In 1999, activist and ANC member Thabo Mbeki succeeded Nelson Mandela to become the second president of the Republic of South Africa.
Born in the Eastern Cape Province of Transkei, Mbeki joined politics at an early age. His parents were both active in the African National Congress and he joined the ANC at age fourteen.
When Mandela and other ANC activists (including Mbeki’s father) were being tried for treason in the 1960s, Thabo Mbeki was urged to leave the country and continue the anti-Apartheid fight abroad. At only 19 years old, Mbeki went into exile.
He first went to England, where he earned his master’s degree in Economics from the University of Sussex. There he became active in the London branch of the ANC and moved through the Soviet Union, Botswana, Nigeria and Zambia as he rose through the hierarchies of the political party.
While in Zambia, after almost 28 years of exile, Mbeki helped instigate the secret discussions between the ANC and the National Party. Through these conversations the ANC became recognized as a legitimate political party and the prisoners from the Apartheid era were freed. It was not until 1990, after the release of Mandela, that Thabo Mbeki was able to return to his native South Africa.
Once elected President, Mandela made Mbeki his deputy president, which he served from 1994-1999. During this time Mbeki became president of the ANC and, after Mandela’s resignation, was elected President of South Africa on June 14, 1999.
During his presidency, Mbeki’s administration focused on rebuilding South Africa’s economy and social structure. He faced heavy criticism for his opinions on HIV, claiming the virus was not linked with AIDS. And though re-elected for a second term in 2004, Mbeki left office early after being asked by the ANC to step-down on corruption charges.
Though the success of his presidency is debated, his pivotal role in restructuring South Africa remains strong.