Thabo Mbeki: United Africa's chilly idealist

South Africa's president visits Britain this week: he won't get the rapturous reception Mandela did but the sharper focus of his vision may achieve more for his country
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Last week Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's softly spoken President, startled participants at a World Economic Forum meeting in Durban with a few off-the-cuff words. "I pretend regularly that I know everything, because I have to, but really I know very little," he said.

Experienced Mbeki-watchers were flabbergasted. Was this the man to whom the word "enigma" is unfailingly applied, the technocrat who is seen as superior to his charismatic predecessor, Nelson Mandela, only in his supposed omniscience? Normally Mr Mbeki's speeches are carefully prepared, rambling and opaque; this sudden frankness caught everyone off-guard.

Far more typical was the President's performance at another conference, also in Durban, last July. Opening an international congress on Aids, he appalled and perplexed his audience with a meandering address in which he persisted in doubting that HIV causes Aids. His speech was immediately eclipsed, however, by the appearance of 11-year-old Nkosi Johnson. Huge-eyed and so thin that his baggy jacket was falling off him, the country's longest-surviving Aids child publicly chided his President for failing to tackle a disease that is spreading faster in South Africa than almost anywhere else.

Mr Mbeki left the hall before Nkosi had finished speaking. Although he sent his wife, he did not visit the boy as he continued his fight against Aids, holding out months longer than expected until he succumbed on 1 June. Yesterday Nkosi, who had become an international icon in his final year, was buried among South Africa's liberation heroes, but again the President stayed away. Like political rallies in the poverty-stricken townships, or the celebrated occasion when he visited an Aids orphanage and was photographed with toddlers clambering all over him, it is not the sort of occasion at which he feels comfortable.

The diminutive, neatly bearded and dapper Sussex University graduate, who turns 60 in eight days' time, is far more at ease among fellow African presidents and business leaders, as he was at the World Economic Forum. Whether this is what led him into a confession of imperfection, no one knows. Nor was it clear whether his words should be seen as some sort of apology for policy shortcomings, not only on Aids but on his failure to curb his neighbouring president, Robert Mugabe, who is plunging Zimbabwe into political and economic chaos.

Both these issues will be prominent as President Mbeki arrives in Britain on Tuesday for a state visit. In this, as in so many other things, he will be following the sainted Nelson, who was given a rapturous welcome here in 1996 on the first-ever state visit by a South African president. For the second to come so soon afterwards is being seen in South Africa as a sign of the high importance of the country to Britain. It cannot be expected to make anything like the same impact, however.

But while the public may barely notice Mr Mbeki's passage, it is quite possible that he will achieve more behind the scenes than Mr Mandela did. During the long years of the anti-apartheid struggle, he was the African National Congress's most senior diplomat, convincing Western leaders that one day the movement could be in government, and co-ordinating the pressure from financiers and multinational companies which ultimately forced South Africa's whites to negotiate. The hoped-for trade and investment benefits for South Africa failed to materialise after Mr Mandela returned home; perhaps his former deputy will do better.

As number two before taking over in 1999, Mr Mbeki did a great deal, again with little publicity, to correct some of Mr Mandela's undoubted blunders. While the older man was paying fraternal visits to old ANC allies such as Libya and Cuba, the younger was reassuring the countries that had greater economic significance for South Africa. His expertise was crucial in transforming the ANC from a not very efficient revolutionary movement into a working government. It was because his experience had been so different from Mr Mandela's ­ a lifetime in exile instead of 27 years in prison ­ that he complemented him so well.

What he lacks are the skills that made people forgive Mr Mandela almost anything, and which enabled his predecessor to win the respect of all South Africa's communities. As a control freak, Mr Mbeki makes Tony Blair look like an amateur: his cabinet is so terrified of being off-message that ministers prefer to avoid public statements rather than displease the President. He can be ruthless, as more charismatic ANC figures such as Cyril Ramaphosa discovered when they found themselves out of the government, and he has a worrying tendency to equate criticism with racism.

Mr Mbeki once joked about his enigmatic image, claiming that when he was at Sussex University, English girls would cry: "But Thabo, we don't know you!" as they fended off his advances. By all accounts he did not always fail. When a white television journalist referred to him as a "womaniser", however, he was denounced for giving voice to his racism.

Mr Mbeki can and does change his mind. He has, for example, at least stopped making the kind of wrong-headed comments about Aids that startled last year's congress, and has allowed test programmes of anti-HIV drugs to go ahead. The government is now ready to start distribution of one of the most effective of these, but the health minister did not want to be the one making the announcement. She insisted that it come from the whole cabinet.

The President is at last putting more pressure on Mr Mugabe to stop making matters worse for his own country as well as his neighbours, but anyone in the West who expects him to do this in public misunderstands the man. Possibly his greatest passion is a "millennium action plan" about which British leaders will undoubtedly be hearing a great deal this week. At its core is the belief that African leaders must unite and speak to the rest of the world in a more confident voice. Mr Mbeki, who talks of an "African Renaissance", is one of the prime architects of the plan, which sets ambitious targets for Africa in spheres such as the reduction of child poverty.

It reinforces the image of Mr Mbeki as a somewhat chilly visionary whose only amusements appear to consist of smoking his ever-present pipe and surfing the internet (which is where he is said to have got his views on HIV and Aids). He is an idealist who feels very strongly that leaders must serve the people, though he clearly prefers the people in the abstract rather than in his face.

He has been compared to a predecessor, Jan Smuts, a close friend of Winston Churchill and member of the Imperial War Cabinet during the Second World War, who was more successful as a statesman than in dealing with the day-to-day problems of South Africa. Smuts was unexpectedly ousted in 1948; after a characteristically inept and heavy-handed government attempt to accuse Mr Ramaphosa and two other equally popular ANC exiles of "plotting" against the President, there is open discussion for the first time of the possibility of a successful challenge to him in 2004.

If Thabo Mbeki hides his feelings behind a mask, however, it is hardly surprising, given his personal history. His parents were dedicated Communists who subordinated family life to the cause. His father, Govan, served time on Robben Island, where he was so unyielding in argument that he and Mr Mandela did not speak to each other for two years. It was 28 years before the transformation of South Africa reunited father and son, but when Govan was asked how he felt on seeing Thabo again, he said: "Not much finer than seeing others. You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade." Comrade Thabo, though, never acknowledged being a Communist Party member, let alone having served on the Central Committee. He left in the early 1990s, which is believed by some to account for his father's coolness.

That enabled him, however, to become President of South Africa. He has high ambitions for the role, not a bad thing in a continent where vision is in short supply. The question is whether he can inspire others to help him achieve his aims. Leaders who want nothing but to be loved can be unsettling, but so also can those who appear to have no need for public affection.