In honor of South Africa's Freedom Day, a profile of the President
by Paul Evenson & Beth Rowen
"The people have given clear orders that we move forward faster, to build a non-racial and non-sexist society."
To most of the world, Thabo Mbeki is better known as Nelson Mandela's successor than by his own name. To South Africans, however, he is the natural choice to lead the country after their revered leader steps down.
On June 2, 1999, Mbeki, the pragmatic deputy president of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress, was elected president in a landslide, having already assumed many of Mandela's governing responsibilities shortly after Mandela won South Africa's first democratic election in 1994.
From Radical-in-Exile to the Presidency
Mbeki was born in the Transkei region on June 18, 1942. His parents were teachers and members of the South African Communist Party, one of the leading anti-apartheid forces in South Africa. His father, Govan, was arrested with Mandela in 1964 for their political work.
Unlike Mandela and his generation of ANC leaders who were imprisoned, Mbeki is part of the generation of ANC leaders who spent the last decades of the apartheid era in exile. He began his tenure with the ANC Youth League at age 14. When the ANC was banned in 1962, Mbeki went into exile and continued his education. He received military training in Moscow and served as an ANC representative in several African countries before taking a place at the ANC headquarters in exile in Lusaka, Zambia.
Mbeki's challenges as president include continuing the difficult work of transforming South Africa into a stable, more equitable society, without enjoying his predecessor's reputation as one of the world's most respected and admired leaders. Mbeki also faces formidable economic and social challenges:
- 40 percent of South Africa's blacks are unemployed, and 61 percent live below the poverty level. (Only about 1 percent of whites live in poverty.)
- Crime is rampant — South Africa's rape and murder rates are among the highest in the world.
- The South African economy suffered when the Asian markets crashed, and the economic downturn has deterred foreign investment.