African Encyclomedia

Thabo Mbeki

Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki; born 18 June 1942, is a South African politician who served as the second president of South Africa from 16 June 1999 to 24 September 2008. On 20 September 2008, with about nine months left in his second term, Mbeki announced his resignation after being recalled by the National Executive Committee of the ANC, following a conclusion by judge C. R. Nicholson of improper interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), including the prosecution of Jacob Zuma for corruption. On 12 January 2009, the Supreme Court of Appeal unanimously overturned judge Nicholson’s judgement but the resignation stood.

During his tenure in office, the South African economy grew at an average rate of 4.5% per year, creating employment in the middle sectors of the economy. The Black middle-class was significantly expanded with the implementation of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This growth increased the demand for trained professionals, whose numbers were strained by emigration due to violent crime, but failed to address unemployment amongst the unskilled bulk of the population. He attracted the bulk of Africa’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and made South Africa the focal point of African growth. He was the architect of NEPAD whose aim is to develop an integrated socio-economic development framework for Africa. He also oversaw the successful building of economic bridges to BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations with the eventual formation of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum to “further political consultation and co-ordination as well as strengthening sectoral co-operation, and economic relations”.

Mbeki mediated in issues on the African continent including Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast, and some important peace agreements. Mbeki oversaw the transition from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU). His “quiet diplomacy” in Zimbabwe, however, is blamed for protracting the survival of Robert Mugabe’s regime at the cost of thousands of lives and intense economic pressure on Zimbabwe’s neighbours. He became a vocal leader of the Non-Aligned Movement in the United Nations, and, while leveraging South Africa’s seat on the Security Council, he agitated for reform of that body.

Mbeki has received worldwide criticism for his stance on AIDS. He questions the link between HIV and AIDS and believes that the correlation between poverty and the AIDS rate in Africa was a challenge to the viral theory of AIDS. His fate was not helped by Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang and the overhaul of the pharmaceutical industry in South Africa. His ban of antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

Early life and education

Born and raised in Mbewuleni, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, Mbeki is one of four children of Epainette and Govan Mbeki. He is also the grandson of Chief Sikelewu Mbeki. The economist Moeletsi Mbeki is one of his brothers. His father was a stalwart of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party. He is a native Xhosa speaker and his father Govan named him Thabo after his old close friend Thabo Mofutsanyana. His parents were both teachers and activists in a rural area of strength to the African National Congress, and Mbeki describes himself as “born into the struggle”; a portrait of Karl Marx sat on the family mantelpiece, and a portrait of Mohandas Gandhi was on the wall.

Mbeki attended primary school in Idutywa and Butterworth and acquired a secondary education at Lovedale, Alice. In 1959, he was expelled from school as a result of student strikes and forced to continue his studies at home. In the same year, he sat for matriculation examinations at St. John’s High School, Umtata. In the ensuing years, he completed A-level examinations (the same tests undertaken in schools in England) in Johannesburg; and undertook an economics degree as an external student with the University of London. During this time, the ANC was outlawed and Mbeki was involved in underground activities in the Pretoria-Witwatersrand (now Gauteng) area. He was also involved in mobilising students in support of the ANC call for a stay at home to be held in protest of South Africa becoming a republic. He also holds a master’s degree in economics from Sussex University. He was the first black South African to obtain a distinction in economics.

In December 1961, Mbeki was elected secretary of the African Students’ Association. In the following year, he left South Africa on instructions of the ANC.

Govan Mbeki had come to the rural Eastern Cape as a political activist after earning two university degrees; he urged his family to make the ANC their family, and of his children, Thabo Mbeki is the one who most clearly followed that instruction, joining the party at the age of fourteen and devoting his life to it thereafter.

Marriage and family

Mbeki, aged 16, had a child with Olive Mpahlwa named Monwabise Kwanda. Monwabise Kwanda disappeared in 1981 with Thabo’s youngest brother Jama.

On 23 November 1974, Mbeki married Zanele (née Dlamini) at Farnham Castle in the United Kingdom. They have no children.

Exile and return

Going into exile

After the banning of the ANC, the organisation decided it would be better for 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 would later be elected the longest-serving president of the ANC in the absence of the jailed Rivonia trialists. 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. To hold the prisoners, the General Laws Amendment Act, Number 37 of 1963, was rushed through Parliament and applied retrospectively to 27 June 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 the politics of Nazi Germany. In April 1964, Mbeki appeared before a delegation of the United Nations 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.

On 6 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 its Morogoro conference. 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, southwest 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.

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 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 (renamed to Harare in 1980) immediately after Robert Mugabe took office as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe 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.

In the early 1980s, 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 Mells Park House, 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, the 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 Women’s League. When Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, Mbeki and Ramaphosa were left to contest the position of Deputy President.

After leaving the Eastern Cape, Thabo Mbeki lived in Johannesburg, working with Walter Sisulu. After the arrest and imprisonment of Sisulu, Mandela and his father—and facing a similar fate—he left South Africa as one of a number of young ANC militants (Umkhonto we Sizwe cadres) sent abroad to continue their education and their anti-apartheid activities. He ultimately spent 28 years in exile, returning to his homeland only after the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mbeki spent the early years of his exile in the United Kingdom. In 1962, aged 19, he arrived at the brand-new University of Sussex, earning first a BA degree in economics, and then remaining to complete a Master’s degree in African studies. While at Sussex he saw himself as a representative of the ANC and helped motivate the university population against apartheid. Still in the UK, he worked in the ANC’s London office on Penton Street. He received military training in the Soviet Union and lived at different times in Botswana, Swaziland and Nigeria, but his primary base was in Lusaka, Zambia, the site of the ANC headquarters.

In 1973, Mbeki was sent to Botswana, where he engaged the Botswana government in discussions to open an ANC office there. He left Botswana in 1974. In 1975, he became a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC. In December 1976, he was sent to Nigeria as a representative of the ANC.

While in exile, his brother Jama Mbeki, a supporter of the rival Pan Africanist Congress, was killed by agents of the Lesotho government in 1982 while attempting to assist the Lesotho Liberation Army. His son Kwanda, the product of a liaison in Mbeki’s teenage years, was killed while trying to leave South Africa to join his father. When Mbeki finally was able to return home to South Africa and was reunited with his own father, the elder Mbeki told a reporter, “You must remember that Thabo Mbeki is no longer my son. He is my comrade!” A news article pointed out that this was an expression of pride, explaining, “For Govan Mbeki, a son was a mere biological appendage; to be called a comrade, on the other hand, was the highest honour.”

Mbeki devoted his life to the ANC and during his years in exile was given increased responsibility. Following the 1976 Soweto riots – a student uprising in the township outside Johannesburg – he initiated a regular radio broadcast from Lusaka, tying ANC followers inside the country to their exiled leaders. Encouraging activists to keep up the pressure on the apartheid regime was a key component in the ANC’s campaign to liberate their country. In the late 1970s, Mbeki made a number of trips to the United States in search of support among US corporations. Literate and funny, he made a wide circle of friends in New York City. Mbeki was appointed head of the ANC’s information department in 1984 and then became head of the international department in 1989, reporting directly to Oliver Tambo, then President of the ANC. Tambo was Mbeki’s long-time mentor.

Mbeki with U.S. President George W. Bush, July 2003(L) and with Russian President Vladimir Putin, 5 September 2006 (R)

In 1985, Mbeki was a member of a delegation that began meeting secretly with representatives of the South African business community, and in 1989, he led the ANC delegation that conducted secret talks with the South African government. These talks led to the unbanning of the ANC and the release of political prisoners. He also participated in many of the other important negotiations between the ANC and the government that eventually led to the democratisation of South Africa.

He became a Deputy President of South Africa in May 1994 on the attainment of universal suffrage (Right To Vote), and sole Deputy President in June 1996. He succeeded Nelson Mandela as ANC president in December 1997 and as President of South Africa in June 1999; he was re-elected for a second term in April 2004.

Role in African politics

Picture taken of Thabo Mbeki in 2001 in District Six, Cape Town, on the occasion of one of a number of “handing back District Six” ceremonies. Picture by Henry Trotter. The author releases it to the public domain.

Mbeki has been a powerful figure in African politics, positioning South Africa as a regional power broker and promoting the idea that African political conflicts should be solved by Africans. He headed the formation of both the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU) and has played influential roles in brokering peace deals in Rwanda, Burundi, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has also tried to popularise the concept of an African Renaissance. He sees African dependence on aid and foreign intervention as a major barrier, and sees structures like NEPAD and the AU as part of a process in which Africa solves its own problems without relying on outside assistance.

George W. Bush meets with Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, left, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, center, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, right, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.

Mbeki has sometimes been characterised as remote and academic, although in his second campaign for the Presidency in 2004, many observers described him as finally relaxing into more traditional ways of campaigning, sometimes dancing at events and even kissing babies. Mbeki used his weekly column in the ANC newsletter ANC Today, to produce discussions on a variety of topics. He sometimes used his column to deliver pointed invective against political opponents, and at other times used it as a kind of professor of political theory, educating ANC cadres on the intellectual justifications for African National Congress policy. Although these columns were remarkable for their dense prose, they often were used to influence the news. Although Mbeki did not generally make a point of befriending or courting reporters, his columns and news events often yielded good results for his administration by ensuring that his message is a primary driving force of news coverage. Indeed, in initiating his columns, Mbeki stated his view that the bulk of South African media sources did not speak for or to the South African majority, and stated his intent to use ANC Today to speak directly to his constituents rather than through the media.

Economic policies

The CIA World Factbook says: “South African economic policy is fiscally conservative, but pragmatic, focusing on targeting inflation and liberalising trade as means to increase job growth and household income.”

Mbeki, as an ANC insider and while president, was a major force behind the continued neoliberal structure of the South African economy. He drew criticism from the left for his perceived abandonment of state-interventionist social democratic economic policies, such as nationalisation, land reform, and democratic capital controls, prescribed by the Freedom Charter, the ANC’s seminal document.

Mbeki and the Internet

Mbeki appears to have been at ease with the Internet and willing to quote from it. For instance, in a column discussing Hurricane Katrina, he cited Wikipedia, quoted at length a discussion of Katrina’s lessons on American inequality from the Native American publication Indian Country Today, and then included excerpts from a David Brooks column in the New York Times in a discussion of why the events of Katrina illustrated the necessity for global development and redistribution of wealth.

His penchant for quoting diverse and sometimes obscure sources, both from the Internet and from a wide variety of books, made his column an interesting parallel to political blogs although the ANC does not describe it in these terms. His views on AIDS (see below) were supported by Internet searching which led him to so-called “AIDS denialist” websites; in this case, Mbeki’s use of the Internet was roundly criticised and even ridiculed by opponents.

Global apartheid

Mbeki has used his position on the world stage to call for an end to global apartheid, a term he uses to describe the disparity between a small minority of rich nations and a great number of impoverished states in the world, arguing that a “global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable”.



South Africa’s proximity, strong trade links, and similar struggle credentials place South Africa in a unique position to influence politics in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation since 2000 was a matter of increasing concern to Britain (as the former colonial power) and other donors to that country. High-ranking diplomatic visits to South Africa repeatedly attempted to persuade Mbeki to take a harder line with Robert Mugabe over violent state-sponsored attacks on political opponents and opposition movements, expropriation of white-owned farms by ZANU-PF allied “war veterans”, sanctioning against the press, and infringements on the independence of the judiciary.

Rather than publicly criticising Mugabe’s government, Mbeki chose “quiet diplomacy” over “megaphone diplomacy” – his term for the West’s increasingly forthright condemnation of Mugabe’s rule. Mbeki is even quoted claiming “there is no crisis” in Zimbabwe, despite increasing evidence of political violence and murders, hyperinflation, and the influx of political refugees into South Africa.

To quote Mbeki: The point really about all this from our perspective has been that the critical role we should play is to assist the Zimbabweans to find each other, really to agree among themselves about the political, economic, social, other solutions that their country needs. We could have stepped aside from that task and then shouted, and that would be the end of our contribution … They would shout back at us and that would be the end of the story. I’m actually the only head of government that I know anywhere in the world who has actually gone to Zimbabwe and spoken publicly very critically of the things that they are doing.

2002 Presidential elections

Mugabe faced a critical presidential election in 2002. Concerns over the conduct of the election in Zimbabwe prompted debate within the Commonwealth and led to a difficult decision to suspend Zimbabwe from the organisation. Mbeki supported Mugabe during this period. It is thought that Mbeki viewed Mugabe as “a victim of imperialist meddling and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a Western stooge.”

The full meeting of the Commonwealth had failed in a consensus to decide on the issue, and they tasked the previous, present (at the time), and future leaders of Commonwealth (respectively President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, John Howard of Australia, and Mbeki of South Africa) to come to a consensus between them over the issue. On 20 March 2002 (10 days after the elections, which Mugabe won), Howard announced that they had agreed to suspend Zimbabwe for a year.

A 50 person-strong South African Observer Mission found that the outcome of the 2002 Zimbabwe presidential elections “should be considered legitimate” despite condemnations over the conduct of the election by the Commonwealth, Norwegian observers, Zimbabwean opposition figures, and Western governments and media.

Mbeki also sent South African judges Sisi Khampepe and Dikgang Moseneke to observe and compile a report on the elections. The report was kept secret until 2014 when the Constitutional Court ordered that Khampepe’s report should be made public after a long court case brought against the South African government by the Mail & Guardian newspaper. The Khampepe Report contradicted the South African Observer Mission and found that the election “cannot be considered to be free and fair” and documented 107 murders mostly committed against supporters of the opposition MDC by Zanu-PF militias in the weeks before the elections.

Mbeki’s stance on the elections permanently soured relations between South Africa and Zimbabwe’s opposition and negatively affected the credibility of South African diplomacy.

2005 Parliamentary Elections

In the face of laws restricting public assembly and freedom of the media, restricting campaigning by the MDC for the 2005 Zimbabwe parliamentary elections, President Mbeki was quoted as saying: I have no reason to think that anything will happen … that anybody in Zimbabwe will act in a way that will militate against the elections being free and fair. […] As far as I know, things like an independent electoral commission, access to the public media, the absence of violence and intimidation … those matters have been addressed.

Minerals and Energy Minister Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka led the largest foreign observer mission, the SADC Observer Mission, to oversee the Zimbabwe elections. Contrary to other international missions and parts of the SA Parliamentary Mission, the mission congratulated the people of Zimbabwe for holding a peaceful, credible and well-mannered election that reflects the will of the people. The Democratic Alliance delegation (part SA Parliamentary Observer Mission) clashed with the minister and eventually submitted a separate report contradicting her findings. The elections were widely denounced and many accused Zanu-PF of massive and often violent intimidation, using food to buy votes and large discrepancies in the tallying of votes.

Dialogue between Zanu-PF and MDC

Mbeki attempted to restore dialogue between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in the face of denials from both parties. A fact-finding mission in 2004 by the Congress of South African Trade Unions to Zimbabwe led to their widely publicised deportation back to South Africa which reopened the debate, even within the ANC, as to whether Mbeki’s policy of “quiet diplomacy” was constructive.

On 5 February 2006 Mbeki said in an interview with SABC television that Zimbabwe had missed a chance to resolve its political crisis in 2004 when secret talks to agree on a new constitution ended in failure. He claimed that he saw a copy of a new constitution signed by all parties. The job of promoting dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition was likely made more difficult by divisions within the MDC, splits to which the president alluded when he stated that the MDC were “sorting themselves out.” In turn, the MDC unanimously rejected this assertion.

Pencil drawing of Don Quixote

“We never gave Mbeki a draft constitution – unless it was ZANU PF which did that. Mbeki has to tell the world what he was really talking about.”

– MDC-Mutambara Faction Secretary General Welshman Ncube

In May 2007 it was reported that Mbeki had been partisan and taken sides with Zanu-PF in his role as mediator. He had given pre-conditions to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change before the dialogue could resume while giving no conditions to the ZANU-PF government. He required that the MDC accept and recognise Robert Mugabe as the president of Zimbabwe, and the MDC accept the 2002 presidential election results despite the widespread belief of being unfree, unfair, and fraudulent.

Business response

On 10 January 2006, businessman Warren Clewlow, on the board of four of the top-10 listed companies in SA, including Old Mutual, Sasol, Nedbank and Barloworld, said that government should stop its unsuccessful behind-the-scenes attempts to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis and start vociferously condemning what was happening in that country. Clewlow’s sentiments reflected the South African private sector’s increasing impatience with Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” and were echoed by Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), the umbrella body for business organisations in South Africa.

As the company’s chairman, he said in Barloworld’s latest annual report that SA’s efforts to date were fruitless and that the only means for a solution was for SA “to lead from the front. Our role and responsibility is not just to promote discussion… Our aim must be to achieve meaningful and sustainable change.”

Position on Mugabe

Mbeki was frequently criticised for not exerting pressure on Mugabe to relinquish power, although he chaired meetings in which the Zimbabwean leader’s potential departure from power was negotiated. He rejected calls in May 2007 for tough action against Zimbabwe ahead of a visit by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He said on 29 July 2007 that Zimbabwe elections in March 2008 must be ‘free and fair’. An article critical of Mbeki’s handling of Mugabe appeared in Forbes and claimed a peaceful transfer of power in Zimbabwe “will not be because of [Mbeki], but in spite of him.” Ebrahim Fakir, a researcher at the Johannesburg-based Centre for Policy Studies, and Susan Booysen, a political analyst at the University of the Witwatersrand, said that Mbeki botched his legacy due to his cautious approach to Mugabe. The media has been very critical: The Washington Post published a commentary describing Mbeki as a bankrupt democrat and accused him of complicity in “stealing” the Zimbabwean election, while The Economist called Mbeki’s actions “unconscionable”.

SADC facilitator of Zimbabwe power-sharing agreement

At the end of the fourth day of negotiations, South African President and mediator to Zimbabwe, Thabo Mbeki, announced in Harare that Robert Mugabe of ZANU-PF, professor Arthur Mutambara of MDC-M and Morgan Tsvangirai of MDC-T finally signed the power-sharing agreement – “memorandum of understanding.” Mbeki stated: “An agreement has been reached on all items on the agenda … all of them [Mugabe, Tsvangirai, Mutambara] endorsed the document tonight and signed it. The formal signing will be done on Monday at 10 am. The document will be released then. The ceremony will be attended by the SADC and other African regional and continental leaders. The leaders will spend the next few days constituting the inclusive government to be announced on Monday. The leaders will work very hard to mobilise support for the people to recover. We hope the world will assist so that this political agreement succeeds.” In the signed historic power deal, Mugabe, on 11 September 2008, agreed to surrender day-to-day control of the government, and the deal was also expected to result in a de facto amnesty for the military and ZANU-PF party leaders. Opposition sources said that “Tsvangirai will become prime minister at the head of a council of ministers, the principal organ of government, drawn from his party and the president’s ZANU-PF party; and Mugabe will remain president and continue to chair a cabinet that will be a largely consultative body, and the real power will lie with Tsvangirai.” South Africa’s Business Day reported, however, that Mugabe was refusing to sign a deal that would curtail his presidential powers. Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the MDC-T, announced that “this is an inclusive government” and that the executive power would be shared by the president, the prime minister, and the cabinet. According to The New York Times, Mugabe, Tsvangirai, and Arthur Mutambara had still not decided how to divide the ministries, and Jendayi E. Frazer, the American Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, said: “We don’t know what’s on the table, and it’s hard to rally for an agreement when no one knows the details or even the broad outlines”.

On 15 September 2008, the leaders of the 14-member Southern African Development Community witnessed the signing of the power-sharing agreement, brokered by Mbeki. With a symbolic handshake and warm smiles at the Rainbow Towers hotel, in Harare, Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed the deal to end the violent political crisis. Mugabe was to remain president, Morgan Tsvangirai was to become prime minister, the MDC was to control the police, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was to command the Army, and Arthur Mutambara was to deputy prime minister.


Mbeki’s views on the causes of AIDS, and in particular the link between HIV and AIDS, and the treatment of AIDS have been widely criticised.

In 1995 the International Conference for People Living with HIV and AIDS was held in South Africa, the first time that the annual conference had been held in Africa. At the time Mbeki was Deputy President and in his official capacity acknowledged the seriousness of the epidemic. The South African Ministry of Health announced that some 850,000 people – 2.1% of the total population – were believed to be HIV-positive. In 2000 the Department of Health outlined a five-year plan to combat AIDS, HIV and sexually transmitted infections. A National AIDS Council was established to oversee the implementation of the plan.

However, after becoming President, Mbeki changed tack and represented the views of a small minority of eminent scientists who claimed that AIDS was not caused by HIV. These included Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, the U.S.A National Academy of Sciences member Peter Duesberg as well as others with varying degrees of prominence. Mbeki found their views compelling, although the overwhelming majority of scientists disagree with them. On 9 July 2000, at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, President Mbeki made a speech that attracted much criticism in that he avoided references to HIV and instead focused mainly on poverty as a powerful co-factor in AIDS diagnosis. His administration was repeatedly accused of failing to respond adequately to the AIDS epidemic, and including failing to authorise and implement an overall national treatment program for AIDS that included anti-retroviral medicines, and in particular an antiretroviral programme to prevent HIV transmission from pregnant mothers to babies while in the womb.

Mbeki’s government did, however, introduce a law allowing cheaper locally produced generic medicines, and in April 2001 succeeded in defending a legal action brought by transnational pharmaceutical companies to set aside the law. AIDS activists, particularly the Treatment Action Campaign and its allies, thought that the law was intended to support a cheap antiretroviral drugs programme and applauded Mbeki’s government. However, the Treatment Action Campaign and its allies were eventually forced to resort to the South African Courts which in 2002 ordered the government to make the drug nevirapine available to pregnant women to help prevent mother to child transmission of HIV. Notwithstanding and despite international drug companies offering free or cheap antiretroviral drugs, until 2003, South Africans with HIV who used the public sector health system could only get treatment for opportunistic infections they suffered because of their weakened immune systems, but could not get antiretrovirals designed to specifically target HIV. In November 2003, the government finally approved a plan to make antiretroviral treatment publicly available. It appears that this was only after the Cabinet had over-ruled the President.

In November 2008, The New York Times reported that due to Thabo Mbeki’s rejection of scientific consensus on AIDS and his embrace of AIDS denialism, an estimated 365,000 people had perished in South Africa. A study in African Affairs in 2008 found that Mbeki’s government could have prevented the deaths of 343,000 South Africans during his tenure, had it followed the more sensible public health policies then applied in the Western Cape province.

Mbeki and the Cabinet

The South African Constitution allows the Cabinet to override the President. The secret ballot appears to have gone against the president when Cabinet policy declared that HIV is the cause of AIDS. Again in August 2003, Cabinet promised to formulate a national treatment plan that would include ARVs. At the time the Health Ministry was still headed by Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who had served as health minister since June 1999, and was promoting approaches to AIDS such as a diet of African potatoes and garlic, while highlighting the toxicities of antiretroviral drugs. This led critics to question whether the same leadership that opposed ARV treatment would effectively carry out the treatment plan. Implementation was slow requiring a court judgement to eventually force government to distribute ARV’s. Delivery was further improved when Thabo Mbeki was ousted, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang re-deployed as the Minister of the Presidency, and Barbara Hogan deployed to Minister of Health.

AIDS denialist connections

After he assumed the Presidency, he appears to have articulated more clearly his understanding that poverty is a significant factor in the prevalence of AIDS and other health problems. He urged political attention to be directed to addressing poverty generally rather than only against AIDS specifically. Some speculate that the suspicion engendered by life in exile and by the colonial domination and control of Africa led Mbeki to react against a portrayal of AIDS as another Western characterisation of Africans as promiscuous and Africa as a continent of disease and hopelessness. For example, speaking to a group of university students in 2001, he struck out against what he viewed as the racism underlying how many in the West characterised AIDS in Africa: Convinced that we are but natural-born, promiscuous carriers of germs, unique in the world, they proclaim that our continent is doomed to an inevitable mortal end because of our unconquerable devotion to the sin of lust.

ANC rules and Mbeki’s commitment to the idea of party discipline mean that he may not publicly criticise the current government policy that HIV causes AIDS and that antiretrovirals should be provided. Some critics of Mbeki continued to assert that notwithstanding he continued to influence AIDS policy through his personal views behind the scenes, a charge which his office regularly denies. However, in a 2007 published biography “Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred”, author Mark Gevisser describes how the president, knowing that he was writing the biography, contacted him earlier in 2007. This was to ask whether the author had seen a 100-page paper secretly authored by Mr Mbeki and distributed anonymously among the ANC leadership six years ago. This paper compared orthodox AIDS scientists to latter-day Nazi concentration camp doctors and portrayed black people who accepted orthodox AIDS science as “self-repressed” victims of a slave mentality. It described the “HIV/AIDS thesis” as entrenched in “centuries-old white racist beliefs and concepts about Africans”. In the published biography, Mr Gevisser describes the president’s view of the disease as apparently shaped by an obsession with race, the legacy of colonialism and “sexual shame”.

Since the release of the biography, President Mbeki’s defenders have tried hard to clarify his position as being an AIDS “dissident” as opposed to an AIDS “denier”. That is, he accepts that HIV causes AIDS but is a dissident in that he is at odds with prevailing AIDS-focused public health policies, stating that it is only one of many immune deficiency diseases, many of which are associated with poverty, and that political attention and resources should be directed to poverty and immune deficiency diseases generally rather than AIDS specifically.

Electricity crisis

In January 2008 the South African government announced that it would introduce electricity rationing. On 25 January 2008, the country’s deepening power crisis was such that South Africa’s (and the world’s) largest gold and platinum mining companies were forced to shut down operations. Eskom (the national power supplier) and the government both apologised for the blackouts and in his next-to-last State of the Nation speech, Mbeki devoted nearly three pages to the electricity crisis, repeating the apologies of Eskom and the government. Mbeki blamed the power shortages on increased demand caused by years of economic growth and the provision of electricity to black townships that were not connected in the apartheid era. But Mbeki also admitted the government had failed to heed warnings from Eskom (the earliest 10 years previously) that without new power stations Eskom might not be able to meet demand by 2007. Each year over the preceding 10 years, Eskom had produced annual Integrated Strategic Electricity Plans each setting out scenarios of future investment requirements to cope with projected increased demand, but although projections of average demand growth in the period 2001–2005 had been accurate, no investment had been forthcoming. Mbeki failed to respond to allegations that the government’s black empowerment strategy had been a root cause of the problem in that small and medium sized black entrepreneurs, in preference to large corporations, had been awarded coal supply tenders. The policy of giving preference to small suppliers had caused problems in securing reliable supplies of coal, and had also, because small suppliers did not have the capital to invest in rail or conveyor belts infrastructure but used coal trucks, accelerated the wear and tear damage to the roads around the power stations. Warnings highlighted in several of Eskom’s annual reports, starting in 2003, had been ignored not only by the Eskom board but also its political masters, Mbeki’s government.

The power problems were further exacerbated by Mbeki’s government policy of attracting energy-intensive industry (such as Aluminium smelters) through the carrot of cheap electricity. This meant that as Eskom’s excess capacity ran out and became a deficit, the South African government finds itself contractually bound to provide power to energy-intensive industries, despite this meaning the rest of the country experienced traffic problems and business disruption due to the blackouts. For South Africa to remain a desirable foreign investment destination the country must be seen to honour its contractual obligations. To shut down the smelters is not a simple process, said one analyst. The government would be paying the cost of effects all through the relevant parties aluminium value chain – it is aluminium refineries and bauxite ore mines in other countries.


In 2004 President Thabo Mbeki made an attack on commentators who argued that violent crime was out of control in South Africa, calling them white racists who want the country to fail. He alleged that crime was falling and some journalists were distorting reality by depicting black people as “barbaric savages” who liked to rape and kill. Annual statistics published in September 2004 showed that most categories of crime were down, but some had challenged the figures’ credibility and said that South Africa remained extremely dangerous, especially for women. In a column for the African National Congress website, the president rebuked the doubters. Mr Mbeki did not name journalist Charlene Smith who had championed victims of sexual violence since writing about her own rape, but quoted a recent article in which she said South Africa had the highest rate of rape and referred (apparently sarcastically) to her as an “internationally recognised expert on sexual violence”. He said: “She was saying our cultures, traditions and religions as Africans inherently make every African man a potential rapist … [a] view which defines the African people as barbaric savages.” Mr Mbeki also described the newspaper The Citizen, and other commentators who challenged the apparent fall in crime, as pessimists who did not trust black rule.

In January 2007, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) draft report on South Africa was released. This noted that South Africa had the world’s second-highest murder rate, with about 50 people a day being killed and that although serious crime was reported as falling, security analysts said that the use of violence in robberies, and rape, were more common. Mbeki in response said in an interview that fears of crime were exaggerated.

In December 2007 the final African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) report on South Africa, again suggested that there was an unacceptably high level of violent crime in the country. President Mbeki said the suggestion of unacceptably high violent crime appeared to be an acceptance by the panel of what he called “a populist view”. He challenged some of the statistics on crime, which he noted may have resulted from a weak information base, leading to wrong conclusions. Although rape statistics had been obtained from the South African Police Service, “this only denotes the incidents of rape that were reported, some of which could have resulted in acquittals” Mbeki indicated.

2008 Xenophobia attacks

In May 2008 a series of riots took place in a number of townships, mainly in Gauteng Province, which left 42 dead, several hundred injured and several thousand displaced. The root cause of the riot was xenophobic attacks on foreigners, mainly Zimbabweans who had fled their country following the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy. The migrants were blamed for high levels of unemployment, housing shortages and crime.

Following the riots, Mbeki was criticised for ignoring the scale of the problem and failing to deal with its causes. The Zimbabwe Exiles Group accused him of being “more concerned with appeasing Mr Mugabe than recognising the scale of the problem caused by the flood of Zimbabweans into South Africa.”

In response to the violence, President Mbeki announced he would set up a panel of experts to investigate the riots, and authorised military force against rioters. This is the first time that such authorisation of military force was used by the government since the end of apartheid.

Role in procuring the 2010 FIFA World Cup

It was Mbeki’s vision and his African renaissance attitude that had undoubtedly brought the successful bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Acknowledging Mbeki’s contribution, Business Day newspaper in Johannesburg said in its editorial opinion “The fact is that it was the former president’s vision of an African renaissance, with South Africa leading the charge to prove to the rest of the world that the continent was not destined to disappoint in perpetuity, that resulted in us persisting in our bid to host the tournament.” Similarly, the same theme was mentioned by the Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg saying “Now we know he was correct in that assessment of South Africa’s ability to stage the greatest show on earth.” Mbeki always believed that Africans are capable of hosting the World Cup. President Mbeki worked to bring the 2010 World Cup to the African continent for the first time. He personally asked favours to some world leaders to support his World Cup bid. Among these leaders is the then-president of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Mbeki said, “With your distinguished football record, the International Football Federation (FIFA) can hardly refuse if Brazil says the cup must go to South Africa”.

Debate with Archbishop Tutu

In 2004 the Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, criticised President Mbeki for surrounding himself with “yes-men”, not doing enough to improve the position of the poor and for promoting economic policies that only benefited a small black elite. He also accused Mbeki and the ANC of suppressing public debate. Mbeki responded that Tutu had never been an ANC member and defended the debates that took place within ANC branches and other public forums. He also asserted his belief in the value of democratic discussion by quoting the Chinese slogan “let a hundred flowers bloom”, referring to the brief Hundred Flowers Campaign within the Chinese Communist Party in 1956–57.

The ANC Today newsletter featured several analyses of the debate, written by Mbeki and the ANC. The latter suggested that Tutu was an “icon” of “white elites”, thereby suggesting that his political importance was overblown by the media; and while the article took pains to say that Tutu had not sought this status, it was described in the press as a particularly pointed and personal critique of Tutu. Tutu responded that he would pray for Mbeki as he had prayed for the officials of the apartheid government.

Mbeki, Zuma, and succession

In 2005 Mbeki removed Jacob Zuma from his post as Deputy President of South Africa after Zuma was implicated in a corruption scandal. In October 2005, some supporters of Zuma (who remained deputy president of the ANC) burned t-shirts portraying Mbeki’s picture at a protest. In late 2005, Zuma faced new rape charges, which dimmed his political prospects. There was a visible split between Zuma’s supporters and Mbeki’s allies in the ANC.

In February 2006, Mbeki told the SABC that he and the ANC had no intention to change the Constitution of the country to permit him a third term in office. He stated, “By the end of 2009, I will have been in a senior position in government for 15 years. I think that’s too long.”

Mbeki, although barred by the Constitution of South Africa from seeking a third term as president of the country, in 2007 entered the race to be President of the ANC (no term limit exists for the position of ANC president), for a third term, in a close battle with Jacob Zuma. He lost this vote against Jacob Zuma on 18 December 2007 at the ANC conference in Polokwane. Zuma went on to be the ANC’s presidential candidate in the 2009 general election.


On 12 September 2008, Pietermaritzburg High Court Judge Chris Nicholson ruled that Zuma’s corruption charges were unlawful on procedural grounds, adding there was reason to believe the charges against Zuma had been politically motivated, thereby clearing the way for Zuma to run for president.

“It was improper for the court to make such far-reaching ‘vexatious, scandalous and prejudicial’ findings concerning me, to be judged and condemned on the basis of the findings in the Zuma matter. The interests of justice, in my respectful submission, would demand that the matter be rectified. These adverse findings have led to my being recalled by my political party, the ANC—a request I have acceded to as a committed and loyal member of the ANC for the past 52 years. I fear that if not rectified, I might suffer further prejudice.”

Thabo Mbekis’ affidavit to the Constitutional Court


Note: Unless otherwise specified, the terms “president” and “deputy president” refer to roles in government, whereas “ANC president” or “ANC deputy president” refer to roles in the ANC political party.

Mbeki formally announced his resignation on 21 September 2008, at 19:30 South African time (17:30 UTC), as a result of the ANC National Executive Committee’s decision no longer to support him in parliament. This came a few days after the dismissal of a trial against ANC President Jacob Zuma on charges of corruption due to procedural errors. Allusions were made in the ruling to possible political interference by Mbeki and others in his prosecution. Parliament convened on 22 September and accepted his resignation with effect from 25 September; however, because an MP for the Freedom Front opposition party declared his objection to the resignation, a debate was set to take place the following day.

In cases of such a void in the presidency, the constitution regulates the replacement to serve as the interim president: either the deputy president, the speaker of parliament or any MP (Member of Parliament), as chosen by parliament, can take the role of president of the country until the next election. ANC president Jacob Zuma, who was elected president after the next general election, was not eligible as he was at the time none of these.

Deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was unlikely to be chosen either, apparently due to her close ties to Mbeki and because her husband, Bulelani Ngcuka was involved in the decision to charge Zuma with corruption. As a result the Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete, had been cited as the likely caretaker president; however, speaking on behalf of the ANC, Zuma strongly hinted at ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who is an MP, becoming Mbeki’s replacement for the remainder of the current term of parliament, which ended in early 2009. Although Zuma could put pressure on the government and his party to choose Motlanthe, the replacement president had to be decided by parliament.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad and Minister of Science and Technology Mosibudi Mangena all announced their intentions of resigning.

Nathi Mthethwa, Chief Whip of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) stated that Mbeki’s resignation would take effect on 25 September 2008. ANC President Jacob Zuma said that his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, would become acting president until the 2009 general elections: “I am convinced – if given that responsibility – he (Motlanthe) would be equal to the task.” The ANC confirmed that “Kgalema Motlanthe is to become caretaker president until 2009 elections, with Baleka Mbete being appointed deputy president.”

2009 general election

The direction of Mbeki’s vote in South Africa’s 2009 general election was a matter of discussion among the press and public alike. Although Mbeki had completely disassociated himself from party politics subsequent to his resignation, many suggested that Congress of the People (COPE), composed in large part of Mbeki loyalists, would secure his mark on the ballot paper. On Election Day, 22 April, having done the deed, Mbeki announced that his vote was a secret and called on the electorate to exercise its democratic right not out of fear or historical loyalty, but for a future that it desired and a party that would further its ends. These sentiments were widely interpreted as pro-COPE; indeed, the party’s First Deputy President Mbhazima Shilowa confirmed on his Facebook page that “I [sic] liked TM’s message”. It was noted, though, that, despite having been invited, Mbeki had failed to attend a COPE rally the week before.


Honorary degrees

Mbeki has received many honorary degrees from South African and foreign universities. Mbeki received an honorary doctorate in business administration from the Arthur D Little Institute, Boston, in 1994. In 1995, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of South Africa and an honorary doctorate of laws from Sussex University. Mbeki was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rand Afrikaans University in 1999. In 2000 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from Glasgow Caledonian University. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in commercial sciences by the University of Stellenbosch.

Orders and decorations

During Mbeki’s official visit to Britain in 2001, he was made an honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GCB). The Mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyannis, awarded Mbeki with the City of Athens Medal of Honour in 2005. During Mbeki’s official visit to Sudan in 2005, he was awarded Sudan’s Insignia of Honour in recognition of his role in resolving conflicts and working for development in the Continent. In 2007, Mbeki was made a Knight of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem at St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town by the current grand prior, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester.


Mbeki was awarded the Good Governance Award in 1997 by the US-based Corporate Council on Africa. He received the Newsmaker of the year award from Pretoria News Press Association in 2000 and repeated the honour in 2008, this time under the auspices of media research company Monitoring South Africa. In honour of his commitment to democracy in the new South Africa, Mbeki was awarded the Oliver Tambo/Johnny Makatini Freedom Award in 2000. Mbeki was awarded the Peace and Reconciliation Award at the Gandhi Awards for Reconciliation in Durban in 2003. In 2004, Mbeki was awarded the Good Brother Award by Washington, D.C.’s National Congress of Black Women for his commitment to gender equality and the emancipation of women in South Africa. In 2005, he was also awarded the Champion of the Earth Award by the United Nations. During the European-wide Action Week Against Racism in 2005, Mbeki was awarded the Rotterdamse Jongeren Raad (RJR) Antidiscrimination Award by the Netherlands. In 2006, he was awarded the Presidential Award for his outstanding service to economic growth and investor confidence in South Africa and Africa and for his role in the international arena by the South African Chambers of Commerce and Industry. In 2007 Mbeki was awarded the Confederation of African Football’s Order of Merit for his contribution to football on the continent.


Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library

Foreign Honours

 United Kingdom:

  • Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (2007)

 United Kingdom:

  • Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (2000).

Books and biographies

  • “A Legacy of Liberation: Thabo Mbeki and the Future of the South African Dream”, by Mark Gevisser, 2009
  • ” Eight days in September: The Removal of Thabo Mbeki”, by Frank Chikane, 2012

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