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Background Report: Thabo Mbeki

May 23, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Now, our Newsmaker interview with South Africa’s president.

THABO MBEKI: I solemnly and sincerely promise I’ll always promote all that will advance the republic and oppose all that may harm it.

GWEN IFILL: Last June, Thabo Mbeki became South Africa’s second post-Apartheid president, succeeding a folk hero, Nelson Mandela, and assuming control over a nation of 43 million. Its black majority dominates the country’s politics through the African National Congress. Its white minority still controls much of economy in this, the African continent’s wealthiest nation. Born in Queenstown, South Africa, in 1942, Thabo Mbeki’s life has tracked closely the struggle of South Africa’s black majority. His parents were anti-Apartheid activists. They were also Communists. Mbeki’s father, Govan Mbeki, ran a small store. The elder Mbeki was jailed for his activism, and spent nearly three decades in prison alongside Nelson Mandela.

MARK GEVISSER, Mbeki Biographer: Thabo Mbeki grew up in a family where his parents were in danger of being arrested and locked up at any moment. And people will tell the story about how they came to see Govan Mbeki in the shop and there was Thabo sitting behind the counter. And they would say, “We’re here to see your father.” And these would be comrades. And Thabo, even as a little boy at the age of eight or nine, would know he couldn’t reveal where his parents were.

GWEN IFILL: Thabo Mbeki spent 28 years in exile in England, studying economics at Sussex university and mobilizing South African students living abroad.

SPOKESMAN: Aid Africa!

GWEN IFILL: He returned home when Mandela was released from prison and the African National Congress was legalized in 1990; he became Mandela’s deputy president four years later. Mbeki traveled the world meeting international leaders. His message: that post-apartheid South Africa would now move forward politically and economically. Mbeki was elected president last year, winning 66 percent of the vote.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Our people — both black and white — have mandated us to remain firm in pursuit of our vision of a non-racial South Africa, and the important goal of national reconciliation.

GWEN IFILL: The new president inherited a full plate of economic and social problems: 30 percent unemployment, a failing currency, rampant urban crime and violence. And in the past decade, an AIDS epidemic has ravaged the country. According to recent estimates, one-quarter of the nation’s population will die of the disease in the next 10 years.

Mbeki created a stir at home and abroad last month when he questioned whether there is a link between HIV and AIDS, writing in a letter to President Clinton and other world leaders that AIDS in Africa should be treated differently than AIDS in other areas of the world. “…a simple superimposition of Western experience on African reality would be absurd and illogical,” Mbeki wrote. “Such proceeding would constitute a criminal betrayal of our responsibility to our own people.”

Mbeki’s statements, and his stature as leader of one of Africa’s most powerful countries, carry weight elsewhere on the continent as well. In neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has incited black veterans to seize land owned by the white minority, Mbeki has tried — so far unsuccessfully — to broker a peace. But Mbeki has stopped short of publicly criticizing Mugabe who, like Mbeki, came to power after helping to overthrow a white minority government.

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: Accordingly we trust that ways and means will be found to end the conflict that has erupted in some areas of Zimbabwe, occasioned by the still-unresolved land question in this country. Peace, stability, democracy and social progress in Zimbabwe are as important for yourselves as they are for the rest of our region.