SEYI GESINDE takes a look at the achievements of the former president of South Africa, Mr Thabo Mbeki, the winner of 2014 Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership, an award being conferred on him for demonstrating similar leadership qualities as the sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
Thabo Mbeki: The man, his passion, his mission
The former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, will today, in Lagos, be presented with a medal, a certificate and a plaque as the winner of the 2014 Obafemi Awolowo Prize for Leadership. This award has thereby enlisted Mbeki alongside the Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, the maiden winner of the prize, in the Awo Foundation’s Hall of Fame.
efore his announcement as the winner of the coveted award, the chairman of the Selection Committee of the awards, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, former Commonwealth Secretary General, said the choice of Mbeki came after a rigorous process of nomination which was followed by screening of nominees by a selection committee which comprised eminent and erudite Nigerians.
Anyaoku described Mbeki as “a renowned champion of Africa’s renaissance. He said Mbeki had, over the years, “demonstrated many of the core leadership qualities that had been associated with Chief Awolowo.”
Over the years, Mbeki exhibited a great zeal for leadership in Africa which he displayed as a strong anti-apartheid supporter and a South African politician. He kept his focus as a politician and an activist, a quality which made him rise quickly within the political ranks of the African National Congress (ANC) to succeed Nelson Mandela as the president of South Africa from 1999 to 2008. He was a two-term president of South Africa.
Born on June 18, 1942, in Mbewuleni, Idutywa, South Africa, Mbeki is the second child of Govan Mbeki and Ma Mofokeng. But a fire which destroyed Mbeki’s kraal and family shop in 1953, prompted his father to migrate to Johannesburg in search of work.
While his father sojourned in Johannesburg, as a teenager in 1955 at Lovedale College, Mbeki developed an interest in politics and this led him to join several student political organisations, prominent among which was the youth wing of ANC, the African National Congress Youth League, which he joined in 1956 at age 14.
Mbeki was exposed early to politics by his father, a longtime leader in the Eastern Cape African National Congress (ANC), an organisation dedicated to the elimination of apartheid in South Africa.
In 1961, there in Johannesburg, Mbeki met Nelson Mandela, his father’s long time friend and being aware of Mbeki’s radical political views and affiliations, Mandela advised him to further his education outside South Africa because he (Mandela) believed Mbeki’s life was in danger.
Not quite long after this period, Mandela and Mbeki’s father were arrested and imprisoned in 1964. Battling with the fear of suffering similar fate, Mbeki and other ANC’s young comrades fled the country to continue their education in the United Kingdom. In London, where he had gone on exile, Mbeki enrolled in the University of Sussex, where, in 1966, he graduated with a master’s degree in economics.
There in exile, in 1974, Mbeki married his wife, Zanele, in the United Kingdom. Ultimately, he spent 28 years in exile, while he only returned to South Africa in 1990 after the release of Nelson Mandela.
Also, there in exile, Mbeki began moving rapidly up the ANC hierarchy. He worked for the ANC in London (196770) and underwent military training in the Soviet Union (1971). In 1971 he served in Lusaka, Zambia, as assistant secretary to its Revolutionary Council, becoming the youngest member of the national executive (1975) and political secretary to President Oliver Tambo (1978).
During the 1970s, Mbeki undertook missions for the ANC in Botswana, Swaziland, and Nigeria in order to work with black youths who had left South Africa. He later played a key role in the discussions that led to negotiations between South African President F.W. de Klerk and the ANC in 1990.
As documented in Encyclopedia Britannica, these talks, in which Mbeki was also involved, led to the adoption of a new interim constitution that marked the end of apartheid. In 1990, the ban against the ANC was lifted, and Mbeki returned to South Africa. Three years later, he was elected to succeed the ailing Tambo as ANC chairman.
In 1994, Mbeki was appointed South Africa’s deputy president by President Mandela and played a major role in the day-to-day operations of the country’s first multiracial government. Mandela retired from politics in 1999, and, after the ANC’s victory in nationwide elections in June, Mbeki, who had become head of the ANC in 1997, was named president.
Mbeki’s administration focused on the continuing transition from an apartheid state, halting the soaring crime rate, and combating the spread of AIDS in Africa (though he was subject to criticism for questioning whether HIV caused AIDS).
“We need to look at the question that is posed, understandably I suppose: Does HIV cause AIDS? AIDS the acronym stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Now, I do believe that is a sensible thing to ask: Does one virus cause a syndrome? A virus cannot cause a syndrome. A virus will cause a disease,” Mbeki said, defending his controversial stance on the connection between HIV and AIDS.
As a president, Mbeki described South African economic policy as “fiscally conservative, but pragmatic, focusing on targeting inflation and liberalising trade as means to boost job growth and household income.”
esides, Mbeki also led efforts to increase foreign investment in Africa and to encourage debt relief for African countries. Mbeki secured a second term as president of the ANC in 2002. In South Africa’s 2004 elections, the ANC won nearly 70 per cent of the vote, and Mbeki was elected to a second term as president of the country.
In 2007, Mbeki lost his bid for a third term as head of the ANC to Jacob Zuma in what was one of the most contentious leadership battles in the party’s history. Amid charges of corruption, Zuma had been dismissed by Mbeki from his position as deputy president of the country in 2005. Despite repeated allegations of wrongdoing, which his supporters claimed were politically motivated, Zuma remained a popular figure within the ANC and was selected over Mbeki to be the party’s president.
Following an allegation by a High Court judge that there had been political interference in Zuma’s prosecution on corruption charges, on September 20, 2008, Mbeki was asked by the ANC to resign from the South African presidency, which he agreed to do once the relevant constitutional requirements had been fulfilled.
On September 25, he was succeeded by Kgalema Motlanthe, who was selected by the National Assembly to serve as interim president until elections could be held in 2009.
oth within and outside office, Mbeki was given many honorary degrees from South African and foreign universities, among which are an honorary doctorate in Business Administration from the Arthur D Little Institute, Boston, in 1994, honorary doctorate from the University of South Africa in 1995, and an honorary doctorate of Laws from Sussex University.
Mbeki was awarded an honorary doctorate from Rand Afrikaans University in 1999, while 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.
During his 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 the City of Athens Medal of Honour in 2005. Also in 2005, during his official visit to Sudan, 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.

News Reporter