerrilla training behind the Iron Curtain. More posts in several African countries followed during the 1970s, notably in Lusaka in Zambia, where he became involved in the campaign to turn media attention to the anti-apartheid struggle spearheaded by the ANC. By the mid-1980s, he was heading the ANC’s Department of Information. Subsequently, he helped negotiate the transfer of power from the government of F.W. de Klerk. Mbeki served as first deputy president in Mandela’s Government of National Unity that followed the April 1994 general election. He was elected president of the ANC in 1997 and South African president two years later. During his years as Mandela’s deputy, the bearded, thoughtful Mbeki was closely involved in economic policymaking as he kept a relatively low profile during Mandela’s twilight years in office. His own domestic agenda since then has involved the difficult balancing act of raising living standards for the majority black population while pursuing a low-tax, investment-friendly policy; African conflict resolution has been his other major focus. While expanding his international visibility as head of state, Mbeki’s focus differs substantially, both in form and in content. Any Mandela successor would be vulnerable to criticism, and in his case a more cerebral approach and an allegedly low threshold for criticism or dissent have raised some hackles at home, notwithstanding his continued high popularity levels. If Mandela was the kindly grandfather, associated with national reconciliation, Mbeki is the suave, slightly distant diplomat uncle, who can command respect more readily than elicit easy affection, as the transition from apartheid gives way to new and no less complicated 21st century concerns.

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