When he was a young man at university in Britain, Thabo Mbeki was often rebuffed in his flirtatious pursuits of "lovely English" ladies who would cry: "But Thabo, we don't know you!" This, even though he'd been in classes with the girls for years.
"You see," Mr. Mbeki told his glittering audience at a book launch in Johannesburg last year, "this is a persisting problem."
The crowd laughed but, even after paging through Mbeki's newly released collection of lyrical speeches, many were still pondering the recurring question that was the subject of his self-deprecating joke: Who is Thabo Mbeki?
The certain answer is that he is the dapper politician headed for election as South Africa's new president tomorrow when the country holds its second all-race vote since 1994. This is the man expected to follow in the footsteps of the much-admired world hero, Nelson Mandela.
But is Mbeki, as critics charge, an out-of-touch intellectual hungry for political power? Or is he, as supporters say, a shrewd leader with the strategic capability and vision needed to guide this country into the next century?
Mbeki's personal history, his leadership style, and his policy priorities have been under vigorous discussion in recent months. But, despite the persistent scrutiny, the word most often used to describe him is "enigmatic."
"Even his confidants talk about him in generalized terms," says Tom Lodge, a veteran analyst of the African National Congress (ANC) at the Electoral Institute of South Africa in Johannesburg.
"His associates are extraordinarily discreet. That is most important to him: loyalty, control, discretion."
Running the country already
As deputy president to Mr. Mandela, Mbeki has already been running South Africa as de facto president for years: He chaired Cabinet meetings, kept tabs on ministers, met foreign delegations, and devised government policy.
Few question his credentials, intellect, or fine grasp of policy details. The mystery is his character.
Boosters call him suave, gentle, diplomatic. Detractors call him ruthless, cold, manipulative. Mr. Lodge suggests the new president will display a touch of all those traits - most of which can be traced to Mbeki's early years.
His father, Govan, was a Communist freedom fighter who was imprisoned along with Mandela for almost three decades. Thabo joined the ANC Youth League at 14 (two years before the normal age of entry) and was expelled from school for his political activities. After a brief detention, he was sent into exile in 1962.
Mbeki graduated from Britain's Sussex University, undertook ANC military training in the Soviet Union, and spent subsequent decades working for the organization - and for prominent party leaders such as Oliver Tambo - in offices across Africa.
It was often Mbeki who greeted nervous businessmen, academics, and political officials at clandestine meetings in Zambia, when select groups of whites were making the first tentative contacts with the ANC in exile.
For three decades, Mbeki did not see his parents. When he finally met his father again - in 1990 in Zambia's capital, Lusaka - there was no time for sentimentality. The men shook hands and called one another "comrade."
A Mandela-Mbeki contrast
Mandela is famed for his special touch with children, his love of loosefitting African shirts, his appearance at national sporting matches, his dancing ability.
By contrast, Mbeki is stiff: He rarely laughs aloud, is known for his love of Irish revolutionary poetry, and is almost always seen in suit and tie.
Analysts agree there has been a deliberate effort to soften his personality during the election campaign: He has taken to wearing T-shirts, embracing supporters, and dancing with a children's choir.
But, when it comes to party politics, Mbeki's reputation as a ruthless operator remains unchanged.
"The grooming for leadership by a secretive, authoritarian organization in exile helps to explain the manipulative style [attributed to him]," says Lodge. "He works behind the scenes. He doesn't welcome opposition."
Mbeki's chief rival for the deputy presidency - Cyril Ramaphosa, the charismatic labor leader who was originally Mandela's choice for the job - was so outmaneuvered by Mbeki that he left government and is now making millions in business.
Mbeki recently ousted some provincial premiers, including the well-liked Mathews Phosa, and retains the power to replace them with his own preapproved nominees.
"The Cabinet will be chosen on loyalty rather than on competency," predicts Robert Schrire, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town, in a recent article.
Mbeki supporters have been rewarded with top jobs in state-owned companies or bureaucratic posts that many observers say should be well above politics: the central bank, judiciary, and human rights watchdog agency.
"Under Thabo Mbeki's leadership," warns the Johannesburg weekly Mail and Guardian, "we see an unashamed attempt by the African National Congress to accumulate and centralize power."
Angering Archbishop Tutu
Mbeki also displays a troubling hypersensitivity to criticism. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded the ANC had abused prisoners in some of its military camps, Mbeki approved of the party's last-minute bid to stop the report's release by taking the commission to court. He lost.
But commission chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the party's oldest allies, was shaking with anger: "I did not struggle against one tyranny in order to substitute it for another."
The unease over Mbeki intensified as preelection polls showed the ANC could possibly win two-thirds of the popular vote tomorrow - a majority that would give it the power to change some elements of the Constitution. Opposition parties have repeatedly warned that whites could lose their land to blacks, media might be muzzled, and watchdog groups could lose their scope.
"Mugabe has two-thirds," cries a National Party campaign poster, lumping Mbeki with Zimbabwe's authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe. When Mr. Mugabe became president in 1980, he was almost as adored as Mandela. Today he is viewed as head of a one-party state that tortures journalists, threatens to seize white farmland, and is destroying the economy.
The ANC, along with many neutral analysts, dismisses Mugabe comparisons as fear-mongering. Mandela has stressed that changes in ANC leadership have limited, if any, impact on party policy.
Mbeki himself has given repeated assurances he is not hiding some sinister plot: Economic policy will remain market-friendly, and the government will continue with reconstruction programs to uplift the poor. As Mandela's spokesman, Parks Mankahlana, puts it: "There will be a new face in the president's office, but the policies will stay the same. The difference may be a change in pace."
Jitters persist because it seems clear that reconciliation - the soothing gestures that made Mandela so popular among old white enemies - does not top Mbeki's priority list.
"We need to take exceptional measures," Mbeki said cryptically last year, "to redress the truly exceptional reality created by centuries of racial oppression." The government must act in a way that "favors the black poor, even though in some instances it might demand some sacrifices from the affluent."
Nor will Mbeki tolerate blacks who display what he calls a "culture of entitlement." In public speeches, he has attacked corruption in his own ranks, accused members in the black elite of "morally unbound greed," and scolded teachers for irresponsibility and bureaucrats for laziness.
Ronnie Mamoepa, head of Mbeki's communications unit, has said that, in this next administration, civil servants will have to follow a code of conduct and senior officials will be held to performance goals.
Given the enormous challenges that post-apartheid South Africa is facing - soaring crime, unemployment, corruption, poverty - even some critics concede that Mbeki may have just the package of traits needed to get this country working.
Up from apartheid
South Africa's half century of imposing and ending apartheid:
1949: Apartheid (separation of races) program takes effect.
1964: Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela sentenced to life in jail.
1973: United Nations General Assembly declares apartheid 'a crime against humanity.'
1977: UN Security Council embargoes arms exports to South Africa.
1983: New Constitution gives limited political rights to coloured and Asian minorities.
1986:US imposes broad economic sanctions.
1990: Mandela released from prison. Legal end of segregation in public places.
1991-93: Dismantling apartheid and enfranchising black majority.
1994: First all-race election.
June 2, 1999: Second all-race election.