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  • South Africa Report


    S. African Succession Proceeds, Cautiously

    By Lynne Duke
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, October 21 1996; Page A01

    A transition underway for South African President Nelson Mandela was crystal clear one recent Sunday when he took an afternoon stroll through the posh, leafy suburb of Houghton with his new romantic companion, Graca Machel, on his arm.

    It was one of those magical scenes with which Mandela's presidency is replete: the heroic, 78-year-old patriarch of a newly democratic South Africa taking a break from the burdens of bureaucracy to be, simply, a man in love. Such displays of Mandela's humanity never fail to elicit reverential delight across the color line, and Mandela's white neighbors were, yes, tickled pink.

    The same day, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki was etching another portrait of the presidency, one grounded less in symbolism and more in global politics. As he prepared for a series of meetings in the United States to sell South Africa to potential investors, he also was making another foray into the theater of global perceptions, where he is being closely watched as Pretoria's president in waiting.


    Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, 54

    Deputy president, deputy president of the African National Congress, the majority party in parliament.

    President Nelson Mandela has endorsed Mbeki as his successor to run the ANC starting late next year, which makes him his near-certain successor.

    An economist by training, with a master's degree in economics from the University of Sussex, England, he also received military training in the Soviet Union.

    He was an ANC leader and diplomat while in exile in Britain, Botswana, Zambia, Swaziland and Nigeria. He was a key negotiator during South Africa's period of reform between the release of Mandela from prison in 1990 and the first all-races election in 1994.

    He is the son of Govan Mbeki, an ANC and Communist Party stalwart, who was a Mandela codefendant at the Rivonia treason trial of 1963-64 and who served 23 years of political imprisonment along with Mandela on Robben Island.

    As Mandela and his African National Congress pass the halfway mark of their first term of ruling post-apartheid South Africa, the presidential transition is both of personalities and of historic periods, and could provide the real test of nationhood after Mandela's magic has faded.

    Although Mandela is not to leave office until 1999, the messiah of racial reconciliation who delivered his people from apartheid is making way for Mbeki, 54, a shrewd manager who already is overseeing more of the activities of government than his overworked boss. Mbeki handles many day-to-day aspects of government. He maintains close contact with Parliament and members of the cabinet. And Mandela, said an aide, makes no major decision without consulting Mbeki.

    But the succession question makes people nervous. The fear instilled by apartheid, or racial separation, is gone but other fears and uncertainties have taken its place. Generally speaking, blacks are wondering when new jobs and houses will materialize; whites are wondering whether their positions of privilege will erode; and everybody is worried about spiraling crime, governmental corruption and the ANC's ability to deliver growth and prosperity for all.

    Mbeki will inherit these fears.

    "He is quite evidently being seen and being presented as the successor," said Colin Bundy, an author and analyst and deputy vice chancellor of the University of the Western Cape. "But it's not just a question of succeeding in the ceremonial functions and [being] the chief executive officer in cabinet."

    As South Africa's first democratic president, Mandela also has had to be "the moral center of gravity of a nation," Bundy said, referring to the fragile new dispensation of this black-majority nation once ruled exclusively by whites. Given the many sources of political and economic instability that still exist, it is likely that South Africa could benefit from a transcendent presidency for years to come. The reality, however, is that neither Mbeki nor anyone else could continue Mandela's historic role.

    For better or for worse, Mbeki is the man to watch. His consolidation of power in government and within the ANC has continued since the ANC won a 63 percent majority in the nation's first all-races elections in 1994. Mandela has made Mbeki, an economist, the ANC's point man on economic policy and other big-ticket issues.

    Mbeki is leading the ANC shift from liberation movement with strong socialist and pro-labor leanings to political party espousing such fiscally conservative policies that its leftist allies are being sidelined.

    "I think Mbeki is so confident now that he's willing to risk narrowing the [ANC] constituency," said Tom Lodge, a political scientist at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand.

    Mandela has endorsed Mbeki to be his successor when he steps down from the ANC party presidency next year. Mbeki will then be able to consolidate his base and shape the party into a more focused political operation in advance of the 1999 elections, when the leader of the majority party in Parliament -- which almost certainly will be the ANC again -- will become South Africa's president.

    Mandela "did make the point that the longer he stays [atop the ANC], the more difficult that will make the transition," said Joel Netshitenzhe, a Mandela aide. "So it's better to prepare the nation gradually."

    The passage of party power already has produced some tensions, as potential Mbeki challengers conveniently fall away. Cyril Ramaphosa, the recently resigned ANC secretary general whose designs for high government office were thwarted, has gone into big business. Tokyo Sexwale, premier of Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg, has engaged in a public spat with Mbeki that could thwart the rise of Sexwale's political star.

    "All lines in the end seem to lead to Mbeki's office," Lodge said.

    Mbeki is as much a product of the ANC as anyone in the nation. He is the son of Govan Mbeki, an ANC stalwart who served 23 years on Robben Island after he was sentenced to life imprisonment along with Mandela and six others convicted in an infamous 1964 treason trial. The younger Mbeki was schooled in liberation politics at the knee of former ANC president Oliver Tambo, now dead.

    During the years of exile, when the ANC was banned in South Africa, Mbeki became the movement's spokesman on foreign affairs and other issues. On his return to South Africa in the early 1990s, he helped lead the negotiations that opened up the transition to democracy,

    But the notion of an Mbeki presidency is disquieting for some. Despite a bold and poetic speech he delivered in May in which he welcomed whites as Africans along with blacks, the white-run media and other observers view him as less committed to racial reconciliation than Mandela. Lodge, for instance, noted that Mbeki does not have any close white advisers. Ricky Naidoo, an Mbeki spokesman, countered that Mbeki has frequent contact with white businessmen here and abroad.

    There also is concern over Mbeki's push to transform the white-dominated business and media sectors. His special adviser, the Rev. Frank Chikane, said Mbeki really is "an analytic and strategic thinker" and that his long-term strategy for transforming the country will naturally step on the toes of those not yet accustomed to black-majority rule.

    That transformation vision projects doubling economic growth to 6 percent by 2000, massive job creation, the transfer of more economic power to blacks, and greater equality in a society where blacks remain disadvantaged while whites retain privilege.

    Mbeki also is viewed by some as exercising inordinate power in government and in the party, where he, like Mandela, has shown a penchant for valuing loyalty over performance -- resulting in some public dust-ups that have smeared the party's reputation. A health minister who misspent funds was allowed to stay in the cabinet; a public enterprises minister was appointed even though she has admitted accepting a bribe when she was leader of an apartheid-era black homeland; a deputy minister who criticized Mandela for accepting donations from a bribery suspect was fired, then ousted from the party. Whether these are foibles of the transition or patterns in the making is much debated.

    Lodge said Mbeki may have an authoritarian streak that stems from his coming of age as a leader of the ANC in exile, when the movement at times exercised harsh control over its members and its operations. But Netshitenzhe, the Mandela aide, described Mbeki as a figure who "thrives on debate and ideas and innovation."

    Mbeki is erudite, a pipe smoker with a master's degree in economics who is widely viewed as distant from the ANC masses and unable to connect with them in the fashion of Mandela. One of the problems he will inherit as head of the ANC, indeed, is party disorganization and drift among the membership.

    But while Mandela is more able to move, soothe and appeal to the masses, Mbeki may be "more attuned to making the ANC a tightly managed political party," said Khehla Shubane, an analyst at the Center for Policy Studies here.

    The ANC, some here say, can no longer be all things to all people and will have to refine its message for the new issues of the day. Class, sectoral and individual interests could shake out, leading to formation of new parties -- although later rather than sooner, as the ANC is seen as likely to remain the majority party well into the next century.

    Mbeki has predicted such shifts. He told Millennium magazine here in May that the breakup of the ANC was a natural part of the normalization of South African politics, after the ethos of reconciliation and nation-building has been established.

    Part of that normalization involves South Africans growing accustomed to having a normal president. They will have to wean themselves from what Netshitenzhe calls the "messiah syndrome."

    "The character of the new president will have to be one more of management of the transformation than maintaining the aura of the miracle," Netshitenzhe said. "We need to be a normal country."

    In the end, concerns over Mbeki may be little more than an emotional response to Mandela's imminent departure. People dread it but they know it will come. They are less sure of what will come after.

    "The succession is going to come as a deeply emotional and psychological moment," said Bundy. Mbeki already is preparing.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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