|There were reports that Mbeki’s deputy Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, left, would follow him [AFP]
Forced to step down from office months before his term ran out, Thabo Mbeki, who stands accused of influencing the trial of his political rival Jacob Zuma and leader of the governing African National Congress (ANC) over corruption, is a veteran of his country’s politics.
Mbeki, South Africa’s second black president after Nelson Mandela, joined politics in 1956, aged 14, becoming a member of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) while studying at Lovedale Institute in South Africa.
He was involved in underground activities in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand area after the ANC was banned in 1960 and mobilised students and youth in support of the ANC’s call for a stay at home in protest against the creation of a Republic (1961).
Elected secretary of the African Students Association in December 1961, he left South Africa for Zimbabwe, then southern Rhodesia, together with other students on instructions of the ANC. There he continued with political activism before he joined the University of Essex in the UK to read economics. He pursued studies while mobilising the international student community against apartheid.
His stints also saw him working for the ANC office in London from 1967 to 1970. During this time, he took time off to undergo military training in Russia, or the Soviet Union, as it was known at the time.
In 1971, he served as assistant secretary to the Revolutionary Council of the ANC in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
He was among the first ANC leaders to have contact with exiled and visiting members of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM).
As a result of his contact and discussions with the BCM, some of the leading members of this organisation found their way into the ranks of the ANC.
In the intervening years, Mbeki continued climbing the political ladder even though the ANC remained banned by the white regime in South Africa.
Mbeki participated in all subsequent negotiations leading to the adoption of the interim constitution for the new South Africa, and was elected chairperson of the ANC in 1993 a year before Mandela came to power.
When Mandela assumed power, Mbeki became his deputy and with the ANC facing no serious opposition – something it still enjoys – and Mandela declaring that he was going to serve one term, he became the obvious candidate as the next president of South Africa.
In 1999, he was elected to succeed Mandela.
Mbeki has presided over an economic boom, but critics say his market-oriented economic policies have been too slow to pull ordinary people out of poverty.
Many South Africans, especially blacks who looked to the ANC to lift them out of poverty after decades of marginalisation, are still a disgruntled lot as they continue to wallow in poverty.
Unemployment is also said to be high. Violent crime and the Aids pandemic are still huge problems that have defied solution.
Mbeki has faced sharp criticism over the handling of the Aids crisis in his country, and will be remembered for declaring that there is no link between HIV and Aids, which kills an estimated 900 people a day in South Africa.
Critics say he has undermined South Africa’s democratic credentials by using state institutions to purge opponents. This accusation seems to be at the root of his political woes, even though he denies fighting his political rivals.
Observers say he is against Zuma, whom he sacked in 2005 over allegations of curruption. But Zuma, who has yet to be cleared of corruption charges, enjoys massive grassroots support and will, as head of the ANC, almost certainly become the next South African president after elections next year.
The ANC has been divided by the infighting and there was talk that when parliament puts finishing touches to the formalities and Mbeki leaves office, his deputy Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, may follow him together with other cabinet ministers.
Kgalema Motlanthe, the deputy leader of the ANC and a staunch supporter of Zuma, is likely to become the interim head of state as the country prepares to go to elections, which will be held between April-June 2009.