TOPICS > Politics

South African Elections

June 2, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JUDY AZELET: Thabo Mbeki, diplomat, soldier, and as a result of today’s election, the next president of South Africa. He spent his life working for the African National Congress, the anti-apartheid movement which is knew the country’s dominant political party. He’ll be taking over from one of the most popular world leaders, Nelson Mandela. It’s a tough act to follow.

MARK GEVISSER: Whereas Mandela made something of a symbol of himself with which we could all identify. He was in jail; we were in jail. He was liberated, we were liberated. He could drink tea with his oppressors, we too could reconcile with the other side. Thabo Mbeki has a very different approach, a very different style. The way he’s projecting himself as somebody who rolls up his sleeves and gets down and makes things happen. He’s a back room boy.

JUDY AZELET: Thabo Mbeki grew up in a remote, rural area of South Africa where his parents were anti-apartheid activists. They were also Communists. Mbeki’s father, Governor Mbeki, ran a small store. He was later jailed with Nelson Mandela for nearly three decades.

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

JUDY AZELET: At Sussex University in England, Thabo Mbeki began 30 years in exile with his comrade Essop Pahad. Like many students, they went on human rights marches and campaigned for the British Labor Party in the ’64 election.

ESSOP PAHAD: Those of us who were lucky to be in England at that time and lucky to be students became part of that foment of development of ideas of creative approaches of a very harsh sometimes engagement with a broad spectrum of young people who didn’t agree with us, and we didn’t agree with them.

JUDY AZELETT: It’s that debate of freedom of speech unheard of in South Africa that shaped the young Thabo Mbeki. But he also paid a price. By the time his father came to the Zambian capital Usaka to meet the ANC in exile in 1990, Thabo Mbeki had become more of a comrade than a son. While other families hugged and kissed, Mbeki Senior shook his son’s hand in private.

MARK GEVISSER: Of course there was a distance. I mean, once we were in exile, we were all distant from that. Once his father was in prison, and his father had been very active, I mean, that distance was inevitable given the situation, but the difference was that there wasn’t a political distance.

.JUDY AZELET: It was Oliver Tambo, the ANC leader in exile, who had become a mentor and surrogate father to Thabo Mbeki. When Tambo returned home to become president of the ANC in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, who had been his deputy, moved over to make way for Nelson Mandela.

MARK GEVISSER: But if one really wants to understand Thabo Mbeki, one has to see that his father is Oliver Tambo as well as Governor Mbeki. One has to see his sister is much more the minister of health – Azuma — than it is his biological sister who is a businesswoman in the transfer. One has to see that comrades with who he really grew up are his brothers as much as his biological brothers.

JUDY AZELET: When he became Nelson Mandela’s deputy, Thabo Mbeki traveled the world meeting international leaders. He’s clearly at ease in their company, carrying the promise that under his leadership, South Africa will move forward politically and economically.

THABO MBEKI: At times we did not know that we are burying people who had died from AIDS.

JUDY ASLETT: But back home, Thabo Mbeki’s style has been criticized. When he addressed the nation last year on the problem of AIDS, he looked stiff and awkward. The children looked bored. It didn’t work. But despite this, his supporters say he won’t change.

ESSOP PAHAD: I, for example, have told public relations companies and in the course of discussions, listen, we are not a package of soap, our conflicts, and this person of ours isn’t either. So you are not going to package this person in that way. You might want to do that in European politics, but not here.

JUDY ASLETT: Analysts say there’s no doubt South Africa needed a charismatic leader like Nelson Mandela as its first black president, but now the country needs more. The stark economic inequalities between black and white still divide this nation. And the challenge for Thabo Mbeki is to bring about real change. Nine million blacks in South Africa still have no clean water supply nor electricity to their homes. Thabo Mbeki says he will speed up his economic program to provide them with jobs and better services; that’s been the message of his election campaign. And in the last three weeks, South Africa has seen another side of its new leader. In a packed stadium containing 90,000 people, he danced next to Nelson Mandela. He may not be a natural mover, but those who have watched him over the years say he will become more a man of the people.

KHEHLE SHUBANE, Political Analyst: People seem to want a president like Mandela, a president who is at ease with people rather than with the elite. And I think that there’s a huge push on Thabo to change in that direction. But I don’t think he’ll ever equal Mandela. I don’t think he’ll ever be as available and as easy with people as Mandela has been.

JUDY ASLETT: His style may be different, but in the next five years, he’ll be judged on his results.

MARK GEVISSER: He’s very much a persuader. I think that’s Mbeki’s way in the world. He doesn’t fight and he doesn’t walk away. He sits and he persuades. He seduces.

JUDY ASLETT: Thabo Mbeki will have to persuade black and white South Africans, as well as international investors, that he is the man to replace Nelson Mandela. His country is already the most powerful in Africa. His challenge is to maintain that and improve the economic life of its people.