Thabo Mbeki Socialist Affairs traces the life of South Africa's new President

Issue 1, Volume 48, 1999

Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, like his parents before him, has given his life to the cause of democracy in South Africa.

He was born in the Transkei in June 1942 to two teachers who brought him up in an atmosphere of culture and learning in a house full of books. His father, Govan, was a leading figure in the democratic struggle in the Eastern Cape and he had no illusions about the sorts of sacrifice that he would be called upon to make. Consequently his parents made a decision to share the upbringing of their son with family and friends. It was a wise one since Govan was to be arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment by the white dictatorship and was only released in 1987.

The young Thabo had already launched upon a political career, joining the Youth League of the African National Congress, when he was fourteen. At 20 under the orders of the ANC he left South Africa going first to Tanzania and then on to England where he completed a master's degree in economics at Sussex University and became prominent in the students' organisation of the ANC in exile. In London he worked in the offices of the late Oliver Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo and at 28 was sent to the USSR for military training.

Though trained as a soldier he embraced the arts of politics and diplomacy serving as assistant secretary of the Revolutionary Council in the Zambian capital Lusaka and representing the ANC in Botswana and Swaziland, two countries with frontiers with apartheid South Africa which were very important in the liberation struggle. From 1975 he represented the Congress in Nigeria, Africa's most populous country. In 1978 it was time to rejoin Oliver Tambo, the ANC leader whose political secretary he became. It was as director of information for the Congress that he started to become better known in the world and did much to ensure that the world opinion almost everywhere became opposed to apartheid.

It was unsurprising therefore that in 1989 he was appointed head of the department of international affairs and became a key figure in the ANC's negotiations with the white régime in Pretoria.

When Nelson Mandela emerged from prison on Robben Island, not far from Cape Town, Mbeki's role grew in importance. After the 1994 general election he was chosen by Mandela to become first deputy president of the newly formed Government of National Unity and when, two years later, the National Party, which had hitherto been the political vehicle of the whites, withdrew from that government, Mbeki was left as sole deputy president.

In December 1997 at the ANC's fiftieth congress at Mafikeng he took over the ANC presidency from Mandela beside whom he sat in the yellow t-shirt of the Congress. He has underlined the supreme need for reconciliation among the races in his country. Speaking in Cape Town at a joint sitting of the Houses of Parliament on the question of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he declared, `The defining parameter in our continuing struggle for national unity and reconciliation is the question of race. For many years to come, we will be able to measure the distance we have travelled towards the accomplishment of these objectives by the degree to which we have succeeded to close the great racial divides which continue to separate our communities.'

He is also committed to open government. Speaking at the inauguration of the government web site in Pretoria he said, `Many people round the world are continuously interested to know what is happening in South Africa. Sometimes the spotlight focuses on areas that are somewhat painful and embarrassing to us as a country. But in the end it is important that the rest of the world itself should get as accurate picture as possible.'

Meanwhile Mandela's successor has not forgotten his economic training. He has railed against the corruption and the damage bribery did to South Africa. Promoting different initiatives, he has also been deep in discussions with the Russians about the future of the diamond market which is of prime importance to his country.



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