Africa's newest leader

Mbeki: Successor enjoys Mandela's legacy, faces enormous burdens of South Africa's poverty.

June 21, 1999

IT WAS in 1986 that Thabo Mbeki, a revolutionary in exile, had long talks in New York with a leader of white Afrikaner society. That opened a dialogue between the outlawed African National Congress and the apartheid government, culminating in the peaceful transition of South Africa under the ANC's Nelson Mandela, released from prison.

As Mr. Mandela's chosen political heir, Mr. Mbeki has been running the country day-to-day as executive deputy president. His inauguration as president last Wednesday, two days before his 57th birthday, represented generational change. It was also a smooth step up, comparable to a rise in the corporate world from chief operating to chief executive officer.

Mr. Mbeki, whose first task in exile in the 1960s was to earn an English university degree in economics, has the analytic and administrative skills his mentor lacked. He has shown an ability to accommodate where no one thought accommodation possible.

What Mr. Mbeki doesn't possess is Mr. Mandela's towering moral stature and national standing. He will need them to preserve unity in a country of rigid racial distinctions and 11 languages, while also needing to regard his predecessor's record of building 500,000 houses and installing electricity, telephones and running water as just a start.

In naming his Cabinet, President Mbeki kept continuity with the Mandela cabinet. He made his party deputy, Jacob Zuma, his deputy president. The Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who heads the rival Inkatha Fredom Party, was retained as home affairs minister. Key economics portfolios remained in the hands of ministers enjoying the business community's confidence. Mr. Zuma's former wife, Dr. Nkosazana Zuma, becomes foreign minister.

Mr. Mbeki will now be looked to for leadership in Africa, which fell naturally to Mr. Mandela. To a large extent, Mr. Mbeki must do that by example. It is not enough to be a democratically chosen president succeeding another. The challenge is to make majority rule live up to its promises for the whole population, and strengthen the democratic institutions he helped to put in place.

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