Mbeki, Thabo Mvuyelwa 1942–
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki 1942–
Executive Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa
African National Congress vs. South African Government
“It is imperative that the government empower black people not only just in business but also in spheres of social, political and economic endeavor.”
An American civil rights activist speaking? Hardly. These are the words of Thabo Mbeki, Deputy President of South Africa, who has spent a lifetime hacking a civil rights trail through the thorny apartheid regime that, until 1994, ruled the country of his birth. Nowadays, Mbeki can glance with satisfaction at the burgeoning black middle class life that he helped to carve from what was once a treadmill of black urban poverty and hopelessness. He can also feel gratified at his country’s investment potential, which is germinating again after being stripped clean by the economic sanctions of the 1980s which helped to bring the 50-year-old Nationalist government to its knees.
Mbeki has always been tapped as a possible successor to President Mandela, though he once had two serious competitors. Both had impeccable credentials for the job. Cyril Ramaphosa, the favorite of many urbanites, was former Secretary-General of Mbeki’s own African National Congress (ANC) and a charismatic labor union organizer with a sizable following. Chris Hani, the other contender, appealed to the more militantly-inclined, since he had once headed ANC’s guerilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Hani also had a couple of other important drawcards. A major figure in the South African Communist Party, he sat on the ANC executive committee, and was a powerful, militant role model to South Africa’s black youth.
In the end, however, neither Hani nor Ramaphosa was destined for the government’s top spot. Ramaphosa decided to forsake politics for entrepreneurship, and Hani was gunned down in his driveway in April 1993 by a member of the Afrikaner Weerstand-beweging, the most right-wing group in the country.
Now, Thabo Mbeki waits in the wings. A man who shuns militant solutions to problems, he has proved himself as a shrewd negotiator and a calm administrator, and is known to be responsible for many important decisions of President Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity.
At a Glance…
Born: June 18, 1942, in Queenstown, South Africa; Parents, Govan and Epainette Mbeki; three siblings. Married: Zanela Dlamini in 1974. Education : Grammar school in Idutywa and Butterworth, both South Africa; high school at Lovedale, Alice, South Africa; expelled from school 1959 because of student strikes, continued education at home; high school graduation exams at St. John’s High School, Umtata, 1959; British “A” levels 1960-61; Master of Economics degree, University of Sussex, 1966.
Career: Underground activities in Pretoria-Witwatersrand area after ANC banned in 1960; Elected secretary of the African Students Association December, 1961; Left South Africa on instructions of ANC, 1962; Worked for ANC office in London 1967-1970; Military training in the Soviet Union; Assistant Secretary to the Revolutionary Council of the ANC in Lusaka, 1971; Worked in Botswana, 1973, networked with Black Conscious Movement members, some of whom joined ANC; Went to Swaziland as representative of the ANC, 1974; Member of the ACE’s National Executive Committee (NEC) 1975; Sent to Nigeria to help ex-South African students relocate, 1976; Political Secretary in the Office of the President of the ANC, 1978; Director of Department of Information 1984-1989; Re-elected to the NEC 1985; Elected chairperson of the ANC 1993; Deputy President of the ANC, 1994; Chancellor of the University of Transkei, 1995; Executive Deputy President in the South African Government of National Unity, 1995—
Awards: Honorary Doctorate from UNISA, 1995.
Memberships: African National Congress Youth League while a student at Lovedale Institute, 1956.
Thabo Mbeki’s connection with South Africa’s government goes back a long way. His grandfather was a chief in the days when tribal authority still counted for something, and his father, Govan, followed the family bent from the time he held his first adolescent job as an interpreter for the Marxist-inclined Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICWU).
While ICWU was an influence powerful enough to sweep Govan Mbeki into Communist Party membership, it was not the factor that caused him to devote his life to fighting South African apartheid. The decisive influence was his first encounter with the South African Police Force, experienced during a raid while he was on a 1929 visit to Johannesburg. While city dwellers of all colors were so accustomed to these maneuvers that they could have recited the usual procedure to him without thinking, Mbeki was outraged by the humiliation to which he was subjected, from the moment the police banged on his host’s door in the middle of the night through the routine inspection of the “pass,” or travel document assessing his right to be in the city. The whole incident was a nightmare that galvanized him into joining the African National Congress, which had been trying since its 1912 founding to stamp such indignities out.
An industrious man who was well-focused on the common black goal of South African civil rights, Govan Mbeki worked first as a schoolteacher, then as an editor of the liberal paper, New Age. Somehow, he also found time to document the history of the struggle in a book called Time Longer Than Rope, which was eventually published in London.
Govan’s son Thabo was six years old in 1948, when the election victory of the white Afrikaner Nationalists brought government service by black South Africans to an abrupt end. The new cabinet ministers, several of whom were devout admirers of Hitler despite their country’s staunch World War II support of the Allies, were particularly intent upon making sure that black South Africans had no voice whatsoever in the government of their own country. They achieved this goal in two ways—firstly, by supporting the Afrikaner Broederbond, or Brotherhood, a secret organization devoted to the apartheid ideal, and secondly, by bestowing the influential government position of Native Affairs portfolio upon Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, former editor of the fanatically nationalistic and anti-Semitic newspaper Die Transvaler.
Verwoerd wasted little time implementing strict new laws that upheld the principles of apartheid, or segregation. There was population registration to sort every ethnic group into its proper designation of “white,” “colored,” “Indian” or “Bantu.” Pass laws were tightened to ensure that no blacks were allowed in cities during evening hours. Also, the so-called scandal of biracial marriages was outlawed. In 1950, the Group Areas Act was enacted. This act allowed the government to uproot blacks from designated white areas and resettle them in “bantustans” or designated homelands, which were frequently rural areas without electricity, roads or sewage facilities.
Bantustan life was a fate that Thabo Mbeki luckily escaped. He was permitted to attend high school at the Lovedale Institute in Alice, Eastern Cape, and at age 14, Mbeki joined a nearby ANC Youth League. He quickly became active in student politics, even going so far as to participate in a strike that got him expelled from high school in 1959. Undaunted, he simply used his home as a base for both his studies and his anti-apartheid activities. The following year, a tidal wave of tragedy would strike black South Africans.
March 21, 1960 was a day no South African would ever forget. It began with an anti-pass rally in a Transvaal township called Sharpeville, and it ended in clouds of teargas, bullets fired by police and the urgent shriek of ambulances removing the bodies of 69 murdered demonstrators and 187 injured, most of whom had been shot in the back as they tried to run away.
Almost before the teargas had cleared, the government banned all political organizations and forbade all public political demonstrations. Although the Pan-Africanist Congress had organized the Sharpeville protest, the African National Congress chose to honor the victims of Sharpeville by clandestinely stepping up their antiapartheid activities within South Africa while seeking international support from a newly established headquarters in London.
Like his fellow ANC Youth League members, Thabo Mbeki was forced to hide his political activities from the world. In 1961, he quietly began to mobilize students for a stay-at-home protest after the South African government announced its decision to leave the British Commonwealth and become a republic. His father Govan, however, opted for a more dangerous way to intensify the anti-apartheid struggle while still living under the vigilant eye of the security police. Working alongside ANC leader Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki helped to found a militant new ANC wing in December 1961 known as “Umkhonto we Sizwe,” or “Spear of the Nation.”
Thabo Mbeki did not join Umkhonto we Sizwe. Nevertheless, in 1962, the ANC ordered Thabo to leave the country. The reason for this edict varies according to the source consulted. Some writers theorized that Thabo was among the first ANC youth chosen for military training in Algeria. Others suggested that the ANC governors wanted him to leave before he could be implicated in the bombings and sabotage planned by Umkhonto we Sizwe. Regardless of the motive, Thabo fared better than his father. In 1963, Govan Mbeki was arrested in a highly-publicized police raid on the Rivonia, Transvaal headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Along with Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki was sentenced to 27 years at notorious Robben Island, a maximum security prison near Cape Town.
If Algeria was indeed Thabo Mbeki’s intended destination, he never made it there. Following a supposedly secret route specified by the ANC, Mbeki went through Bechuanaland (later Botswana) into Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) only to be captured by the police and jailed for six weeks. Upon his release, he traveled to Tanzania, where he was granted political asylum by President Julius Nyerere, and then on to England.
Upon his arrival in England, Mbeki resumed his education at the University of Sussex, where he majored in economics. At the same time, he mobilized black South African students for the liberation struggle from the ANC’s London headquarters. Mbeki graduated in 1966 and traveled on ANC business for several years. After receiving military training in the Soviet Union, he was sent to Zambia, where he served as assistant secretary to the ANC’s Revolutionary Council. He was then stationed in Botswana, where his duties centered around the consolidation and mobilization of activists for the ANC’s underground groups in neighboring South Africa. He also negotiated with the Botswana government concerning the establishment of an ANC office in the country.
During the 1970s, Mbeki continued to rise through the ANC hierarchy. He became an acting representative in Swaziland in 1974 and was soon honored with membership in the multiracial 91-member National Executive Committee. This honor led to a new assignment in Nigeria, where a large share of his time was spent helping exiled South African students adjust to their new surroundings.
Back in South Africa, the government continued to strengthen the apartheid system. Although one of the architects of apartheid, Henrik Verwoerd, had been assassinated in 1966, he was succeeded by another staunch segregationist, John Vorster. Vorster accelerated the destruction of black-occupied houses in the rezoned townships ringing the major cities and the forced removal of blacks to “homelands.” According to Leonard Thompson, a Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, a study called the Surplus People Project estimated that almost 3.5 million people were torn from their homes and dumped in the “self-ruled homelands.” Between 1970 and 1980, Thompson tells us, “the Homeland population increased by 69%.”
In 1976, an event in the town of Soweto would galvanize black South Africans in much the same way as the Sharpeville massacre did in 1960. As part of the apartheid system, the government mandated that all black South Africans be taught in special segregated schools. These schools were mostly housed in decrepit, inferior buildings and students often lacked sufficient educational supplies. In addition, the government decreed that all classes must be taught in Afrikaans, a language that signified suffering and degradation to black South Africans. A peaceful demonstration was organized in Soweto to protest the lack of educational opportunities. The protest turned deadly, however, when security forces opened fire on the demonstrators. Approximately 600 people, including several children, were killed or wounded.
The massacre in Soweto served to awaken the world community to the events in South Africa. Many countries throughout the world, including the United States, imposed severe economic sanctions on South Africa. Throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s, the sanctions continued to erode the South African economy. As the economic conditions worsened, the ANC stepped up its policy of protests and civil disobedience throughout South Africa in order to break the stranglehold of apartheid. By the 1980s, Thabo Mbeki had risen to prominence in the ANC as Director of the Department of Information and Publicity. It was a position that would allow Mbeki to serve an influential role in the gradual dismantling of apartheid.
In 1986, Mbeki traveled to Long Island, New York for a Ford Foundation conference. At the conference, Mbeki met Pieter de Lange, who was both the president of Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg and a well-entrenched chairman of the pro-apartheid Broederbond. One evening, the two men talked about the situation in South Africa for several hours, and de Lange invited Mbeki to join him and his wife for lunch the next day.
It was a groundbreaking invitation. As veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks notes in his book Tomorrow is Another Country, de Lange went home from his luncheon with Mbeki determined to resign from Rand Afrikaans University in order to devote himself to promoting interracial harmony by holding private talks with his fellow Broederbond members. This remarkable meeting between Mbeki and de Lange was enough to foster the start of other top secret talks, with sympathetic white Afrikaners acting as liaisons between the government and the African National Congress.
Between 1987 and early 1990, a series of meetings between ANC and South African government officials were held in the remote English village of Mells. Mbeki was charged with presenting ANC positions. The talks centered around the immediate release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, the possible suspension of the armed struggle by the ANC, and equal rights for all minorities. Other important topics concerned the lifting of economic sanctions, the replacement of the Nationalist-dominated government with a multiracial interim ruling body.
In 1989, pro-apartheid President P.W. Botha was forced to resign. He was replaced by F.W. de Klerk, a moderate who sought dialog with the ANC and the eventual creation of a multiracial democratic government. On February 2, 1990, President de Klerk announced in a speech that the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Communist Party were no longer banned. He also called for continued meetings between government representatives and ANC negotiators led by Thabo Mbeki. Owing to the delicate issues surrounding the release of Nelson Mandela, and the fact that many of the ANC diplomats were still officially persona non grata in South Africa, the arrangements for the meetings soon took on the melodramatic aura of an international espionage novel. Switzerland was eventually chosen as the meeting site because it was one of the few countries that South Africans could enter freely because of international sanctions. South African government representatives were given false passports and ANC delegates were kept under close surveillance.
The diplomatic negotiations soon bore fruit. After 27 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela triumphantly emerged from Robben Island prison on February 11, 1990. On August 7, 1990, a pact called the Pretoria Minute announced the end of the ANC’s thirty-year-long armed struggle. Negotiations continued for several years as the apartheid system was gradually dismantled. The culmination of all diplomatic negotiations occurred on April 27, 1994, when South Africa held the first democratic elections in which all South Africans, black and white, were allowed to participate. Nelson Mandela was elected President and Thabo Mbeki was elected Deputy President.
As Deputy President, Mbeki set about tackling some of the serious domestic problems that are apartheid’s legacy. He sought ways to reduce South Africa’s murder rate, which is among the highest in the world. Unemployment remains extremely high and many of South Africa’s rural areas lack electricity, clean water, and adequate housing. One of the main goals of the Mandela government is economic restructuring, a task which Mandela hopes will provide 500,000 new jobs annually by the year 2000. This goal may be difficult to attain, however, as it is contingent on heavy overseas investment.
Mbeki’s political star may still be on the rise. Nelson Mandela has announced that he will not seek reelection in 1999 and, in July 1996, endorsed Mbeki as his successor. Mbeki clearly understands the daunting challenges that South Africa faces in the future. As he remarked in The New York Times, “Apartheid was inherently corrupt, immoral. And it left behind a disrespect for legitimacy. There is a lack of sense of social ethics. This is something that has to be dealt with … We must change the mood of a country and set new values.”
Holland, Heidi, The Struggle: A History of the African National Congress, Grafton Books, 1989.
Malan, Rian, My Traitor’s Heart, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990.
Norval, Morgan, Inside the ANC: The Evolution of a Terrorist Organization, Selous Foundation Press, 1990.
Saunders, Christopher, Historical Dictionary of South Africa, Scarecrow Press, 1983.
Sparks, Allister, Tomorrow is Another Country, Hill and Wang, 1995.
Sparks, Allister, The Mind of South Africa, Knopf, 1990.
Africa Report, March-April 1989, p. 34; May-June 1993, p.5.
Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 1996, p. 19.
Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1995, p.1; March 8, 1996, p. 11.
New York Times, May 12, 1995, p. A5; May 14, 1996, p. A4; July 23, 1996, p. A1.