First elected in 1999 to succeed the anti-apartheid icon as South Africa's second black president, Mbeki has emerged as a cerebral leader committed to delivering on the promises of the country's young democracy.

But his government has been accused of failing to meet some of South Africa's biggest challenges -- including its AIDS epidemic, the crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe, sky-high crime rates and one of the world's widest gaps between rich and poor.

Critics have questioned whether Mbeki has built on South Africa's early success or undermined it. But such concerns have largely been overshadowed by a robust economy in the last years of his mandate.

Polls show Mbeki's African National Congress (ANC) headed for another big win in the April election, possibly scoring the two-thirds majority which would give the party -- and Mbeki -- the power to change the country's constitution.

Opposition leaders increasingly accuse the ANC of running South Africa as a one-party state. But Mbeki and party leaders say the ANC's popularity is a tribute to its history in the anti-apartheid battle and its policies aimed at bettering the lot of most South Africans.

Mbeki's reserved public image stands in contrast to the ebullient Mandela, who favoured bright, loose-fitting shirts and made racial reconciliation the theme of his presidency

Mbeki's reserved public image stands in contrast to the ebullient Mandela, who favoured bright, loose-fitting shirts and made racial reconciliation the theme of his presidency.

Ten years after Mandela won worldwide acclaim for guiding South Africa's peaceful transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994, Mbeki sticks to business suits and prefers specifics to sentiment.

Spread the wealth

Mbeki has downplayed, though never repudiated, Mandela's language of reconciliation since he became president of the ANC in December 1997.

Handed a country where economic power still lies firmly in white hands and most black citizens remain desperately poor, he has repeatedly said the country's white minority must work harder to spread the wealth.

President Thabo Mbeki is credited
with considerable intelligence      

Mbeki has said the ANC's next five years in power will see a major government effort to reduce poverty and create jobs, including some $16 billion to be spent on huge new public works projects.

A long-time member of the ANC and son of one of the party's first leaders, Mbeki left South Africa to pursue a masters in economics at Sussex University in England and military training in the Soviet Union, a key backer of the ANC's armed campaign against apartheid.

His own illegitimate son, born when he was 16, and his brother, Jama, are missing and presumed killed while working for the party against white rule. He is married to Zanele Mbeki.

Widely regarded as a workaholic and credited with considerable intelligence, Mbeki's sensitivity to criticism has caused the most negative comment.