The one who brings Thabo peace

Howard Barrell

Like any politician, Thabo Mbeki has his fair share of detractors and enemies. But Zanele Mbeki, his wife, appears to have only admirers.

Across the worlds she inhabits - business, development work and politics - she attracts superlatives.

“An excellent person”, “of deep conviction”, “very smart”, “dignified”, “lovely” - these encomiums come from people who know or who have worked with her, and who are not asking to be identified.

She is also described as “fiercely independent” or, in the words of another, “unwilling to be cast as someone skating along on Thabo’s coat-tails”.

These qualities may be just as well. For in the judgment of a number of people who know South Africa’s future first family, she is among her husband’s most trusted sounding boards and advisers.

“She’s quite influential with him,” said one prominent South African businessman. “She has a different network from his - she gets out and about because of her varied interests. Which is a good thing, because he is so heavily protected by the people around him, some of whom are real wankers.”

Zanele Mbeki’s interests are wide and her education was accomplished. Born in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, where her father was a priest, she briefly studied nursing, then social sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand and London University. In the early 1970s she completed a doctorate in the United States.

She is now a director of the Women’s Development Bank, which lends small amounts to poor South African women who need a little capital to get home-based or street businesses going. It operates along the lines of the Grameen Bank, which lends to the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh.

The Women’s Development Bank also has a range of investments in sectors of the economy, including publishing and advertising, which puts her in contact with emerging black business.

But she is not, according to the businessman, a member of that part of the new black elite that is conspicuous for its grasping consumption. She is “very level- headed”, he adds.

She is involved in a number of charitable foundations, and is a director alongside Mary Slack of the Oppenheimer dynasty on the board of Business and Arts South Africa (Basa), a joint venture by the government and business to promote sponsorship of the arts. Her husband is Basa’s patron.

These accomplishments and the prominence she has achieved by her own efforts cast doubt on another description of her that is frequently heard - that she is “shy”.

What is called her shyness may merely be discomfort at her own self-assurance, even a passive arrogance.

However, she is certainly an intensely private person, who may struggle to adapt to what is likely to be an increasingly public life.

Shortly after marrying Thabo Mbeki in a registry office in exile in London in 1974, she went to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

During their courtship and after their marriage they seemed to spend as much time apart - as a result of their respective commitments, his to the African National Congress, hers to helping refugees - as together.

Adelaide Tambo, the wife of former ANC president Oliver Tambo, quoted in the recent biography of the deputy president by Adrian Hadland and Jovial Rantao, said Thabo Mbeki is and was totally infatuated with her.

Adelaide Tambo tells how Thabo Mbeki came to her in the early 1970s in London and told her how worried he was that the ANC, which insisted on approving its exiled cadres’ marriages for security reasons, would not allow him to marry Zanele.

“Mama,” Thabo Mbeki said to Tambo, “if Papa [Oliver Tambo] doesn’t allow me to marry Zanele, I’ll never, ever marry again. And I’ll never ask again. I love only one person and there is only one person I want to make my life with, and that is Zanele.”

“Well, put in your application and see what happens,” she told him.

Zanele Mbeki has developed an exceptionally close relationship with Epainette Mbeki, Thabo Mbeki’s mother, more commonly known as Mma Mofokeng in tribute to her Sotho origins. When, in November 1977, burglars broke into the general dealer’s store, Mma Mofokeng had run through the harsh years while her husband was in jail and her sons in exile, Zanele Mbeki rushed down to Idutywa in the Transkei to be with her.

Years earlier, the Tambos had asked Mma Mofokeng to give Zanele Mbeki, a Dlamini by birth, a Sotho clan name. The old woman responded by calling her Mma Motlalekhotso: “The one who brings peace.”

According to a prominent former South African politician-turned-businessman who has had many dealings with Zanele Mbeki: “She should be a wise counsel to Thabo in the years ahead.”

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