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A First Lady Debuts With Reluctance

If South Africa's new president is private, his wife is secretive. Receiving visitors at the official residence, she says it's up to them to decide what her role will be.

June 19, 1999|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRETORIA, South Africa — Newly inaugurated South African President Thabo Mbeki is well known for protecting his privacy. During a preelection television appearance, he even stonewalled when asked about his taste in music.

But Mbeki is an open book compared with his wife, Zanele.

The new first lady refuses to grant interviews. Her personal secretary has been instructed not to divulge basic information, such as her age and job history.

When The Times persisted this week, her husband's office issued a three-sentence biography that was devoid of specifics, excluding even the identity of the bank she helped found and the universities she attended.

"She is a very private person, and we must respect that," said presidential spokesman Ronnie Mamoepa.

Privacy for Zanele Mbeki, above all, has meant independence.

Associates say she bristled during her husband's term as deputy president when officials introduced her as his wife. She rarely appeared on the campaign trail, and on election day, she cast her ballot near the couple's townhouse in Johannesburg while he faced the cameras alone here.

"She doesn't see herself necessarily at her husband's side," said Phumelele Ntombela-Nzimande of the South African Gender Commission. "She's not one to go around hand in hand with Thabo."

Like her husband, Zanele Mbeki has spent most of her adult life studying and working in exile.

According to a recent biography of her husband, she was the sole breadwinner after their marriage in 1974, when she worked for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and he joined the African National Congress in exile in Lusaka, Zambia.

She has dedicated most of her career to helping poor women, associates say, most recently by serving as a director of the Women's Development Bank, which she helped establish. Officials at the Johannesburg-based institution, which includes a nonprofit division that extends small loans to rural women, did not return telephone calls seeking more information.

The Mbekis have often lived apart, have no children and rarely travel together.

Last year, when she accompanied her husband on a trip to Asia, she carefully sidestepped the limelight, even refusing a request by journalists to accompany her on a shopping excursion.

When a Japanese religious leader surprised Mbeki on that trip by asking him to share his feelings about his wife, he was at a loss for words, according to an account at the time in the Johannesburg Sunday Times. Mbeki turned to an aide for guidance, but when none came, he issued a rare public tribute to her.

"I think she is a beautiful person, I think she is a very intelligent person, I think she is more capable than I am at everything," he said.

Last week, Zanele Mbeki invited many of the country's most powerful women to a luncheon at the official residence here. She is said to have acknowledged her discomfort with her new fame.

"Because . . . the position I will be holding is unofficial and not paid for, I therefore challenge women in the house to define my role as first lady," she said.

Nthabiseng Sepanya, director of People Opposing Women Abuse, predicted that Mbeki will make a good first lady.

Not only will her development experience provide a role model for the next generation, Sepanya said, but Mbeki will boost the morale of those already working to improve the lot of poor people, especially women.

"She is the success story of this work," Sepanya said. "She affirms a lot of the good work women have been doing--work that has never been affirmed."

Associates say Mbeki must be left to settle gradually into her new role; they say it is unfair to measure her against Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, who adapted gracefully to her brief tenure as South Africa's first lady. Machel was also first lady in her native Mozambique: She was married to late President Samora M. Machel.

Some within the ANC leadership, believing her reclusive nature could reflect poorly on the president, are quietly nudging Mbeki to be more accepting of a public role.

Others defend her choice to do it her way.

"I knew [this moment] had to come," newly appointed Communications Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri reportedly said at the women's gathering at the Mbeki house. "Zanele has thrown up the contradictions that we face."

Salma Patel in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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