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The Icon and the Enigma: Mandela's Successor Inspires Respect, Not Love

Mbeki, who took over as ANC head this week is known as a shrewd, inscrutable diplomat.

When Nelson Mandela stepped down this week as president of the African National Congress (ANC), a traditional "praise singer" clad in leopard skin delivered an ecstatic rendering of Mr. Mandela's glories. Then the delegates spontaneously burst into a rousing song celebrating Mandela's predecessor, the late Oliver Tambo.

It is difficult to imagine such an outpouring for the third man to lead the party in its post-apartheid incarnation, the urbane, mysterious Thabo Mbeki, to whom Mandela passed the baton Wednesday.

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Mr. Mbeki, expected to replace Mandela as head of state in the 1999 elections, is an enigma wrapped in contradictions.

A suave career diplomat in the service of a militant liberation movement, Mbeki was an ardent communist but now espouses free-market capitalism.

He is well-respected but little known. His biography is full of gaps; in a recent newspaper interview, his own father was unable to shed much light on his son's personality and history.

Mbeki was born in 1942 in South Africa's Transkei region to a family steeped both in the bitterness of apartheid and the hope of the country's liberation movements.

Family of activists

His family's story is typical: children disappearing, fathers and sons on the run or in prison, exile, and triumphant homecoming.

Both his parents were teachers and activists. His father, Govan Mbeki, was a leading communist and ANC member.

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Mbeki joined the ANC Youth League at age 14, later moving to Johannesburg, where he came under the guidance of ANC leader Walter Sisulu.

The ANC ordered Mbeki to leave the country in 1962, and he completed a master's degree in economics at Britain's Sussex University in 1966. In the meantime, his father, Mr. Sisulu, and Mandela were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

In London, Mbeki worked for the ANC's Oliver Tambo. He was sent to the Soviet Union in 1970 for military training.

Back in Africa a few years later, he persuaded South Africa's neighboring black-ruled states to shelter and support the ANC. He also became adept at media campaigns, mounting sports boycotts of apartheid South Africa.

Mbeki's brother, Jama, was murdered by South African security forces in the 1980s - the family is unsure of the date, as many ANC militants spent years underground and out of touch. In 1981, Mbeki's only child, Monwabisi, also disappeared.

After Mandela's release from prison in 1990, Mbeki was a key figure in the difficult negotiations that, four years later, led to the country's first democratic elections. He became South Africa's deputy president in 1994.

The hand inside the glove

Mbeki is the hand inside the velvet Mandela glove, devising policies, writing speeches, and doing back-room deals. But he leaves the limelight to the crowd-pleasing Mandela.

Mandela wants a smooth transition when he leaves politics in 1999, so he has encouraged financiers and diplomats to look on Mbeki as "de facto president of the country."

"I am pushing everything to him," Mandela said last weekend. "He is a man of exceptional qualities - very respectful, very warm, very sensitive to the sufferings of our people."

Mbeki is also a skilled political player. He has manipulated his potential rivals for the leadership out of office, Cyril Ramaphosa in particular.

Mbeki and Mandela also have managed to force neo-liberal economic policies on a liberation movement determined to put social policies first.

Lacking Mandela's charisma and status as a living legend, Mbeki will need need his diplomatic skills to unite the party on economic issues.

Whites still control economic power in South Africa. Both Mandela and Mbeki have warned recently that their emphasis is shifting from racial "reconciliation" to economic and social "transformation" - black empowerment and affirmative action programs that may upset whites.

In a speech in July, Mbeki said it was time to confront the continued "imbalance and inequality of a deeply fractured society."

In foreign policy, Mbeki has coined the term "African renaissance" to describe his vision of new democracies no longer in need of foreign handouts or United Nations peacekeepers.

"We say that the 21st century is the African century," Mbeki says, with the new South Africa leading the way.

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