Hosting a recent reception in Cape Town's parliament buildings, a glass of whisky cradled in his hand, Mr Mbeki had changed the tweed jacket and pipe of his decades of exile for a sleek business suit. The revolutionary of those years, with his Soviet military training, Marxist dialectics and talk of bringing down the bourgeoisie, has evolved into a suave sophisticate who is now the president-in-waiting to follow 76-year-old Nelson Mandela.
The short, smooth-faced Deputy President graciously received all who approached him, remembering names, deflecting tough questions and delivering a polished and amusing speech of the kind that is winning friends for and investors in the new South Africa. He might even have surprised and charmed the men of the old all-white cabinets portrayed in the outsize oil paintings that were still hanging on the walls high above. Mr Mbeki, 53, has been riding high in the ANC ever since he led perhaps the most sensitive round of negotiations in South Africa's process of reconciliation, the contacts with white businessmen and lobby groups that resulted in the ANC's renunciation of violent struggle and its return home.
If one of his negotiating colleagues fell asleep in their marathon secret sessions, he would keep things going with a prod of the foot and such comments as "Don't leave me alone with these boers".
If anything was to happen to Mr Mandela now, Mr Mbeki would step naturally into his shoes. Mr Mbeki cannot match Mr Mandela's moral authority and almost regal style, but his connections and backroom skills in pouring oil on troubled waters would probably ensure a smooth transition.
The smooth style may, however, reflect Mr Mbeki's weaknesses, too. When visiting an office with his entourage, he does not emulate the ANC's populist style of greeting everyone from the cleaning lady to the boss. And reporters watched with astonishment one day when he confronted his chief rival for the leadership, Cyril Ramaphosa, and summarily ordered him to go on a visit to Burkina Faso.
Mr Ramaphosa did not blink, but the tough former leader of South Africa's mineworkers' union, who was never in exile like Mr Mbeki, is 10 years younger and busily building up his own constituency. He has succeeded in placing his associates in high office in recent months.
Mr Mbeki's pride may come brfore a fall, especially in the wake of Mr Mandela's and Mr Mbeki's purging of Winnie Mandela from her post as a deputy minister last Monday.
Mr Mbeki has no natural constituency in the ANC, and relied on the support of Mrs Mandela's populist faction for his election to the deputy leadership of the party. If the government fails to bring substantial benefits to the poor black townships, and radicals regain power, Mrs Mandela could once again influence the succession to her estranged husband.
"There is no longer the certainty that there was. Thabo Mbeki is weakened by the loss of Winnie. If she runs for the presidency, making it a three- way race, Cyril might get the presidency by default," said Kaizer Nyatsumba, a senior columnist on the Johannesburg newspaper the Star.
For Professor Tom Lodge, an expert on the ANC at the University of the Witwatersrand, it is still too early to make such judgements. The next election to party office is in 1997, and Mr Mandela is not due to retire until his term of office ends in 1999. In the past three months, the President's hair has turned greyer and his step has become more tentative, but nobody expects him to fade away any time soon.
Mr Mbeki's greatest strength is a network of connections that date back to his birth into one of the dynasties in the ANC's lite. He is from a Xhosa tribe of the Eastern Cape, like Mr Mandela himself. His father was Govan Mbeki, a journalist, economist and shop-owner in the Transkei who became a mentor to generations of ANC activists through his 25-year prison sentence on Robben Island.
Mr Mbeki was forced into exile in the 1960s, when he earned a doctorate in economics from Sussex University and worked his way up the ANC cadres in Europe and Africa. Eventually he became the ANC's top diplomat, securing key funding from Sweden, and rose to become political secretary to the exiled ANC president, Oliver Tambo.
Professor Lodge said: "Mr Mbeki's affable manner hides an inner toughness. Softies did not survive in the rough politics of the ANC's exile.
"Mbeki was good at diplomatic fancy footwork in exile, buttering up to odious people. But the fact remains, he's always been a number two."Reuse content