Mandela heir sees African renaissance ANC's Thabo Mbeki emerges as complex and articulate leader

January 01, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite and SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Thabo Mbeki is the man who will try to fill Nelson Mandela's shoes this year, when he seems certain to be elected the second black president of the new South Africa.

President of the ruling African National Congress and deputy president to Mandela, Mbeki is a very apparent heir.

But who is this man who is about to emerge from behind one of the largest shadows cast on the modern world stage?

The answer, to considerable degree, can be gleaned from a new book, which clusters 42 of his speeches spanning the past 34 years.

From it, Mbeki emerges as a complex, articulate leader whose politics are founded on an unwavering pride in being an African, a deep sense of outrage over the injustices of colonialism and apartheid, and a fervent belief in this continent's contribution to mankind, not least the emergence of our earliest ancestors.

Yet, he remains something of an enigma, leaving supporters and critics to ponder what the impending Mbeki era holds in store.

He said last month that there would be no radical change from Mandela's policies, an assurance that did little to impress the government's critics who see problems in key areas such as the economy, education and health.

Mbeki went on to caution that there might have to be an accelerated pace of policy implementation. That implies changing priorities that can only heighten black expectations of basic living improvements and deepen white foreboding of faster redistribution of wealth.

Impatience for change

Last year, during a National Assembly debate on nation-building, he signaled his awareness of growing black impatience with the rate of change.

"I am convinced that we are faced with the danger of a mounting rage to which we must respond seriously," he said, identifying perhaps his biggest challenge when the awesome moral and political restraint of Nelson Mandela departs the presidency later this year.

Another central concern about his leadership is his impatience with criticism, let alone dissent.

He responded angrily recently to a think tank analysis suggesting that his government would be "tougher and more obscure, in need therefore of closer and more demanding democratic and human rights monitoring."

He also endorsed a court challenge to publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's indictment of human rights violations by the African National Congress during the struggle against apartheid.

"Will the real Thabo Mbeki please stand up," demanded a recent editorial in the liberal Saturday Star. "Are you committed to democracy or are you just another African strongman who wants to build a country in his image and equates criticism with treason?"

The ANC's legal challenge was thrown out, but Mbeki's approach invited contrast with that of Mandela, who readily acknowledged excesses in the "just war" against apartheid.

Certainly in public presentation, Mbeki is no Mandela. But what he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in erudition. Widely read, he does not hesitate to quote from African sages, Greek scholars, Irish poets, sometimes in Latin as well as English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.

`I am an African'

Perhaps his best-known and most lyrical speech was "I am an African," delivered at the 1996 adoption of this country's constitution.

But behind the poetry of it -- "I owe my being to the Khoi and the San, whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape" -- many picked up a more ominous undertone.

"I know what it signifies when race and color are used to determine who is human and who is subhuman," he said. "I have experience of the situation in which race and color is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest."

Such cold anger feeds the fear that Mbeki will be less focused than Mandela on racial reconciliation and more committed to social transformation for the benefit of the black majority -- at the expense of the white minority.

The Citizen, an opposition daily, recently cited the increasing emphasis on race in employment, economic empowerment and even sports, and said: "Unless the rhetoric and practice are toned down, race threatens to become an increasingly divisive issue in the run-up to the elections."

Yet a constant theme through Mbeki's speeches is that reconciliation and transformation are mutually reinforcing concepts. The one cannot exist, he reasons, without the other in this traumatized society.

But reconciliation cannot be simply the forgiveness of past inhumanity and transformation cannot preserve white privilege.

He still sees South Africa, after more than four years of black majority rule, as "two nations" -- one white and prosperous, the other black and poor. The income of whites on average is eight times that of blacks. Whites, who constitute 13 percent of the 41 million population, control 80 percent of the economy.

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