Mbeki, Thabo Mvuyelwa

Mbeki, Thabo Mvuyelwa täˈbō mvo͝oyĕlˈə mbĕkˈē [key], 1942–, South African political leader. Mbeki was born into a politically active family; his father, Govan Mbeki, an official with the African National Congress (ANC), was imprisoned (1964) at Robben Island along with Nelson Mandela, released (1987), and became (1994) deputy vice president of the South African senate. Thabo Mbeki joined the ANC in his teens and left Africa illegally at the movement's behest in 1962, studying economics at the Univ. of Sussex (M.A., 1966). He represented the ANC in England (1966–70) and received (1970) military training in the USSR.

Returning to Africa in 1971, he worked with the ANC in exile in Zambia. During the 1970s he traveled throughout Africa for the ANC and became (1978) political secretary to its president, Oliver Tambo. In the 1980s, Mbeki was the ANC's director of information, becoming director of international affairs in 1989. After South Africa's ban against the ANC was lifted (1990), Mbeki was a key ANC negotiator in the talks that led to the end of apartheid. He was also successful in persuading the leaders of the ANC to embrace free-market principles. He was named chairman of the ANC in 1993 and, after the 1994 elections, became South Africa's deputy president.

When South African president Mandela announced (1996) that he was stepping down, Mbeki was Mandela's choice as his successor as leader of the ANC, and he became the country's second postapartheid president after the ANC's landslide win in 1999. He adopted a conservative fiscal policy while denouncing racism in South Africa and calling for affirmative action and economic empowerment for black South Africans. His public questioning of HIV as the cause of AIDS and of the safety of anti-AIDS drugs, however, somewhat diminished his standing abroad and at home. His catastrophic AIDS policies remain a blotch on his legacy. He also has acted as a mediator in a number of conflicts in other African nations. His “quiet diplomacy” between the government and opposition in Zimbabwe, which was slow to bear fruit and came to be regarded as inadequate by many, led to a power-sharing agreement in 2008 and an uneasy national unity goverment in 2009. Mbeki was elected to a second term in 2004.

Unhappiness with his leadership, which was seen as aloof, and with continued widespread poverty led in 2007 to his loss of the ANC chairmanship to Jacob Zuma, who had been Mbeki's deputy president before he was dismissed in 2005 after being implicated in a corruption case. A judge's suggestion in 2008 that the prosecution of Zuma had been influenced by Mbeki's government led the ANC to call for Mbeki to resign. Although Mbeki denied the accusation and appealed the judge's findings, he resigned (Sept., 2008).

Mbeki is considered by some historians to be one of the most influential African politicians of his generation. While he was unable to surpass inherited socioeconomic obstacles as president, Mbeki was a formative liberation leader in exile and played a significant role in the ANC's fight against apartheid.

See biographies by A. Hadland and J. Rantao (1999) and M. Gevisser (2007, rev. ed. 2009); studies by L. Mathebe (2001), S. Jacobs and R. Calland, ed. (2002), R. Calland and P. Graham, ed. (2005), W. M. Gumede (2005), R. S. Roberts (2007), D. Fassin, When Bodies Remember: Experiences and Politics of AIDS in South Africa (2007), D. Glaser, ed. (2008), B. Pottinger (2008), M. Gevisser (2009), and A. Adebajo (2017).

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