Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki

When Thabo Mbeki took the role of head of the African National Congress, he and the party leadership continued the process of correcting the legacy of apartheid in South Africa.

Summary of Event

On December 16, 1997, Nelson Mandela resigned as president of the African National Congress (ANC), choosing deputy president Thabo Mbeki as his successor. Later, during South Africa’s 1999 national elections, the ANC won a landslide victory, earning itself a second term in a postapartheid country and Mbeki the role of South Africa’s second multiracially elected leader. Noted for a less compromising attitude than Mandela’s, Mbeki consolidated and expanded the ANC’s control of the South African parliament. He faced challenges including those concerned with balancing new social and political ideas with social, political, and economic equity for the previously oppressed black underclass. As Mandela’s chosen successor, Mbeki’s political history and experience arguably made him an appropriate candidate to contend with South Africa’s political challenges. South Africa;government
African National Congress, South African
[kw]Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki (Dec. 16, 1997)
[kw]Mbeki, Mandela Makes Way for (Dec. 16, 1997)
South Africa;government
African National Congress, South African
[g]Africa;Dec. 16, 1997: Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki[09840]
[g]South Africa;Dec. 16, 1997: Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki[09840]
[c]Government and politics;Dec. 16, 1997: Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki[09840]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 16, 1997: Mandela Makes Way for Mbeki[09840]
Mandela, Nelson
Mbeki, Thabo
Tambo, Oliver

Mbeki’s political interests began in his youth. Born into a politically active family, he was involved with the ANC Youth League, a wing of the African National Congress, and later saw his father jailed in 1964 along with Nelson Mandela for their political involvement with the ANC against the apartheid regime. The ANC was founded in 1912 as one of the first black political associations in South Africa. Apartheid;resistance and protest It represented a voice for black political union in the decades after the Boer Wars when white political powers were establishing their authority in the region. Later, the ANC became known for its active opposition to the apartheid government that established itself during a 1948 national election in which only whites were allowed to vote. The elected apartheid government instituted a policy of racial segregation, which led to the economic, social, and political marginalization of nonwhites, particularly blacks, in South Africa.

In postapartheid South Africa, during Mandela’s rule, the African National Congress faced the challenge of balancing South Africa’s new democratic ideals with issues of economic, social, and political transformation for segments of the population previously marginalized. In 1997, when Mbeki took the role as head of the ANC, he and the party leadership were to continue the stabilization process in a bid to correct apartheid’s impact. In 1999, after the ANC won its second term, Mbeki set out to achieve this transformation.

President Mbeki shifted the government’s focus to economic growth, viewing this as key to South Africa’s overall transformation. His intent was to bring increased economic power to the black majority in South Africa and to provide overall economic support to those who had difficulties accessing education, health care, housing, and a host of other needs. If these challenges were met, it was hoped that other socioeconomic problems—problems such as poverty and crime—would also be eliminated.

During the 1990’s, high crime rates became a concern for the ruling government. In a postapartheid South Africa, it was necessary to address the key catalysts for criminal activity such as a lack of educational and economic opportunities. The end of apartheid saw the further marginalization of certain segments of society, including young people, some of whom shifted their activities from political violence against the previously oppressive regime to crime for profit. While these individuals no longer had an apartheid regime against which to fight, they were still left with the legacy of poverty and the vestiges of the oppressed.

Notwithstanding the link between poverty and crime, crime for profit was considered disruptive and criminal by a new government grappling with massive, necessary reforms and an international community eager to see the success of the postapartheid system. However, criminal activity continued to rise throughout Mbeki’s rule, prompting the government to acknowledge that there was an immediate need for some basic services. In this vein, an affirmative action plan was put in place to provide basic services such as housing, health care, education, and even financial compensation for some families and victims of past injustices. Thus, Mbeki’s government carried out concrete changes to improve conditions for the majority of the population who previously lacked such services. However, even with the provision of basic services, crime continued to increase, and concerns arose regarding police enforcement. For instance, as early as 1997, reports of abuse of suspects in police custody prompted the establishment of the Independent Complaints Directorate to investigate allegations of physical abuse and deaths of prisoners in custody.

In addition to rising crime, the government has dealt with other areas in need of reform. Mbeki faces a health care crisis as the rates of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have reached epidemic proportions. The high rate of HIV/AIDS HIV/AIDS;Africa has resulted in a high mortality rate among adults, resulting in an increased number of orphaned children. The government must also contend with the fact that a South African woman of childbearing age is more likely to die from AIDS than from any other disease. HIV/AIDS has ravaged South Africa in terms of both economic and human costs.

Mbeki has faced criticism in the way he has approached the issue of HIV/AIDS. In assessing the severity of the situation, he has questioned whether the number of infected are in fact on the rise and whether there is indeed a link between HIV and AIDS. He has also suggested that the rise of AIDS in South Africa has been exaggerated by profit-motivated drug companies who sell antiviral medications. Mbeki’s doubts about AIDS and his reluctance to declare a state of emergency points to what his critics describe as an uncompromising attitude. However, notwithstanding the challenges, Mbeki and the ANC continued to experience popularity at home. In April, 2004, the ANC won 70 percent of the popular vote during South Africa’s third postapartheid elections. As reelected leader, Mbeki continues to focus on the changes he believes will bring real transformation to the country.


In focusing on economic reform, Thabo Mbeki has sought to transform South Africa from a fragile democracy and create political and social stability for the people. He is determined in particular to give power to the black majority, who were denied economic opportunities under apartheid. However, critics wonder whether his focus on economic growth has pushed aside numerous other issues in need of direct reform, such as policing and health care, particularly the infrastructure to deal with the HIV/AIDS crisis, which could have a significant effect on the nation’s gross domestic product. South Africa;government
African National Congress, South African

Further Reading

  • Arnold, Guy. The New South Africa. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Examines the postapartheid transformation and discusses the tasks facing the South African government. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Jacobs, Sean. Thabo Mbeki’s World: The Politics and Ideology of the South African President. London: Zed Books, 2002. Offers an insightful glimpse into the South African leader’s thinking. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Reynolds, Andrew, ed. Election ’99 South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. Collection of essays highlights the continued success of the ANC as a political party. Includes bibliography.
  • Spence, J. E., ed. After Mandela: The 1999 South African Elections. London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1999. Collection of essays addresses Mandela’s final handover of leadership of both the ANC and South Africa.

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