JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Thabo Mbeki is the man who will try to fill Nelson Mandela's shoes this year, when he seems certain to be elected the second black president of the new South Africa.
President of the ruling African National Congress and deputy president to Mandela, Mbeki is a very apparent heir.
But who is this man who is about to emerge from behind one of the largest shadows cast on the modern world stage?
The answer, to considerable degree, can be gleaned from a new book, which clusters 42 of his speeches spanning the past 34 years.
From it, Mbeki emerges as a complex, articulate leader whose politics are founded on an unwavering pride in being an African, a deep sense of outrage over the injustices of colonialism and apartheid, and a fervent belief in this continent's contribution to mankind, not least the emergence of our earliest ancestors.
Yet, he remains something of an enigma, leaving supporters and critics to ponder what the impending Mbeki era holds in store.
He said last month that there would be no radical change from Mandela's policies, an assurance that did little to impress the government's critics who see problems in key areas such as the economy, education and health.
Mbeki went on to caution that there might have to be an accelerated pace of policy implementation. That implies changing priorities that can only heighten black expectations of basic living improvements and deepen white foreboding of faster redistribution of wealth.
Impatience for change
Last year, during a National Assembly debate on nation-building, he signaled his awareness of growing black impatience with the rate of change.
"I am convinced that we are faced with the danger of a mounting rage to which we must respond seriously," he said, identifying perhaps his biggest challenge when the awesome moral and political restraint of Nelson Mandela departs the presidency later this year.
Another central concern about his leadership is his impatience with criticism, let alone dissent.
He responded angrily recently to a think tank analysis suggesting that his government would be "tougher and more obscure, in need therefore of closer and more demanding democratic and human rights monitoring."
He also endorsed a court challenge to publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's indictment of human rights violations by the African National Congress during the struggle against apartheid.
"Will the real Thabo Mbeki please stand up," demanded a recent editorial in the liberal Saturday Star. "Are you committed to democracy or are you just another African strongman who wants to build a country in his image and equates criticism with treason?"
The ANC's legal challenge was thrown out, but Mbeki's approach invited contrast with that of Mandela, who readily acknowledged excesses in the "just war" against apartheid.
Certainly in public presentation, Mbeki is no Mandela. But what he lacks in charisma, he makes up for in erudition. Widely read, he does not hesitate to quote from African sages, Greek scholars, Irish poets, sometimes in Latin as well as English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
'I am an African'
Perhaps his best-known and most lyrical speech was "I am an African," delivered at the 1996 adoption of this country's constitution.
But behind the poetry of it -- "I owe my being to the Khoi and the San, whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape" -- many picked up a more ominous undertone.
"I know what it signifies when race and color are used to determine who is human and who is subhuman," he said. "I have experience of the situation in which race and color is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest."
Such cold anger feeds the fear that Mbeki will be less focused than Mandela on racial reconciliation and more committed to social transformation for the benefit of the black majority -- at the expense of the white minority.
The Citizen, an opposition daily, recently cited the increasing emphasis on race in employment, economic empowerment and even sports, and said: "Unless the rhetoric and practice are toned down, race threatens to become an increasingly divisive issue in the run-up to the elections."
Yet a constant theme through Mbeki's speeches is that reconciliation and transformation are mutually reinforcing concepts. The one cannot exist, he reasons, without the other in this traumatized society.
But reconciliation cannot be simply the forgiveness of past inhumanity and transformation cannot preserve white privilege.
He still sees South Africa, after more than four years of black majority rule, as "two nations" -- one white and prosperous, the other black and poor. The income of whites on average is eight times that of blacks. Whites, who constitute 13 percent of the 41 million population, control 80 percent of the economy.
"What this throws up," Mbeki said, "is the question: Are the relatively rich, who as a result of an apartheid definition are white, prepared to help underwrite the upliftment of the poor, who as a result of an apartheid definition are black?"
He must, as next president, try to foster a positive answer to that.
The title of his book, "Africa -- The Time Has Come," captures Mbeki's wider certainty that this continent is on the verge of a new era, increasingly freed from colonial oppression and dependency to find solutions to its problems and chart its own course.
'Renaissance is upon us'
It is a confidence that might have been shaken by events, but apparently hasn't been. Last year he was telling U.S. investors that a "new miracle slouches toward its birth" in then-Zaire, where rebel leader Laurent Kabila was about to oust dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. "A new star of hope has risen" in Angola, he said.
"The African renaissance is upon us," he declared.
Today Kabila is accused of widespread civil rights abuses and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is enmeshed in another civil war, which threatens to engulf the entire region, including South Africa. Blood also is flowing again in Angola. Eritrea and Ethiopia are once more at each other's throats. There is no sign of peace at hand on this troubled continent.
But for Mbeki, the African renaissance, while elusive, remains the abiding challenge. His confidence that it will be achieved is based on hard history -- the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt, the stone buildings of Aksum, the ruins of Carthage and Zimbabwe, the rock paintings of the San, the Benin bronzes, the carvings of the Makonde and the stone sculptures of the Shona.
"A people of such creativity could never have been less human than other human beings, and being as human as any other, such a people can and must be its own liberator from the condition which seeks to describe our continent and its people as the poverty-stricken and disease-ridden primitives in a world riding the crest of a wave of progress and human upliftment," he reasoned in a speech last year.
If a man of lofty vision, Mbeki was a child of modest origins. He was born in the village of Mbewuleni in the Transkei, in the home of Epainette and Govan Mbeki, teachers who ran a general store.
Their main customers were the local amaqaba, who clung to the Xhosa tradition of decorating themselves with red, yellow and white ocher and wore tribal clothes, as opposed to the amakholwa, the Christian-educated sophisticates who dressed Western-style and lived across the valley.
For these illiterate peasants, the young Thabo would read and write letters from and to the male relatives who worked in the distant mines and frequently came home to die from a lung disease caused by dust. It gave him insight into how the masses lived.
His politically active parents, correctly assuming that they would eventually be arrested, sent him away to spend his school years with relatives. At high school, he joined the African National Congress Youth League, and was expelled from school for organizing a student strike.
Moving to Johannesburg to complete his education, he continued his political activities as a youth organizer. He so impressed the ANC leadership that in 1962 they decided he should go to college in England, and from there he traveled and campaigned internationally against apartheid.
Studies in London, Moscow
In 1964, at age 22, he appeared before a United Nations delegation to appeal for international help in saving the life of his father, sentenced to death with Mandela and others for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid state.
"For our part," Mbeki told the U.N. delegates, "if the butchers will have their way, we shall draw strength even from the little crosses that the kind may put at the head of their graves. In that process we shall learn. We shall learn to hate evil even more, and in the same intensity we shall seek to destroy it."
After graduating with a degree in economics, he joined the exiled ANC staff in London before going to Moscow for a year's study. He returned to Africa in 1971 to work in exile in Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland and Nigeria.
In 1978, he became political secretary and speech-writer to ANC President Oliver Tambo and was elected to the party's national executive, setting him on the path that now makes him the man to replace Mandela.
Pub Date: 1/01/99
DATELINE: JOHANNESBURG, South Africa