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South Africa's Mbeki at Once President and Pundit

By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A08

JOHANNESBURG -- The most carefully read political columnist in this fast-paced city is not some hard-bitten muckraker or lofty academic. He's a late-night scribbler with a demanding day job.

Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, spins out hundreds of words each week that both illuminate and frustrate readers of ANC Today, the weekly online newsletter of the African National Congress. Unlike his predecessor, Nelson Mandela, who focused on reconciliation after the end of apartheid, Mbeki is combative, and his Friday column is often a forum for settling scores with rivals.

South African President Thabo Mbeki writes a weekly column for the African National Congress's newsletter ANC Today.

Mining moguls, journalists and even Archbishop Desmond Tutu have felt the sting of what one newspaper dubbed Mbeki's "poisoned arrows." And when the president doesn't deliver the shot himself, other party leaders use the space just below his column to deliver criticism, as a prominent AIDS activist group discovered last week.

In the process, the ANC online newsletter has become a newsy, provocative must-read for those who follow politics here. But Mbeki, who began his second five-year term in April, has also met with a sharp backlash from critics who regard his writings as undisciplined, even unpresidential.

"He sure is getting the attention. I'm not sure it's for the right reasons," said Xolela Mangcu, a political commentator who writes a weekly newspaper column. "We have columnists to write columns. . . . We need presidents to run countries."

Mbeki, 62, who was first elected in 1999, is known as a smart but somewhat prickly technocrat at home and an effective broker of conflicts in other African countries. He is said to lack Mandela's populist touch, but his landslide reelection victory has given him a virtual monopoly on political power.

His column, which debuted along with the ANC newsletter in January 2001, was intended to offer an alternative to a publishing industry still largely controlled by whites and often perceived as hostile by ANC leaders.

"The commercial newspaper and magazine press representing the views, values and interests of the white minority has dominated the field of the mass media," Mbeki wrote in that inaugural issue, touching on racial themes he has since explored regularly. "This situation has changed only marginally in the period since we obtained our liberation."

Since then, Mbeki has written his share of fluff, offering lavish praise for ANC leaders who have died and lauding nearby Zambia on its 40th birthday as an independent republic. He frequently quotes poetry and, in the style of a college professor at a dinner party, cites passages from books to bolster his arguments.

But when Mbeki is irritated, the column's tone shifts. In September, for example, Tony Trahar, chief executive of the mining conglomerate Anglo American, told the Financial Times of London that "political risk" still existed in South Africa 10 years after the arrival of multiracial democracy in 1994.

A few days later, Mbeki responded with a nearly 3,000-word tour de force that traced the history of racial oppression in South Africa from the arrival of the Dutch in 1652 through the end of apartheid and the relative peace and prosperity that have followed.

"The poor and the despised who worked for Anglo American and other companies that made it during the years of white minority rule, [then] paid a pittance for their labor, are today's voters," Mbeki wrote. "They have chosen reconciliation rather than revenge. . . . Do they deserve to be computed as a political risk, when everything they have done and said has made the unequivocal statement that they are ready to let the past bury the past?"

The president's pen was even sharper in October after a white journalist wrote that South Africa's high incidence of rape and negative cultural attitudes toward women were related to the country's AIDS epidemic.

"In simple language she was saying that African traditions, indigenous religions and culture prescribe and institutionalize rape . . . that our cultures, traditions and religions as Africans inherently make every African man a potential rapist," Mbeki wrote.

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