South Africa: Mbeki the bogeyman emerges from behind the throne to take the reins

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Thabo Mbeki this week takes over from President Nelson Mandela as leader of the ANC, the penultimate step in his almost certain ascent to the presidency of South Africa. Mary Braid asks whether a living saint is making way for a Machiavelli par excellence.

The respected Mail and Guardian newspaper summed it up rather well. We are about to be ruled by a man we do not know, it observed in a scene- setting piece for this week's hand-over of power at the African National Congress's 50th national conference.

As President Nelson Mandela, 79, passes the ANC leadership to his deputy Thabo Mbeki, 55, just 16 months before the next general election, the country's post-apartheid history enters a new era.

The transition from Madiba (the family name by which President Mandela is affectionately known) to Mbeki was always going to be a delicate stage in an already precarious process. Filling the warm, saintly and charismatic Madiba's shoes is an unenviable task. It is not helped when the public feels it is trading a fleshed out, lovable demi-god for a mysterious matchstick man.

The diminutive Mr Mbeki, always beautifully turned out but oh so dull to listen to, is already the bogeyman of the white liberal dinner party. The rumours about him are legion, and often malicious. It is said that he has risen to the top of the ANC since its unbanning in 1990, by plotting the downfall of all political rivals and opponents. Add to schemer, the title tormentor of whites. For, ironically, the man who was once criticised as being too cosy with whites is now billed as their future persecutor.

The facts - sparse as they are - are these. Mr Mbeki is a member of the Struggle aristocracy. His father, Govan, an early ANC leader, was imprisoned with President Mandela on Robben Island. The ANC sent Thabo Mbeki to Britain where he took a masters degree in economics at Sussex University. He later went to the Soviet Union for military training. During 28 years in exile he pressed the ANC's case all over the world. He is credited with masterminding the international sanctions campaign against apartheid South Africa, and he gained diplomatic experience, connections and an urbane, sophisticated, intellectual image.

Beyond this, much is conjecture. After the ANC's unbanning, the exile group rose at the expense of those who battled for freedom at home. Mr Mbeki is blamed for the recent departure from politics of popular "home" leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, who led the ANC in the negotiations which ended white minority rule. Some also claim that he plotted the fall of popular party figures Tokyo Sexwale and Terror Lekota.

The time for President Mandela's inspired acts of reconciliation is over. The ANC, he argues, must now meet its promises to the millions of blacks still languishing at the bottom of the social heap. That puts the wind up those still sitting pretty at the top.

What should worry people most is Mr Mbeki's hostility towards the press. It is doubtful that he really accepts the importance of a free press in a democracy.

If Mr Mbeki's politics are largely unknown, his private life is a complete mystery. He married Zanele in 1974. They have no children, but a son from a previous relationship disappeared in the Eighties.