Is Thabo Mbeki fit to rule?

To some he’ll make a suave, excellent president. To others, he’s just a ruthless ambitious manipulator. Gaye Davis probe Mandela’s enigmatic heir.

In the excitement over the passing of the Constitution last week and the withdrawal of the Nationalists from government, a small but significant moment of history went almost unnoticed—when Thabo Mbeki planted a flag on the summit of his political career, laying unmistakable claim to the presidency of South Africa.

Mbeki’s “Africanist” speech—celebrating unity in diversity - startled listeners, bringing many close to Mandela himself lacks—a breadth and depth of strategic vision, for example, and an ability to direct. His staff, who are intensely loyal to him, describe Mbeki as pragmatic, strategic, a man of vision, and the government’s most clever and sophisticated politician, someone who distinguishes himself by being on top of the issues rather than relying on advisers.

Stephen Ellis, former editor of Africa Confidential and now at Leyden University’s Centre for African Studies, sees him as a fixer, a smoother, an arch-diplomat who builds consensus and considers every angle before moving. Born into a leading ANC family, he has been steeped for most of his life in liberation politics.

He served his apprenticeship with Oliver Tambo, the great conciliator who held the movement together during the tough years in exile. His track record and his experience have provided him with a solid support base, held together by his skill in sewing constituencies together without identifying too closely with any one of them.

While there are no identifiable groups against him (one reason given is that heads are being kept well down), he has his critics—as does Mandela. He has had to fight to get where he is and has made enemies along the way. He watches his back, carefully.

He was one of the South African Communist Party’s rising stars at a time when the route to advancement in the ANC was via the party or Umkhonto weSizwe. He trained at the Lenin Institute in Moscow, was elected to the central committee and politburo ahead of his great rival, Hani, but then stopped attending meetings in what some saw as an expedient dumping of the party once he saw its days of influence were numbered.

Ellis says Mbeki was forging a relationship with the Swedes at the time; he was seen as more a social democrat than a communist. He is not doctrinaire, which makes sense for an ambitious politician in a movement as all encompassing of political beliefs as the ANC.

It is difficult to pin an ideological label on him, which leads critics to characterise him as a man for whatever season will secure him more power.But he has shown the courage and far-sightedness to pioneer positions initially unpopular, and the powers of persuasion to get the ANC and SACP to adopt them.

Early on, he saw the government could and would talk about a deal, and held the position despite opposition. “One could ask whether this is the behaviour of a man who believes in nothing,” says Ellis.

Mojanku Gumbi, his legal adviser and an Azapo stalwart says his commitment to meeting the needs of the majority, rather than any ideology. “He says when the poor rise, they will rise against all of us”. During his first year in office, the press turned sour, picking on missed appointments, accusing him of tardiness.

His parliamentary counsellor, Essop Pahad, says Mbeki was in Morocco on ANC business for Mandela when he missed breakfast with the then-French president Francois Mitterand; the French embassy knew this and issued a statement which “the media chose to ignore”.

Vusi Mavimbela, his political adviser, sees Mbeki’s bad press as a fall-back position for the media: anxious to be seen acting as a watchdog over the government, they vent their criticism on the deputy president, because the president is unassailable. He also concedes that part of the problem may be with Mbeki’s communication staff. None of his staff will criticize Mandela.

Nevertheless, they see the president, with his notorious tendency to “shoot from the hip”, as at times a handicap for Mbeki. Mandela will mandate his deputy to carry out a particular task and then, instead of leaving him to get on with it, hold on to the issue.

“Mbeki has things in train to deal with a situation and then gets derailed, “says one person close to Mbeki’s. There’s no way he can say so, he just has to grin and bear the fallout.” His staff indignantly defend him over his alleged “blunders”—the apparent whitewash of Allan Boesak, the fumbling of Winnie Mandela’s firing, the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria.

Pahad says Gumbi was mandated to review the lawyers’ report on the Boesak case commissioned by the Danish funders. She found their conclusion, that the cleric had misappropriated funds, was not supported by documents the lawyers themselves used. Her finding has since been vindicated, argues Pahad, by the fact that, months after launching its own investigation, the Office for Serious Economic Offences has yet to press charges.

Mbeki’s perceived fumbling over Winnie Mandela’s dismissal—the failure to consult Mangosuthu Buthelezi, which allowed her to succeed in the court action which led to her brief reinstatement—is blamed on bad legal advice. On the Nigerian issue, his advisers point out that Mbeki, having served there, knew the political terrain and was aware Mandela’s moral stature offered little leverage in Africa.

He sensed the danger in clashing head-on with Nigeria, of splitting African sentiment and ending up badly isolated. A message from Mbeki’s office to Mandela at the Commonwealth heads of Government meeting in New Zealand at the time of the executions urged that, whatever action he took, the Commonwealth had to be on board.

Mandela’s call for sanctions is cited as a classic example of his tendency to act in the heat of the moment; South Africa found itself out on a limb. As deputy president, Mbeki has no original authority. He does what he is mandated to do by Mandela.

His role has expanded, partly because of Mandela’s increasing focus on reconciliation and nation-building, but also because it is now more clear what has to be done. He is de facto prime minister, in charge of the executive functioning of the government. He chairs meetings of the Cabinet, as well its Economic Affairs Committee.

He keeps tabs on the situation in KwaZulu-Natal, deals with the problems of ANC ministers and deputy ministers, meets foreign delegations, sells South Africa at international forums like the World Economic Forum at Davos, and can also find himself on a plane at 24 hours’ notice on special missions for Mandela.

He has political responsibility for the government’s communication arm, SACS, and the Office on the Status of Women; he is the ANC’s firefighter, and often acts as de facto foreign affairs minister. Foreign diplomats express a high regard for him, describing him as “one of the few in government with awareness of what’s happening in different areas of government and able to put it together”.

He’s admired for his great ability to attend to detail and to follow through, to identify and work through problems. His relationship with United States Vice-President Al Gore, with whom Mbeki works on the US-SA BI-National Commission—body governing relations between the two countries—goes beyond the professional, seemingly a relatively rare thing for Gore.

Foreign diplomats are surprised by the apparent lack of staff in Mbeki’s office. His staff complement grew to 63 from 50 last year, his budget is R9.3-million. Outgoing deputy president FW de Klerk who had far fewer responsibilities, had a budget of R8-million, and his staff was reduced from 61 to 56 this year.

Mbeki is reluctant to expand his office. “He was party to the decision on the need to trim the civil service” says his economics adviser, Moss Ngoasheng. “He hears ministers asking for more money, more bodies - it’s a contradiction that has yet to be resolved. His view is that we must find creative ways to deal with the lack of capacity.”

A restructuring of the office is underway, says the Rev Frank Chikane, his special adviser and de facto chief of staff. It has to expand to handle RDP functions. The intention is to combine the Central Economic Advisory Services, the Central Statistical Services and the RDP development planning unit, to provide the government with the capacity for macro-economic planning to drive the growth and development strategy Mbeki unveiled in February.

As chair of the Cabinet’s economic affairs committee, Mbeki is seen as ultimately responsible for macro-economic policy. The trajectory the economy will take is becoming the central political debate in South Africa.

Labour and the left want it to move in a progressive direction, with black empowerment meaning more than a well-oiled elite.White capital wants a free market to prevail. Said a representative of big business: “There’s no problem with Mbeki at an inter-personal level, but running the country goes beyond that. He hasn’t asserted his leadership.

In February we got a sense of where we were headed when he said we needed a 60% growth rate by 2 000. But now the growth and development has gone back under ground. There’s a lack of co-ordination. You have Nedlac meeting on the one hand, then Mandela meeting the Brenthurst group on the other.

“We were told exchange control would be relaxed, then told no. Mbeki was widely applauded when he said in December that the government would start privatizing state assets. Then he got rolled back by Cosatu. Will the ANC or Cosatu be determining economic policy?

The key issues big business wants addressed are exchange control, privatisation and fiscal policy. Ngoasheng acknowledges the pressure, but maintains these do not amount to economic policy in themselves and maintains that key planks of policy are already in place.

“Money has been committed to small and medium enterprises, tariff reform policy is in place, so is the trade liberalization programme, though the pace maybe debated. We’ve seen major reform in labour relations with the Labour Relations Act, with Nedlac and the Labour Market Commission (which he co-chairs).”

The government is committed to the gradual abolition of exchange control, while trade and
industry and the Reserve Bank are working out a programme, insists Ngoasheng. A ministerial committee and task team are looking at the issue of restructuring state assets. In terms of reducing the deficit, “the fundamentals are in place”. Even his fiercest critics acknowledge and respect Mbeki’s brilliance with.

He was Tambo’s speechwriter, and writes all his own, as well as Mandela’s key speeches. But he is not a Mandela. He is more cautious. “This can open him to criticism that he dithers, but he moves immediately where the path of action is clear,” says a close associate.

“He has an ability to stand back, to give the Cabinet space to work. He reflects on what is being done, watches directions being taken, assesses whether impact is being made,” says another. His working style sees him in his office until the early hours of the morning on a routine basis. “Our job is to slow him down,” says Chikane.

Says Gumbi: “His attention to detail unsettles one. He has a prodigious memory. He listens to what you say, unpacks it, he’s very receptive to advice. He questions, he checks, he reads profusely. But there’s no question that he has too much to do.”

The challenges facing the country are enormous. Is Mbeki the man to lead the charge to meet them? Who else is there? Says Mavimbela: “Apart from his history of involvement in the organization, you would have to look very hard to find a better strategic thinker with the experience to envision where the ANC and government should be going.”

Wife keeps her private life private
Zanele Mbeki, South Africa’s first lady-in-waiting, is an intensively private person. Despite being the wife of the deputy president and a respected public figure in her own right, she twice politely declined the Mail & Guardian an interview, and her personal assistant refused to divulge any information or even provide her curriculum vitae.

When the newspaper attempted to speak to colleagues and people who knew her, her assistant chided the paper for being ‘very naughty” because she did not want a story about herself in the media. Mrs Mbeki does not grant interviews” she said, adding that people should “respect her privacy”.

Mbeki’s persona is cloaked in secrecy, and while she is no longer president of the Women Development Bank—an institution she helped set up—she is, according to colleagues, still playing a key role in the day-to-day running of the bank. Mbeki stepped down as president of the bank two years ago when her husband was made deputy president of the country, and she now sits on the bank’s board of trustees.

When the M&G contacted Women Development Bank president Audrey Mokhobo, she refused to speak about Mbeki, saying ‘her private life is exactly that—private”. Unlike former first ladies, Mbeki will not trot demurely at the heels of her husband. According to former colleagues at the Development Bank, she is an “ambitious and determined” women who hold her own and has forged her own career.

The Mbekis have no children and lived in a modest three-bedroomed townhouse in the Johannesburg suburb of Killarney before he became deputy president. She graduated from Natal University and spent several years in exile in Zambia, where she worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

In Lusaka she worked the diplomatic social scene and was a regular tennis player at some embassies. She was the bread winner during that period, and seldom saw her husband while he headed the ANC’s information portfolio and, later, the foreign affairs portfolio.

She learnt during those years to be self-sufficient and tolerant of the demands of her husband’s. He seldom included her in his professional life in Lusaka and other countries—and she set out to forge her own career.

All the deputy president’s advisers
Despite running the second most important political office in the country, the deputy president’s budget - currently at R9,3-million, 6% up on last year - is one of the smallest. Thabo Mbeki has five advisers and a director and deputy director of communications. Notably none of them is white, and not all are ANC supporters.

Essop Pahad
Parliamentary counsellor
Mbeki’s first appointment, Pahad serves as his eyes and ears in Parliament, and also within the South African Communist Party (SACP), where he is a member of the central committee and the politburo. Born into a prominent Transvaal Indian Congress family and immersed in politics from an early age, Pahad and his brother Aziz (now deputy minister of foreign affairs) have known Mbeki since their student days in the 1960s.

Pahad was a leader of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress; both brothers were banned in January 1964. On being arrested for breaching their banning orders, they applied for exit permits and left for London, where they consolidated their friendship with Mbeki. Pahad and Mbeki finished MA degrees at Sussex University at the same time, Pahad’s in African politics and economics.

He later earned a PhD in history and started working full-time for the SACP, spending 10 years in Prague on the editorial council of the World Marxist Review before returning to London to work for the African National Congress in the Political Military Council which was co-ordinated by Aziz until returning to South Africa in 1990. “I keep him abreast of things in Parliament, I am his eyes and ears” he says. “He attends caucus meetings, but I’ll inform him of what’s going on in the committees, and if our own MPs have problems with any Bill from the executive.”

Mojanku Gumbi
Legal adviser
She joined Mbeki’s office in 1994, having already established a working relationship with the leadership through her involvement, as an Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) executive committee member, in the preparatory committee for the Patriotic Front. She was national director of the Black Lawyers’ Association, a former attorney and then advocate at the Pretoria Bar, after award- winning school and university careers.

Deciding to become Mbeki’s legal adviser was “politically difficult”, she recalls: “I had to decide
whether it was a genuine offer, or politically strategic in terms of achieving a balance. It was already clear Azapo was not going to participate in the elections and I agreed with the reasons for not doing so. I am Black Consciousness through and through, but we are all in the liberation movement and have a common agenda, to an extent. Politically, I am very comfortable here. “My job covers legal and political issues, and cuts across most areas of the deputy president’s work. I pick up on critical legislation - I can’t deal with all of it, international agreements and so on”.

The Reverend Frank Chikane
Special adviser
He joined Mbeki’s office in November last year and functions as his chief of staff. He has known Mbeki since 1984, when he was first travelled abroad. He was asked to come in to ‘empower” Mbeki’s office, “to enable him to execute his responsibilities within the Government of National Unity as effectively as possible”.

The former secretary general of the South African Council of Churches, Chikane left the SACC after serving as a commissioner on the Independent Electoral Commission and went to Harvard University Kennedy School to complete a two-year master’s degree in public administration. He returned in 1995 to become senior research officer in the University of Cape Town’s Religious Studies Department. “I take responsibility for running his office. I am like his chief of staff,” he says.

Vusi Mavimbela
Political adviser
As Mbeki link-man between the tripartite alliance, other political parties and constituencies such as youth and women, Mavimbela functions as his political adviser. He deals with requests from organisations wanting Mbeki to address them and will write speeches for such occasions, although Mbeki writes his own key speeches. He also does research for policy documents Mbeki writes, such as the August 1994 discussion document, From Resistance to Reconstruction and the Strategy and Tactics document released at the 1995 conference of the ANC.

From Vryheid in Natal, Mavimbela attended the University of Zululand, leaving the country in 1976 to join Umkhonto weSizwe. He spent time in Angola, Zambia, Swaziland, trained in radio journalism in Moscow, and in intelligence in East Germany and Cuba. He was a political instructor in Angola, and was an aide to Josiah Jele (Political Military Council secretary in Lusaka in the 1980s) when he first met and was impressed by Mbeki. He served underground in Swaziland for two years before returning to Lusaka.

He was political education officer on the Provisional National Youth Secretariat chaired by Peter Mokaba, then completed a social science degree at the University of Natal, Durban in 1993. He then worked in Durban for ANC Intelligence until called by Mbeki to work for him in his office.

Moss Ngoasheng
Economics adviser
Drawn into ANC politics while at school in Pietersburg, Ngoasheng worked as a clerk in Lebowa before being arrested in 1978 for ANC activities and convicted under the Terrorism Act. He arrived on Robben Island for a seven-year sentence five days before his 21st birthday, and has known Nelson Mandela since then. While in prison he did a degree in economics, international politics and development administration through Unisa. Released in 1985, he was part of the United Democratic Front in the Northern Transvaal.

Later he worked at the University of Natal, Durban as a researcher of youth and unemployment and did an honours degree in industrial sociology, following up with an MPhil in development economics at Sussex University. On his return in 1990, he worked with the ANC’s economic policy unit and the industrial strategy project at the University of Natal, had a brief spell consulting, then joined Gencor’s policy and strategy unit. He had met Mbeki on a number of occasions over the years.

‘Basically, my role is to assist his strategic thinking around the economy. I deal more with the politics of economy that core economic policy,“he says. Ngoasheng is co-chair of the Labour Market Commission. He serves as Mbeki’s link-man, liaising with the different ministries, getting an overview of decisions taken and how what impact they will have in other areas of government.

Thami Ntenteni
Director of communications
Aborn and bred Sowetan, he was expelled from the University of Zululand for involvement in student politics and did not complete his BComm degree. During a brief stint teaching at his old school, Morris Isaacson High in Soweto, he joked the ANC underground and left South Africa in February 1976, undergoing 10 months’ journalism training in Moscow before being posted to Angola, where he was involved in the first Radio Freedom—the voice of the ANC—broadcast from that country.

Posts in Madagascar and Ethiopia followed, where he set up Radio Freedom units before being recalled to Lusaka in 1982 to become director of Radio Freedom, around the time Mbeki took over head of the ANC’s Department of Information and Publicity. He returned to South Africa in August 1991 after six months’ management training at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and set up the Radio Freedom Institute for Broadcast Journalism in Johannesburg.

He worked for the Democratic Education Broadcasting Unit (Debi) before joining Mbeki’s office in May 1994. “Our role is manifold,” he says. “It’s public relations, media liaison, press statements, advising [the deputy president] on media- related issues. I sit in on policy meetings with his advisers.’

The firefighter or the leader?
It is a sitting time to ask the tough question: what will this country be like under Thabo Mbeki? One has to bear in mind that Mbeki lives at the moment in Mandela’s shadow, even though he is de facto prime minister and responsible for an extraordinary and ever-increasing load of responsibility. He has not yet been able to put his own clear stamp on things. He is also thinly spread, taking on too much with few resources.

He often appears to be firefighting, rather than setting out long-term economic and political policies on which confidence must be built. Nobody doubts his brilliance, his eloquence, his diplomacy. What has also emerged is his skill tough political infighting, and his ruthless treatment of party opponents and critics. It is difficult to say what Mbeki stands for. His brilliance at working different constituencies, and playing to different audiences, means that he is a man with many faces.

In the past few years, he has been driven by the politics of ascendancy -all his political work seems to have been directed to ensuring he got the prime job. Now that he seems to have it, we will be looking closely to see if he can provide the clarity of policy and firmness of direction the country needs. Two problems stand out at the moment. The first is that in his determination to get the job, he has alienated other key ANC leaders. He has tended to drive them away, rather than draw them and their skills and experience into the top jobs. The second is a communications one.

He appears to prefer behind-the-scenes committee manoeuvring to public display, often treating the media with disregard. Where Nelson Mandela is at his best in a crowd, Mbeki sometimes seem uncomfortable, with his mind on matters back at the office. This, and the fact that some of his advisers seem to think that their job consists mainly of complaining to the media and thus feeding Mbeki’s own distrust, has damaged his public image.



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