A Journalist's Perspective on South Africa

Thabo Mbeki

When I left South Africa in 1985 after a month of reporting, my crew and I journeyed to Lusaka, Zambia, where the ANC — the black liberation movement fighting apartheid — had its headquarters in exile. There, we met Thabo Mbeki for the first time.

Mbeki's title then was head of the ANC's information department, but his influence was greater than that because he was a close confidant of ANC president Oliver Tambo — like a son, many have said. And what made him a perfect interview was that his own father, Govan Mbeki, was among those imprisoned with Nelson Mandela.

The pipe-smoking Thabo Mbeki portrayed in Endgame by Chiwetel Ejiofor was basically the Thabo Mbeki I came to know from that day on (Ejiofor, however, did not portray the Mbeki habit of constantly clearing his throat while speaking). It was clear that Mbeki was a man of deep conviction about the freedom of his people, having been raised in the struggle and shaped by it. And I was to see him many times at meetings all over the world. My mind's eye sees Mbeki lobbying and cajoling, intellectually superior to many of his interlocutors, a charmer casting doubt, if not disbelief, on the label "terrorist."

When it comes to Mbeki, what cloud the minds of many are more current events (particularly his later actions as president of South Africa in which he questioned the link between HIV and AIDS and delayed the release of antiretroviral medications, and when he pursued negotiations with Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe that were criticized as not being tough enough to end the human rights nightmare that country had become). These two issues have obscured some of his legacy — a legacy that includes the important events of Endgame, as well as putting in place policies in the new black-led government that put his country on a stronger economic footing than it had been in years.

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