Pragmatist Prepares to Pull S. Africa's Reins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 1, 1999; Page A1
JOHANNESBURG – The year was 1989, and South Africa teetered on a precipice. A hellish stalemate held blacks and whites in its grip after more than a decade of bitter conflict. The white minority had the power and the guns, but the black majority had the numbers and the rage. Black activists had made the white-ruled state ungovernable, just as Thabo Mbeki, a strategist with the exiled African National Congress, had urged.
The time had come to talk, to find a compromise. The ANC was open to it; so was the government. After several rounds of tentative contacts, the first official meeting was set. As scion of one of the first families of the black liberation movement and anointed within the ANC as a leader whose day would come, Mbeki prepared to meet one of the government's spymasters, Mike Louw.
The meeting was arranged for the Lucerne Palace Hotel in Switzerland, and it was a tensely choreographed encounter. Mbeki and a colleague traveled from Harare, Zimbabwe, under assumed names. After all, the apartheid state had labeled Mbeki a terrorist. It had jailed his father, Govan Mbeki, for decades along with Nelson Mandela, and it was blamed for the disappearance of his only son and his youngest brother.
But that September day a decade ago, Mbeki approached Louw confidently and broke the ice with a joke. "Well, here we are, terrorists and, for all you know, communists, too," he quipped, according to an account in a recent biography.
The two sides settled down to talk, and Louw turned to verse, reciting Yeats's "The Second Coming": Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer/Things fall apart/the center cannot hold.
A London-trained economist and an African nationalist, Mbeki also had a particular love of Yeats. Astonishing Louw, Mbeki picked up the verse: Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki's day has come. Tomorrow South Africa will hold its second democratic election and Mandela, moral guide during the delicate transition from white domination to majority rule, will pass the presidential baton to Mbeki, poet, philosopher and pragmatist.
Like Mandela, Mbeki was very much an architect of the historic compromises that have allowed South Africa to move from the apartheid system of racial separation to nonracial democracy without coming apart at the seams. In fact, the seeds for such a process were sown that day in Lucerne. There, "talks about talks" led to actual negotiations that ultimately pulled South Africa back from the brink and set it on a new democratic course with the pivotal 1994 election, the first in which all races could vote.
The ANC swept to victory, elevating Mandela to the presidency, and it is expected to do so again. Mbeki, South Africa's deputy president and the ANC president, was anointed Mandela's heir long ago, and when the new Parliament convenes this month, Mbeki by all accounts will become the country's second freely elected president.
But where Mandela has been a fatherly symbol of perseverance, dignity and reconciliation, floating above the fray as a kind of patron saint of that grand compromise, Mbeki will likely be a presidential CEO, intent on getting things done, running a tightly disciplined and more centrally managed ship.
Mbeki is not trying to fill Mandela's shoes. That, he told foreign journalists several months ago, is a silly image, for no one could be to South Africa what Mandela has been. And when Mandela himself raised that matter at a party conference, the typically dapper Mbeki joked: "I could never, ever be seen dead in your shoes, because you always wear ugly shoes."
Mbeki is an eclectic mix of influences: the poetry of Yeats and Leopold Sedar Senghor, the economics of Karl Marx and Margaret Thatcher. He is an African nationalist with a patrician manner, an intellectual trained as a guerrilla fighter, a man reportedly averse to discord and hypersensitive to criticism.
Within these many strains, many South Africans see an enigma. Some whites express fears that beneath the charming, urbane veneer lurks a man deeply embittered because of what the apartheid system of racial separation did to his family and, by extension, to black people. The struggle to topple apartheid was at the core of Mbeki's life, since he began his political career as a teenage student organizer.
His steady rise to the highest councils of South Africa's main liberation movement has spurred concern inside and outside the ANC that he may be power hungry and unwilling to surround himself with people of his own caliber. These critics note that potential rivals have been sidelined during the rise that will bring Mbeki to the presidency. Fear that too much power will be concentrated in his hands has grown in recent weeks amid polls showing that the ANC could improve on its 62.6 percent electoral majority from 1994 and win two-thirds of the seats in Parliament tomorrow.
A two-thirds majority would allow the ANC to unilaterally amend South Africa's post-apartheid constitution. Opposition parties, especially those representing mostly whites, have focused their campaign rhetoric on that specter. Mbeki has said, however, that such an overwhelming majority would not lead the ANC to change the constitution – a document that the ANC created.
South Africa's media has long been gripped by a pivotal question: What happens after Mandela? But the passing of the baton is, in practical terms, less dramatic than the question; Mbeki has been virtually running South Africa for at least two years.
Mandela, 80, who caused a brief stir last year when he said he would like to retire early, has delegated more and more responsibility to Mbeki and described him as "de facto" president. Mbeki, 56, has had a strong hand in cabinet and other high-level appointments, such as the new black governor of the central bank. He has played a major role in steering foreign policy, which some criticize as rudderless; in shaping economic policy, which is hailed for its fiscal discipline; and in the reconciliation strategy that Mandela championed, especially in his early years as president, to assuage fearful and powerful whites in business, the military and civil service that his government inherited.
"I have no advice for Thabo, because he has the wisdom he needs to lead the country," Mandela said last month during a farewell meeting with the media.
Tom Lodge, an analyst with the Electoral Institute of South Africa, describes Mbeki as a "status quo man" whose rule is likely to bring changes more subtle than dramatic.
But Sipho Seepe, a political scientist at the University of Venda, expects Mbeki to allow the psychic comfort zone that Mandela has afforded the white minority to close slowly. Some blacks feel that whites have grown too comfortable with the socioeconomic advantages they have retained and are resisting thorough transformation.
"Mandela is part of the problem," Seepe said. "He always talks about white fears. He never talks about black fears. . . . In 1994, white people were afraid they were going to lose some privileges." But Mandela's style, he said, "has allowed these people to feel less guilty about what happened" under apartheid.
With Mbeki's shift of emphasis from compromise to transformation, said Seepe, "The white media want to present him as not conciliatory. But he wants to focus on delivery."
That realignment is what Mbeki – a former Marxist – described in a 1996 speech as "the dialectical relationship between reconciliation and transformation." One can't happen without the other, though the two goals are often in conflict. After all, he has said in numerous speeches and interviews, if black South Africans can't get jobs, live in decent houses and enjoy new opportunities, how can they be expected to reconcile with the whites whose privilege was based on black deprivation?
Mbeki described the tension this way: "If we understand that reconciliation is more than the ability to share a cup of tea or to greet each other in the morning, and that it is an inherent part of a process of social change, then it will be easy to realize why it is easier to accept the twin concepts of reconciliation and transformation in principle, while their implementation is not necessarily comfortable for any one of us."
In paying tribute to the passage of South Africa's first democratic constitution in 1996, Mbeki wrote and delivered a lyrical ode to the African identity he hoped South Africans of all colors would embrace. Africans, he said, are warriors, kings and peasants, slaves imported from Asia, even the European descendents known today as Afrikaners, the very ones who enforced racial oppression here. "I am an African," Mbeki declared, and numerous white leaders in Parliament that day felt moved to proclaim, in response, that they are Africans, too.
Mbeki was born in 1942 and raised in a rural homestead in the remote Transkei region. His parents were socially conservative and well-educated Communists, part of the rural peasant aristocracy. Educated in mission schools, the young Thabo kept his nose in the books and wrote and translated letters for his illiterate neighbors.
He was drawn to activism in high school, but after the apartheid crackdown of 1960 and the Sharpeville Massacre of 69 protesting blacks that year, the ANC and the Mbeki family arranged for Mbeki to be spirited out of the country. Before long, he was an exiled student of economics at Sussex University in England.
In 1963, his father Govan – a teacher, writer and Communist Party and ANC leader – was swept up in the dragnet cast to catch revolutionary figures with names such as Mandela, Mbeki, Sisulu, Kathrada and Goldberg. They faced death, for treason. Govan Mbeki, Mandela and others were sentenced to life in prison, not to be seen again in public for nearly 30 years.
When Thabo Mbeki got word in Sussex, he planned to leave the university and return home. But those plans were twice rejected by Oliver Tambo, the exiled ANC leader who was to become a political father to Mbeki in the ensuing years.
Mbeki continued his studies, receiving a master's degree in economics from Sussex. He organized ANC exile operations in London, traveled to the Soviet Union for guerrilla training, then joined Tambo in Lusaka, Zambia, the ANC's headquarters in exile. Eventually, he became Tambo's chief adviser and spokesman for the movement with a place on the ANC's political-military council, its top strategic body. By 1989, he had become the ANC's chief diplomat and its public face abroad.
During this period, as its "armed struggle" against apartheid continued in its anemic, poorly coordinated way, the ANC realized that settlement through negotiation – not military victory – was the most realistic option.
Mbeki was among the key proponents in this shift, which did not sit well with militants in the movement. He was one of the first to have contact with white business and political figures of the dominant Afrikaner ethnic group – descendents of South Africa's early Dutch and French settlers. In 1987, he and others met a group of about 50 Afrikaner intellectuals at a conference in Dakar, Senegal.
Another watershed for Mbeki and the ANC was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ANC, which closely shared ideology and membership with the outlawed South African Communist Party, was talking about socialist economic policies and nationalization as late as 1989. But these would give way, in the early 1990s, to more pragmatic, free-market policies – advocated by Mbeki – that would set South Africa in good stead with the international community and financial markets.
Setting His Own Course
In choosing his cabinet, Mandela did not want to name Mbeki as his deputy president.
In a recent revelation, Mandela said the ANC leadership unanimously supported Mbeki as the deputy. "I said, 'Look, we are going to expose ourselves to criticism that we are a Xhosa organization,'‚" Mandela said at the farewell media breakfast. Xhosas are the second-largest ethnic group in South Africa, after Zulus. The fact that such senior figures as Mandela, Mbeki and others are Xhosas had led to the fears that the ANC had become what some called "the Xhosa Nostra."
Others in the movement, as well as in the media, thought that Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC's former secretary general and one of its lead negotiators during the multiparty talks that led to apartheid's abolition, would be named deputy president. Ramaphosa's alleged pique at being passed over is often reported, and many commentators assume that Mbeki campaigned against him. Ramaphosa became the president of the constitutional assembly – the two houses of Parliament sitting as a constitution-writing body – and moved from politics into business after the constitution was adopted in 1996.
The influence of other once-ascendant figures also has waned since the advent of democracy; many analysts believe that Mbeki maneuvered them out of his path. Even Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the president's former wife, had her wings clipped by Mbeki. At the ANC's national congress in 1997, when Mandela handed him the party presidency, Mbeki publicly thwarted her attempt to maneuver the vote and become ANC deputy president.
Now, with the formation of a Mbeki government only weeks away, all eyes have turned to his cabinet appointments as a sign of his brand of leadership. Indeed, analysts say, the way he balances complex competing imperatives – good governance vs. party loyalty; transformation vs. reconciliation – will provide a glimpse of things to come as the Mandela era gives way to an era that will be Mbeki's to shape.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company