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Mbeki's challenge: Setting his own pace in Mandela's footprints

Charlayne Hunter-Gault

By Charlayne Hunter-Gault
CNN Johannesburg Bureau Chief

September 23, 1999
Web posted at: 1:08 p.m. EDT (1708 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Quick off the starting block

Tests and critiques

Setting the tone at home and abroad

Pacing for the five-year term

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- It's been 100 days since the winner of South Africa's second all-race elections was sworn in, capping an electoral process almost as remarkable as the historic one that elevated Nelson Mandela to the presidency following his 27-year sacrifice.

Mbeki and Mandela
Mbeki, right, succeeded Mandela as South Africa's president in June  

Few African leaders have groomed their successors as Mandela did with Thabo Mbeki, his deputy president, and almost none has stepped down when his time was up. Additionally, the feared violence that threatened South Africa's first all-race elections, in 1994, never materialized.

Still, questions both large and small loomed about a South Africa after Mandela, the man most credited with ushering in the country's first era of peace and reconciliation.

And while Mbeki insisted, with humor, that he did not want to step into Mandela's shoes ("because he wears ugly shoes"), he could not escape the biggest question of all: If he wanted to, could Mbeki fill Mandela's shoes?

Quick off the starting block

Once sworn in as president on June 16, Mbeki was quick to start laying down his own footprints. And they were everywhere, beginning with his opening address to Parliament on June 25.

Wearing a conservative blue suit and blue-and-white dotted tie, the gray in his hair slightly more pronounced, the new 57-year-old president began confidently, and, as is his style, poetically.

"Steadily the dark clouds of despair are lifting, giving way to our season of hope. Our country, which for centuries has bled from a thousand wounds, is progressing towards its healing."

Mbeki then went on to commit his government to steering a course away from a country "brutal and brutish in the extreme," toward a "caring society" that would be "people-centered."

With lightning speed, Mbeki and his ministers announced new initiatives and plans of action, consolidating and integrating government departments, and setting goals and timetables that he told his ministers must be met.

CNN's Garrick Utley interviewed South African President Thabo Mbeki in New York on Monday, Sept. 20
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Key areas targeted were the woefully inadequate education system, the improving but still-ailing economy, the AIDS scourge and the country's high rate of serious crime, which cuts across South Africa's still-stark racial and class divides and deters investment and tourism -- two pillars of a national economic renaissance.

Suddenly government ministers were in the townships when trouble erupted, prompting one resident of Alexandra to say: "Thabo Mbeki maybe is forcing them to do their job."

Tests and critiques

While the new ideas and initiatives made headlines, what was widely regarded as the first litmus test of the Mbeki government came from labor, including one of the African National Congress' coalition partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

Strike action in July and August -- by public service employees belonging to a dozen unions representing more than a million workers -- threatened to paralyze the country.

Allowing his newly appointed minister of public service and administration, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, to take the lead, Mbeki stood firm against labor, whose wage demands the government deemed excessive.

The Mandela government had already equalized pay among black and white workers, so discrimination was not an issue. The Mbeki government, in adhering to its wage increase caps, told the strikers it had to weigh the needs of workers against those who had no jobs.

Mbeki himself has been actively involved in drafting plans to scale down a bloated and inefficient civil service, but little has materialized there or in a couple of other key areas -- privatization and labor laws that investors say are too inflexible. Mbeki has promised to revisit the trouble spots.

Fighting corruption is high on Mbeki's agenda, but he came under fire for refusing to get rid of one of his provincial premiers, after the premier said it was all right for politicians to lie.

Some critics also say Mbeki's achievements to date are marred by his tight grip on every lever of government, his insistence on handling all political appointments and moves they see as being aimed at centralizing authority.

Tony Leon, the leader of the small but official opposition Democratic Party, calls it an "almost Stalinist" approach.

But the president's law and order minister, Steve Tshwete, calls Mbeki "a democrat in the true sense of the word. He believes that his ministers must enjoy the leeway to do their work."

Two journalists who cover Parliament put it this way in a joint article in Johannesburg's Business Day: "Mbeki has an authoritarian bent, but his centralizing approach to government is as much explained by his desire to get things done."

Setting the tone at home and abroad

That debate aside, Mbeki's stature is growing at home and abroad -- not least because of his active role in helping resolve the Congo crisis, and because of his seminal call for an African renaissance that will see Africans solving their own problems.

Mbeki spoke in June of his country's need for healing  

Mbeki was one of the stars at the Organization of African Unity meeting in Algiers this summer, admonishing against coups and offering suggestions for how to handle coup-makers.

Kethla Shubane, an analyst with South Africa's Center for Policy Studies, praised Mbeki's focused attention on the region and the continent. Mbeki made his first trip outside of Africa just this week, to the United Nations General Assembly.

"In the first 100 days, for example, Mbeki did not travel outside of Africa," said Shubane. "I think he's putting his money where his mouth is."

Mbeki spends most of his time working in Pretoria, the administrative seat of government, rather than Capetown, the home to Parliament. This indicates the government believes its predecessor established the legal framework for the transformation of society and that it is now a matter of implementation.

Democratic leader Leon says of the first 100 days that there's been "too much PR and not enough action."

But many others, who used to refer to Mbeki as an enigma, are now singing a different song.

"He is hard to love, but difficult not to respect," wrote the two Mbeki watchers in Business Day; they also said a hallmark of the Mbeki presidency had been "a higher work rate" and "a stronger sense of urgency."

"The Kick-Butt President" was the headline on an analysis piece recently in Johannesburg's Sunday Times.

Pacing for the five-year term

The challenges Mbeki faces are formidable, not least being AIDS, which stands to decimate countless numbers of the next generation and which he now mentions in almost every speech.

The other major challenge: how to carry forward the racial reconciliation that was the hallmark of his predecessor's tenure while bringing economic and social justice to the country's black majority.

For example, the country is seized with debate over an incident last week on an army base in which a black lieutenant went on a shooting spree, killing six white soldiers and a white civilian before being killed himself. In the wake of the killings, the government has launched separate military and police investigations into problems with the integration of apartheid-era soldiers and their former enemies -- mostly black freedom fighters -- into a single defense force.

Thabo Mbeki has five years to meet those and other challenges. The question no longer seems to be whether he can fill Mandela's shoes, but whether he can keep up the pace set by his own shoes in his first 100 days.


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CNN In-Depth Special: South Africa Elections 1999

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