Meeting the father of the nation - CNBC Africa

Meeting the father of the nation


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Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and F.W De Kerk. PHOTO: Getty Images

There are two big names among the political royalty families of Africa—Mandela and Mbeki.

Moeletsi Mbeki is connected to this royalty in that his father, Govan, spent more than a quarter of a century in prison with Nelson Mandela. In fact, it was the prison connection that led to his first meeting with Madiba.

Mbeki was in exile in Zimbabwe, where he was working as a journalist. It was 1990 and Mandela, who had just been released, was on an official visit to Zimbabwe to hold talks with the government. A message then came through for Mbeki, from the Zimbabwean Minister of Foreign Affairs, saying that Mandela wanted to see him.

“I drove there very anxious thinking what have I done, why does this man want to see me? After greeting him and Winnie, Mandela explained why he asked to see me. He said he knew I hadn’t seen my father yet – as I had been in exile and my father in prison – and said he wanted to report back to my father how I was; because my father would ask him as he had  gone to Zimbabwe”, says Mbeki with a smile in his face.

Mbeki is the son of former ANC legendary leader Govan Mbeki, who joined the Africa National Congress in 1935, becoming its national chairman in 1956, and later the secretary of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.  He is a political economist, businessman and younger brother of former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, who took over the reins from Mandela.

“Mandela is one of the great leaders of Africa in the 20th century. He was central to the defeat of apartheid starting from the Second World War right up to when he retired in 1999. He’s an amazing man. Mandela had these big issues of liberation to deal with, but still he was also very conscious of the personal touch, if you wish”, Mbeki says.  

“I think that any one person can only achieve so much, and establishing democracy was his primary achievement. South Africa’s primary need today is entrepreneurs, and not a great political leader of Mandela’s stature. We need an army of entrepreneurs who can take initiative, who can build companies, who can innovate. That’s what we need in South Africa. We don’t need great leaders to lead movements, like we needed in the past,” he says.

The challenge South Africa faces today is one of building a modern economy and society, and Mbeki says modern societies are not built by leaders, but by entrepreneurs—social entrepreneurs, business entrepreneurs—pure people’s initiatives. “Mandela passed on the leadership to others to deal with economic issues. Thabo Mbeki was seen as the person who had the expertise to deal with economic issues; he had a master’s degree in economics and I think that was the expectation. But it’s also important for the business people to understand that nobody will do anything for them if they are in business, they have to do it for themselves,” he says.

Mbeki, like many South Africans, draws inspiration from Mandela; his love for his country, his humility and his tenacity to achieve what he set out to—surely inspiration for any entrepreneur.