Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki was born on June 18 1942, in Mbewuleni (meaning ‘place of seed’), a tiny village in Idutywa in Transkei (now Eastern Cape). His middle name ’Mvuyelwa’ is Xhosa and means ‘he for whom the people sing’. Both his parents were teachers, activists and members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA later renamed the SACP). His father, Govan Mbeki, was a leading figure in the activities of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Eastern Cape. Thabo Mbeki was named after one of his father’s best friends, Thabo Mofutsanyana, a leading member of the Communist Party at the time. Mbeki had an older sister, Linda and two younger brothers, Moeletsi and Jama.

Mbeki’s parents were very involved in improving the conditions of their community and took part in schemes to feed the poor. MaMofokeng, his mother, ran a shop called the Goodwill Store, and the family also kept sheep and goats.

Mbeki attended the Ewing school in his neighbourhood up to grade 6; thereafter he had to attend school in Queenstown as the Ewing school did not have senior classes. In Queenstown, Mbeki stayed with Michael Moerane, his mother’s brother. Moerane was a music teacher and a composer of classical music. Mbeki spent the years growing up with Moerane’s six children, his cousin Kabelo being closest to him. From a young age, Mbeki developed a love for reading and music.

Thabo Mbeki experienced his first disappointment with politics when he and Kabelo heard about an ANC meeting to be held in Queenstown. His excitement peaked when Dr Njongwe (the Eastern Cape ANC leader at the time) came driving down the road making announcements over loudspeakers in a car publicising the Defiance Campaign. The two boys were eager to volunteer but only members of the ANC were allowed to do so. To ensure they had sufficient money for membership fees, Mbeki and Kabelo collected empty cooldrink bottles and sold them to a local shopkeeper. However, when they arrived at the recruitment centre, they were told they were too young to join. In the meantime, Govan Mbeki was trying to get the people of the Transkei to volunteer for the campaign. Sadly, his attempts failed dismally as there was not a single arrest east of the Kei River.

In December 1952, after spending two years in Queenstown, Mbeki was collected by his father and dropped off at the home of the Ngampu family in Butterworth, about 40 kilometres south of Idutywa, which was much closer to Mbewuleni. Makonza Ngampu was a local teacher and Govan’s ama Zizi clansman. Mbeki was to school at the Davies Senior Higher Primary School the following year; a school was run by Methodists. Now Mbeki could visit his mother more often.   

By 1953, the Bantu Education Act was passed by the government. It was one of apartheid's most offensively racist laws, bringing Black education under the control of the government and extending apartheid to black schools. Previously, most Black schools were run by missionaries with some state aid. Many of the educated elite, such as Nelson Mandelaother political activists, had attended mission schools.The Act ended the relative autonomy these schools had enjoyed up to that point and made government funding of Black schools conditional on acceptance of a racially discriminatory curriculum, administered by a new Department of Bantu Education.

The Bantu Education Act was not only an attack on Black people in the broadest sense but also aimed at Black families such as the Mbekis and Moeranes, who had been schooled into an elite group and were permitted to become Imperial subjects if they elevated themselves to European standards of education, wealth and gentility. They were being bluntly told by Verwoerd that they were overreaching themselves. As a result, most mission schools that admitted Blacks chose to close rather than promote apartheid in education.

By the end of 1953, Makonza Ngampu was transferred out of Butterworth, and upon Govan’s instructions Mbeki was moved to another teacher’s house, one Mr Lavisa. Mbeki excelled at school.

The mid-1950s were the years in which the nationalist government started entrenching the policy of apartheid.  Mbeki could not have attended school in Butterworth without having a sense of foreboding.

In 1954, it was decided that Mbeki should join Lovedale College in Alice. Lovedale was started by missionaries and many future leaders of South Africa, including Mbeki’s father, had studied there.

Known as the ‘Eton of Africa’, the school was the first South African high school to admit Blacks for over a century. Founded in 1841 by the Scottish Presbyterian Church, it was built on land, granted to it by Xhosa King Ngqika, and was situated in the fertile valley along the Tyume River in Alice. The school was the centre of Black intellectual activity during the first half of the twentieth century. Its alumni include the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Robert Mugabe and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, among others.

Mbeki was one of 52 boys and 42 girls that started standard six (grade 8) in 1955. He was placed in Shaw House along with other Transkei border boys, who were stereotyped by the others as being ‘moegoes’ – slang for the boys from the country who were not as sophisticated as those from towns such as Port Elizabeth and East London. The city boys adopted jazzier fashions and attitudes, while the Transkei boys were more conservative. There was also a difference in the sports they chose as the Transkei boys played soccer while the Eastern Cape boys all played rugby. Mbeki chose rugby and despite the fact that he was not good at the game, he stuck with it throughout his time at Lovedale.

In 1956, Mbeki joined the ANC Youth League after a brief period with the Trotskyist Unity Movement’s Society of Young Africans (SOYA). Although only 14 years of age at the time, he became active in student politics.

In 1960, the ANC was banned, making it difficult for members to operate openly. Not long after, Govan and Nelson Mandela became fugitives. In 1961, during his final year at high school, Mbeki was expelled for leading a class boycott against the expulsion of a fellow student. At this time, the ANC was for the first time considering violent revolution.

Mbeki returned home to Mbewuleni, enrolled at a correspondence school and finished his schooling. He found being home frustrating as he wanted to study further and engage in politics. The ANC did not have a branch in Mbewuleni, and he wanted to be in Johannesburg. His parents agreed that he should travel to Johannesburg to further his studies. They contacted Duma Nokwe, a well known Sowetan lawyer and important leader of the ANC in the area, to seek accommodation for their son. Nokwe agreed to have Mbeki live with his family.

In 1961, Mbeki travelled to Soweto to start an exciting new life. He was amazed at the size of the big city and its vitality. He met Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC and learnt much about politics and law from the Nokwe family, and put much effort into his post-matric studies at Britzius College in Johannesburg. It was not long before Mbeki was elected secretary of the African Students' Association (ASA) while still being enrolled at Britzius College, but the association collapsed after many of its members were arrested. At this time, political movements were folding under increasingly severe attacks from the state.

Mbeki continued his studies by enrolling to study economics via correspondence with London University.

Going into exile

After the banning of the ANC, the organisation decided it would be better for the Mbeki to go into exile. In 1962, Mbeki and a group of comrades left South Africa disguised as a football team. They travelled in a minibus to Botswana and flew from there to Tanzania, where Mbeki accompanied Kenneth Kaunda, who later became Zambia’s post-independence president, to London. Mbeki stayed with Oliver Tambo, who became the effective leader of the ANC after Mandela was imprisoned. Mbeki worked part-time with Tambo and Yusuf Dadoo while studying economics at Sussex University in the coastal town of Brighton.

At one stage, Mbeki shared a flat with two other students, Mike Yates and Derek Gunby. Together the trio would become firm friends and frequent a local bar when they were not discussing politics and listening to music. It was here that Mbeki developed a deep love for Brecht and Shakespeare and an appreciation of Yeats.  He also came to love the ‘blues’.

In February 1963, three months after his arrival at the University, Mbeki was elected onto the Student Union Committee. By April, he was one of 28 signatories petitioning in support of ‘Spies for Peace’, a document that revealed secret information about Britain’s plans for civil defence and government in the event of a nuclear attack.

On 11 July 1963, the High Command of the ANC was caught at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, one of them being Govan Mbeki. In order to hold the prisoners, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963, was rushed through Parliament and applied retroactively to June 27th 1962, mainly but not exclusively so that the people arrested at Rivonia could be detained and held in solitary confinement.  In July of the same year, Mbeki began mobilising international support against apartheid. Horrified at the Act, Mbeki led a successful motion in the Student Union to condemn the move and join the boycott of South African goods. He strongly condemned the South African government’s new restrictions on political activity and likened it to in the politics of Nazi Germany.

In April 1964, Mbeki appeared before a delegation of the United Nations (UN) Special Committee against Apartheid to plead for the life of his father, who by then had been charged with planning an armed uprising against the state. The death penalty seemed a certainty for all the Rivonia Treason Trialists. This was the first time Mbeki had spoken about his father from the perspective of a son, but the biological category was converted into a political context.

If the butchers have their way, we will 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. We shall learn to be brave and unconscious of anything but this noblest of struggles. Today we might be but weak children, spurred on by nothing other than the fear and grief of losing our fathers. In time we shall learn to die both for ourselves and for the millions.’ (The Dream Deferred)

On 6th October, the Rivonia Trialists were formally charged. On 13 June 1964, Mbeki organised a march from Brighton to London, after the Rivonia Trialists were found guilty of high treason. They were expected to be sentenced to death. The students held a night march to 10 Downing Street and handed a petition, signed by 664 staff and students at Sussex University, to the Prime Minister. Thereafter, they held a demonstration outside South Africa House in Trafalgar Square. The next day, London television showed Mbeki leading the march. This kind of lobbying helped the Trialists, who were spared the hangman’s noose. For the next three decades, Mbeki would take up the job of rallying support against apartheid.

Mbeki completed his bachelor’s degree in economics at Sussex University in May 1965. With his own parents unable to attend his graduation ceremony, Adelaide Tambo and Michael Harmel took their place at the event. While in London, Mbeki spent all of his summers with the Tambo family.

After completing his first degree, Mbeki planned to join uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and he sought permission to do so, but this plan was vetoed by Tambo, who advised him to do a Master’s degree. In October 1965, Mbeki returned to Sussex for one year to do his Masters in Economics and Development. Mbeki at this time shared a flat with Peter Lawrence and Ingram, situated at 3 Sillwood Street.

While in England, Mbeki supported the Labour Party, then-led by Harold Wilson. Mbeki was intensely critical of the New Left revision of Marxism that swept Europe in the latter half of the 1960s and remained ardently loyal to the Soviet Union, which at the time heavily sponsored the ANC’s underground movement, providing them with financial and educational support, as well as arms and military training.

On 18 May 1966, Mbeki organised a 24-hour vigil at the Clock Tower in Brighton’s central square against Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Rhodesia.

In October 1966 Mbeki moved to London to work for the ANC full-time. During this period he met his wife to be, Zanele Dlamini, a social worker from Alexandra Township in Johannesburg, who was also studying in London. Zanele had just moved to London at this time.

In 1966, Mbeki appealed to Oliver Tambo to allow any South African student who supported the ANC to be admitted into the movement’s Youth and Students Section (YSS), irrespective of race. Tambo agreed and the YSS became the first non-racial arm of the ANC. In the same year, the ANC upheld its decision to exclude non-Africans from its National Executive meeting in Dar-es Salaam.

Mbeki busied himself with issues such as the protest against increases in student fees for foreign students, nuclear disarmament, and solidarity struggles with the peoples of Zimbabwe, Spain, Cyprus, Iraq, Iran and Vietnam, and the Portuguese-controlled territories,.

The YSS took an active role in the anti-Vietnam War movement, a campaign spearheaded by Mbeki. This led to Mbeki’s friend, Essop Pahad, being elected onto the organising committee of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC). The YSS became a major player in the anti-war marches. On 17 March 1968, Mbeki, took part in a massive anti-Vietnam demonstration outside the American embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square and had his upper right molar tooth cracked when he was attacked by a policeman. Although he was arraigned and arrested for his part in the demonstration, he was not one of the 246 that were eventually charged.

Mbeki completed his Master’s degree at Sussex University in May 1968.


Mbeki was finally given permission to undergo a year of military training at the Lenin International School in Moscow. He arrived in Moscow in February 1969 and became a student at the Lenin Institute, which was established exclusively for communists, the exception being non-communist members of liberation movements who could get ideological training at the Institute. Mbeki excelled at the Institute and regularly addressed the Institutes’ weekly assembly. While in Moscow, he continued writing articles, documents and speeches for the ANC and its organs.

In June 1969, Mbeki was chosen to be secretary of a high-level SACP delegation to the International Conference of Communist and Workers Parties in Moscow.

In June 1970, Mbeki was secretly shuttled from his military camp north-west of Moscow to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) guest house in Volynskoye, where the South African Communist Party’s (SACP’s) Central Committee was holding its meeting. This was indeed significant because, up to this point, the SACP leadership had been largely non-African. Mbeki and several Africans were now included in the committee, including Chris Hani. Both Hani and Mbeki celebrated their 28th birthdays at this meeting, making them the youngest members to ever serve on the committee.

While in Moscow, Mbeki was trained in advanced guerrilla warfare at Skhodnya, and although he was more comfortable with a book rather than a gun, the training was considered a necessary requirement if he was to be accepted as a leader. His military training was cut short as he was sent back to London to prepare for a new post in Lusaka.

Throughout Mbeki’s training, he kept in constant contact with Zanele.

Lusaka and Botswana

Together with Oliver Tambo, Mbeki left London for Lusaka in April 1971 to take up the position of assistant secretary of the ANC’s Revolutionary Council (RC). This was the first time in nine years that Mbeki was setting foot on African soil. The aim of the RC at this time was to bridge an ever-widening gap between the ANC in exile and the people back home. In Lusaka, Mbeki was housed in a secret location in Makeni, south-west of the city. Later, Mbeki moved over to work in the ANC’s propaganda section. But he continued to attend RC meetings. Four months after his arrival in Lusaka, Mbeki travelled to Beichlingen to deliver a speech on behalf of the ANC’s Executive Committee at the YSS summer school. This was a turning point in Mbeki’s life as it was the first time he spoke on behalf of the ANC as opposed to the ANC Youth League.

Why should we, in the Freedom Charter, say “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White” when our country is under foreign invaders, who even call themselves Europeans? Why therefore should we not say that South Africa belongs to the Black people? Why should we not say, “Power to the Black people”? Comrades, we hope you will have something to say on these questions.’ (A Dream Deferred)

One has to wonder whether these words were the beginnings of the making of an Africanist or just an attempt to stir up the anti-apartheid movement.

In December 1972, Mbeki joined Tambo at Heathrow airport to meet Mangosuthu Buthelezi to discuss mass resistance to apartheid. Mbeki is credited with facilitating the establishment of Inkatha – it was his responsibility to nurture the relationship between Buthelezi and the ANC. Mbeki was deployed to Botswana in 1973 to facilitate the development of an internal underground.

Mbeki’s life took a significant turn on 23 November 1974 when he married Zanele Dlamini. The wedding ceremony took place at Farnham Castle, the residence of Zanele’s sister Edith and her husband, Wilfred Grenville-Grey. Adelaide Tambo and Mendi Msimang stood in loco-parentis for Mbeki while Essop Pahad was Mbeki’s best man. The wedding, according to ANC rules, had to be approved by the organisation – a rule that applied to all permanently deployed members of the ANC.

Swaziland and Nigeria

In January 1975, just a few months after his marriage to Zanele, Mbeki was sent to Swaziland to assess the possibility of setting up an ANC frontline base in the country. Ostensibly attending a UN conference, Mbeki was accompanied by Max Sisulu. The duo met with Sisulu’s sister, Lindiwe Sisulu, who was studying at the University at Swaziland. Lindiwe set up a meeting for the two at the home of S’bu Ndebele, then a librarian at the university. Mbeki and Sisulu held meetings in Swaziland for a week with South Africans studying there to assess the situation. They returned to Lusaka after a week, when their visas had expired. Mbeki reported back to the ANC that the possibility of establishing an ANC base in Swaziland was promising, especially because of its location, as it was close to Johannesburg and Durban.

As a result, Mbeki was sent back to Swaziland to recruit soldiers for the organisation’s military wing. In Swaziland, Mbeki recruited hundreds of people into the ANC. He also liaised with Buthelezi and the latter’s newly formed Inkatha movement, and set up structures within South Africa. Mbeki’s aim was to establish contact with as many Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) members as he could and to draw them into the ANC.  Ironically, while Mbeki was converting BC adherents into ANC members, he would himself absorb many aspects of BC ideology.

In March 1976, Mbeki, Albert Dhlomo and Jacob Zuma were arrested in Swaziland, but the trio managed to escape deportation to South Africa. Instead, a month after their arrest, they were escorted across the border to Mozambique. From there, Mbeki went back to Lusaka for a few months before being posted to Nigeria in January 1977. Before leaving Lusaka, Mbeki was appointed as deputy to Duma Nokwe in the Department of Information and Propaganda (DIP). Mbeki’s mission in Nigeria was to establish diplomatic relations with Olusegun Obasanjo’s regime, – a mission that proved to be quite successful as Mbeki was to build a lasting relationship with the Nigerian authorities, eclipsing the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in Nigeria.

Zanele, who was running the Africa offices of the International University Education Fund in Lusaka, spent much of 1977 with her husband in Nigeria.

In 1978, Mbeki became political secretary in the office of Oliver Tambo. He became a close confidant of Tambo, advising him on all matters and writing many of his speeches. One of his duties as secretary was to choose a theme each year in accordance with the ANC’s current activities – 1979, for example, was known as ‘The Year of the Spear’, while 1980 was ‘The Year of the Charter’.

From 1979, with Mbeki as his right hand man, Tambo began building up the guerrilla movement into an internationally recognised guardian of South African freedom.


Mbeki was sent to Salisbury immediately after Robert Mugabe took office in 1980. On 11 August 1980, Tambo and Mbeki met with Mugabe and his advisor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in Salisbury. The meeting resulted in MK being allowed to move ammunition and cadres through Zimbabwe. Mugabe guaranteed that his government would assist ANC cooperatives in Zimbabwe. Mbeki, preferring to return to Lusaka, decided to hand over the reins in Zimbabwe to Chris Hani, who was to continue the relationship with Mugabe.

In July 1981 Joe Gqabi, the ANC representative in Zimbabwe, was assassinated at his home. The relationship between the ANC and the Zimbabwean government came under strain.

During the 1980s, Mbeki became a leading figure in the SACP, rising to the party’s central committee by the mid-1980s. The SACP was a vital part of the ANC alliance.

In February 1982, Mbeki’s brother Jama disappeared. He was later presumed dead.

In 1985, PW Botha declared a State of Emergency and gave the army and police special powers. In 1986, the South African Army sent a captain in the South African Defence Force (SADF) to kill Mbeki. The plan was to put a bomb in his house in Lusaka, but the assassin was arrested by the Zambian police before he could go through with the plan.

In 1985, Mbeki became the ANC’s director of the Department of Information and Publicity and coordinated diplomatic campaigns to involve more white South Africans in anti-apartheid activities. In 1989, he rose in the ranks to head the ANC's Department of International Affairs and was involved in the ANC's negotiations with the South African government.

Mbeki played a major role in turning the international media against apartheid. Raising the diplomatic profile of the ANC, Mbeki acted as a point of contact for foreign governments and international organisations and he was extremely successful in this position. Mbeki also played the role of ambassador to the steady flow of delegates from the elite sectors of white South Africa. These included academics, clerics, business people and representatives of liberal white groups who travelled to Lusaka to assess the ANC’s views on a democratic, free South Africa.

Mbeki was seen as pragmatic, eloquent, rational and urbane. He was known for his diplomatic style and sophistication, which went against the view, held by many right-wing organisations that the ANC was a terrorist organisation.

In the early 80s, Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Aziz Pahad were appointed by Tambo to conduct private talks with representatives of the National Party government. Twelve meetings between the parties took place between November 1987 and May 1990, most of them held at a country house near Bath in Somerset, England.  By September 1989, the team secretly met with Maritz Spaarwater and Mike Louw in a hotel in Switzerland. Known as ‘Operation Flair’, PW Botha was kept informed of all the meetings. At the same time, Mandela and Kobie Coetzee (then Minister of Justice) were also holding secret talks.

In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by FW De Klerk, who announced on 2 February 1990 that the ANC, SACP, PAC and other liberation movements were to be unbanned. This was a dramatic step, even for the National Party, but it was the pragmatic and moderate attitude of Mandela and Mbeki that played a crucial role in paving the way forward. Both of them reassured the National Party that the mass Black constituency would accept the idea of negotiations. A new constitutional order was in the offing. As a sign of goodwill, De Klerk set free a few of the ANC’s top leadership at the end of 1989, among them Govan Mbeki.

Between 1990 and 1994, the ANC began preparing for the first democratic elections. It was an adjustment period and Mbeki played a crucial role in transforming the ANC into a legal political organisation. In 1991, the ANC was able to hold its first legal conference in the country after 30 years of being banned. The party now had the task of finding a middle ground for discussion between all the various factions: the returning exiles, the long-term prisoners and those who had stayed behind to lead the struggle. Mbeki was chosen as national chair while Cyril Ramaphosa was elected secretary general and the ANC’s chief negotiator at the multiparty talks. Mbeki had up to this point been handling much of the diplomatic talks with the apartheid regime, and given his diplomatic experience and the level of bargaining that was expected, it came as a surprise that Mbeki was sidelined in favour of Ramaphosa.

Mbeki was now in a contest to become Mandela’s deputy. His rivals were Ramaphosa and Chris Hani, secretary general of the SACP. However, Mbeki had a strong support base among the ANC Youth League and the ANC’s Womens’ League. When Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, Mbeki and Ramaphosa were left to contest the position of Deputy President.

Deputy President

After South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, Mandela chose Mbeki to be the first deputy president in the Government of National Unity. On 10 May 1994, Mbeki was sworn in to his new post with FW De Klerk as the second deputy president. The ANC’s alliance partners (the SACP and Congress of South African Trade Unions -COSATU) appeared to approve of Mbeki in this position, and Ramaphosa quit politics to go into business.

The National Party withdrew from the Government of National Unity in June 1996 and Mbeki then became the sole deputy president. Although Mbeki was officially deputy president, he was referred to as the ‘de facto’ prime minister, as Mandela left the duties of state to Mbeki while he presided over a process of national reconciliation and busied himself with international relations.

While in this position Mbeki formed a ‘consultative council’ made up of Black politicians, academics and professionals. The council included the likes of Paulus Zulu, the then-chair of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), Mbhazima Shilowa, Sydney Mufamadi and Brigalia Bam, who became the chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The council, nicknamed the ‘kitchen cabinet’ by the media, met once a month with Essop Pahad as the convenor. In his attempt to encourage Black economic aspirations, Mbeki appointed mainly Black staff members.

In order to maintain a support base for the ANC, Mbeki targeted the townships and rural poor. He was particularly considerate to the rural chiefs, introducing a rural development strategy, while plans for urban renewal focussed on the townships.

Mbeki chose to build bridges between former enemies, one such example being his conciliatory attitude towards the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Jacob Zuma, who was then the chair of the ANC in Kwa-Zulu Natal, assisted Mbeki in this project. However, Mbeki was cool towards the SACP and kept a distance from the COSATU leadership.

COSATU’s rejection of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (GEAR) policy, introduced to parliament in June 1996, was probably the reason for the rift between Mbeki and the union leaders. Mbeki played a key role in introducing and defending GEAR policy.

Mbeki and the media; African Renaissance and President of ANC

As soon as Mbeki became deputy president, the media became intensely suspicious of him. In the early years when the ANC was newly unbanned and even during the negotiations, he was seen as a charming pragmatist. This changed quickly as he was now portrayed as a power-hungry manipulator who had the ability to sideline internal opponents and challengers to his leadership. Mbeki’s insistence on having a regular government slot on public radio and television alienated the media, which did not take well to what was seen as state interference.

At the 50th Conference of the ANC at Mafikeng in 1997, Mbeki was elected the new President of the African National Congress. 

In August 1998, he launched his African Renaissance banquet at Gallagher Estate in Midrand. Mbeki initially articulated the concept of the African Renaissance soon after his return from exile, when he felt there was a need to promote a restoration of the African identity and a sense of self-worth and dignity. He promulgated the concept at a continental level, and laid the foundation for the transformation of the the Organisation of African Unity into the African Union, and for New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), a strategy to renew the continent.

The Arms Deal

One of the controversial issues in Mbeki’s political history played out between 1996 and 1999, when he chaired the cabinet sub-committee on arms procurement, which put forward and approved the purchase of R30-billion worth of military hardware. The deal led to allegations of corruption levelled against Mbeki, Jacob Zuma, Schabir Sheik and his brother Chippy Sheik, Trevor Manuel, Joe Modise and others.

According to an article published in the Mail & Guardian, MAN Ferrostaal paid Thabo Mbeki R30-million to secure the arms contract, and when Mbeki was questioned by investigators about this matter, he claimed that R2-million was given to Jacob Zuma, while the rest of the money was given to the ANC. It appeared that the government had ignored the advice of its financial experts when it embarked on the R30-billion arms-deal, and ignoring too the economic risks involved. According to Mark Gevisser, Mbeki ‘championed the deal from the outset’.

The controversial ‘arms deal’ as it became known, cost the South African taxpayer dearly. It was also in direct opposition to Mbeki’s policy of steering the economy away from state spending and towards fiscal austerity. 

Another controversy during this time was when the German Frigate Consortium (GFC) won the tender to supply the South African Navy with four new ships, each worth R4-billion. It was found that a bribe of R130-million was paid to a senior South African politician. Chippy Sheik, the brother of Schabir, was fingered in this process. Although there was no evidence of Mbeki being a beneficiary to any of the money, he had played a role in awarding the frigate contract to the GFC.

In June 2005, Mbeki fired Jacob Zuma after a court found Shabir Sheik, Zuma’s old friend and advisor, guilty of bribing Zuma to safeguard his company’s interests. Zuma was subsequently also charged.

Mbeki and HIV/AIDS

The most serious criticism of Mbeki concerned his approach to the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) pandemic in 2001. Mbeki’s ‘dissident’ position saw him questioning the link between HIV and AIDS, and by implication the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs. Mbeki was casting doubt on the ‘orthodox’ theory that HIV causes AIDS. Gevisser describes Mbeki’s approach to the disease as shaped by his obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and ‘sexual shame’.

Mbeki withheld the distribution of anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs to public hospitals because he believed pharmaceutical companies were exaggerating the link between HIV and AIDS to increase sales of drugs, and that they concealed the toxic side effects of ARVs – which some critics believe has killed more people than the disease itself.

Critics on the other side believe that Mbeki’s unorthodox beliefs cost South Africa thousands of lives by delaying the distribution of anti-retoviral drugs. His view was supported by the then Health Minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

In May 2002, the Constitutional Court heard an appeal by the government against a High Court ruling requiring the government to provide nevirapine to all HIV-positive mothers.

Mbeki’s views on the HIV/AIDS controversy not only tainted his reputation in the international community but had a negative impact on NEPAD.


Many of Mbeki’s policies were influenced by his concept of African identity. Described by some as a 'quintessential African nationalist', Mbeki was driven by a desire to free South Africa and Africa as a whole from racial oppression and colonialism. His principal aim, according to The Economist, has been ‘to establish the new South Africa as, first and foremost, a black African country’.

In Mbeki’s own words, he wanted  ‘to persuade Africa to set up its own institutions and mechanisms for solving its problems, thus ending the constant, humiliating requests for aid to the West's former colonial powers’.

The Economistreports on interventions led by Mbeki to tackle some of the continent's most difficult political problems, most notably:

  • ‘Helping to get the warring parties to the negotiating table to end the civil war in Burundi.
  • Helping to facilitate the complex negotiations that produced a successful referendum on a new constitution in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ‘one of the continent's most war-ravaged states’.
  • Playing a part in ending conflicts in Sudan and Liberia.’

Mbeki was most noted for his efforts in setting up permanent institutions to serve Africa, such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) and the African Union (AU). Launched in 2001 with its headquarters in South Africa, Nepad was designed to heed a call to Africans to find African solutions to their problems:

‘The New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) is a programme of the African Union (AU) adopted in Lusaka, Zambia in 2001. NEPAD is a radically new intervention, spearheaded by African leaders to pursue new priorities and approaches to the political and socio-economic transformation of Africa. NEPAD's objective is to enhance Africa's growth, development and participation in the global economy.’

Launched in 2001, Nepad – ‘very much [Mbeki's] idea’ – is a socio-economic development blueprint for the continent which, crucially, ‘is designed to make African countries themselves responsible for upholding standards of democracy and good governance through the African Peer Review Mechanism’.

The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established on 25 May 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and this day is celebrated as Africa Day throughout the continent. During this time only 32 African states had gained their independence from colonialism. The main objectives of the OAU were:

  • The eradication of all forms of colonialism in Africa
  • The promotion of unity and solidarity of the African state
  • To defend their sovereignty, territorial integrity and their independence.

On 9 September 1999, the Heads of State and the Government of the Organisation of African Unity issued a Declaration, called the Sirte Declaration, announcing the establishment of the African Union. The vision of the African Union (AU) is that of ‘an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in global arena’.

It was on 9 July 2002, that the AU was launched to replace the OAU at a ceremony in Durban, South Africa. The AU now consists of 54 member states. During his time in office, Mbeki played a pivotal role in positioning South Africa as a regional power broker, thereby promoting the idea of solving African problems with Africans solutions.  Mbeki has played an influential role in mediating peace deals in Burundi, Rwanda, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Mbeki’s descent from power

Mbeki was heavily critised for his perceived complacency with regard to the rule of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe. Critics believed that instead of ‘quiet diplomacy’, Mbeki should have taken a tougher line against Mugabe, who dealt violently with opposition to his regime and expropriated farms owned by whites.

The crises of the Zimbabwean economy had a knock-on effect in South Africa as thousands of Zimbabweans flooded into the country, seeking employment and refuge. The influx has, according to some, led to an increase in crime and a housing shortage. The situation resulted in a series of xenophobic attacks in May 2008. Mbeki was accused of failing to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem.

Mbeki and his succession 

Mbeki’s downfall can be traced to the moment in 2005 when he relieved Jacob Zuma of his duties as Deputy President due to his implication in the corruption scandal. This caused a split in the ANC between Mbeki’s allies and supporters of Zuma.

At the ANC conference in Polokwane in December 2007, Mbeki  once again stood for election as ANC president but lost to Jacob Zuma, who went on to become the ANC’s presidential candidate for the 2009 general election.

In 2008, Jacob Zuma was cleared of all corruption charges, leading to the ANC National Executive Committee’s decision to ‘recall’ Mbeki. This resulted in Mbeki announcing his resignation on 21 September 2008. After leaving office Mbeki was appointed as the African Union’s lead negotiator for resolving the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan. 

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