Enigmatic heir to Mandela

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FOR FOREIGN leaders visiting South Africa, President Nelson Mandela may still be the man to be seen with, but his deputy president and heir apparent, Thabo Mbeki, is the man to see.

Tony Blair's meeting with Mr Mandela in Pretoria today is sandwiched between backroom sessions with Mr Mbeki, who now seems certain to lead South Africa into the post-Mandela era following elections this summer.

Having dined in private together last night, the Prime Minister and Mr Mbeki, 56, come together again today at a closed meeting of the British- South African bilateral commission, the body charged with improving links between Africa's biggest economy and its largest source of foreign investment. Keen to foster trade and finesse South African support on a range of Commonwealth, African and global issues, Mr Blair will want to get to know South Africa's de facto prime minister and future ruler.

He faces a difficult task. In South Africa the term "enigmatic" has become almost a cliche when applied to Mr Mbeki, while caricaturists have little to work on except his trademark pipe and goatee beard and his repeated references to an ever-imminent "African renaissance". Unlike the ebullient Mr Mandela, Mr Mbeki has never worn his heart on his sleeve and his private character - and personal history - are largely unknown. Even the deaths of his brother and his only son, who both disappeared in exile, remain obscure.

The son of the veteran African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki, who spent time on Robben Island with Mr Mandela, Thabo Mbeki went into exile in 1961 and took an MA in economics at Sussex University. Although he subsequently underwent military training in the Soviet Union, he has never confirmed or denied reports that he once belonged to the South African Communist Party - then as now a close ally of the ANC - and served on its politburo.

Always noted for his intelligence, learning and eloquence, Mr Mbeki served as an ANC representative in London and various African states before becoming right-hand man to the party's then president, Oliver Tambo. Following Mr Mandela's release from prison in 1990, he was a key member of the ANC team negotiating an end to white rule with the then president, FW de Klerk.

In 1994, Mr Mbeki finally emerged from the shadows of his powerful patrons when he supplanted Cyril Ramaphosa, the brilliant and popular young trade union leader, as the ANC's candidate for deputy president, a job that almost guaranteed eventual succession to the presidency. Although little known to the mass of black voters, Mr Mbeki has used his closeness to Mr Mandela and his leadership of the ANC's "exiles" - the influential group of cadres who spent the struggle years abroad - ruthlessly to outflank famous figures from the internal struggle like Mr Ramaphosa and the former Free State premier, Patrick "Terror" Lekota.

His skill at coalition-building also played its part: at several key junctures many political observers were surprised to see the moderate Mr Mbeki gaining the support of leftist and "Africanist" radicals like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the ANC Youth League.

Economically, Mr Mbeki has endeared himself to the West with his unswerving dedication to free-market policies and globalisation, even as South Africa's economy is suffering from a bad dose of Asian flu.

However, his detractors worry that he may find it all too easy to change his tack if circumstances conspire against him. Acting as Mr Mandela's prime minister, Mr Mbeki has centralised both government and party power in his own office, ruthlessly sidelining anybody who stands in his way.

While business welcomes his present economic policies, it also worries that he could be tempted to try to buy off political pressure by manipulating the economy to his own ends.

The black majority also wonders about Mr Mbeki. While support for the ANC remains at better than 50 per cent, the voters admit they know little about the man who will lead the party into almost certain victory at the next election. In October, many ANC supporters were dismayed when Mr Mbeki tried and failed to block the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, apparently stung by its mild remarks about the movement's role in the bloody struggle against apartheid.

The move enraged the commission's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu - who told world television that he had not fought one tyranny to replace it with another.

Yet for all their concerns, the great majority of South Africans accept that Mr Mbeki will be the next president and hope that he can build on Mr Mandela's success. As the economy moves into recession, he will be expected to fight rampant crime and reduce soaring unemployment. He will have to end the simmering civil conflict with Zulu nationalists and find money to improve health, education and other public services. With the Mandela miracle drawing to a close, the really hard work will fall to Mr Mbeki.