He lost his son and his brother in the fight against apartheid. Now he’s South Africa’s new president, inaugurated two days before his 57th birthday. Chris McGreal on Thabo Mbeki
Thabo Mbeki was queuing in a Brighton post office in the early Sixties when a man demanded to go in front of the young South African student because he was English and white.
Waiting with Mbeki was Essop Pahad, his closest friend then and now. “It was quite nasty. I responded aggressively and started arguing with this man. Then Thabo started talking to him in a very nice way, and got him to think about what he’d been saying. He had been making some quite obscene racist statements. By the time Thabo finished, this man was friendly. When we got to the counter, Thabo was still in front.”
It was classic Thabo Mbeki. Talk down your foe, but never let him get ahead of you.
Yet as Mbeki succeeds Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa, his old talents are failing him. The charm and sweet reason of the pipe-smoking diplomat who wooed the apartheid establishment towards negotiation no longer hold sway.
Even though Mandela has publicly acknowledged that his deputy has really been running the country for the past two years, Mbeki is commonly described as an enigma. What South Africans really mean is that they do not know what kind of president Mbeki will be. But that does not stop them holding firm opinions about him. He is authoritarian, they say. He is untrustworthy. He is a communist. He is another Robert Mugabe in the making. Mbeki has been accused of Machiavellian plots to destroy any threat to his power, and of barely tolerating criticism in the press.
Mandela pampered whites. Mbeki scares them with his assertions that reconciliation must mean more than sharing a pot of tea. What he means is they must share their wealth.
Mbeki is no Mandela. For all his charm, he lacks the common touch. On the campaign trail, the urbane, nattily dressed diplomat of old, with the trimmed beard and ever- present pipe, comes across as stiff and misplaced. Yet the “enigma” won the election hands down, with a bigger majority than Mandela’s five years ago.
Thabo Mbeki was born in June, 1942 into a Xhosa family in the Transkei. His father, Govan, was a teacher with two university degrees. His mother, Epainette, was one of the first women in the country to join the Communist Party. There are some who say that with parents like that, Thabo Mbeki’s future was preordained. The Mbekis left a comfortable city life to run a shop in a village with no running water or electricity.
Govan Mbeki’s Marxism subordinated family to the cause. His mother was equally dedicated to the struggle to end white rule. It would shape Thabo for life. To all intents, he had no father. Govan Mbeki was a guide, even a teacher to his son, but the relationship was devoid of affection. Even today, the best Govan Mbeki can muster is to call Thabo Mbeki a “good comrade”.
The shop gave Thabo Mbeki an early introduction to the realities of a harsher world. It handled letters between the village women and their husbands working in the mines on the Rand. Many of the women were illiterate. The Mbeki children were assigned to read the letters and write the replies. Many who know him say this helped shape the serious, lonely young man the village knew.
Three decades later, an Afrikaner philosophy professor, Willie Esterhuyse, met Thabo Mbeki at the beginning of the African National Congress’s campaign to woo the apartheid establishment. Esterhuyse had expected to meet a rabid revolutionary. Instead he was struck by Mbeki’s seriousness. “He had no youth. He was the person who had to read the letters that the miners sent to their wives. That kind of exposure to life has an impact. Mandela called Mbeki the man whose youth was stolen. That’s what it is,” Esterhuyse said.
Govan Mbeki says his son spent his days engrossed in books. “There was a wide range of books, some relating to education, some relating to politics, some relating to the writings of Marx and Engels and Lenin. He read all these. My wife was not happy with this. She used to complain: `Oh, Thabo is just like his father, always at books, unlike his younger brother who comes to help in the kitchen.'”
There were the family discussions on communism, apartheid and the wider world. This imbued the boy with considerable confidence, but Thabo Mbeki probably learned more about his father from reading Govan Mbeki’s own writings.
In 1953, Govan Mbeki left the village after the shop was wrecked in a storm. He went back to teaching and edited a radical magazine in Port Elizabeth.
Thabo Mbeki was dispatched to boarding school, ostensibly because the education was better there. It was, but Govan Mbeki concedes that he wanted the boy to learn self-reliance. The Mbekis were living in dangerous times. Prisonloomed ever larger as the struggle against the apartheid government elected in 1948 grew harsher.
Thabo Mbeki went on to Lovedale, a school founded by Presbyterian missionaries, which spawned many black intellectuals in the Eastern Cape. By 14, he was active in the ANC Youth League. Two years later he was thrown out of Lovedale after organising a student strike. The school said he could return if he signed a document agreeing not to participate in politics. He declined and returned home to complete his matric by correspondence course.
The Mbekis’ intellectualism drew in other villagers, including a teenage girl, Olive Mpahlwa, daughter of the local headmaster. When Thabo Mbeki was 16 he scandalised the village by getting Mpahlwa pregnant. She bore a son, Monwabise Kwanda Mpahlwa. Monwabise means “the one who makes you happy”.
Mbeki would have no closer a relationship with his own son than he had with his father. When Monwabise Kwanda was two years old, Mbeki decamped to Johannesburg to study for A levels. Two years later he went into exile with a group of young ANC activists. He never saw his son again.
In 1963, after repeated arrests and bannings, Govan Mbeki was sentenced to life imprisonment along with Mandela. The ANC, and Govan Mbeki, decided Thabo Mbeki’s education for him. Thabo Mbeki thought he deserved to be at Oxford or Cambridge, but he was forced to settle for Sussex University.
Among the comrades from Johannesburg who joined him at Sussex was Pahad, current deputy minister in the Office of the Deputy President. “England in the Sixties was in ferment. To be there was to be part of a cultural and social revolution. You were bound to be influenced by that atmosphere and the ideas around at that time,” said Pahad. “I think it influenced a much wiser Mbeki. There was a lot of debate, a lot of ideas discussed, not just about apartheid or the struggle, but a whole load of ideas we hadn’t ever discussed.
Mbeki and his South African colleagues toured England lecturing anyone who would listen on behalf of the anti-apartheid movement. Mbeki had joined the Communist Party in 1962, but Pahad says it was the Labour Party which made its mark on Mbeki: “His views coincided with the left of the Labour Party. He campaigned to get Labour elected in Brighton.”
The United States was also making its impact. But while other young activists latched on to the more radical Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, Mbeki showed an early streak of political pragmatism that was to become his hallmark. He said Martin Luther King was the man with the answers.
Mbeki and Pahad made another discovery in England: other countries were also afflicted by racism. “I don’t think any of us were prepared for the extent of it. If you wanted to rent a room, as soon as they saw your face it wasn’t available,” Pahad said.
Mbeki featured prominently in an article in the Brighton Evening Argus when his father faced a death sentence after his conviction for attempting to overthrow the government and sabotage in 1964. “The shadow of the gallows hangs over all the accused who were found guilty, including my father,” Mbeki told the paper. “He is guilty of the same crime as all those who struggled for freedom in the European resistance movements to defeat Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.”
But after Govan Mbeki escaped hanging and was dispatched to Robben Island with Mandela for life, the personal estrangement between son and father continued. Thabo Mbeki did not write. Rare news was passed through EpainetteMbeki. “It wasn’t much,” said Govan Mbeki. “I heard he got his degree at Sussex. I wrote to my wife saying they must urge Thabo to do his doctorate. Instead my wife told me that she was bothered by the security police. They wanted to know where Thabo was. They came any time, banging on the doors, wanting to come in. But Thabo was not there.”
In 1966, Thabo Mbeki had completed his master’s degree in economics while writing a dissertation on English romantic poetry. For the next three years he worked as an ANC official in London before disappearing and emerging in the Soviet Union for military training and nine months at the Lenin School. Pahad says Moscow was another eye-opener, especially for two communists. “It was very difficult to find people critical of the Soviet Union, but we saw certain things were obviously not happening in the way you thought they should happen,” he said.
Mbeki returned to England in 1974 to marry Zanele Dlamini, his long-distance love from Johannesburg. Zanele Mbeki was to become powerful in her own right. Today she heads the South African Women’s Development Bank. But, like so much of Thabo Mbeki’s personal life, his wife is rarely seen.
Oliver Tambo recruited him as his political secretary, and quickly turned him into a protg. It was Tambo, not Govan Mbeki, who shaped Thabo Mbeki’s politics. There followed stints across Africa, including Nigeria, and the first of many years in Lusaka.
In 1981, tragic news filtered through. Mbeki’s son, Monwabise Kwanda, had gone to live with Mbeki’s mother when he was 10 years old. Govan Mbeki says the boy longed to discover his father. He pestered Epainette Mbeki for stories of Thabo Mbeki. Ultimately he determined to follow in his footsteps. “As long as the boy was with my wife, everybody in the family was happy. But he really wanted to know who Thabo was. He was a bright student, probably brighter than Thabo. But then he disappeared,” Govan Mbeki said.
Monwabise Kwanda went missing in 1981, his 21st year, on the way to Swaziland in search of Thabo Mbeki. Govan Mbeki says there is little doubt Monwabise Kwanda was murdered by the apartheid security forces.
But his mother, Mpahlwa, is not so sure. She believes he may have died in exile. Years later, Mpahlwa wept before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as she recalled her son. “Monwabise last saw his father when he was two years old. Not knowing him hurt him very badly. He complained bitterly to me about this,” she said. “In 1981 his letters suddenly stopped. I am certain that he was involved with the ANC because he idolised his father, but we never spoke about politics.”
After the collapse of apartheid, Mpahlwa renewed the hunt for her son. She appealed to Thabo Mbeki for help. “In 1992 I spoke to Monwabise’s father telephonically. He promised that he would make inquiries and that I should keep in touch with Govan, as he was terribly busy. When I spoke to the grandfather he was worried and deeply concerned to find Monwabise, who had often visited him at Robben Island. They had a very good relationship,” she said. “In 1994 Govan contacted me and said he and his younger son felt it was time to give up the search and to have three members of the family declared dead. This included Monwabise. I do not think his father was consulted about this decision. I was aware that I was dealing with a faceless monster here.”
In tears before the truth commission, Mpahlwa appealed for whoever might have murdered her son to at least tell her what happened: “I implore you to put an end to our agony.” Before leaving the hearing, she said she was nearly destitute and begged the truth commission for money.
The hearing was the first time Thabo Mbeki publicly acknowledged his son. It came in a terse statement which spoke volumes for how little he likes to discuss his private life. “He will keep pursuing the matter with the police, although he does presume his son is dead, given the fact that there has been no word of his whereabouts,” the Office of the Deputy Presidentsaid.
Monwabise was not the only loss. A year later, Thabo Mbeki’s younger brother, Jama, a lawyer, was betrayed during a visit to Lesotho, by a friend-turned-informer. He too disappeared. “The security police made short shrift of him. All the brothers felt very bad about it. They tried hard to find out what happened. We still don’t know. Not even the security policemen involved,” Govan Mbeki said.
In the Seventies and Eighties, Thabo Mbeki became the acceptable face of the ANC, cultivating the image of the ever-so- reasonable diplomat. British and USdiplomats who had been under orders to have no official contact with the ANC no longer had to turn away at cocktail parties. Mbeki also helped open up contacts between the Western press and the ANC.
But Mbeki wasn’t soft on Pretoria. He had helped mastermind the sanctions campaign, which bit deeper than guerrilla war. By the mid-Eighties it was apparent that the armed struggle was not having the impact on the white regime its advocates hoped. The ANC’s policy was still to fight, but Tambo knew that wasn’t the way to win power, and Mbeki agreed.
Mbeki’s strategy was to undermine the regime from within by winning over so many of the props it counted on for support – business, churches, black homeland leaders – that then president PW Botha would be forced to negotiate. The key was to convince them that the ANC was not intent on slaughtering whites, or wrecking the economy. Mbeki set about reassuring Afrikaners that there would always be a place for them in South Africa.
In December 1987, Willie Esterhuyse was drawn into the negotiation circle. “I expected the devil incarnate. I took my daughter along. She was 12 years old. The first thing Mbeki asked her was whether she liked school. She came up to me afterwards and said this man can’t belong to the ANC,” he said. “The ANC was regarded as a terrorist organisation. It was a liberating experience to find out that these people were as concerned about the future of the country as I was and also as intensely motivated to do something about it.”
After only two meetings with Mbeki, Esterhuyse told his wife he would entrust his life to the man. The philosophy professor became a crucial channel of information between Mbeki and the apartheid government. With Mbeki’s approval, Esterhuyse briefed South Africa’s intelligence chief, Niel Barnard, who was also meeting Mandela in prison. One unexpected thing Afrikaners learned about Mbeki was that he had a taste for malt whisky.
When Pretoria finally decided to talk to the ANC in 1989 it was left to Esterhuyse to fix the meeting. He arranged to meet Mbeki at the British American Tobacco offices in London. The encounter began strangely. Esterhuyse burbled on about the weather and family. Mbeki was irritated. Esterhuyse scribbled a message that MI6 had the office bugged and couldn’t they meet in a pub down the road? It was there that Mbeki was finally told Pretoria was prepared to talk.
When the end of apartheid came in February 1990, even Mbeki was surprised. Liberal Afrikaner mediator Frederick van Zyl Slabbertsaid Mbeki “was white” on hearing about President FW de Klerk’s speech releasing Mandela and unbanning the ANC.
Mbeki celebrated by drinking champagne with some Afrikaner businessmen he was meeting. He later admitted that the ANC was caught off guard by the speed of change. “None of us really factored in the speed with which they would shift,” he said.
Shortly before De Klerk’s speech, Mbeki had finally been reunited with his father, after 28 years. The encounter was telling. Govan Mbeki flew to Zambia with Walter Sisulu, the third of the legendary trio imprisoned on Robben Island. Sisulu’s teary-eyed son, Max, bounded up to his father and hugged him. Thabo Mbeki waited at the end of a line of dignitaries to shake Govan Mbeki’s hand and swiftly embrace. They called each other comrade.
Later, Govan Mbeki was asked how he felt at seeing his son again: “Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade.”
While Govan Mbeki clung to his old-style communism, a lot had happened in the years of his imprisonment. The early hope of newly independent African states had given way to discredited regimes serving themselves and their allies East and West rather than their own people. Thabo Mbeki lived in Lusaka in the midst of Zambia’s decline, which served as an example of how not to run a state.
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pahad said the point was not lost on Thabo Mbeki either: “I think one of the important lessons he has drawn is about what went wrong at the beginning in the Soviet Union. The other was the question of the democratisation of society. To his credit, Thabo did see flaws in the East.”
As Mbeki progressed through the ANC, so he rose through the South African Communist Party to its central committee in the late Seventies. It was only natural. Govan Mbeki had imbued him with the philosophy. Thabo Mbeki has never publicly acknowledged his membership of the SACP, which he left in the early 1990s.
Govan Mbeki argues that his son does not want to be seen as more of a communist than an ANC leader: “Given the fact that he is to be president, if he said he was a member of the SACP people would expect that he would give the views of the SACPfirst.”
Esterhuyse has a different view: “I think Thabo was Tambo’s ears and eyes on the central committee [of the SACP]. He was the intellectual of the ANC, not Joe Slovo. Neither Tambo nor Mandela were communists or Marxists. Thabo just disappeared from the central committee. I think it was when there was no threat any more.”
Mandela didn’t want Thabo Mbeki as his deputy president after the 1994 election. Mandela feared having two Xhosas running the country would be perceived as tribal. He favoured Cyril Ramaphosa, a Venda, the popular former trade-union leader and ANC stalwart. Mandela says others persuaded him to put Mbeki on the ticket.
After the election, Mbeki swiftly disposed of any threat from Ramaphosa in what was seen as the first of several coups against potential opponents, particularly on the other side of the divide between the returned exiles, led by Mbeki, and those who fought apartheid from within South Africa.
Mbeki’s crushing political style has led to many allusions to dark princes. But what is seen as Machiavellian in South Africa would be viewed as more run-of-the-mill politics in the West.
“I regard him as one of the best strategists I’ve come across,” said Esterhuyse. “He plays politics like he plays chess. Mbeki is very firm on loyalty, but he must learn to live with criticism. Loyalty doesn’t mean having to keep my mouth shut. His emphasis on loyalty, party discipline, and his knowledge of what the political game is about, creates the impression he’s completely ruthless. Mbeki has been forced to confront the realities of the new international politics and economics. As president he will not wield nearly as much power as other African leaders did just a decade ago. South Africa has discovered to its horror that a bad day on the international currency markets can batter the best economic strategy.”
Pahad says reality can be frustrating for the former revolutionaries. But he ridicules the idea that Mbeki is a compromiser. “I would use more the notion of a realistic assessment of what is possible at any given time. A compromiser is too much like a pragmatist, and he hates being called that.”
As deputy president, Mbeki has not always shown the judgment for which he was renowned in exile. He sided with Nigeria’s brutal military dictator, Sani Abacha. He embroiled himself in a furore over the mishandling of funds for an anti-Aids campaign, has public associations with a Mafia kingpin, and was touched by a scandal involving a former Liberian finance minister. Yet Mbeki’s tactic of seduction and trust-building has successfully wooed Inkatha Freedom Party leader and Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, greatly diminishing the war in KwaZulu-Natal and staving off the threat of destabilising South Africa.
“I hold him in high esteem … the country will be in good hands [with him as] president,” Buthelezi said.
Mbeki is staking his presidency on proving that an African country can be well run, and that his much-vaunted “African renaissance” can succeed, against the expectations of many outside the continent. Detractors say he is ignoring the reality of an ill-governed and strife-torn continent to promote an Africanist, and essentially anti-white, philosophy. Esterhuyse doesn’t agree. “He’s not blind to the problems of Africa; he can be very severe in his criticism. But he is in absolute solidarity with the continent and he brooks no pessimism. I don’t see how he can do otherwise. You have to be optimistic about Africa, otherwise there is no hope,” he said.
Govan Mbeki is, typically, most reticent when asked if his son will be a good president: “There’s no reason why he should not be. He’s following a path that has been trodden by great leaders of the ANC. He’s guided by the policies of this organisation. No one has come out of the blue. Nelson [Mandela] has been guided by the policies of this organisation. It’s the organisation that matters, not the man.”